Four years ago, Korean-American filmmaker Johanna Lee boldly ventured into a realm where few women dare to go: the New York Board of Trade, the physical commodity-futures exchange in the belly of the World Financial Center. For six months, Lee toiled as a point clerk on NYBOT’s trading floor, an area called “the pit,” where she turned her unprecedented access to a motley crew of coffee traders into a documentary, The Pit, which chronicles the last days of the traditional practice of open-outcry trading, in which traders yell, scream, and jostle as they make and lose fortunes. (In March 2008, the Board replaced the practice with electronic transactions). Lee spoke with Daily Intel about working on the floor and about the film, which makes its area debut this Sunday at the Hoboken International Film Festival
Did the trading floor and the traders seem like an obvious subject for a documentary to you?
Working there, I thought this was the craziest place I’d ever been. I was shocked that they’d not made a movie down there. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. You can’t believe that place exists.
Traders in the film describe open-outcry trading as “organized chaos,” but it looks like chaotic chaos. Were you intimidated at all when you started working as a point clerk?
Definitely. Most people start off as a point clerk. Almost every guy I know who started as a point clerk cried during their first week. I’d like to proudly say that I never cried. But it’s totally intimidating. There’s no real training. They threw me into the pit and started screaming at me because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was brutalized. I’d come home at like noon and have to drink a couple beers — and I never really drink.
Did you eventually get comfortable being there?
At first I wasn’t comfortable. They would scream at me and say, “You were horrible!” But then, when the [closing] bell would go off at noon, they’d take me out to lunch at Chanterelle or Nobu. I think because I was such an anomaly, they were actually really nice to me. I think they were probably nicer to me than they were to any other young guy that starts off on the floor, who probably gets abused more. If they bumped into me, they would apologize, and that’s not something they did to each other.
What motivates the traders in the film — greed, ego, a McMansion on Long Island?
They definitely like making money, but they also like being able to go out on a trading floor. It’s a thrilling, high-adrenaline type of occupation.
One trader in the film said that his job often caused him to feel like he was stealing. Is that a common perception among traders?
I don’t think a lot of traders felt that way. Sometimes if you make so much money, and you’re not used to it, that can feel uncomfortable. But I don’t think any of the older guys would feel that way because they all had major downs in their careers. That may be the kind of thing that a young trader might say, because maybe you have a year where you make a couple million and you’re like, “What did I do? I just traded. It’s not like I came up with the cure for cancer.”
Several traders in the film say success in commodities trading requires “street smarts.” Is this still true in the new age of electronic trading?
Not as much, but you still need to be able to make quick decisions. They said things would become more democratized when trading went computerized, but I think the opposite happened. It used to be that you could get on the floor with fifty grand or something and start trading your own money. You could be a coffee trader or a crude-oil trader. You really can’t do that now because in order to move the market, you have to be able to trade enormous amounts of money and goods. The only people who can actually do that are huge corporations.
What does the film reveal about the U.S. financial system?
One guy in the film says it and it’s really true: This is raw capitalism. You’re just dealing with money, you’re not creating anything, and the best man wins. I think it’s a very American job. You could be a guy who grew up in Brooklyn, didn’t go to college, but if you’re really good at math and have great instincts, it was the kind of place where you could become a multimillionaire. And there’s not many jobs where you can do that in America anymore.