Mickey Down & Konrad Kay On 'Industry': Making The World Of Finance Cinematic & Universal [Interview]

If you’re looking for the next new weekly show, look no further than HBO’s latest series, “Industry,” which premieres November 10th. Somehow managing to adapt the frenzied energy of “The Newsroom,” the after-hours partying of “Skins,” and the color pallet and tone of “Euphoria” into something that’s both coherent and entertaining, “Industry” is an electric series about recent post-graduates looking to immerse themselves into the world of investment banking. 

READ MORE: ‘Industry’ Trailer: The World Of Finance Provides Plenty Of Drama In HBO’s Upcoming Series

We spoke to the showrunners Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, relative newcomers and longtime friends who created the series together after working in the financial sector the show is based in. Down and Kay talked about the inspiration for the series, trusting your audience, and translating the world of finance into something cinematic. 

What was the first inspiration for the series?

Mickey Down: Well, Konrad and I met at university, and when we left, we went into finance. I went to M&A, which is where the characters Hari and Gus work, and Konrad worked on the trading floor, which is obviously where most of the series is based. After being in that world for years, the first thing we ever wrote together was a short film based on my experiences in banking. It got a bit of buzz, ended up on Youtube, and sold it to NBC, which showed me it was a viable career option to become a screenwriter. We wrote on other shows, developed some things, and worked with Bad Wolf, whose CEO is Jane Tranter. We were doing something incredibly different when she discovered she had two ex-bankers working for her. She asked if we’d ever tried to write something in this world before, and we told her we had, and she asked if we had tried looking at it from the perspective of the people at the bottom instead of at the top, which was the key that unlocked the whole thing.  

When you were at school, even though you had this obviously different career path at first, had you ever thought about collaborating in a creative sense?

Konrad Kay: We had momentary, short-lived thoughts of creative partnerships. One was Mickey directing “Hamlet” in the college play, and I thought for some reason I’d be a good lead even though I’ve never acted a day in my life, so that never happened. Mickey was the editor of the Oxford Student film section, and he used to send me to write film reviews. But yeah, we were just typical college guys, best friends who spent all our time together and never did anything productive, as most people do in those years, and there was this other thing we talked about, how both Mickey and I have immigrant mothers. I don’t know why we always go back to that, but there was always that sense of when you graduate college, you need to have a job, make a salary, and things like writing and the arts don’t fit into that world view particularly well. I think there was always something that we wanted to do without knowing, and it was just so satisfying when after five years, we sat down and wrote something, and it just felt right and was so much fun and natural.

Did you have a strong feeling that the world of finance would translate well cinematically, or did it take some work to get the drama to fit the setting?

Kay: I think that inherently we picked something that is the opposite of cinematic in many ways. It’s many people sitting in rows and looking at screens and a lot of digitized business. We thought of it in a way where if you forget the finance side of it for a minute, if you put a load of characters in a row on these trading floors. They all have varying levels of power; you immediately get into the micropolitics of what all these relationships look like between mentor/mentee, rivals and backstabbers, and who is above and below who. It is this incredibly ripe thing for drama because the characters in the show and even the bosses pretend that the hierarchy doesn’t exist on some level. Still, it is so there and so clearly dominates the way people interact in those spaces that we thought would be the right place to set a character drama. It’s not about power with a capital P. However, it is still about the transactional nature of workplace relationships and that kind of blurry line between colleague and friend, which I think the show really hits on a true level.

We are tossed headfirst into this world; was there ever a concern of audiences being left behind by the industry jargon and structure, or is there just a level of trust that everything will catch up and level out while watching?

Down: I feel like the fact that we spent some time in that world makes us have somewhat of a tin ear to that sort of thing for people who might not understand what’s being said. We always worked under the impression that audiences are a lot smarter than you give them credit for, but that said, we probably would have pushed the jargon a bit further if we could have, which would have been a disaster; even as it stands, most of it already sounds like a different language. However, there are things where even if you haven’t picked up on the mechanics or lingo being used by the show; you can at least pick up on the general actions and context that make the situation such a mess and understand the base level of the problem. Hopefully, there isn’t too much technical terminology to actually lose people. Still, enough there to immerse and keep the experience authentic while also having enough relatable experiences in there that anyone could relate to, like the feeling of being overwhelmed by your first job or things like that. 

Kay: When you make something for HBO and part of it is to make an all-encompassing world, some of your job is to render it as accurately as possible on screen and say this is how these people talk and would respond in this particular environment. It was essential for Mickey and me to make sure that we got that 100 percent accurate. In the trade-off between getting spoken down to or being given something very complex, I think most viewers are more likely to treat a show with respect and engage with it if they are treated with a certain sense of intelligence. We ran that risk, and I’m sure some people will look at it and think some of this stuff is completely unintelligible. Still, as Mickey said, we always wanted it to have human and easily understandable emotions anchoring it, especially for a young person in that situation. Sometimes Harper (Myha’la Herrold) is on the phone and what she’s saying and talking about all these financial products is less important than that she is winning or losing businesses. Hopefully, that universality of concepts helps people engage even if they are a little lost in the actual grind of it all. 

I wanted to ask about the tension and stakes you made in this show and how important it was that you create that relatability, because I found myself struck or even feeling secondhand panic in the first episode when the character (Nabhaan Rizwan) Hari freaks out over something as small as printing the wrong font. As somebody who has held these office jobs, it felt relatively world-ending, so I wondered how you could create such tension out of these little moments that wouldn’t matter in the slightest to most people outside of the one’s dealing with it?

Down: So for us, that was the bread and butter of the show. In the development process, we made the decision really early to follow the big bang theory of dramatics; in these big finance dramas, you usually have some criminal aspect, like insider trading, or a big evil boss. Even if Harper was just one step removed from all that stuff, it still felt too fantastical or far-fetched, so the challenge was to honor the small moments like where someone’s finger slips on a keyboard feel as big as insider trading deals or the FBI raiding your office. Hopefully, that all adds to the universality of the whole project.

Kay: The other way to answer your question is how do you make it feel like it lands, is in performance and score. I think Nabhaan is a really great actor and has that deer in the headlights look, and is so empathetic all the time. Then the show’s sound design was something the two of us were engaged with deeply the entire way through, so I think both of those aspects, the performance, and the sound, really amplify how it hits you. Nathan Micay, our composer, wrote this unbelievable sort of 80s synth soundtrack, which pulls you in emotionally to the smaller stuff. As you said, you can watch that and ask how any of it has dramatic stakes, but it has massive real-life stakes for these character’s actual lives. If you just put that Harper has to give a pitch in a morning meeting as an episode synopsis, it would be easy to write off as oh whatever, but to her, it is the biggest moment of her life and has this incredible weight and tension behind it. We wanted to make sure we honored the bigness of those moments.