Five Questions for Drea Cooper and Zachary Canepari About Their SXSW-Premiering Documentary, Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets
As more and more human activity — personal, social, economic, political — happens online, a challenge is posed to practitioners of that legacy art form, the feature film. To wit: how to tell an 80-minute-plus story whose symbolic meanings were created in part by interactions and juxtapositions occurring in virtual spaces, a story that’s possibly inseparable from a rich visual culture that is most accurately parsed in portrait mode and not in a theater or on a flat screen?
Providing one answer are filmmakers Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, whose latest feature documentary, the SXSW-premiering Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets fully immerses itself in the satiric iconography and frenetic rhythms of the meme-based culture of its eponymous subreddit to tell both a narrowly focused story about a stock market short squeeze as well as a larger tale of exploding and collapsing dreams in pandemic-era late capitalism. As they explain in our interview below, conducted over email, their pitch to producers NBC News Studios and MSNBC Films involved replicating some of that online visual cacophony while also focusing less on traditional media talking heads and more on the actual participants — “Sir JackaLot,” “Jeff Amazon” — who betted that the stock of a brick-and-mortar video game retailer would skyrocket by a hundred-fold. The Gamestop phenomenon made plenty of people rich, caused moralistic — or perhaps just bitter — handwringing from traditional market analysts, and has led other small so-called retail investors to addictive ruin. In Diamond Hands, all of this is told in the punchiest manner possible and with a more irreverent tone than one would expect from a mainstream cable outlet. Below, I spoke to Cooper and Canepari about how they landed the job of this documentary, developing the doc’s visual aesthetic and what advice they’d pass on to other documentarians navigating the current cable and streamer-dominated landscape.
Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets will have its cable premiere on MSNBC Sunday, April 10 at 10:00 p.m. ET.
Filmmaker: First, tell me how you both got involved with Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets? Did you develop the project, or were you hired and brought on? And what was instrumental in terms of your pitch or presentation materials that enabled the project to move forward?
Cooper: We were approached by NBC News Studios shortly after GameStop dominated the news headlines. They had an internal development team that had been tracking movement on the WallStreetBets subreddit since the beginning of the pandemic and had established good access with a handful of subjects. Once the short squeeze hit, they knew they had a film and were looking for filmmakers to come on board. This was the first project we didn’t develop from scratch. So it was new territory and we didn’t want to jump in without doing some deeper research before we signed on. Once we had a little time to dig in, it became pretty clear that the NBC News Studio’s team had some great access and a deep knowledge of the story — even in the early stages. So we put together a treatment that laid out our vision for the film, an in-the-moment roller coaster ride through the wild world of WallStreetBets and the Game Stop short squeeze crafted in the language of the internet — a kind of collage film. The NBC News Studios team liked what we put together and we quickly assembled our team and hit the ground running.
Filmmaker: What’s your own relationship to stock trading and personal finance? Do you have Robinhood accounts? Did the documentary reveal anything to you about finance and the markets that’s had an impact on the way you handle your own personal finances?
Cooper: It’s pretty funny because I actually followed my mom’s advice back in 2007. She’s a boomer so of course her advice was, “You gotta get into some mutual funds, safe stuff, let it sit and watch it grow over time.” I thought sure, let’s give it a try. I opened a Schwab account with a few grand I saved from teaching high school and PA’ing on commercials. Then three months later, the entire market crashed. I lost all my money. I was so mad at my mom. She said, “Don’t sell, don’t crystalize your losses.” I didn’t have a better plan so I listened to her again. Sure enough, some 15 years later I still have those mutual funds and they’ve bounced back from the ’08 crash and have managed to grow over time. So there’s some truth to the boomer approach. Ha!
Over the last few years, I started investing in more single company stocks but never really “played” the market per se. So when we jumped on this project, of course I immediately downloaded Robinhood to see what the hype was all about. Bought some crypto, because that seemed like a good idea (ha). Then that dipped. So yeah, not the best moves. But the big takeaway for me from this project was that these guys were legit — at least the big whales. They all did tons of due diligence and deep analysis to figure out what the potential of GME [Gamespot] was and how to play it. For a handful of our subjects, this led to some big wins. But yeah, is the stock market a casino? Definitely.
Canepari: Not a personal one. Much more arm’s length. And very skeptical of the whole thing. For me, the stock market is this omnipresent all-important marker of our society. Less melodramatic than a doomsday clock but related. Every time you turn on the news, the ticker is there. Media companies never turn it off. We go to war. We trade stocks. We have a pandemic. We trade stocks. We fight over politics. We trade stocks. The more dysfunctional society is, the more money we can make. When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t believe how much money people were making trading stocks. And that was before the Gamestop squeeze. I understand how/why they were making money but I still don’t “get it.”
Filmmaker: One of the challenges of making films whose subject matter is, in part, derived from activities that take place online and cultures that form online, is how much or how little to reference online aesthetics. The Gamestop story is inseparable from all the memes and internet slang that it became entwined with, and you represent this activity vividly on screen in the form of on-screen graphics, fast cutting, etc. Tell me how you landed on this approach, what the challenges of it were within a feature-film format, and how you worked with the graphics team to find this online world to cinematic life.
Cooper: From the beginning we wanted to create a film in the language of the internet, and more specifically, in the language of the subreddit WallStreetBets. This was, afterall, a pandemic story about a ragtag group of people who met online and created a community to share stock ideas during one of the most unique and scary years in our modern history. And most of this story took place online, in chats, posts, and videos on the subreddit where people communicate with emojis and memes. So we really wanted to figure out how to tell this story from inside the internet. That was a process of trial and error and lots of experimentation. Memes and emojis are a lot fun, but they’re kind of messy and can be quickly overwhelming. So we were constantly trying to calibrate and find that balance so we didn’t crush our audience.
One of our big breakthroughs was when we started using archival imagery as metaphor, like the internet uses memes. For example, the introduction to WallStreetBets consists of all the emojis and memes you would expect to see but it’s set against the backdrop of a ’90s rave. It just seemed appropriate and made it more interesting and fun to watch. Or when our subjects start losing all their money, we see people skydiving, free falling like their accounts. Combining the symbols of the internet and WallStreetBets with these visual metaphors helped create a richer cinematic language for us to build our story.
Canepari: That was the goal from the start. We wanted to make something very present tense. And we wanted to try to create the feeling of what WallStreetBets felt like at that time. So we leaned as far into the internet as we could and tried to bring that snarky meme language into our film, while also trying to keep it cinematic. There was a lot of trial and error but our editor Carter Gunn is a real one and he and Drea and Sebastian Hernandez and Matt Joynt’s music found a language and tone and voila… we made a movie.
Filmmaker: Your film is produced by MSNBC Films and NBC News Studios, and obviously they are part of a corporate family that includes CNBC, which is something of a bastion of traditional finance commentary. And MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, whose pre-media life included stints at Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, is a consulting producer. What sort of editorial input did MSNBC have, and were there any points of conflict between your vision of the doc and those of your production company and cable outlet?
Cooper: It’s a good question. Our independent filmmaker antenna was definitely up when we jumped into this project. It wasn’t something we could totally figure out from a few phone calls. We had to trust what the NBC team was saying, and we had to jump in and give it a go. What we discovered early on was that NBC News Studios and their relationships with CNBC and MSNBC and reporters like Stephanie Rhule were paramount in helping us tell the best possible story. Stephanie’s reporting on GameStop and her knowledge of the financial world and the players was so helpful in steering us in the right direction. The access we had to the CNBC archive was incredible. They covered every moment of this story, from the very beginning. So to have those resources available was a great asset to the film.
To the credit of all the parties involved, we never had creative push back on our vision of the film. There were certainly notes and lots of discussions, like all films, but it was always in the spirit of making the best film possible. A big hurdle we needed to figure out was how to tell a story on prime-time TV that involves so much profanity and unsavory words. That was a process and MSNBC took some risks with this film and pushed some of their own boundaries to ensure that we could tell as authentic a story as possible.
Canepari: Yeah, we had the same question. To their credit NBC gave us a lot of creative freedom and in many ways, this film will be a radical shift from their normal fare. Nor were we pressured to prop up the network. To be honest, we wanted to include more of Steph Rhule because she really helped us experience how big media was reacting to WallStreetBets as it was happening. We ultimately couldn’t fit her into our very packed film but she was a real value add.
Filmmaker: Finally, you both appeared in our 2012 25 New Faces series on the basis of your short film series, California is a Place. Since then, you’ve gone onto steady work in episodic non-fiction — docs for Netflix on the Paradise fire (Fire in Paradise) and for Amazon on Meek Mill (Free Meek). You are steadily working and have seemingly figured out how to stay productive in the new streaming landscape, which is something not every documentary filmmaker has done. What advice and insight would you have for beginning filmmakers as well as filmmakers coming from solely the feature world about producing and directing serialized non-fiction for streamers and television? In short, what have you learned from all this activity that you can pass on?
Cooper: Ha! I wish I knew the formula or knew what the secret sauce was all about. Honestly, we’ve been very fortunate to come up during this incredible golden age of documentary, when streamers are lining up for films and series. However, it still comes down to one basic principle: story is everything. And then the next basic principle: if that story can be visually interesting and come alive cinematically, then you’ve got a good shot at making something good that someone will pay for. That said, it’s still a grind. And it’s very much a hustle. Gotta keep trying to find stories, develop ideas, and gotta keep knocking on doors.
Canepari: Money isn’t enough to make a good film. You need time. Making films just takes time.There is so much pressure right now to create heaps of content but the content suffers. Filmmakers, young and old, need to be pushing for that time. Deadlines are great but they should be relative to the thing you’re making. It’s one of the reasons I think independent documentaries are often some of the best. They might be short on resources but they usually have the time to fully cook.