In 2019, the saga of WeWork— the shared workplace real estate company with a valuation that dramatically dropped by over $40 billion prior to a planned IPO— became a point of major fascination, including to Hollywood.
The company long labeled as a “unicorn”— a startup company valued at over $1 billion— and its enigmatic co-founder and former ceo Adam Neumann has become the fodder for several projects, including an Apple series that will see Jared Leto play Neumann. But the first major Hollywood-backed project to tell the company’s story will be the documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, which will premiere at the virtual SXSW on March 17 before heading to Hulu on April 2.
“I think there’s something about human nature or American media nature that we like to build people up and we love to see them fall,” says director Jed Rothstein. “And [Neumann] did both of those things in a super dramatic, super public fashion.”
The filmmaker talked to THR about making his movie during the pandemic, what is behind the WeWork obsession, and what he would like to see from the upcoming narrative projects about the company.
What was your experience with WeWork prior to making the doc?
My accountant is in a WeWork in here, so I have gone in once a year. But I’m always interested in New York stories and I’m always interested in financial stories. Because we live in the world of capitalism, helping translate complicated business and financial stories into sort of more general interest, dramatic documentaries can really help us understand how we treat one another in the world. So I thought this was a great combination of elements for me. The rise and fall was so Icarus-like it seemed like a fable from another time. I knew about WeWork and I knew about their story a bit. And I saw a post that Campfire is making this documentary about Adam Neumann and WeWork and they hadn’t listed a director. One thing led to another and then we were making the movie, the whole thing, during the pandemic.
How long was production?
We started making it in April and we made the movie basically the rest of the year. I was doing final little tweaks to picture lock up until Christmas Eve. For me, that’s very quick for a documentary. That was very liberating, in a way. My team and I, it was good for all of us; it was very nourishing. We just kind of dug in and worked really hard. And maybe it was easier to focus because, you know, what are you getting distracted by? There is nothing else to do. It was also challenging to make a film in a pandemic. We flipped the production process and did all the archival stuff first.
Where were you sourcing your archival footage?
I can’t get too deep into some of the sources and whatnot, but I knew before we started that it was pretty unlikely that Adam would talk to me, even though we tried quite strenuously to get him. But I also knew that WeWork had a huge media presence, both officially and unofficially, amongst all of their members and workers. And I knew that they produced enormous amounts of media and content. I just felt from the get-go that it was really poetically and cinematically appropriate to incorporate this tapestry of footage— some of it professionally shot, they had some really good filmmakers working for them and some of it crowdsourced.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by WeWork and Adam?
Adam is charismatic. When we were first cutting this, any time he was on the screen, it was better. I don’t even know how to describe it, but as a director, even a director of documentaries, there’s a little bit of a casting director in the back of your head. Somebody is either grabbing you or they’re not. He’s great at that. He was a bold visionary who went all out on something and was the toast of the town until he wasn’t. The idea of getting people together in this fractured modern economy, especially for young millennial workers who were pushed into these more isolated ways of being and working, was really attractive. Look, I’m a Gen X guy, if people in my generation spoke as earnestly about some of the soulful stuff that [Adam and his wife, Rebekah] spoke about, it’s almost unimaginable that people would speak that way out loud.
How do you think being generationally removed from the makeup of WeWork was helpful to your work?
There are some pitfalls to being an outsider, certainly, that are important in thinking about how you tell stories. But there are also some advantages and it’s helpful to be a little bit outside something in order to see it with fresh eyes. Every generation has its good and bad elements, but I feel like there’s something that they tapped into it at WeWork with this desire to be together. And even though it got buried under mountains of kind of yoga-babel b.s., at the core of it, they wanted something that we all want and they were clear-eyed enough to express it. The fact that they did that and built that, and the fact that it’s kind of betrayed at the end is what gives the movie its heart.
The emotional color I’m left with is almost more like the movie Almost Famous. The young journalist goes through this amazing ride that’s incredible and it also has this weird dark side that’s messed up, too, and he comes out of it knowing that those kind of connections are possible. I really wanted to make a movie in this time of such disconnection that helps us look at those connections and understand why it’s so important that we can get together. I have movies on terrorism, death, killings, pandemics– I literally did a film called Pandemic— I’ve done all these difficult things and I feel like now it’s nice to do [this kind] of film. Yeah, Adam was kind of a schmuck at the end, but the whole thing wasn’t a disaster. Adam did what he did and deserves scorn, but he didn’t kill people. Elizabeth Holmes risked people’s lives and lied to everybody. Bernie Madoff stole from people. The NXIVM guy: creepy, bad, not good. I think Adam did exploitative things to some people and they talk about that in [the doc], but it’s not like this deep darkness. There’s a sort of joyfulness to the journey, even though it didn’t work out.
The doc does delve into SoftBank and the failed IPO, but the company’s financials are never the main focus. How did you go about narrowing down the doc’s scope?
It was a process of working through the film with my editors and Hulu. They were a good partner and that they basically let us make the film that we wanted to make, but they also gave some good input. And I think that their input helped broaden the “fun factor” of the film. I’m always interested in these financial mysteries and they can get quite granular. The challenge with that is always making it a story that appeals to a general audience. We came to a point where we said, “This is it’s a human story.” And the financial elements of it are crucial to understanding how things unfolded as they did, but you don’t need to go into every single twist and turn. To me, it was trying to get at the essence, which was, they tried to do this kind of wonderful thing. It became quite real for a lot of people, but there was always this conflict between the “me” and the “we”. And when the pressure was ramped up at the end from all these huge money investors some of the darker forces kind of took over for a while. That’s why the rise was so colorful and the fall was so dramatic.
There are several narrative projects in the works about WeWork. What could you not explore in your doc that you would like to see in these versions?
Adam’s psyche. I hope they can go into those gray areas. In documentaries, especially when I started making these social issue documentaries, there’s this pressure to be like here’s this problem, here’s what we learned from it and here’s what we should do. And that’s an important thing that documentaries can do. But I also think there’s this area of human life where things are just gray. And I think understanding journeys like that and understanding those types of stories can allow us to build better communities and better relations with one another and not be just on constant outrage drives in one direction or another. So I hope that in fiction, when they treat this story, that they get into that.
This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.