The show Wall Street can­not stop talk­ing about

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY RENAE MERLE

new york — The hedge-fund in­dus­try is a se­cre­tive world led by tight-lipped ti­tans who make more than $1 bil­lion a year. It shouldn’t en­joy hav­ing its quirky habits probed on tele­vi­sion.

But that ap­pears to be what is hap­pen­ing. On Show­time’s “Bil­lions,” two larger-than-life ad­ver­saries, U.S. At­tor­ney Chuck Rhoades and bil­lion­aire hedge­fund man­ager Bobby “Axe” Ax­el­rod, bat­tle for supremacy. Wall Street in­sid­ers say they are watch­ing closely.

Hire a psy­chi­a­trist to pump up traders suf­fer­ing through a slump? Check. Wa­ger mil­lions of dol­lars based on satel­lite images of a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in China? Check. Re­warded with mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar bonuses for a good year? Check.

“They are really try­ing to get it right, whether it’s run­ning di­a­logue by me or other peo­ple,” said James Chanos, one of the vet­eran Wall Street in­sid­ers on whom the show’s cre­ators have

come to de­pend. Chanos has made bil­lions bet­ting on when a com­pany, most fa­mously En­ron, would see its stock price plum­met, a prac­tice known in the in­dus­try as short sell­ing. After decades in the busi­ness, he has seen nearly ev­ery­thing.

“That be­ing said, [the show] is fic­tion,” he said. “It is Wall Street porn, okay, soft porn … which makes it fun.

“I joke that the writ­ers should come by my of­fices. There aren’t Aber­crom­bie mod­els in the lat­est fash­ions” walk­ing around, Chanos said. “They would see schlubs with half-eaten Chi­nese food on their desks. Sadly, the re­al­ity is not as ro­man­tic as por­trayed.”

The cre­ators of “Bil­lions,” Brian Kop­pel­man and David Le­vien, who also co-wrote 1998’s “Rounders,” have made friends across the hedge-fund in­dus­try and among the fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors keep­ing an eye on them. (Preet Bharara, the for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern District of New York, has met with Kop­pel­man and Le­vien and stopped by when the show was tap­ing near his of­fices. )

“What we’re try­ing to get right is the spirit and mood” of the in­dus­try, Kop­pel­man said. “We ab­so­lutely hear back that we get that part right and that part wrong.”

One piv­otal scene this sea­son comes as Ax­el­rod as­sem­bles his team to con­sider whether to force a small New York town into bank­ruptcy to re­coup a $500 mil­lion in­vest­ment. To help plan out the de­bate, Kop­pel­man and Le­vien tapped Bar­bara Mor­gan, a vet­eran of New York pol­i­tics. Mor­gan leaned on her ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with Puerto Rico, which has been fac­ing off against Wall Street ti­tans over its debts in re­cent years, to help keep the fic­tional de­bate real­is­tic.

“They de­vel­oped the story arc,” Mor­gan said. “Then I came in to help on the gran­u­lar level. How would a fund do this? What would aus­ter­ity look like? What would be the im­pact of those mea­sures?”

Kop­pel­man and Le­vien are fol­low­ing the foot­steps of Hol­ly­wood greats who have at­tempted to cap­ture Wall Street’s un­der­belly. In Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” Gor­don Gekko schemed to take over a com­pany and raid its pen­sion plan. “The Big Short” ex­plained how a few peo­ple spot­ted the hous­ing disaster and made bil­lions from it.

In “Bil­lions,” the worst as­sump­tions about the hedge-fund in­dus­try are brought to the screen. Ax­el­rod, played by Damian Lewis, once de­layed med­i­cal treat­ment for one of his em­ploy­ees to gain an ad­van­tage against Rhoades, played by Paul Gia­matti. Rhoades re­peat­edly crossed the line in his pur­suit of Ax­el­rod.

Yet, the show’s fans cheer for both.

“David and I are in search of th­ese an­swers,” Kop­pel­man said. “Why do we as a cul­ture cel­e­brate th­ese flawed peo­ple in the way we do?”

One com­par­i­son Kop­pel­man and Le­vien are strug­gling to kill is that the show is based on a show­down be­tween two re­al­world fig­ures: Bharara and hedge-fund bil­lion­aire Steven Co­hen. Bharara (like Rhoades) was an am­bi­tious and ag­gres­sive pros­e­cu­tor who brought head­line-grab­bing cases against hedge-fund gi­ants. Co­hen, like Ax­el­rod, has spent years be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors on ac­cu­sa­tions of in­sider trad­ing. Co­hen has never been charged.

The com­par­i­son ran­kles Le­vien and Kop­pel­man.

“The char­ac­ter is not based on Preet. Preet is a very good man. We really don’t think the char­ac­ter is Preet,” Kop­pel­man said. “It’s a fic­tional show.”

Not every­one is con­vinced. When Bharara was fired by President Trump this year, some of the shows fans were un­nerved. One said on Twit­ter that watch­ing the show was “weird now.”

Bharara re­sponded, “Well, for some peo­ple, it’s al­ways been weird.”

Bharara has a stand­ing of­fer to join the show as a con­sul­tant, Kop­pel­man and Le­vien say. “We haven’t heard from him,” Le­vien said.

As for Co­hen, he is not talk­ing.

“What we’re try­ing to get right is the spirit and mood” of the in­dus­try. “We ab­so­lutely hear back that we get that part right and that part wrong.” Brian Kop­pel­man, co-cre­ator of “Bil­lions”


Damian Lewis, top, plays Bobby “Axe” Ax­el­rod, and Paul Gia­matti plays U.S. At­tor­ney Chuck Rhoades in “Bil­lions.” The Show­time show fol­lows Rhoades’s pur­suit of hedge­fund ti­tan Ax­el­rod. Wall Street in­sid­ers have helped the show’s cre­ators get de­tails right.

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