Speed Trap: Kim Nguyen’s ‘The Hummingbird Project’ Chronicles a Race to Conquer the Stock Market

The Hummingbird Project is all about a race against time, but it’s not an action thriller. Rather, writer-director Kim Nguyen’s film delves into the very arcane world of high-frequency trading, and a scheme by two cousins to construct a fiber-optic line between Kansas and New Jersey to shave milliseconds off stock transactions and reap a fortune. The plan may seem wild, but it’s loosely based on real events.

Jesse Eisenberg and an unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård star as the second-generation Eastern European cousins, with Salma Hayek as their ex-boss and ruthless competitor. The Orchard release opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 15, with a national expansion to follow.

Montreal native Nguyen became interested in the topic after reading some newspaper articles and a book about the impact of algorithms on our lives. “It’s amazing how little people know about high-frequency trading,” he says. It represents almost 50 percent of trades that are happening on the stock market today. What this means is that there’s a lot of fictitious money being created. It’s almost as if you have 100 pennies off of the dollar, and while nobody’s looking they’re taking 50 of those pennies. You have the beginning and the end of that dollar, but you’re not realizing that those 50 pennies are missing. A lot of that is due to people inventing commissions in between dimensions of space—the way I [describe] it is as weird as it is. People are inventing different spaces almost like in quantum physics, but in the financial world.

“But how do you talk about that? When I discovered that people were actually building fiber-optic lines, straight lines for thousands of miles to try to gain a couple of milliseconds off the edge, I thought that was something that I could convey that could be visual and compelling in a cinematic narrative.”

Eisenberg plays Vincent Zaleski, an intensely ambitious trader who’s placed his faith in his brilliant but nerdy and introverted cousin Anton (Skarsgård) to write the algorithmic codes that will break new speed records for stock transactions. Meanwhile, their resentful former employer, Eva Torres (Hayek), is furiously at work on her own scheme involving microwave towers.

Nguyen’s script is a perfect fit for Eisenberg, whose brainy, arrogant, and driven Vincent could be a distant cousin to his Oscar-nominated incarnation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “This was a 130-page script,” Nguyen notes, “which scared people a little bit because it means 130 minutes, which is a very long movie. But I told them, yeah, but Jesse speaks really fast. It’s so weird the way Jesse handles lines: He speaks fast but you understand every single word he says. I was really impressed with how much preparation Jesse goes through before going on a movie. He actually learned the script as if it was a play—he knows every single line from beginning to end before we start day one of principal photography.”

While Eisenberg is very much in his element here, Skarsgård, who gained fame as a dangerously seductive vampire on HBO’s “True Blood,” makes a startling transformation as Anton, a socially inept, eccentric genius who’s likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. The six-foot-four Swede, who shaved his head for the movie and wears glasses, somehow makes himself the most unprepossessing figure in the room.

‘One thing I noticed about Alexander, and I think a lot of actors have this,” Nguyen observes, “is that their outgoingness is kind of a fabric of their career and how they’ve made it. But there’s a difference between who the person is and what the exterior world made them to be. Alexander is a person who appreciates his solitude and his peace. He dove into that character, and in a way there are parts of his character that relate to his desire not to be disturbed and not to be part of a crowd. I think there’s a genuine part of Alex that he relates to that he put into Anton.

“The hair was something that he wanted to do and was really excited about—but my distributors were not,” Nguyen says with a laugh. “So the way Alexander addressed the issue was he just came on set, and the first thing he did was almost literally run to the hairdresser and say: ‘Okay, shave it. We’ll solve that issue, it’s done, and that’s the way I want do it, period.’ One thing that’s fun is when your actors support your vision that way.”

Together, Eisenberg and Skarsgård make a volatile, memorable pair. “I had a hunch about the kind of relationship between Alex and Jesse from seeing their general energy. But when I saw Alex hovering over Jesse … I think that people who are much taller than average kind of hunch their backs a little bit so that they can look at people. So I immediately had this Of Mice and Men metaphor. Often when actors are smaller than their counterparts, they ask: Could you shoot more close-ups? Sometimes we even use what we call these apple crate sidewalks where the actor can be a little taller, But Jesse was totally open, and he actually was excited about building that Of Mice and Men relationship, which I thought was a fun little layer we added to the film.”

As for the fearsome Eva Torres, “I had a number of powerful actresses in mind, and Salma was one of them. The way I try to do films, there’s a script, and then I would be a fool not to welcome the energy and the instincts of the actor. There’s something very exciting and so instructive about that first read. You work on a script for two or three years, but then when you get those two or three actors together and you go through the script and you read the lines—in Salma’s case it was just her and me—I almost all the time rewrite and retouch the actors’ lines, maybe 30 percent of the actors’ lines, after those reads. And it was very much the case for Salma because, instead of trying to change her accent or whatever, we decided to embrace it. Her character is part of a family empire of rich people who probably made their money off cellphone lines when they were needed, and she went to New York to invest in the stock market. That’s basically her backstory, but she really was a part of that process of finding out who she was. And we decided to welcome her heritage for her character.”

The standoff between the Zaleski cousins and Eva Torres leaves no one unchanged. Nguyen says he hopes his film also has an impact on the audience. “It’s very generic but it’s true, I think, that our entire sense of happiness has been so aimed at being successful, but in a monetary way. I hope that this will bring some insight that true happiness is somewhere else. It’s fun to make money, but at the end it’s not about that.”

Speaking of money, how did Nguyen find the backing for a project that defies easy descriptions? Surprisingly, he notes, “the industry [in Canada] was generally very supportive of the premise of this film. And once Jesse read the script and called me 24 hours later, the ball got rolling fairly quickly. It’s never easy, but it wasn’t one of those films where I fought to finance it for like five or 10 years.”

“In Canada, we’re very, very lucky to have those sources. I do find that sometimes that [financial] comfort doesn’t necessarily help make better movies. I see people from Eastern countries, and when they want to do a movie they’re hungry and want to fight for it: I’m going to do this and I’d rather die than not do it that way … I think that our comfort as Canadians sometimes is not necessarily good for being creative to the maximum where our heart would like to go.”

The Hummingbird Project is Nguyen’s seventh narrative feature and his third in English. His big career breakthrough came in 2012 with War Witch, a harrowing drama about a young girl in sub-Saharan Africa who is kidnapped and forced to become a soldier. The success of that film and its Oscar nomination in the foreign-language category “made a huge, huge, huge difference,” he recalls. “I asked questions of people I respect who had made a lot of successful movies, and I think that’s what made a difference. I talked to a producer called Robert Lantos who did a couple of movies with [David] Cronenberg, and he’s the one who told me: Well, you have to go to an agency, Kim, and the way you do it is you think about who are the best actors, the ones you respect the most, and you go to their agency and ask them to represent you. He helped connect me to bigger agencies—it makes a big difference who represents you. He guided me through that, and joining CAA combined with being nominated for an Oscar really turned things around and helped me dive into the English market … It doesn’t happen naturally; it doesn’t happen if you don’t work at it.”

Nguyen takes pride in the current international cachet enjoyed by Quebec filmmakers like himself. “Absolutely. I love Denis Villeneuve’s work and Jean-Marc Vallée’s TV series. I find that there’s so much freedom, and all the while he follows a cool narrative. He’s so much in his zone for the last two series that he’s done. And I love Xavier Dolan’s work. There are a lot of filmmakers that I respect.”

Nguyen hopes as many people as possible get to see his new movie on a big screen. “It’s still a privilege. When we projected our film at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] in this huge old theater … nothing compares to an old theater with 1,500 seats and people who are focused and excited to go see your film. There’s an energy that is conveyed that is amazing. Roma is an amazing film this year, and I was sad to hear that it was going to be shown only mostly on video, so I actually rushed to see it twice on the big screen to get an imprint in my head, because it was made for a huge screen. It’s not the same experience on a small computer screen.

“I love those big screens,” he adds, “but recently in London I went to one of these smaller venues that are niche, higher-end, with a great restaurant on the ground floor. I love that experience too, where you buy your ticket with an assigned seat, red velvet seating, and you almost feel like you’re going back to the ’20s. My generation, people in their 30s, get really excited about those experiences coming back: having a great glass of wine, a French-bistro kind of experience, then going to see a movie all in the same building. I find that there’s a new avenue for that kind of experience.”
Nguyen’s next likely project also sounds destined for the big screen. “I’m not going to tell you my one-liner because I don’t have it yet, but the working title is Hell Raft, and it’s probably going to be based in the Indian Ocean.” The film will be in English, and Nguyen is aiming high: “I know the actors I want for it, but I can’t say who. There are a number of actors who would be great for this, but they’re definitely among the 20 best, most known actors in the world.”

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