But I found this new version of The Gambler, sharply written by William Monahan (based on James Toback’s original 1974 script) and vividly directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) absolutely riveting, more due to the script’s intelligence than its gambling scenes. (The film spends almost as much time in the classroom as it does at the gaming tables.)
Wahlberg, who produced the film, is in the James Caan role as Jim Bennett, a burned-out, self-loathing college English professor who spends every spare moment and dime gambling on cards, sports, roulette wheels, you name it.
Naturally, as in the original film, his self-destructive drive lands Bennett in deep financial trouble with various underworld figures, including Michael K. Williams and John Goodman (both brilliant), which in turns further strains his already chilly relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange). Along the way down, Bennett also inadvertently stumbles into a possibly redemptive relationship with a student (the always excellent Brie Larson).
I hope to write further at length about The Gambler in the near future, but for now let me say that even though the film is getting hammered by critics and ignored at the box-office, for whatever it’s worth, I personally loved the film a lot–it’s one of my favorites of 2014.
I sat down with The Gambler‘s Rupert Wyatt in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about what he as a director brings to a “for hire” project like this; how the remake is fundamentally different from the 1974 original; and how you make and sell smart, challenging films in the current Film Industry climate.
The Gambler is playing now in theaters everywhere.
I have to tell you, when we had a morning screening a few weeks ago, I almost blew it off. I was busy, it was an inconvenient time, and honestly I felt like I knew what the film was going to be and wasn’t that interested.
But I went and came out of the screening electrified by how much I loved it.
Rupert Wyatt: It’s a different film. It’s interesting the way people’s preconceptions of what this movie is are different from what the movie really is.
How did you get involved in the project?
Wyatt: I was working on my own thing—coming off Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was focused very much on my own work, something I’m going back to right now. It was taking longer than I hoped to get up and running, but I’d heard about this script, heard about how good it was. I live in LA, so I’m kind of in the belly of the beast—when scripts go around town and to agencies, you get a notion of what’s good or not.
This project kept coming up, and then I heard Mark was involved and wanted me to read it. He’s an actor I’ve always respected and found really intriguing, because he’s obviously a movie star, but there’s something about him I find quite alluring because he’s a very still actor. Some people read him as understated, but I love that—I think he’s like a Spencer Tracy or even Brian Cox who I worked with on The Escapist, where they really underplay things very well, but you’re still drawn to them.
So I eventually read the script and fell in love with it because it was something I could see. There were other projects I’d read that I liked the idea of and what I could do with them, but I wanted to rebuild them. But that’s hard in the case of this and those projects, where they’ve already been originated. So it’s a different aspect of one’s career. As a filmmaker, I love building things from the ground up, but on this film and Apes, I came on and worked basically as a tailor—you put your stamp on it, but it’s already been built.
Wyatt: It’s all about the transition to the screen. In this case, I wanted to do very little in terms of what was on the page with the characters and character interactions. But we did make changes with situations and physical circumstances.
For example, John Goodman’s character Frank was to first meet Mark’s character Jim at Dan Tana’s, a well-known LA restaurant. I understood what Bill was doing there, because it represented to a certain extent who he perceived Frank to be, the particular kind of old-school person who goes to Dan Tana’s.
I thought it would be more interesting and subvert the essence of that character a bit more if I put him in a schvitz in a spa. And that might make Jim more uncomfortable—it’s hot and sweaty and he’s being grilled. As a filmmaker to come in and make those changes, it’s always a very intrinsic thing to directing. But you’re still coming in and taking something that preexists and making the transition, rather than me sitting in front of blank page saying, “Okay, I’m going to put this in a Russian spa.”
The film is very stylish, but unlike so many over-styled films these days, I felt the stylism really worked to enhance the story. I also noticed how much architecture figures into the film visually.
Wyatt: It’s interesting you picked up on that, because I love LA for its diversity. I made a rule with Greig Fraser, our director of photography, that if we had a palm tree in the shot we’d move the camera. Because I just didn’t want the preconception of what Los Angeles can be, but instead seek out the more interesting parts of it.
I like to tell stories that are as inherently visual as possible, especially with a script like this that is so dense and verbose. To put Jim, who’s at a really, really tenuous place in his life, in a house that is literally on sticks, so there’s a danger of his world crumbling around at any moment, I think that is as much a part of storytelling as the language that comes out of his mouth.
Wyatt: There was no trepidation in that I knew very early on from reading the script that this was not going to be treading the same ground as the original—if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. For me the point of remakes is coming at things from a fresh angle. The fundamental difference between the two movies is that the original Karel Reisz movie is a study in addiction, born of Toback’s own experiences.
This one is much more of a quest—a guy who’s looking to get out and is using gambling as a means to escape. It’s not about a guy who’s circling the drain and unable to escape his demise. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story of addiction in a way that other filmmakers or storytellers perhaps could have because I don’t have that personal experience.
To me, your film didn’t read as a cautionary tale about addiction but rather it’s about a process of self-destruction—Jim lets fortune decide his fate, taking all responsibility off him—the universe decides whether he lives or dies.
Wyatt: There is the great myth of the samurai where the samurai chooses the place of his own death. There’s conformity to that in that it affords the samurai a certain element of control even though it means self-destruction. There’s a great book, The Dice Man [1971, by George Cockcroft writing as Luke Rhinehart]–it’d make an amazing film—about a guy who lives his life by the role of the dice. If he rolls a two, he’ll make himself a cup of coffee—if he rolls a six, he’ll go downstairs and kill the gardener.
It takes all elements of free-will out of the equation. That to me was Mark’s character—a guy who says, “I’m going to bet my life, because all these things I have, that people aspire to have, they don’t make me happy, so I’m going to blow it all up, put it all on black. And I might die in the process, but hopefully it will be my escape valve and afford me a better life.” That to me is quite an aspirational story, even though it seems an odd thing to say. It’s a guy who’s looking for his own freedom.
Wyatt: Get Mark Wahlberg to be in it. That’s a glib answer, but I think in this day and age, especially with the new studio world, we are an exception to the rule. It’s a sad indictment on how mainstream movie-making is going, and why we’re seeing this amazing migration toward long-form television, which I think is the breeding ground of really, really interesting storytelling. It’s kind of where the novel was a century ago. Great cable TV like Deadwood or The Wire; that platform is allowing filmmakers to do things that were happening in the ‘70s in American cinema.
Whereas modern Hollywood is finding itself in this amazing crosswords where the firework displays of big tent-pole movies are now the majority, and there will be tipping point, a moment where people just turn away. There are still great films being made, they’re just being made out of the mainstream.
In some ways, what’s been afforded me with the rare opportunity to make this movie, to make a challenging film in the mainstream, is a testament to Paramount and Mark as a movie star who’s prepared to take his value and put it into something that is a tough sell. It isn’t necessarily what mainstream audiences are searching out, but hopefully we’re a breath of fresh air.