Gambling addiction pays off in 'Even Money'

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Multi-story movie: Telling a story on film is hard enough, but weaving multiple stories into one movie is truly challenging.

Directed by Rydell, "Money" is produced by Bob Yari, Danny DeVito, David S. Greathouse and Rydell and executive produced by Jan Korbelin, Marina Grasic, Thomas Becker and Dennis Brown. It was written by Robert Tannen and is his first produced script. Starring are Kim Basinger, Nick Cannon, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammer, Carla Gugino, Ray Liotta, Jay Mohr, Tim Roth, Grant Sullivan and Forest Whitaker.

In "Money" Rydell focuses on a number of characters who are all compulsive gamblers paying a heavy price for their addiction. Basinger plays a novelist who's out feeding slot machines when she's supposed to be busy writing nights at a nearby Starbucks. As a result, she's lost her family's savings and put her marriage on the rocks. Whitaker's character is deeply in debt to his bookie. Facing threats on his life, he pressures his younger brother, a rising basketball star, to generate the point spread he needs in order to win. DeVito plays a has-been magician dreaming of making a comeback despite the overwhelming odds against it. Rydell intertwines their stories and others along the way and by the film's conclusion we see how things fall into place.

After enjoying a look at "Money," I was happy to be able to focus on how it reached the screen with Rydell, whose many directing credits include "The Rose," for which Bette Midler received a best actress Oscar nomination, and "On Golden Pond," a best picture Oscar nominee that brought Rydell a best directing nod, best actor and actress wins to Henry Fonda and Katherine Heburn and a best adapted screenplay win to Ernest Thompson.

"You know, to be a director who needs to make pictures that mean something to him requires a kind of -- I guess you have to be a lunatic," Rydell told me. "You have to be a persistent crazed person who will not be deterred. I think back on the movies that I've made, including this last one, and I've had to beg. I mean, I begged to make 'On Golden Pond' and that's, what, 24 years ago. I had to beg on my hands and knees to get that movie made. I literally got down (and begged). That's how desperate (I was). You have to be committed and determined in a way that's obsessive and (be a) lunatic because you can't push down those walls of corporate resistance.

"With 'On Golden Pond' they said, 'Who wants to make a picture about death? Katherine Hepburn hasn't had a hit in 20 years. Henry Fonda hasn't had a hit in 10.' Jane (Fonda) was at that time at the peak of her power -- and I had to beg! Well, the same thing is true on 'Even Money.' It just was determination. I just wore them down. Finally Yari said to me, 'Well, if you get Kim Basinger we'll give you a green light.' So I proceeded to go through the channels that were necessary at CAA and so on and so forth. They liked the part and they showed it to her and like most actors who are serious, a good part comes along and they're willing to do it. She did it for a tenth of her price. And then I got her and said, 'OK, do I have a green light?' (and they asked) 'Well, who do you want for the (key male role of the) magician?' I said, 'Well, I'd like Danny DeVito. So they said, 'Well, you get him and you'll get a green light.'"

Those conversations went on, he noted, "until I had everybody of meaning. You know, you just have to seduce them and beg. It was easier with this because the acting parts are all so wonderful. An actor recognizes that. And I do have, thank God, a reputation for being an actor's director, as the result of my training. I'm the executive director and artistic director of the Actor's Studio West Coast (and have) been involved in that aspect (of acting for years)."

This was about two years ago. "I had the screenplay by Robert Tannen," he explained. "This is a first-time screenwriter. (It came to me) through my agency. At that time, it was ICM. They didn't have confidence (and) thought I'd never get it on. But they sent it to me because Tannen thought that I had the right temperament to do the material. So it came to me and I fell in love with it. I thought, 'My God! This is an amazing first screenplay.' (It) owes its heritage in many ways to Altman in the sense that it's a lot of storylines dovetailing and certainly Altman is the master who began that kind of (storytelling and was) an old, old friend of mine. And I thought, 'This could be an Altman film.' He wouldn't make this kind of film, but he certainly knows how to dovetail stories. The structure is right out of Altman."

Asked if other distributors had passed on "Money" before Yari agreed to make it, Rydell replied, "Every studio passed on it. They didn't want to make pictures with human beings in them. I don't know how else to describe it. They literally do not want to make pictures about any relationships. The discovery of the children's audience, the 14-year-old audience, and the remarkable achievements in technology have created a market of dazzle. And that's the pursuit (for Hollywood these days)."

Explaining how moviemaking has changed over the years, Rydell said, "One of my sons -- his name is Alexander -- is a really brilliant director who's at Emerson College. He's done two films that are 10 minutes long that will have you sobbing. That's how good he is. He's really talented. He writes. He directs. And he's brilliant. He's so sophisticated visually. (With) all those commercials, which are so brilliant, and the music videos, which are occasionally remarkably dazzling cinematically, those people don't know how to tell a story more than 15 or 30 seconds long. But my son keeps telling me, 'Dad, you've got to be more daring visually. You've got to cut much more often than you do.'

"I cut the trailer (for 'Money'), which was a conventional trailer before. Now it's a trailer with 56 cuts every 30 seconds. That kind of style. If you go to the movies now and you watch a trailer you have no idea what the picture's about. It's amazing. The speed with which this generation embraces knowledge. I guess it's a result of TV and computers and the technological advancements. It has a terrific upside. These kids are so smart and so fast. But the downside is that they don't take any time to think or to really ruminate to arrive at some real emotional conclusions."

About a year ago, he added, "I went into my son's room before he went off to college. I walked in and he had earphones on, he was at his computer, the TV was on, music was playing in the earphones and I said, 'I'd like to talk to you.' And he lifted one earphone and said, 'Yeah?' And I said, 'Wait a minute. Can we get this stuff over so we can have a real chat?'

"I have the greatest admiration for the remarkable (technological) advancements (but) it's not of interest to me. I'm ashamed to admit it. You know, you watch (today's movies) and they're all brilliant within their own sphere and they're going to make hundreds of millions of dollars. How do we compete in that market when the studios are all corporate (owned and run) and as Jerry (Seinfeld) says (about making movies), 'It's not their field.'"

Focusing on how he approached making a multi-story movie, Rydell said, "One of the advantages of having a multi-story film is to get these actors because I don't need them for more than three or four weeks apiece. I can shoot their stories (very quickly) and it's a matter of editing and dovetailing in a way (that works). The challenge is that since you are beginning a story and you have to jump to another story, how do you make that happen so that the audience is not angry with you for having 'movie interruptus?' How do you lubricate that transition so that you are so pleased with where you're going that you're not angry about what you've left? It becomes an editorial challenge and I think we solved it.

"You make sure that where you're going has immediate interest so that the momentary disappointment that people feel for being interrupted is solved by the pleasure they're getting from something that they're going to. There has to be something in the early section of what you're doing that is attractive and captures their attention. Otherwise, they resent you for causing them a problem. There's automatic built-in resentment that happens anyway and you just have to take a chance. You have to say, 'Well, they paid their $7.50 or whatever they pay to go to a movie these days. They're not going to walk out. If I can hold onto them for 20 minutes, I will have introduced all the stories and they will begin to see what's going on.'"

Does he like to rehearse with his actors? "I'm a major rehearser," Rydell said. "In every picture I ever make I always have a problem with the studio or the financiers because I say, 'I want the actors for two weeks (of rehearsal).' They say, 'What do you mean? We have to pay them.' I say, 'Well, that's it. I tell you what you do. What do we have -- a 50 day schedule? With two weeks of rehearsal I can make that 50 day schedule. Without the rehearsal, it will be 70 days because I'll have to rehearse on the set.' And that kind of alarms them. My method -- because I have real respect for actors and really have admiration for them because I find it to be a very courageous profession -- is that I sit them down at a table and for two weeks we read. We work on the values of the material. We examine the character ideas so that everybody knows where we're going and what we're doing. I have the cameraman there. People who are critical (to making the movie) are often present so they can begin to see where we're going.

"What is a director like? A director's like a guy with a high-powered rifle and a telescopic sight and one bullet shooting at a one-inch bull's-eye a mile away. A producer is a guy with 10 scripts. He throws them up in the air and hopes that one hits and he can make it. But a director has to be a kind of obsessive fanatic. The trick is to make the team work. Everything kind of agitates from the essence. They all pick up from the director where we're going. You include them on this trip and you make them want to go on the trip. And you do that with every member of the crew actually so that they enjoy the journey. They look forward to coming to work the next day because they know we're achieving something, we're on the way to some goal on set for them. I like to keep my ears open because you never know. You can get a great idea from the craft services guy -- if you listen."

Asked if he storyboards his films, Rydell told me, "The only time I storyboard is if there's a very complicated action sequence where everybody has to know what the next shot is because there's a lot of complex (action).You have to storyboard that so everybody knows what's next and they can get ready for it. But in dramas where the essential crisis comes out of character abrasion, the abrasion between people, you explore that in rehearsals. And then when you get on the set -- at least, when I get on the set -- I bring the actors on the set and I'll have the cameraman beside me and we'll explore the scene. (I'll) leave everybody out off stage until the actors have found where the scene goes so there are no false moves that are often dictated by two actors before they're even ready to motivate that kind of a move. So I let the thing grow.

"You know, a picture is a living thing. It changes every day and you have to be prepared so you know clearly what the scene is about and what you're after. But you have to be elastic because actors who are talented will bring something in and all of a sudden something you hadn't anticipated will happen and you have to be elastic enough to adjust to change the staging and to make it more intimate here because they feel something very intimate where you hadn't anticipated such a thing. That's why I find rehearsal very, very important."

Rydell likes to explore with the cameras rolling, he explained, because, "A good take is a good rehearsal in front of the camera. The fact is, I often tell the actors when we start to shoot, 'Let's rehearse one on film' so they feel the pressure is off. There's also nothing more alerting to actors and crew (than) to print the first take. You print the first take and they go, 'Oh my God! We better be ready. He's going to print the first take.' You know, I keep the actors off the set until the last possible moment because I want them to be dying to do it. I don't want them to feel labored. I want them to come on with enthusiasm. I tell the crew, 'You get ready. When you're ready I'll call the actors out. But don't let (anything) happen while we're shooting because if I've gotten everything ready and the crew is rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed so they know the exact moves, I don't like them to make mistakes when we're shooting. So I get them ready. And by this time the actors are dying to come on and do the scene. They can't wait."

With "Money," while it appears that filming took place in Las Vegas that wasn't the case. "We shot everything here (in L.A.)," he said. "I wanted to shoot it in Atlantic City where it was written for, but economics forced us to use New Orleans because they had such tax advantages there. But then Katrina hit. So I said, 'Let's shoot it here and make it anywhere U.S.A. Let's never identify where we are.' You know, it's a street, it's a corridor, it's a room in a house, but you never really see anything.

"The only time you ever see a palm tree, for example, is at the end of the picture when ostensibly you see me (playing a brief but key role) in the Caribbean. It was Palos Verdes. So we shot it all here. The casino was built in the Ambassador Hotel (before it was torn down). It was perfect. We brought in tons of (slot) machines and (gaming) tables and extras and before you knew it we had a casino."

As for the biggest challenges he faced during production, Rydell pointed out, "It's always the deepest moments that are the hardest to achieve -- (such as) Kim's confession to her husband that she's a gambling addict. Those are the moments that you have to prime an actor for. You have to catch lightning in a bottle (with) deep emotional moments. I do the same thing when I cast. In casting you make a list of actors who might be right for the role and then you say, 'Which actor is equipped to do the deepest moment required in the material?' and that's the actor you select -- someone who is capable of handling the most profound and most difficult moments in the material because if they can do that, they can do the rest."

Looking back at production Rydell said there really weren't any moments when he was ready to jump off the proverbial bridge: "It's shameful to admit this, but I have such a good time making a picture. It's the highlight of my life. I can think of nothing more pleasurable except, perhaps, for the obvious! But I really love it because I feel very comfortable in the role of leader and the paternal kind of father figure. An actor essentially has to stay in touch with the child in himself. He has to be able to say, 'Let's pretend. You be this. I'll be that.' He has to be willing to surrender to fantasy. A director, on the other hand, is more of a paternal figure, a nurturer, someone who creates an atmosphere in which people can flourish and where you encourage everybody to flourish, where you demonstrate your respect for their participation so that they're eager to give you their best. It's a rather nutritious role."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 14, 1989's column: "With three weekends of the summer of '89 already history, it appears that Hollywood is well on its way toward setting new boxoffice records.

"For the first three weekends of this summer, key films -- those doing $500,000 or more over the weekend -- grossed $177.6 million, up 14.5% from $155.1 million last summer. Paramount's 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' and 'Star Trek V,' of course, were the major contributors to that strong showing, but it also reflects good business by 'Dead Poets Society' (Buena Vista/Touchstone), 'See No Evil, Hear No Evil' (Tri-Star),
'Field of Dreams' (Universal), 'No Holds Barred' (New Line Cinema) and 'Road House' (MGM/UA).

"Projections for a record-breaking summer make sense when you consider the likely strength of the product yet to arrive in the marketplace. Both Columbia's 'Ghostbusters II,' which opens Friday, and Warner Bros.' 'Batman,' opening June 23, loom as likely blockbusters.

"Both 'Batman' and 'Ghostbusters' looked very commercial to me when I saw them recently. Although 'Batman' is an original, it's arriving with very high awareness and should play to a broad audience. Thanks to the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, 'Batman' will have immediate adult interest (over 25 years of age) something blockbusters usually don't get until they've been playing for a while. Will it also play young? Talking to my 12-year old-son, Geoffrey, who's already planning to see it again, and some of his friends leaves no doubt that there's keen interest in it among youngsters, many of whom are avid readers, traders and collectors of 'Batman' comic books.

"'Ghostbusters II' should also reach a broad audience. The young moviegoers who made the first one a blockbuster in 1984 are now five years older. Kids who were 10 when the first one opened have grown up watching its spin-off cartoon series on TV and will now be buying tickets to the sequel.

"With 'Ghostbusters II' arriving in over 2,200 screens Friday, this weekend could see something rare in boxoffice history -- three films grossing over $10 million apiece. Distribution sources anticipate that 'Ghostbusters II' will do well over $10 million. Based on last weekend's grosses, 'Star Trek V' can drop as much as 42.5% and still do over $10 million; and 'Indy 3' can fall as much as 37.5% and still top $10 million..."

Update: The summer of '89 was a great season for Hollywood. "Ghostbusters II" opened June 16, 1989 to $29.5 million at 2,410 theaters ($12,229 per theater). There was, however, no $10 million-plus triple play that weekend. While "Indy 3" fell only 27% and grossed $11.7 million, "Star Trek V" took a 59% tumble and did only $7.1 million. "Dead Poets Society" placed third with $9.1 million, a 21% jump but not enough to crack $10 million. "Ghostbusters II" went on to gross $112.5 million domestically, making it 1989's seventh biggest film. "Batman" arrived June 23 to $40.5 million at 2,194 theaters ($18,454 per theater) and did $251.2 million domestically, ranking first for the year.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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