In the pilot episode of “Bulge Bracket,” a short-series dramedy available on Amazon Prime, the protagonist, Cathy, is fresh out of business school and excited to start her new job as an associate at a prestigious investment bank.
She quickly realizes, however, that her new banking job isn’t your typical Silicon Valley gig with free breakfast and company retreats, but rather, a male-dominated and frat house-like environment where the new are disposable, the old are volatile, and the hours are excruciating.
“Bulge Bracket” is the brainchild of filmmaker Chris Au. But the six-episode long story is inspired by the real-life experiences of his wife, Cindy, a Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business MBA graduate, who worked at the investment bank Credit Suisse in 2009.
The show follows its protagonist, Cathy, as she navigates the journey of discovering her true calling amidst a toxic work environment and a singular, yet dynamic cohort of characters.
“What I’m exploring [through the show] is people and our relationship to work,” Chris says. “In this pandemic, a lot of people are working from home and there’s a more difficult separation from work life and home life because it’s all in the same place now. I think that work can be fulfilling, but at the same time I think that there’s a tendency in our culture to let work take over our lives. What I want people to think about in their own lives is: what’s important to you?”
SCRIPT INSPIRED BY BANKING CULTURE OF ‘CASUAL BRUTALITY’
The title, Bulge Bracket, refers to the phrase that is commonly used to describe the world’s most profitable multi-national investment banks. But it also alludes to a darker sentiment around the toxic machismo work culture that has come to haunt the industry and many others.
“It was a more common phrase maybe ten years ago back when I first started writing the script,” Chris says. “But I think I still like the title because it sounds kind of masculine and gross. And that’s part of what we’re trying to convey in the story with a woman entering this macho environment.”
Chris originally began writing the script for Bulge Bracket back in 2011. He says the idea came to him to create a TV series after hearing about Cindy’s absurd work stories.
“She was working 100 hours a week,” Chris recalls. “We were living together, but I never saw her. The one time of the week we got to catch up was Saturdays when she’d tell me about her week and all these crazy characters at work.”
Cindy describes the banking culture as “casual brutality.” Brutal in the sense that it’s filled with toxic aggression and long hours. Casual in the sense that it’s normalized.
“There’s this tacit acceptance that this is just how things are and that it’s normal for managing directors and directors to yell, scream, and cuss at people at any given time,” Cindy says. “It’s normal. It’s casual. But it’s brutal at the same time.”
While toxic, there can be a comedic element to this banking world if told correctly on screen. Chris began taking Cindy’s stories and turning them into episodes for Bulge Bracket.
Bulge Bracket almost didn’t even make it to the screens. Chris recalls “life things” taking over, from building his career as Head of Business Development at AOL (now Verizon Media) to becoming a father. The script sat on his hard drive, untouched, for nearly six years.
RISE OF #METOO MOVEMENT LEADS TO FINALIZING OF SHOW
But from 2017 to 2018, the world changed. It was a slight change, but one that sparked something that can still be felt today. A mass of sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced in early October 2017 setting off a wildfire of #MeToo statements that highlighted what largely went swept under the rug for years. (In episode 5 of the show, Cathy experiences her own version of #MeToo.)
Within those two years, Hollywood also began seeing the growth in popularity around TV shows and blockbuster films telling minority stories and featuring predominantly people of color casts. Shows such as “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken” and films such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” all helped to spark a new chapter in Hollywood: one where Minorities could finally get a voice at the table.
“All of a sudden Hollywood is realizing that audiences really like these stories that focus on Black and Asian protagonists,” Chris says. “Those films really opened the door for me to even make Bulge Bracket. Without something like Crazy Rich Asians, I wouldn’t have been able to even necessarily get funding for my show.”
Chris, who at the time was working at AOL, decided to go all-in on bringing Bulge Bracket to life. He quit his full-time job, dusted off his script, and got to work.
TACKLING TOXIC MASCULINITY AND RACISM
Bulge Bracket explores these issues through characters like Cathy, the protagonist, and Bolo, an Asian-American managing director.
Cathy, as an Asian-American female, is outnumbered by the male-dominated work environment at Boldwyn Brothers, the fictitious firm in which she works. For her, the lack of female mentors is a challenge she is forced to overcome if she hopes to make it in her job.
Cindy says this challenge is something that’s unfortunately very commonplace, especially in the world of banking. She recalls her own firm launching a female mentorship program during her tenure where female juniors were assigned mentors to help them grow their careers. Rather than pair her with a female mentor, however, Cindy was instead assigned a gay man.
“It’s so much harder when you don’t see someone that looks like you higher up,” she says. “Because it makes you question: Is this a place where I fit in? Is this a place where I feel I can be successful or thrive?”
This idea of inclusion is something that Cindy describes as being an outsider versus an insider. In Bulge Bracket, the leaders and executives yell and scream. They are overwhelmingly white and male. And they love golf. As a result, they’ve created this insider club where if you don’t check off those traits, you probably don’t belong.
The concept is explored heavily through the character Bolo, who is one of the only Asian-Americans to hold a leadership position as managing director. On the surface, Bolo looks the part of the insider club: he’s capricious, brash, and aggressive as a leader. He also loves golf. But take a deeper look and you realize that Bolo has adapted to the environment around him and taken on certain personas in order to get to where he’s at. At his core, however, Bolo is still Asian-American. And he’s experienced everything that comes with that existence.
“It’s been a hard road for Bolo to even get to where he’s at,” Chris explains. “He encounters racism in his journey and he’s there trying to change the culture where he is and he’s helping to bring up these junior bankers, analysts, associates who are people of color too and ultimately help them.”
Cindy stresses the importance of having mentors and sponsors who understand your story and background. Being an Asian-American female, she oftentimes felt a cultural disconnect between her and those who managed her. And, more times than not, those who got promoted tended to fit the bill of the ‘insider club’— leaving those with contrasting cultures or backgrounds behind.
“If you don’t have leaders who understand that upbringing or that culture or executives that are sensitive to taking the time to understand that background, then you end up with just having this unconscious bias of promoting the people who look like you, talk like you, and have the same interests as you.”
Unconscious bias is a scary idea. Mostly because you often aren’t aware of its influence on your thoughts or actions until well after the damage has been done.
Cindy knows this firsthand. When she and Chris first thought of making Bulge Bracket, they both instinctively portrayed the protagonist as a White male, even though the show was based on the real-life experiences of Cindy, an Asian-American female.
“It was the sort of thing where because that’s what you typically see on screen, it becomes so ingrained in your mind that that’s what every show looks like. It didn’t even occur to me that it could be a show centering around me [as an Asian-American female],” Cindy says. “If you don’t have people that look like you on screen, you sometimes don’t even conceive of your own story as something that’s worthy to be told.”
Ultimately, Chris decided the protagonist should be an Asian-American female as it more closely aligned to Cindy’s actual experiences. He recalls showing Cindy a rough cut of the series for the first time. Tears fell down her eyes as she witnessed her story being told for the first time.
“She felt seen,” Chris says. “This was her life on screen. I think that is important: for people, in general, to feel like someone understands them.”
‘WHEN YOU’RE 36, YOU’LL HAVE SOME STORIES TO TELL’
Bulge Bracket explores a wide variety of themes from the importance of work-life balance to the challenges of being a minority in the workplace to the journey of finding your own calling.
Chris says he hopes the story will force viewers to ask themselves some tough questions about their own life.
“I want people to watch this and think: what are the things we sacrifice in our life for our work and what are the things that are important that might be outside of work,” Chris says.
A similar question was once posed to Chris over ten years ago. It was at an alumni networking event, where a 22-year old Chris met a professional screenwriter who offered him his two cents on building a career as a professional writer.
“What he told me was if you want to be a professional writer, you have to go and live a life and when you’re 36, you’ll have some stories to tell,” Chris recalls.
For Chris, filmmaking and storytelling were always dreams, as his day job consisted of dealing with business development and partnerships in media.
A lot has happened in life since Chris wrote the first draft script to Bulge Bracket back in 2011. He got his MBA, moved across the country, worked in corporate jobs, got married, and had kids. But those dreams of filmmaking never quite dissipated from Chris’s mind. If anything, life simply just had other things in store for him.
“I always remembered the words of that professional screenwriter and one day when I was thirty-six, I realized that guy was exactly right.”
Bulge Bracket is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.