About the madness of our financial system

Written by Joost Broeren-Huitenga

After a slew of successful indies, Kim Nguyen moves up to the big league with The Hummingbird Project, IFFR 2019’s closing film. The Canadian filmmaker tells us about bringing a millisecond to life, creating a nerdy, heist/road movie and why actor Alexander Skarsgård shaved his head for his role.

Certain parts of Kim Nguyen's madcap financial heist The Hummingbird Project display all the trappings of a film 'based on a true story'. And while the Canadian filmmaker cooked up the story – two cousins who attempt to lay a 1,000-mile fibre optic cable to get stock market data a fraction of a second earlier than their competitors – all by himself, it is inspired by the unbelievable things that people have actually done to gain an advantage. “It's about the madness of our financial system”, the director tells us. “All these tedious little things people work on to get in the spaces between the money and make millions off that. My protagonists are trying to gain one single millisecond and yet they're doing something stupendous, digging a 1,000-mile tunnel straight through the United States.”

My protagonists are doing something stupendous to gain one single millisecond.” – Kim Nguyen

Upsides of working with bigger stars

The two cousins are played by Jesse Eisenberg, as smug mastermind Vincent, and Alexander Skarsgård as nervous nerd Anton. The latter plays perfectly against type – you might remember Skarsgård from his 8-packed, shirtless lead role in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) – going so far as to shave his head for a downtrodden, balding look. “He really wanted to do it”, Nguyen says. “During preproduction I sent him a picture of a trader who looked like that and he got really excited about it. There were a lot of questions from distributors and agents. Everyone was nervous: what are you going to do to our Alex? But he just wanted to go for it.” That's one of the upsides of working with bigger stars, Nguyen says – sometimes their clout works in your favour.

The Hummingbird Project is the director's biggest film so far, although he downplays that a bit: “It's still not a superhero movie. The biggest difference is that my intentions for a film and the end result are becoming increasingly similar. Some of my earlier films started out as one thing, then turned into something else while I was making them. That couldn't happen here – we had 70 sets, which is a lot for a 32-day shoot. And there were big machines involved, a lot of infrastructure. The film is about the idea of stock trading, but we spent very little time actually in the trading room; we spent a lot more time on the road. It was filmed like a road movie – but with seventy cars! Whatever the characters did, we were in exactly the same situation: we brought the real machines to the middle of a forest, mud and water everywhere.”

We play with scale as a representation of the abstraction money.” – Kim Nguyen

Making millions in a millisecond

Connecting with the huge endeavour Vincent and Anton undertake to make some big bucks through a miniscule head start, the film has a deceptively slippery sense of scale as well. The editing jumps from a God’s-eye-view of a landscape to a microscopic close-up, and there are recurring slow motion shots that highlight the minute nature of what the duo is trying to achieve. “As budgets get bigger, you often have less of an opportunity to try things out as a director, so I'm glad there's one thing I was able to allow myself as a formal note: to play with scale and to slow down time to get at what one millisecond is. We play with dimensions – what seems very, very small turns out to be very big or vice versa – as a representation of the abstraction money has and what being rich means.”

Photo in header: Still: The Hummingbird Project