“The Laundromat,” starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, is a tour through a world of wealth and privilege to which most will never have access. The film bobs and weaves unpredictably between being a financial crimes thriller, an international tax laws explainer, an anthology of oddball stories drawn from the Panama Papers scandal and an irate satire of the mechanics by which the richest of the rich get away with whatever they want.
Underscoring the freewheeling, inside-out nature of the movie’s storytelling, at one point, Oldman and Banderas’ characters, who act as narrators and masters of ceremony in drawing the audience through their world, explain directly to the camera the history and purpose of tax-free limited liability corporations in the state of Delaware by noting that the director of this movie has five.
So does filmmaker Steven Soderbergh actually have five tax-free corporations in Delaware?
“Six. I now have six.” Soderbergh said during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, adding that the LLCs are for individual movie productions and he has already shot another project, also starring Streep, since finishing “The Laundromat.”
And does Streep also have tax-free corporations in Delaware?
“I have a foundation to give money away registered there,” Streep said, seated next to Soderbergh. “And I have another one that I use to try to hide where I live. Lots of celebrities do this to buy a house under a different name. So that the scary guys who stalk you, don’t. But it doesn’t work anymore because there are people in the registrar of realty offices in Los Angeles and New York who immediately know who that is. And so it’s completely useless.”
In “The Laundromat,” opening Friday in theaters before launching Oct. 18 on Netflix, Oldman and Banderas appear as Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, the real-life lawyers who saw their Panama-based firm suffer a data breach of millions of documents that revealed how many of the world’s richest people move and hide their wealth. Streep plays a fictional composite known as Ellen Martin, who struggles to receive an insurance settlement after the death of her husband in a tour boat accident while on vacation in Lake George, N.Y.
The film is based on the book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers, Illicit Money Networks, and the Global Elite” by two-time Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jake Bernstein. It was adapted for the screen by Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns. (Burns also wrote and directed the upcoming political drama “The Report,” which opens Nov. 15.)
Web of intrigue
Using the law firm run by Mossack and Fonseca as the spine of the story, the film spirals off into many other seemingly disconnected tales, from Streep’s struggles to understand the complicated financial world she has found herself thrown into, to a wealthy African businessman (Nonso Anozie) living in Beverly Hills caught cheating with his daughter’s college roommate, to a European businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who finds himself entangled with a Chinese diplomat’s wife (Rosalind Chao). The cast also includes Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Melissa Rauch, Jeffrey Wright and many more.
The stories are all drawn from the book but often conflated or compressed together.
“It’s this thing between what’s true and what happened,” Soderbergh said. “Everything in this movie happened, at some point, to someone within the context of this story. So we weren’t making up events, but we’ve been very fluid in terms of how we orchestrate those things that happened.”
Bernstein’s book proposal landed with Soderbergh and Burns before “Secrecy World” was published.
“I thought it was potentially an impossible movie,” Bernstein said of adapting his information-dense book. “I did not know how one would do that.”
“The thing that drew me to this at the beginning was the way I felt when I learned about the leak,” said Burns, “which was some of these stories are absurd and there’s a comedy to them in that they highlight human foibles that can be truly diabolical. But it’s also infuriating to me that the things that torment us on a daily basis, whether it’s a pothole or the fact that your kid’s school isn’t up to snuff, that we have the resources to solve this, but there are people who are just hoarding money or are doing things that are criminal and are able to conceal their money. That anger was a big part of it.”
Burns was, in fact, working on the screenplay even as Bernstein was still finishing the book and would frequently consult with the author for explanations. For the movie’s unusual anthology-like structure, Burns drew inspiration from the 2014 Argentine film “Wild Tales,” directed by Damián Szifron. Bernstein also arranged for Burns to speak to the real Mossack and Fonseca via Skype.
“It would have been impossible to do it without Jake,” said Burns of the adaptation, “because I was able to call him and say, so I want each of these stories to sort of cover another aspect of how this financial system works. And I don’t understand any of this. Which is probably good for the audience because they could not have chosen a less sophisticated proxy than myself. So I went in there needing a lot of educating and I had a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist to teach me.”
Streep had likewise heard about the Panama Papers scandal when it first broke in 2016 but didn’t fully understand the complex web of financial intrigue that her character would have to make her way through.
“It was a great way for me to figure it out because I didn’t know anything about this stuff,” said Streep. “You know, these shenanigans, they’re really deliberately opaque. I’m a smart girl, but it’s hard to see.”
As for creating the character, a kind and warm woman who is, nevertheless, dumbstruck by discovering that it may be possible that no one will officially be held to account for the death of her husband as her insurance claim leads to one shell company after another, Streep drew from her own experience.
“I’ve been to Lake George, that’s near where I live,” said Streep. “I sort of had a feel for that place and the layer of society out of which this person would’ve come. I’m born in New Jersey, in a middle-class family. And I made her up out of a lot of people that I know.”
“The hat was what did it for me,” said Soderbergh. “As soon as I saw the hat, I was like, I know who that person is.”
Ah, yes, the bucket hat. When images from the film were first released earlier this year, there was a small frenzy of excitement online about Streep’s choice of headwear, for its an unlikely mix of senior tourist practicality and normcore chic. For her part, Streep would prefer not to focus on the bucket hat, just as she would prefer that not too much attention be paid to the outsized false teeth she wore while appearing on the recent season of HBO’s television sensation “Big Little Lies.”
“I think things have a big effect for one day, and next week, it just becomes the thing that now is established or you talk about it as if it were a thing,” Streep said. “No one has ever said, ‘Her teeth were so great in ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ But I wore buck teeth all through ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ but nobody mentioned it. So it isn’t a thing. ‘Sophie’s Choice’ gets to live as a whole woman.
“It’s too bad that the teeth are what march ahead of the ‘Big Little Lies’ character,” Streep added. “The accent used to march ahead of everything that I ever did. You can’t just play people who live in the tristate area all your life. If you have an imagination and you feel almost politically that it’s important to crawl into the skin of people who are very, very different, seemingly different from you, to locate what it is that you do have in common — that’s something that’s like my quest.”
“The Laundromat” is full of surprises right up until its ending, continuing to strip away at its own artifice and revel in revealing layer upon layer. Soderbergh recalled a conversation he had with writer-director Steve Gaghan while working on the movie “Syriana,” in which they discussed “how hard it is to be good and clear. That being obscure is easy; being clear but not being obvious is hard. There’s a real value in trying to be good and clear.
“And for all the tricks that we were employing on this movie, it was also very important to me that we play fair with the audience,” Soderbergh said. “I don’t feel like we do anything that’s unfair or use bad math to get our ideas across. I really wanted it to be able to withstand scrutiny and multiple viewings so that you go, wow, all that stuff really does tie together. I don’t like being tricked when I see something or I feel like they’re not coming clean.”
“It’s so hard to get things through to people now,” Streep said. “We’re so induced into sort of this soporific state by reality television, stuff just happening in front of us. It seems real; it’s real enough; it’s OK. ‘Those people are stupid.’ We just sit apart from what we’re seeing and to reach out and really get your attention and pay attention — and once you have the attention, make you care about it. That’s increasingly a really tough order for a fiction movie. And so all the places where this breaks those rules, it’s just a little jolt and enables you to pay attention.”
The playful and theatrical depiction of Mossack and Fonseca might seem at odds with their position in popular imagination as the masterminds and essential villains behind the Panama Papers. Yet “The Laundromat” shows that the true villain is the international financial system that enables their deceptions.
“They sincerely believe that are just players in a larger system,” said Bernstein. “And they have, in some ways, been unfairly singled out as villains. I think Ramón said to me once, ‘You know, we’re not angels, but we’re not devils either.’ They certainly play fast and loose with the rules and did a lot of things that were not proper. But they have an argument there; it is a much larger system, and the U.S. is probably the largest tax haven in the world. It’s not really fair to single out Panama as the embodiment of this because it’s much bigger than that.
“The line that Scott came up with, which I think it’s so brilliant, is when Gary, playing Jürgen, says, ‘Bad is such a big word for being such a small word,’ ” said Bernstein. “That just really sums it all up. It’s all sort of situational ethics.”
One name that appears quite frequently in Bernstein’s book but is essentially absent from “The Laundromat” is that of Donald Trump. The omission was not accidental.
“Every single movie is political. In what it chooses to look at and what it doesn’t, in what it celebrates and what it hides from.”
“We certainly talked about it, and I feel like the story is a lot bigger than just him,” said Burns. “And because of the way that he’s covered in the press, it tends to immediately make this issue about something else. And we wanted the movie to be about this financial system that exists in the world. Not about him.”
“I didn’t want to derail the conversation,” said Soderbergh. “It’s bigger than any one person, and I don’t know the value of name checking somebody specifically other than Mossack and Fonseca, because they kind of are the heart of this.”
Though the makers of “The Laundromat” don’t have specific policy goals or action items in mind for audiences who see the film — as much as they may wish they did — they do hope that people will demand more transparency from all ends of the political and financial spectrum.
“I think everything is political. I think every movie is political,” said Streep. “Every single movie is political. In what it chooses to look at and what it doesn’t, in what it celebrates and what it hides from.”
“It’s a moral issue,” said Soderbergh, “so I feel like that exists on top of whatever political position you might take. This is bigger than that.
“I think the reason we ended up trying to use humor as the Trojan horse to talk about these serious issues was to kind of open people up a little bit, soften them so that they could take in some of this information,” said Soderbergh. “The film culminates, I think, with a sort of an outrage that is impossible not to feel when you start to dive into this subject. You just feel outraged.”