Directed by Kim Nguyen (Rebelle), The Hummingbird Project follows Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgard), two cousins who are players in the lucrative world of high-frequency stock trading. Looking for any advantage, their dream is to build a straight fiber-optic cable line between Kansas and New Jersey in the hopes that the extra milliseconds will make them rich. However, when their vicious former employer Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) discovers their plans, she sets out on a plan to not only bring them down but also crush their dreams. Having previously written films set in Africa and the North Pole, Nguyen wanted to direct a film that examined the failings of our financial systems.
“I wanted to talk about the financial world, but I didn’t know how to do a movie that wouldn’t be stale,” he recalls. “We already have a lot of films that take place inside of a trader’s room and there [have been] some great successes. (Margin Call was one of them.) At the same time, I felt there was an urgency reading up on high frequency trading to talk about how we are being scammed [while] people giving themselves commissions off of weird transactions, which is a very complex thing to understand. So, then I read up on people who were digging these weird tunnels to gain a couple of microseconds off their transactions and making billions off of that process. I thought that was just mad and the one thing I thought was just cool as a filmmaker is that you literally had people digging in the dirt, swamps and across mountains to insert a wire that is not much thicker than a single hair. All of the madness of our financial system is represented through that tableau so I wanted to write about that.”
Since Hummingbird is such a character-driven story, casting the right actors in the key roles became even more crucial to the film’s success. While stars Jesse Eisenberg and Salma Hayek are up to the challenge (as usual), it’s Alexander Skarsgard’s Anton who steals the film. During the casting process, Nguyen says that it was Skarsgard’s ability to disappear into the role that convinced him that he was making the right choice.
“[My agents were] talking to me about Alexander and that he wanted to explore more of his range and I had seen his work on Big Little Lies[where] I really liked this work,” he remembers. “The one thing that convinced me [though] was that he made a movie called The Diary of a Teenage Girl. He had a small role [in it] but nobody knows that it’s him. He’s literally unrecognizable but he does a great job of doing this character. It just shows his range because it’s totally not the Alexander Skarsgard that we’re used to seeing.”
“The biggest surprise working with Alex was [that] I didn’t realize how much height difference there was between those two… I was so happy that Jesse and Alexander were open to, instead of trying to balance that out, to make it almost like an homage to Of Mice and Men. You have that big guy hovering over Jesse. Alexander worked a lot on his posture to make it feel like a he was a little bit introverted and doesn’t have a lot of contact with the rest of the world.”
Though set in the world of high-frequency stock trading, it’s the parallel journeys of Vincent and Anton that provide the film’s emotional core. As the two men race against time (and technology) to achieve their goal, they also experience an emotional crisis of sorts that causes them to re-examine what matters most to them.
“It’s a little bit complicated, but, when I started production, one of my colleagues who read the script said that this is a script that had double irony, meaning that their initial purpose (or what they think their initial purpose is) is wrong,” Nguyen explains. “Then eventually, throughout the film, the real quest is about them determining what they need to do in life and what is their real purpose. So, I hope that comes out in the film. There’s a big turn of events in the middle of the film that changes everything. In the end, I think what’s important is that what they thought was the real purpose wasn’t their real purpose. [In other words,] what they thought would make them strive and be successful is not exactly what they thought it was.”
In one of the film’s more unexpected twists, one of the greatest obstacles standing between Vincent and Anton and their financial future is… the Amish. Asked why he opted to give such prominence to this particular group, Nguyen claims that it stems directly from the film’s geographical landscapes.
“A lot of people asked my why it’s not based on a true story because it feels like a true story,” he says. “There was a lot of research into the movie to make it feel real and maybe that’s why people ask me that sometimes. We did a road movie from around Kansas in a straight line as if we were digging a tunnel all the way to New York. Looking at what kind of landmark and scenery we see and what kind of geography there was, because we didn’t know it if we were going to film it literally in Pennsylvania. So, the Amish came up and it was interesting because, in the end, give somebody who has unlimited financial means and put them in front of somebody who just has convictions and owns his own land and there you go. You’ve got the biggest conflict there because you know, money can’t buy happiness from time to time. Or maybe, it does.” (Laughs)
“At a certain point, when you’re making a movie, you talk about subjects and need to kind of find things that you relate to,” Nguyen emphasizes. “[Personally,] I relate to the elasticity of time. Things are accelerating so much and we think that we’re doing more things but, in a way, we’re getting away from doing the real things that… make a difference in our lives… For me, there is that important discussion [that] time is accelerating but are we really doing more things? Or are we kind of like moving away from what needs to be done and from the important usage of time?”
However, given the amount of time it takes to write and produce a film and the speed at which technology changes, one might also expect that it would provide a challenge to spin a narrative that still feels relevant and current. For Nguyen, this challenge was overcome by telling a story that occurs at a fixed moment in our history.
According to Nguyen, “This is a period piece. We’re actually placed in 2012 so that was one of our solutions [because] technology nowadays compared to what it was years ago can is completely transformed. Where technology is at the end of the movie is where we are right now. They’re now using lasers to transfer information to the stock market and they’re also exploring neutrino cannons to try to bombard information [as well].”
With the success of films such as Rebelle (War Witch), and Two Lovers and a Bear, Nguyen continues to carve out a career that’s worth watching. With The Hummingbird Projectnow in the rearview mirror, Nguyen is already looking to his next projects and beginning to discern which story he’d like to pursue first.
“Well, I haven’t decided yet on which film I’m going to do next, but I am working on a couple of scripts,” he admits. “I was offered a couple of superhero movies, which is kind of like every director gets offered a couple of superhero movies (laughs) which is interesting. I’ve got a couple of scripts that are circulating in LA. So, it’s weird because, this week, I’m kind of exhausted of writing and trying to find what is the right version. Sometimes, you’re writing and you’re trying to figure out when it’s time to go back to the very first draft, which was the best draft. Then, how do I just bring bits and pieces bits and pieces of the other drafts to the first draft.”
The Hummingbird Project will be in theatres on Friday, March 22nd, 2019.
For full audio of our interview with director Kim Nguyen, click here.