“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.”
“The ease of getting Boiler Room made is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Five years after Boiler Room, Younger directed Prime, a romantic comedy starring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep that grossed $67 million on a $22 million budget. This is unusual for a couple of reasons. The first is that a movie like Boiler Room is the kind of film that can make a director a hot commodity in Hollywood, usually resulting in a fairly quick follow-up film to take advantage of that momentum. The second thing is that Boiler Room was a gritty film, featuring almost wall-to-wall hip-hop, about shady moneymakers. It’s a cool movie. Prime is a romantic comedy.
“I had the idea for Prime before Boiler Room,” says Younger. “But I wasn’t emotionally evolved enough to write a female character like that, so I put it on the shelf.”
The time off in-between Boiler Room and Prime was Younger’s decision. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home, Younger’s father died when young Younger was 19, so he felt he never got much of a freewheeling, fun life at that age. Or, as Younger puts it, “Life sucks.” So now that he had a little money from Boiler Room (and it wasn’t that much, but more than he’d ever seen up to that point in his life) Younger decided to have some fun. Or, put more bluntly, “party.”
“Between Boiler Room and Prime, I was basically enjoying life and celebrating I was alive,” recalls Younger. “I wasn’t doing drugs in the city, but I was going out all the time. My brother and I were going to clubs and were out having fun. It was just awesome.”
After Prime, it was a different story. Younger spent the next three years writing a script for a motorcycle racing movie, Isle of Man, that was rejected (it now appears it’s finally going to happen) and another that was a found footage movie about rabies, that was also rejected. And then Hollywood forgot about him. “I don’t think I’m making another movie. Then I fucked off to Costa Rica.”
“I didn’t understand how lucky I was to be making movies.”
Before Martin Scorsese makes a new film, he gives his cast a series of movies to watch first. Before Scorsese made The Wolf of Wall Street, one of those movies was Boiler Room. Not only was it on his “playlist,” Scorsese wanted to meet with Ben Younger.
Scorsese asked Younger what he was working on and Younger told him about this boxing movie. “It checked off all his boxes: Italian American, New England family, boxing film.” In the meeting, Scorsese said, “This is the greatest story never told.” Scorsese then got younger the financing for Bleed for This.
Bleed for This is the true story of Vinny Paz, played by Miles Teller, who came back to win a world championship after a devastating car accident that left the boxer with a broken neck. Younger hired Teller before Whiplash had been released, based off Teller’s work in The Spectacular Now. (Younger interjects, “What, was I going to hire him based off of Footloose?”)
What interesting is that now, 16 years after his first film, Younger finally considers himself “a director.” If introduced at parties, he’d mention he was a filmmaker, but would list off a bunch of other things he was good at, too. “Part of it was self-preservation. If you say that this is the thing I want to do more than anything, and then you don’t get to do it, you’re an abject failure.” But now, “I feel exposed, I feel vulnerable, that’s how you’re supposed to feel.”
With the election of Donald Trump, Younger feels a new sense of purpose. That the only voice anyone opposed to Trump’s views might have over the next four years is in the arts. And he now, finally, feels duty bound to use his voice. “I have an opportunity to affect change. I have a prison industrial complex movie we’re going to shoot next year called Panopticon. I have a movie about race relations called White Tiger. I’m back, man. Full time.”