Marc H. Simon has had a unique career. As a film attorney on movies including The Kids are All Right, Winter’s Bone and many other independent movies, he has unique insight into the business.
His film credits extend beyond the legal capacity, though, serving as writer and producer of the 2006 documentary After Innocence about wrongly convicted men freed by DNA evidence, followed by his directorial debut on the documentary Nursery University about parents in New York City trying to get their children into “feeder preschools,” setting up students for Ivy League colleges.
Simon’s attention is back on the legal system with his new documentary, Unraveled. The title sums up the story and its subject, Marc Dreier, who was Simon’s boss, the sole name on a huge Manhattan law firm. But when Dreier’s web of fraud, forgeries and impersonations unraveled, so did the lives of his more than 800 employees and victims of his crimes.
His wasn’t the only high-profile fraud story making headlines in late 2008 and 2009. In fact, Bernie Madoff dominated the news with his Ponzi scheme that stole billions of dollars from investors – by some accounts, as much as $65 billion. While on house arrest, Dreier watches Madoff’s own day with court play out, one that resulted in a 150-year prison sentence. Would Dreier’s be the same? The suspense is palpable as his own sentencing day nears.
With his filmmaking and legal experience and intimate knowledge of Dreier in tow, Simon and a small crew documented Dreier’s 60-day house arrest – from the day he pleads guilty until his sentencing. Shooting “approximately three days a week,” Simon says, for just two hours at a time (“which we would stretch a little bit,” he adds), Simon was restricted in his access by the management board of Dreier’s high-rise residence. Nonetheless, the time he spent with his former boss is mesmerizing by every definition of the word. In the spotlight is a man facing potential decades of years in prison, a father who may never see his son or daughter again (his son frequently appears, but his daughter, a minor, does not), a son who won’t talk about what his actions have done to his mother.
Unraveled is currently playing in New York City (Village East Cinemas) and L.A. (Laemmle’s Music Hall 3) and is available on Video on Demand.
Watch the trailer and then see what Marc Simon had to say about shooting the documentary and whether he thinks Dreier manipulated him during the process.
• THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES • THE SEVEN SEES •
Gerrad Hall: Often, with a documentary, journalists will start by asking about your interest as a filmmaker in the topic and the ease of access to the subject. Having worked at the law firm of your subject here – Marc Dreier – we know the answer to that. But in a company of 800 employees, how well did you know him? Would you consider him a mentor?
Marc H. Simon – Director: If you were sitting here two days before I found out that everything I knew about him was a lie, I would be lauding him. I would use words like ‘mentor,’ I would say that he was inspiring, I would say that he was loyal, I would say that he was supportive, and I would say it’s really been a privilege to be working with him. And then, if you spoke to me two days later, I would have had rashes on my skin, because that literally happened. Not everyone has an experience [like this] in life, but those that do can relate to what I’m saying, where someone that you think you know so well, whether it’s a relative or someone you work with or a friend, just so incredibly disappoints. And disappoints isn’t even…betrays – betrays is the word, betrays you – it’s a shocking thing.
GH: It’s interesting that he offers what he perceived as betrayal by a former client as reasoning for why committing fraud the first time.
MS: Yeah, that’s a good point. So when this happens, it was personally devastating, financially devastating – there were certain non-discretionary bonuses that were due to me, this happened in December – so it took a toll, it happened around Christmastime, these are the holidays. [So as a result] you have to move your practice, you have to make your clients okay. That’s the long answer to ‘was he your mentor?’ He was, and so this had a huge effect.
MS: No, as the firm got bigger, he was the CEO at the top floor. I had a longer relationship with him and so I certainly was closer to him than many others, especially as a young attorney, I would say I was the closest younger with him in the firm. But even as the firm grew, even my relationship with him wasn’t as close as it had been at one time. That said, he would tell you, and I think he would be accurate, that he felt that, aside from the big crime, that he was an incredibly loyal boss. What he means by that is that he didn’t like to fire people, that he liked to give people the benefit of the doubt; he says that if staff or lawyers came to him about wanting to terminate someone, he was not quick to do so, and I think that that was probably true.
GH: In some way, it almost seems indicative of his own state of mind, accepting of other people’s faults because of his own wrongdoings and fire-able offenses.
MS: That’s a good question that I’ll never know the answer to. But interestingly, I think the answer is ‘no.’ I think that he compartmentalized his deeds so much from the running of the firm that, to a large extent, he didn’t factor those decisions in. He’s a complex guy, and the other point about the film is he’s not black and white, he’s not all good, he’s not all bad. He absolutely did a very bad thing, and he’s absolutely an a-moral individual, and he’s absolutely a criminal. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love his children, that doesn’t mean that he at times didn’t want the best for his employees – that would be too simplistic. This is what I believe…that the firm was an extension of himself and his personality and his aura and his image. So he did want the firm to be a place where people were happy and talked about it, because that’s all he cared about was his image and the recognition…not all he cared about, but that was in large part what he cared about.
GH: Given your relationship with him, was there already enough trust there that helped you gain access to shoot this? Or did you still have some convincing to do?
MS: No. I think the unique position I had was that he was trusting of me, that he thought I would be balanced about this. And I did talk to him about that and I wanted to be balanced because, to me…it’s not an interesting story if it’s just a TV magazine piece that’s like, here’s the crime, here’s people talking about the crime, here’s people saying ‘he deceived this hedge fund’ – that’s boring! We know that. He admitted it. What’s interesting is getting inside this man and trying to uncover the layers. So what I said to him was that this film, for me, was an exploration of him and that it wasn’t going to be me trying to get a whole bunch of people talking about it. I didn’t know when I started filming – there were no guidelines, I could’ve anyone I wanted about it – but the point is that it was about trying to excavate his issues and him having trust that I would do it in some sort of balanced way.
GH: So your own personal bias was obviously a concern of his. Were you worried as well or were you confident you could do this without the consequences of his actions on you reflecting in the finished product?
MS: It was my biggest concern. Going into this, my concern was, how is the baggage of my history with this individual not going to ill-effect me as a storyteller? I counter-balanced that with the fact that it was this baggage that granted me this access in this really unique manner. So it was this counter-balance and it was like, ‘Ok, I know I have this history with him, but that history is what’s allowing me in.’ So how I dealt with it was, my co-pilot I call him, my cinematographer, Bob Richman, I said, ‘If you ever see me holding back, if you ever see me not going for it, not pressing him, not going full-throttle, a) let me know, and b) feel free to jump in.’ So he was going to be my check, and we talked about that every single time we were about to walk in that door. We would talk about what the agenda was for that day, and if he felt me missing something, he was going to be my check. In the edit room, it was the same thing.
GH: If only Marc had had that person.
MS: Exactly. So ultimately, I decided that any subconscious or conscious prejudice was outweighed by what that history was going to allow. So I was ok with it. Also, I think it allowed me to further pursue humanizing this individual because, again, he’s an individual, he’s a human, he’s not just the devil, as he referred to himself in the movie.
GH: Watching the documentary, it often feels like a therapy session for Marc, his opportunity to get it all off his chest. Did it come off like that when you were sitting with him?
MS: It’s actually the exact opposite. I asked him, and it’s going to be in the DVD extras, about whether this was a catharsis, and he jumped on me – ‘Absolutely not!’ –and he actually says in the film that he doesn’t get any benefit in talking about this. So he was on the record of saying ‘no,’ it wasn’t a catharsis, it was painful. And I don’t fully believe that and I don’t know whether he was self-aware…I didn’t know this until his letter to the judge was fully written – Marc is a very strategic guy, he’s a very smart guy, nothing is unplanned in his mind; that doesn’t mean that things won’t slip out in the spontaneity of the moment, and that’s the great thing about being with someone for a 60-day period – emotions come out. But, this was…a sounding board. When his letter to the judge was written and I read it, there was so much of what he talked to me about in that letter. So I think he was working out his arguments and his issues – his final argument was going to be to the judge – and I think part of his process with me was checking it out with us. If I didn’t buy it, I was going to tell him that. I think that was part of his process and part of why he did the film.
MS: Oh, yeah. What’s fascinating about this film I think, and I knew this upfront, was he was going to be an unreliable narrator. The audience is watching somebody who is a confessed thief, a confessed liar, a confessed fraudster, and yet we’re supposed to sit back and watch the story. And I think that is fascinating, and I want the audience to be on their toes and see what rings true with them and what doesn’t, and that’s what’s interesting and that’s what makes this film unique. I was able to push and prod about things that I didn’t believe or that I didn’t buy, but what was in his advantage was that if there was something that I tried to address that he didn’t want to address, he had the ability to brush it off. That’s the only strategic advantage he had. But again, he didn’t know whether I would be using other people to check him or not. But certainly in the final manifestation of the film, there’s one or two points that I think, for example, were part of the fuel to him committing this crime. For example, I think there was another attorney in New York… that also built a practice, and I think Marc was jealous of this individual. And I asked Marc about that and he said, ‘No, no, no, I wasn’t jealous of him. I was inspired by him.’ So that little line can’t get into the movie. But yes, we cannot take at face value what Marc Dreier says or doesn’t say, and it’s our job to consider it all and take away what we can.