Film directors used to pull their villains, good guys and drama from bloody coups, historical battlefields and the fantasy worlds of comic books. But since the financial crisis, they’ve increasingly been turning to sinking banks, corrupt hedge funds and king-making stockholders. That’s the territory plowed by Costa-Gavras’ latest feature, Capital, which opened in the U.S. late last month. Costa-Gavras, whose 22 films include Z, an account of the 1967 overthrow of the Greek government that won an Oscar for best foreign language picture in 1969, says he looks for ways to address universal themes like law and justice, oppression, violence and torture. The Greek-French director’s 1982 Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, is about a U.S. journalist who disappeared in Chile after the country’s 1973 military coup.

Costa-Gavras, 80, became intrigued by the unwritten rules of international finance after reading French author Stéphane Osmont’s 2004 novel Le capital. His script for Capital, based on the book, centers on Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), the power-hungry CEO of France’s Phenix Bank, who finds himself in the middle of a dangerous battle among management, shareholders and a U.S. hedge fund.

Although Costa-Gavras may not succeed in making his point clear, the contrast he makes between French capitalism and the U.S. version is plain: The greedy French seem tempered by labor unions and family ties, while the Americans are unapologetic market cowboys. Senior Writer Julie Segal recently talked to the veteran director at the Mercer hotel in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.

Tell us what prompted you to make this movie.

I wanted to make a movie about money and how money affects a society and people. How it becomes a religion. Then I discovered this book by Osmont, who was a financier for years. Most of the book came from his own experience. But I knew I would change the ending, which punished its wrongdoers. This was during the period of the Lehman Brothers catastrophe, when so many people lost money and yet no one went to jail. So my movie couldn’t have that resolute ending. The other thing that motivated me is that during my research I met with bankers, many of whom I already knew and some whom I only recently met, and they all knew about the problems with finance and what solutions could be put in place. But all were practicing something different as business leaders. Their vision didn’t match how they actually operated.