Money and Power with ‘Industry’ Creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay

A lazy critique might dismiss Industry, the HBO banking drama that follows a group of recent graduates vying for a permanent position at a fictional London investment bank, as little more than a frothy romp through blooming adulthood in moneyed London. But here, sex, drugs, and partying serve a purpose: they reveal how the pursuit of money and power moulds young minds. The bank is a place where the thrill of playing God shapes the contours of capitalism.

Industry benefits from its perspicacious creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s experience on the trading floor. Ex-bankers themselves, the pair depict how the chaotic environment engenders tricky power dynamics between managers and juniors, men and women, rich and poor. This grounds the show’s more sensational elements. Under these conditions, who wouldn’t have a kinky workplace affair or stimulant-soaked night? When you’re 22 and working in the city, the world feels like a meritocracy. But in the City of London, success is a zero-sum game. Or maybe they’re two sides of the same coin.

Via Zoom from London, Down and Kay spoke to Sharp about Industry’s treatment of youth, the importance of its soundtrack, and why they chose to cast unknown actors in the show’s lead roles.

You were both bankers before pivoting into film and television. How much of the show is based off your personal experiences?

Mickey Down: We were trying to create the atmosphere of going into a job in finance for the first time and being really excited and energized by it. Having been chewed up and spat out by the industry, me and Konrad have very different feelings about the industry, and [about] our place in it, at the end of our short tenure than we did at the start.

Konrad Kay: And me and Mickey were basically like, “Let’s just make the most realistic banking drama; let’s just make it speak like bankers speak.” For our viewers, this is basically gobbledygook, technobabble. A lot of people from [the finance] world are being like, “It’s a pretty accurate representation of it.” But also, the average viewer won’t feel like they’re being spoken down to.

Lena Dunham, who directed the show’s pilot, said in an interview that she may not know anything about the finance world, but she knows these characters. I felt the same way. I don’t need to know how a trading floor works to enjoy the show.

MD: No, of course you don’t! The genesis of the show started with us writing a banking drama which was a lot more traditional, a lot more top-down, and realizing that the most interesting part of this world is the people at the bottom of it who you don’t necessarily see in these environments very much. Obviously, we think that finance is
a really interesting ecosystem. It deals with stuff in other offices, like microaggressions, gender politics, race relations. It felt like it was just a really good arena for drama. In the same way that a hospital is in a medical drama, except me and Konrad worked for a bank, so that’s what we’re going to put on the screen.

KK: We also wanted to do something that was fun and raw.

MD: Yeah, things that we wanted to watch.

KK: Yeah. Little things, like, the soundtrack is really good.

It’s so good.

KK: That happened by accident, though. That happened because we found Nathan [Micay, the show’s composer], but he had never scored anything for the screen before. And it was us basically saying, you know, take a chance on two young guys, take a chance on a young composer.
I want to touch on the soundtrack because, to me, it felt like such a crucial part of the show’s success.

KK: It was about capturing the ups and downs of trading, but also of youth. And it was about these extreme moments of joy and then — one of my friends described his sound as like euphoric sadness, which
I think is a really good [description]. Like, [artist] 070 Shake is euphoric sad or euphoric sexy–sad. It was like fucking while you’re crying, basically.

Speaking of euphoric sexy–sad, Rob and Yasmin’s relationship hinges on a very specific dynamic. How was that relationship conceived? How did you navigate the more extreme elements of their power play?

MD: For Yasmin, it’s all to do with power [and] with being totally powerless with work. She thinks that maybe she made a terrible mistake in getting into this industry. She has control wrested away from her every day [that] she’s on the trading floor, and the only way she has power at work is over this guy who she realizes puts her on a pedestal. They don’t even know each other very well. In fact, they literally don’t have a conversation the whole season. It’s all sex.

KK: They’re fucking 22-year-olds! The key to remember is — and it’s something we felt when we worked in the bank — you’re expected to be a fully formed person, to be an adult. My early twenties were far more of an identity crisis for me than my adolescence.

MD: There’s sort of a lazy criticism of the show: it’s the idea that these characters are all assholes. As Konrad said, these are 21-, 22-year-olds trying to figure themselves out. If this was a show set, you know, 10 years later, and all these characters are 31, then maybe the charge of being assholes would stick a bit more.

I want to go back to this idea of the need for characters to be “good” or to behave morally. Viewers and critics alike often claim that they want to see complex, nuanced characters, but then when they get it, they don’t want it.

MD: The thing that me and Konrad like most about the show is the polarization of opinion that it has created. Some people ask, “Is Harper a good person? Is Harper a bad person?” The idea that it sparks a debate is the thing that I love the most about the show.

KK: The show is a Rorschach test on two levels. First, on your own biases [and] your own way of seeing the world. Whether you empathize with Harper, whether you’re like, “I totally understand where she’s coming from,” and therefore, of course she would pick Eric. And then, what does that say about the culture, that she picks a man like that? But it’s also a Rorschach test of how much you’re willing to bring to it as the viewer. Yes, it’s this sexy, fun, pulpy, soapy, great-soundtracked show. And then, the fact that people who study that world say “Oh no, you have captured something that approaches the truth here” really gratifies us as well.

And finally, why did you decide to cast unknowns?

MD: We wanted them to look like kids. For Harper, Myha’la [Herrold], her performance is so effective because at once she can look incredibly young, and then in the next scene she’s a badass and she looks like she’s done this a million times. I think it speaks to that feeling you have at that age: one day you feel like, “Oh fuck, I’m a fully formed human being and I’m an adult,” and the next day you’re like, “God, I’m a child. Mum and dad, where are you?”