Michael Lewis on movies, books, and the financial crisis

Michael Lewis. Photo: Julia Flynn Siler

Michael Lewis seems incapable of telling a lie.

In a freewheeling interview in front of a private banking group Wednesday night, the Berkeley writer confessed how he didn’t like the movie The Blind Side when he first saw it, how movie people would prefer that the author of a book adapted for the screen would just go away, and how the financial press actually did a good job reporting the 2008 crisis.

Lewis, who lives in Berkeley with his wife, the photographer Tabitha Soren, and their three children, went to see an advanced screening of The Blind Side in San Francisco shortly before the movie’s 2009 release. The movie affected him.

“I cried, I laughed, I had an emotional reaction to the movie I seldom have,” said Lewis.

Yet during the screening, Lewis leaned over his popcorn and whispered to his wife, “I don’t know if I like this.”

Soren immediately turned to him and scolded, “Don’t ever say that out loud.”

But once the movie starring Sandra Bullock was released to great acclaim – and even bigger box office receipts – Lewis’ thoughts changed.

“By the time it grossed $200 million I had forgotten what I didn’t like about it,” he told the crowd in San Francisco.

Another of Lewis’ books, Moneyball, about the Oakland As, has also been made into a movie. It stars Brad Pitt (who stayed with his wife Angelina Jolie at the Claremont Hotel during the filming and caused a great stir.)

While movie people are nice, once they have the rights to a book they ignore the writer, said Lewis.

“They don’t want anyone to remind them it was anybody else’s work,” said Lewis.

But Moneyball is such a good film the studio is considering moving its release date from September to November so it is an Oscar contender, said Lewis.

“It works well on the screen,” he said.

Lewis talked about the questions that prompt him to write a book or an article. One pressing on his mind now is why the Chinese are buying U.S. Treasury bonds. Considering the U.S. economy and risk of inflation, that doesn’t seem like a very good investment, said Lewis. He wants to go to China in the next few months and pose the question directly to officials, he said.

But he reminded the crowd that his first book, Liar’s Poker was about the absurdity that Solomon Brothers paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to dole out investment advice to clients. Lewis knew virtually nothing about investing then, and he warned the crowd he was no expert now.

Lewis also said that he did not blame the financial press for not predicting the 2008 meltdown. Many of the CEOs of the big companies like Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs did not even know what kind of products their businesses were selling. How, then, were reporters supposed to ferret out that information?

Lewis singled out Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (which hasn’t gotten as much credit for its reporting as it deserves, he said) and “Planet Money” on NPR as places that have produced excellent journalism on the financial system.

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  • Julia Flynn Siler

    I can’t wait to see Moneyball…amazing how Lewis turned a story about statistics and undervalued players into such a compelling story.

  • Dyianjett

    another oscar contender for bp perhaps.

  • flyonthewall

    Happy for brad he has two good movie coming up lots of luck with the box office fan lets support him.

  • CB

    I liked Moneyball and Liar’s Poker but Gretchen Morgenson’s reporting of the financial system is as one sided as Fox’s coverage of politics — poorly researched and overreliant on finding interviewees to prove her point