When the trailer for Crypto, a new film starring Kurt Russell, came out in March, the internet tore it apart. “Kurt Russell’s New Crypto Thriller Will Probably Be Bad, and Not in a Good Way,” opined BREAKERMAG’s own David Z. Morris, while Motherboard’s Jordan Pearson offered an only slightly more sanguine take: “Kurt Russell’s New Bitcoin Crime Movie ‘Crypto’ Looks So Awful I Must See It.” Meanwhile, Slate’s Tamara Evdokimova snarked, “Perhaps the greatest highlight of the trailer involves [lead actor Beau] Knapp hacking the villains’ computer to discover neatly organized folders labeled ‘Bitcoin payouts,’ ‘Feeding information,’ and ‘Kickbacks.'”
To that last point: It turns out the trailer is confusing. Those folders were not created by some idiotic, overly obvious bad guys, but by one of the film’s heroes, who’s documenting the cyber crimes at the heart of the movie. “People were splitting hairs over the marketing materials of a thing and trying to reverse engineer what the meaning was behind it,” Crypto director John Stalberg Jr. tells BREAKERMAG. “But they didn’t have the right data set to get to that conclusion.”
Stalberg’s message to the haters is simple: “Watch the film.” Everyone will get their chance to see Crypto tomorrow, when it’s released in select theaters and on demand.
How much did you know about cryptocurrency going into making this movie?
I was a little bit interested, to the point where I was reading some articles. The day before they sent me the script—I had no idea it was coming—I was reading these articles about the Winklevoss twins, and how they had become crypto billionaires, and the fact that in about one day both brothers had lost $700 million. I was so staggered by that number and that entire concept of becoming a billionaire with cryptocurrency one day and losing $700 million the next. I jotted down the word “crypto.” It evoked cryptography and World War II and code-breaking. And then I started reading about blockchain technology.
And then just coincidentally—it was complete kismet—they sent me the script. It wasn’t titled Crypto. Originally it was called The Return. And my first reaction was, “Why don’t we call it Paint Drying?” Because The Return sounds like a very boring title. Although Kurt Russell disagrees with me; he thinks The Return’s a better title. And maybe it is, I don’t know. I said, “Does some of the stuff in the film involve cryptocurrency?” They said, “Yeah, it does,” and I said, “Why don’t you guys call it Crypto?” and they liked it.
Then I read the script, and I said, “Actually, this word is appropriate, just in terms of the metaphor for what is going on in the story.” The central character, he’s lost in this kind of mystery. He’s trying to solve the puzzle of this world that he gets inserted into, and also himself. He has to figure out who he is and how he fits in with his family.
Did you do further research after that initial burst?
David Frigerio, a producer and a writer of the film, built his own mining machines. He’s really deep into that world, and a lot of his friends are, so I was hanging out with them. And they were showing me the mining machines and how they operated. They explained blockchain. And then they helped me open up a Coinbase account, and I had a crypto wallet. I was getting into it for a little bit, as I was doing preproduction. I was really obsessed with the notion of the blockchain and that it’s trustless. The ledger essentially verifies all these transactions, and you never have to look somebody in the eye, you never have to gauge if they’re trustworthy or not, shake their hand. I was like, “Wow, that’s an incredible contrast to the small town, Old World way.”
There’s a bit of a bitcoin rally starting now. Does it feel good to be releasing the film as that’s happening?
Yeah, it feels like it’s in the news cycle again. People are talking about it. There was a pretty long bear market stretch. It’s an interesting cosmic coincidence that our movie’s coming out on Friday, and people who were holding cryptocurrencies the entire wave are feeling good. They’re feeling like they’re holding something that’s valuable.
It’s like John McAfee—I don’t know if you follow him. But he tweeted the trailer for Crypto. And he said, “Guys, this is going to be good for the space.” Because it’s this idea of it going mainstream. There was this debate, where I saw people online saying, “This is good regardless of what it is. All ink is good ink.” And other people were saying, “No, it’s being portrayed in a negative light. This is bad.” And all of a sudden, the week of the release, the markets are up. So McAfee seems to have been either prescient, right, or lucky.
He’s probably a combination of all three. When the movie’s trailer came out, there was a lot of skepticism in the crypto community, including on the part of one of our own writers. What do you say to the skeptics?
I say, “Reserve judgment. Watch the movie.” Anybody who understands movies knows that trailers are commercials. They’re literally the equivalent of a car commercial selling a car. People were so painstakingly stripping apart, frame-by-frame, every aspect of the trailer. The marketing department out in England did a really good job cutting a trailer to make it seem exciting and whatnot. They’re taking things completely out of context, and shifting things all around to seem snappy.
"People were saying, 'Well, what about this one freeze-frame [in the trailer], where there's a "Kickbacks" folder, and this and that?' And they were completely taking it out of context."
People were saying, “Well, what about this one freeze-frame here, where there’s a ‘Kickbacks’ folder, and this and that?” And they were completely taking it out of context. That’s not the bad guys’ folder. People were splitting hairs over the marketing materials of a thing and trying to reverse engineer what the meaning was behind it. But they didn’t have the right data set to to get to that conclusion. So I would say to the guy, whoever it was over there, and others who are skeptics, “Watch the film.”
Jeremie Harris, who’s a Juilliard-trained actor, plays this character Earl in upstate New York who mines crypto in this liquor store in his cold storage [backroom]. He’s a massive proponent, and he’s one of the heroes of the movie. In fact, that kickbacks folder, that’s his folder where he’s been taking all this information in. He was really written as an extension of David Frigerio; he put himself into this character. And you’ll see, this guy’s one of the heroes of the movie.
Once the movie comes out, do you think that you’re going to win over the crypto community? They can be a little surly.
[Laughs.] No, I can’t make that promise. I can’t say I’m going to win them over. Because the degree to which they were splitting hairs with the trailer, it was honestly like—in the movie we talk about this—”weaponized autism.” And I get that. But what they don’t understand, and maybe they never will, is the heroes in the movie represent them. I think, if they see it that way, these people will will change their tune. I do.
Were any of the stars of the movie into crypto? Like, is Kurt Russell a bitcoin guy?
He’s not. He grows wine grapes, he makes wine. And [his character, a potato farmer] represented the other world. The future is cryptocurrency, and the past is sort of “look the guy in the eye,” you’re growing stuff in the earth, and you rely on the stuff you can see and you can feel. Kurt was sort of perfect for that.
Did you have any crypto advisers on the film or was that all David?
It was it was a pretty much all David. David worked with the art department to build the mining machines. When it came time to do the FBI stuff and handling weapons and all that, we brought in an FBI specialist, but otherwise, David was the guy.
How do you think this will go over with the general audience? Crypto scares some people.
That’s good. Most of the time in movies, they say, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy.” I think the best way to enjoy this movie, honestly, is in the very comfortable environment of your home or a safe movie theater, where you can project all of your fears and anxieties about the financial world and the world at large onto the screen. Sit forward, put your thinking cap on, and enjoy it that way. So if it scares some people, I think that’s good. Because the film is supposed to be an intense, anxiety-filled experience, in a cathartic way.
Was there anything else you want to add about the film or cryptocurrency?
I wanted to make the audience for this people who appreciated cinema and to use the notion of cryptocurrency as a story thread and also a theme and a metaphor. I wanted to have a high degree of verisimilitude within the space. Like I always do. I figured out how potato farmers potato farm, you know? You don’t want to just bullshit it. You want it to be real and cinematic and interesting.
I realized we were going to have this audience that has a lot of skin in the game. These are people invested in the space, and I won’t be coming in and just taking a giant shit on it. I have to do my homework, I have to make this hold water for these people. And now they’re all debating this notion of “Is this good? Is this bad?” If you want to be part of the debate, you have to watch the movie. You can’t really have an opinion on it without watching it. I feel like a lot of these people are going to be pleasantly surprised when they do.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photos courtesy of Lionsgate.