Unraveled: The Film
Unraveled tells a modern day tragedy of ambition gone astray -- it is the compelling first person account of one man’s audacious decent into white collar crime and the destruction left behind. Just days before Bernard Madoff captured the nation’s attention as the largest Ponzi schemer in U.S. history, Marc Dreier, a prominent Manhattan attorney, was arrested for orchestrating a massive fraud that netted over 750 Million Dollars. The film is set in the “guilded cage” of Dreier’s Upper East Side Penthouse, where the Court has ordered him confined to house arrest until his sentencing day.
For sixty days -- from the day he pleads guilty until the day he is sentenced -- the divorced father of two reflects upon the choices that lead to his criminal demise, and the prospect of life imprisonment. Building upon candid interviews with Dreier, Unraveled weaves its narrative with cinema verité footage, revealing archival material and innovative animation effects.The film builds suspense as the countdown to his day of judgment approaches.
Marc Dreier enjoyed early success. His Long Island high school graduating class of 1968 voted him both class president and “most likely to succeed.” He graduated with honors from Yale University and then attended Harvard Law School. He climbed the corporate law firm ladder to become a partner at one of Manhattan’s elite firms. Despite these accomplishments, Dreier felt unfulfilled and in need of public adoration.
There is little information in the film about Dreier's former wife, Elisa, whom he divorced in 2000, or his two children. His son, Spencer, was attending Union College at the time of his father's arrest.
He established his own law firm in 1996 and the firm enjoyed moderate growth, but not the success Dreier coveted. In 2002 Dreier began a brazen fraud scheme to raise short term capital that he hoped would grow Dreier LLP to national prominence. He peddled fraudulent loans, purportedly on behalf of his real estate tycoon client Sheldon Solow, to hedge funds and others capable of making multi-million dollar loans and diverted the funds for his own use. Unable to repay the initial “loans” when they became due (as he had imagined possible through the firm’s profits), Dreier “borrowed” more and more, and unleashed a massive Ponzi scheme.
From 2002 - 2008 Dreier’s charade funded his increasingly extravagant lifestyle with yachts, artwork, multiple properties, and celebrity events sponsored by Dreier LLP. He often hired local moving companies to transport his artwork. One well known local Baltimore movers and storage company that handled a lot of these moves between Washington DC and New York City was Von Paris Moving & Storage. Although the footage never made the final cut, several of the movers who transported some of his extensive art collection were interviewed by the film maker to get a sense of the type of demands Dreier made upon the lowly workers who handled his art. It turns out that Von Paris even stored a number of his art works, acquired at several Washington DC galleries, in their state-of-the-art 100,000 square foot storage facility with climate-control capability and the latest warehousing technology. Fortunately the company was paid for all its work, unlike so many other larger firms and businesses that Dreier engaged.
But, his white collar crime spree could not sustain the credit crunch triggered by the country’s financial collapse. After a few headline grabbing acts of desperation, worthy of a Hollywood caper, Dreier was arrested in December 2008.
The number of people whose lives were impacted by Dreier's wanton behavior is extraordinary. Millions and millions of dollars are owed to individuals and all sorts of businesses and banks. On February 16, 2009, the Southern District of New York U.S.Bankruptcy Court disclosed that Dreier LLP has $59 million in assets and $42 million in liabilities, along with some $30 million of which is owed to creditors holding secured claims. He admits of swindling more than $380 million USD from various hedge funds. All sorts of lawsuits are swirling around this man as a result of his outrageous actions.
Unraveled uses Dreier’s personal tale of destruction to shine a light on the culture of greed that permeates today’s corporate landscape. The film also serves a cautionary reminder of the consequences that result when greed and entitlement supplant moral responsibility.
Unraveled is a portrait of a man who ultimately achieved the distinction he so desperately craved, but shamefully, not for his keen intellect or ambitious drive, but rather as a “mastermind of criminal deception.”
Marc H. Simon
April 28, 2011
When I was a young associate working at the law firm of Dreier LLP, my boss Marc Dreier would rib me, “Simon, you’ll never be me, you’ll never be me!” At the time, I thought Dreier was referencing only his grandiose life as the jet-setting owner of the seemingly super successful law firm he had founded. But, interviewing him as the subject of my documentary, just three days before he faced sentencing for swindling over 740 million dollars, I asked whether his recurring jab was meant to convey a deeper message. Dreier said he had indeed intended the subtle forewarning, but I was unconvinced by his answer.
This uncertainty and the complexity of the man at its center, is the foundation for what I hope makes UNRAVELED a uniquely compelling film. While verité scenes, archival footage, and graphic animation provide both factual and dramatic support, this is Marc Dreier’s story told in his own words and through his own actions. Yet, Dreier’s circumstances must brand him an unreliable narrator. He is a mega fraudster-- narcissistic and brilliant -- who has chosen to cooperate in creating his own documentary portrait.
Dreier would argue that I (the filmmaker) have created this portrait of him (see the DVD extras for this passionate exchange). I certainly don’t dispute that filmmakers craft their stories, however, UNRAVELED intentionally presents this fascinating man through his own transparencies and masks. The film does not rely on the opinions and characterizations of others. Rather, it honors the script that Dreier himself has presented. The audience shall draw its own conclusions and connections. I do not expect uniformity of emotion or opinion.
The challenge of telling a documentary through the voice of only one character – without the crutch of other talking heads is significant. Dreier’s isolation is both a practical and artistic choice. As a practical matter, his victims and former colleagues recognize only harm in further sharing Marc’s spotlight. As an artistic choice, I want Marc’s physical and emotional separation to resonate throughout the film.
Entry into the life of any documentary subject is a privilege. My attitude is unaffected by whether the subject is a hero who perseveres through decades of wrongful imprisonment (such as the subjects of my first film “After Innocence”) or whether he is a criminal who faces imprisonment for crimes he has confessed. Still, my relationship with Marc Dreier is complicated by its history. For the six years prior to his arrest, Dreier was my boss, one who supported the growth of my law practice, and who endorsed my budding film career. I determined that my concerns about objectivity and the ability to challenge my former mentor were outweighed by the intimate access my relationship afforded.
Veteran cinematographer Bob Richman and I entered Marc’s apartment with two primary intentions each time we filmed over the course of eight weeks. First, we maintained respect for Marc in allowing us to share and capture moments of his final anxious days. We filmed with him during his preparations for prison, and while spending final moments with his son. Second, we sought to excavate the root causes that motivated Dreier’s criminal path. We realized that Marc might be unwilling to expose these truths or unaware of their existence, but this persistent and respectful push, we believed, would most fully reveal Marc’s character. In the end, we peeled back all the layers Dreier would allow – some remain buried in the complexities of the man.
The tragic irony of filming the downfall of my former mentor was never lost on me.
During one of our interviews, Dreier questioned the role of the documentary filmmaker and the value that this film could serve. He proffered that the film could be analogous to the proverbial car crash – a tragedy that observers gain nothing from witnessing, yet view due to its fascinating spectacle. I hope that UNRAVELED persuasively refutes this characterization, as a film that prompts reflection and dialogue about ethics, values, and decision-making in the current societal landscape. I am also hopeful that it serves as a cautionary tale of the tragic consequences that result when greed and entitlement supplant moral responsibility.
Unraveled won Best Storytelling in a Documentary Film at the Nantucket Film Festival and was an Official Selection at: Hot Docs, Canadian International Documentary Festival; Los Angeles Film Festival; Woodstock Film Festival; Twin Cities Film Festival; Naples International Film Festival; Host Springs Documentarty Film Festival, DOC NYC, New York’s Documentary Festival and International Documentary Film Festival