“That guy is a fucking liar. Quote me.”
This is director Ben Younger, talking about Jordan Belfort while reminiscing on his first film, 2000’s Boiler Room – while sitting in what he refers to as a secret garden, the backyard area of a trendy coffee shop in his adopted New York City neighborhood of Williamsburg, where’s he’s lived for the past 19 years. (He’s right, there’s no one back here and I would never have found the door to the backyard on my own.) “The neighborhood went to shit,” bemoans Younger, whose third film in the last 16 years, Bleed for This starring Miles Teller as boxer Vinny Paz, opens this weekend.
“I stopped a mugging here,” remembers the now 44-year-old Younger. “There was a dude who was sitting on a woman’s back. She had her purse under her chest. He was punching her in the head truing to get her to let go. I ran as fast as I could, I put my shoulder down, and I slammed into him. The woman, she just ran. She didn’t even say thank you. In hindsight, I know why. Then it’s just me and this guy, so I ran in the other direction.”
Only a couple years after that event, Younger would direct his first film at the age of 26, Boiler Room, a movie he refuses to watch now and calls the worst thing that ever happened to him. He clarifies this by admitting it was too easy. This movie just “happened.” It didn’t teach him how hard it was to make a movie.
He had to learn that lesson later.
Watching Boiler Room in 2016 makes Younger look like a soothsayer. It’s about a low-rent brokerage firm on Long Island that sells worthless stocks to drive up the market while the brokers get rich. “I just got lucky,” downplays Younger, who based the film on A) a friend he won’t name who ran a casino out of his Queens home and B) his own experiences at an interview at one of these kind of places. “I sat through that Ben Affleck speech,” recalls Younger. Jordan Belfort, who eventually got his own movie with The Wolf of Wall Street made a career of claiming Boiler Room was about his exploits (it wasn’t). And what I found out was, if you bring up Belfort’s name in front of Younger, you’re probably going to hear a cuss word.
Younger asks me if it holds up. It kind of, surprisingly, does hold up. If there’s one part that doesn’t, it’s the level of respect Boiler Room gives the prestige brokerage firms like Goldman Sachs – firms we all found out later were just as capable of selling dogshit to its customers. “How the mighty have fallen,” adds Younger. “I think the father-and-son stuff is overtly Freudian, that’s why I can’t watch the movie anymore. It was a little obvious. I was 26, what are you going to do?”
When the subject of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is brought up, though, Younger is then quick to defend his film, “What’s the big difference? There’s one difference between the two movies. Obviously Marty reveled in the excess of what this guy was doing. But the big difference is I showed who was picking up the bill and he didn’t.”
Younger is referring to the character of Harry Reynard (Taylor Nichols), a man Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) cold calls and scams out of $50,000. In the original ending, Harry shows up at the firm with a gun, and the movie ends with a vague ending of what happens next. In the final version of the film, Harry gets his money back. “I had to shoot that months after. It didn’t work.”
Younger didn’t have the traditional director upbringing. We’ve all heard stories of people like J.J. Abrams shooting short films growing with Super 8, or whatever they could get their hands on. Younger’s first film was Boiler Room. “You know, this is the problem not going to film school: There’s really basic shit they teach you. Like, you can’t show a gun in a movie and not have it go off. Nobody told me that!” I tell Younger that’s a pretty known rule. He laughs, “I didn’t know it! Why didn’t you send me a fucking memo? It could have saved me a lot of trouble.”
Younger remembers, “They were asking if he killed them. I told them it didn’t matter. They told me it mattered a lot.”