In 'Grand' scheme of things we improvise


Improv interview: We all know that what actors say to each other in a film is carefully scripted and rehearsed, but now that's no longer something we can automatically count on.

Indeed, while watching Zak Penn's "The Grand" I'd never have guessed everyone was improvising their lines if I hadn't already been told they were. The mockumentary about a Las Vegas poker tournament, an Insomnia Media Group presentation in association with Eleven Eleven Films, opens via Anchor Bay Entertainment March 21 in New York and L.A. and expands two weeks later. Written by Penn and Matt Bierman, its screenplay was really just a detailed treatment from which the actors improvised. Moreover, the film's ending in which one of the players wins the high stakes poker event wasn't planned. The winner actually is the person who turned out to have the best hand in a game that was being played for real.

Produced by Penn and Gary Marcus and by Eleven Eleven's Bobby Schwartz and Ross Dinerstein and by Insomnia's Bret Saxon and Jeff Bowler, "The Grand" was executive produced by Matt Bierman. Starring are Woody Harrelson, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Cheryl Hines, Richard Kind and Chris Parnell as well as Ray Romano, Werner Herzog and Gabe Kaplan.

After enjoying an early look at "The Grand," I was happy to be able to focus with Penn on the making of his unique improv movie. "I really wanted to do another improvisational comedy," explained Penn, whose many writing credits include "X-Men: The Last Stand" (co-written with Simon Kinberg) and the upcoming "The Incredible Hulk" (co-written with Edward Norton). "I had done a movie called 'The Incident at Loch Ness' with Werner Herzog (Penn directed the 2004 film and co-wrote it with Herzog) and I really liked the improvisational style and what kind of movie resulted from it.

"A good friend of mine named Matt Bierman, who was a studio executive at the time, said to me, 'You know, you should do something about the World Series of Poker.' He kind of pitched me the story and I said, 'That's a pretty good idea because it's got built-in stakes and the setting is something I can use and the characters are pretty colorful.' We just wrote up an outline and then I went and put it together and did it. It was a pretty low budget so we didn't have to go through as many steps as you would normally."

When I told him I really didn't sense that "The Grand" was improv, Penn told me, "Well, that's a testimony to the actors because it's all improvised. Basically, I have an outline that describes who's in the scene and what's happening, but there's maybe four or five lines of dialogue in the movie that are scripted and the rest of it is just the actors figuring out the scenes themselves. The dialogue is spontaneous. A lot of the actors take their own notes. It's kind of every man for himself. It's almost like a group written thing. What's crazy about it, I know, is that it seems hard to believe that it's all improvised, but it really is."

So all that dialogue as they're sitting around the poker table really isn't scripted? "All improvised," he replied. "It seems crazy to tell you this, but there are times when we did three or four takes and that was all it took. With some of the more dramatic scenes, maybe we did up to 15 takes. We always shot with multiple cameras because if you get that one perfect take you want to have as much coverage as possible. If you take that dinner scene for example (he's talking about a very funny scene that shouldn't be spoiled by saying too much about it here), we set up two cameras. We have Ray Romano and Gabe Kaplan and David Cross and Cheryl Hines sitting around a table. I had an interview with them before and I explained what I wanted and then I gave them some menus and I said, 'Order some dinner.'

"And we turned the cameras on and let them run for 20 minutes and that dialogue you see in the film is what came out with them improv-ing and me kind of guiding them between takes, saying, OK, talk about that a little bit more. Try to say this line again -- or whatever.' That's kind of the way it works. You basically end up scripting the scene as you go as people fall into a rhythm. It's weird to watch because the first take can be absolutely horrible. You'll sit there and you'll say, 'What the hell is happening here?' And by the fourth take the actors have worked their way into a rhythm where they all kind of know each other's lines. It's like jazz. It really is like watching a group of (musicians jamming). Particularly when you get talented people like this, they really fall into it."

What was the script like? "I call it the 'scriptment' because it's part script and part treatment," Penn noted. "It started at about 25 pages and it was just a document that explained who the characters were and what the scenes were. And then as shooting goes on, it gets more specific in terms of locations and stuff, but it doesn't have much dialogue in it. There might be one or two lines -- like a punch line of a scene or whatever the transitional line (should be that) I'll have scripted so I know the actors will do it. But for the most part it's really a collaborative process between me and however many (actors) we had."

Casting the film, obviously, was challenging because everyone had to be able to improvise: "Absolutely. You know, a lot of people would come in talking about their ability to play poker or the fact that they couldn't play poker and I kept telling them, 'It doesn't matter. I care far more about how comfortable you are improvising your lines because anyone who's not is not (going to be right for this movie).' In fact, there were one or two actors I talked to who were just very blunt saying, 'I don't think I can improvise.' So that pretty much weeds people out pretty quickly -- although I'll tell you a lot of actors think they can. It's definitely an art and the people who are great at it get there much quicker than the people who (aren't naturally good at improvising). It takes them less takes to get there, but eventually a really good actor can figure it out and will find their own rhythm.

"So you have to cast (based) not only on their ability to improv, but how well they work with others becomes incredibly important. One of the things that's hard to explain to people is how you can tell by how much the actors are willing to promote the movie how good a time they had (making it) quite often. To me one of the biggest compliments I've gotten (and) one of the things that makes me feel good about this movie is to see how into (promoting) the movie the actors are. I think that's because we created a really fun environment for them where all these people who are used to getting paid millions and millions of dollars got a chance to kind of exercise their craft. And I think they appreciated it. Quite often I get complimented for something that someone else thought up in the movie. But creating that atmosphere was incredibly important and we tried really hard to do that."

I thought given the situation Penn may have arranged to shoot "The Grand" in sequence, but that wasn't the case and must have made it even harder for the actors, who had to remember where in the story they were. "You know, the script supervisor wanted to kill herself every day on this movie," he pointed out. "It's an incredibly complicated (story) to follow. We did shoot the final table (of the tournament) for real. Whoever won, won. We shot that with 10 cameras and we just kind of did it all in one four-hour long session, but everything else (was done out of sequence). There's no way to get all those actors into one movie without shuffling the schedule.

"Ray was only there for two days. We shot all of his scenes in two days. So it's a real beast! Gary Marcus, the producer and first AD, has an incredible list of (credits, including working as first AD on 'Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me' and 'The Wedding Planner'). Whenever people talk about the things that the public doesn't understand about films, one of them is how integral the first AD scheduling the day is to the success of a movie. This movie is like a feat of scheduling. It really was to get all those actors in and out in an improv movie. He did a great job."

As for rehearsing, Penn explained, "Not really. A few of them rehearsed a bit, but the way I do rehearsals on a movie like this is I have a sit-down interview. I say, 'Come in character. We'll put you in your costume and then we're just going to do an interview with you and you stay in character and we'll just talk through it all.' That seems to work pretty well. I've done that both times now and it seems to help people get in character to find the voice. But some of them found it as we went (along). I mean, there's a few scenes on the cutting room floor."

Shooting took place over a fast 21 days. "We shot it a year ago in July in Las Vegas," he said. "I took a long time to edit. One of the things about these (improv) movies is that because of the way you're shooting it the editing becomes (more important than ever). All the below the line people who don't normally get credit on a movie, their jobs become ten times more important -- like the script supervisor (Sharon Cingle). My editor, Abby Schwarzwalder ('Incident at Loch Ness'), was really like a third writer on the film. Because of the way it's got all these interviews and all these sequences that can be put anywhere we really tinkered with it to find the structure. It took us months and months of editing to get there."

"The Grand" premiered at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April 2007. "That was great," he recalled. "That was definitely one of the best experiences I've had as a filmmaker. It sold out all its shows and it really got a great response from the audience there so that was really exciting for me. I think Tribeca really pushed the sale of the movie (to Anchor Bay Entertainment). There's no question but that having 800 people see it in a sold-out theater helps a lot (to get a distributor excited). It was really great for me. I hope to go back there. I've got to find another movie to make, but when I do I'll want to go back there."

Looking back at production, Penn said, "We shot it at the Golden Nugget (in Vegas). The Golden Nugget stayed (as) itself. In the movie you can see that they're staying there. The Rabbit's Foot (the casino hotel in the movie that's in danger of being taken over because Woody Harrelson's character, One Eyed Jack Faro, has fallen behind on his payments) was shot at a number of different locations around town. We tried (to find) the shabbiest places we could. Our location scout (Lloyd Ellis) and our production designer (Stephen Frankel) really found some great spots -- like the office Jack works in is some real old Vegas office that we didn't even have to dress. It's just (the office of) some guy who knew everyone in Vegas back from the '50s."

When I asked about the biggest challenges during production that might have had him pulling his hair out, the very bald Penn laughed, "If I had any! I'm proud of my baldness. I mean, definitely the final (poker tournament) table was the most unusual thing I've ever done in a movie in that we played it for real. Basically, the idea was that whoever won, won. We set it up like we were shooting a live tournament. We brought a studio audience in. We had 10 cameras rolling and I just sat there watching all the screens hoping that it would be interesting. But, also, I had no idea which character was going to win and I was acutely aware of (which actors') schedules were easy to work with -- because, remember, we had to shoot different endings.

"We had to shoot 12 different endings. I basically told the actors, 'Here's the deal -- whoever wins at the final table, I'm going to change the ending to fit whatever happens.' So all the actors became incredibly competitive and they all started working on their poker and they had side bets. The experience (was great) shooting that final table where you're watching six actors in character clearly completely invested in what happens to them. The tension was so high at the table. Even people in the audience (were asking), 'Is this real or isn't it?' I said, 'No, it's not real -- but it feels real.' I have to tell you, there's an intangible quality (because of this)."

Had he scripted the film, Penn added, "I would not have had the end go the way it did. I say that in humility. I feel like I would have written a cheesier ending. If left to my own devices I would not have thought to end it (the way it does). I wouldn't have picked the person who won to win. That to me was one of the strangest experiences -- to sit there and feel like your characters have literally gotten up and walked away from you and are going to go do what they want to do and you have to follow whatever happens and hope that it works out. It was both thrilling and pretty scary. It was like this could come out so badly or it could really work. That was one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome."

Penn even thought about fixing the tournament's outcome: "I thought about setting the deck so that I could fix it in case it wasn't going well. I had a poker expert, Andy Newman, who's also in the movie (and) plays the dealer. He pointed out to me that the number of iterations of set decks that we would have to do to fix it (would be) not just for the six players but also for the six positions of the blind on the table, (which) literally meant we would need hundreds and hundreds of decks fixed in order to properly do it. So it became so complicated there was pretty much no choice but to let it go. That was kind of a weird and yet freeing experience.

"A lot of the movie kind of echoed that -- where it was like, 'I sure hope this works out' (and) just hoping that people will come through and do something good. It's kind of the difference between playing a team sport and an individual sport. When things worked out it was so much more satisfying because you feel like you truly are all creating it together as opposed to that kind of feeling that you sometimes get on a movie, which is, 'If I could just get these people to do what I want I'll get my dumb shot and we can move on.' I think that the strong feeling of community among the cast is part of it."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 28, 1990's column: "Although I welcomed the deals that saw Columbia and TriStar, MGM/UA and 20th Century Fox bought by foreign companies, I must confess to having mixed feelings about the Matsushita/MCA merger...

"All three companies were really in desperate shape when they changed hands. It seemed to me that Hollywood would be all the richer for seeing those studios reinvigorated even if that also meant seeing them pass to foreign owners. After all, the money foreign companies spend making movies is spent almost entirely in the United States and goes, essentially, to American filmmakers, actors and crews.

"What's different about the MCA/Matsushita deal is that MCA and its movie subsidiary, Universal Pictures, are very successful, well-managed operations. For years MCA has benefited from having great management stability. When there have been management changes -- such as Tom Pollock coming in three years ago as chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group -- the results have been very positive. Unlike Fox, Columbia/Tri-Star and MGM/UA in the past, a new and improved management certainly isn't needed at MCA or Universal...

"That Matsushita has 'deep pockets' isn't in question, but whether it will dig way down into those pockets for the cash MCA will need to compete in the new global movie business remains to be seen. Certainly, Matsushita showed little inclination to spend lavishly to achieve its takeover of MCA. That approach, of course, stands in contrast to Sony's willingness to pay 'passion money' just go get into Hollywood.

"No American companies, of course, opposed Matsushita's bid for MCA. Two who might have -- NBC's corporate parent General Electric and ABC's corporate parent Capital Cities -- were prevented from doing so by the FCC's financial interest and syndication rules. Those who don't want to see Hollywood's remaining American-owned studios slip into foreign hands would do well to lobby the FCC to overturn or, at least, amend those fin-syn restrictions."

Update: Matsushita's ownership of Universal didn't work out very well. Now, several owners later and after changes in the FCC's thinking, the studio is owned by GE through its NBC division.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel