Director Kim Nguyen tackles financial ‘madness’ in ‘The Hummingbird Project’

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TORONTO — As Quebec filmmaker Kim Nguyen tells it, “The Hummingbird Project” is about moving heaven and earth to save a fraction of a second.

The financial thriller revolves around two cousins of Russian descent — one a fast-talking hustler played by Jesse Eisenberg, the other a fast-typing coder played by Alexander Skarsgard — who abandon their desk jobs on Wall Street in a bid to reshape the world of high-frequency trading.

The plan: carve up the American heartland to install a more than 1,500-kilometre fibre-optic cable from Kansas to New Jersey that could transport digital data a millisecond faster than their stock-market competitors, giving them an infinitesimal edge that could be worth millions.

The “chaos theory” underlying this premise stems from Nguyen’s desire to reckon with heady concepts — ranging from manipulation of the global economy, to societal disconnection from the natural world, to the elastic nature of time — as they ripple through a personal, compelling narrative.

“When paper money was invented, it was a fiction. Now, our digital money is a fiction of a fiction, so there’s kind of an exponential explosion of the irreality,” Nguyen said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Hummingbird Project” screened last fall.

“All of the irony could be expressed in a very tangible, visible way, so that a spectator could be drawn into something that is a metaphor for our financial system and the madness of it.”

In creating of his own work of fiction, Nguyen said the constraints of money, the physical landscape and time became very real during the film’s shoot around Montreal and Toronto.

“The filming actually felt as if we were building the real (fibre-optic) line. It was just as complex,” said Nguyen. “It’s strange how you totally feel the protagonist’s story arc, I totally relate to him. I had to fight for the same things.”

Crew members warned Nguyen that his vision for the feature would put them $7 million over budget, and even after scaling back his ambitions, it was still a struggle to film across dozens of sets within the tight production schedule.

He also fought against perilous conditions to capture scenes that involved lugging heavy machinery through Quebec’s rugged terrain.

“From the get go, I knew this was going to be war. Not against my producers, but a war to bring the story on the screen,” he said. “It became really like a military operation where we had to make sure people didn’t get hurt. And there were some close calls.”

Thankfully, Nguyen found willing soldiers in the film’s cast and crew.

Skarsgard said he wanted to go the extra mile to work with Nguyen after seeing his 2012 Oscar-nominated film “War Witch,” even if it meant playing against type.

The Swedish actor shaved his blond locks to make his character bald. His stubbled dome drew curious stares as he walked the streets of Montreal, Skarsgard recalled.

He also asked the costume designer to scrounge up the “ugliest” clothing — chinos, worn-out sneakers and a jacket with practical pockets.

“There might have been some financiers who were a bit hesitant, a bit nervous about changing my look that much,” Skarsgard admitted. “At the end of the day, I felt like if the creative team, myself and Kim, if we feel this is the way the character should look, then we kind of have to stay true to that.”

Salma Hayek, who plays the cousins’ former boss and formidable adversary, said up until the first day of shooting, she thought the lead roles were reversed, with Eisenberg portraying the brains behind the operation, and Skarsgard acting as the entrepreneurial muscle.

Hayek believes she also benefited from Nguyen’s open-minded approach to working with actors in crafting her character, a cutthroat trader set on staying one step ahead of her ex-employees.

“I was very excited to be able to play a powerful woman on Wall Street, and at the end, I love that she’s also an immigrant,” she said. “It talks a little bit about the immigrants that come to Wall Street, to New York, and they strive so hard to put their stamp in the world.”

In casting the film, Nguyen said he asked his team to consult the U.S. census to ensure the faces onscreen reflect the country’s diversity.

“It’s crazy, because that in itself is almost considered progressive,” said Nguyen. “In actual fact, it’s just truer to the representation of America.”

Nguyen sees himself as part of a rising cohort of Quebec directors, including Jean-Marc Vallee and Denis Villeneuve, whose cultural fluidity is making a mark on Hollywood.

“It’s as if we feel just as American as French and Canadian, in a way,” he said. “I guess we feel that we’re allowed to dig into different stylistic cultures … to do our films, because we’re such a hybrid kind of culture.”

“The Hummingbird Project” hits theatres across Canada on Friday.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press