After finding success with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, Rupert Wyatt has been busy trying to find his next project. After some searching through various scripts being tossed in his direction, he ran into The Gambler, a remake of a the 1974 film written by John Toback and directed by Karel Reisz. As he explained during our interview, this was a different path than he thought he’d be taking, but it was also a challenging one. Not only did find out about that, but I also got a chance to know about plenty of other things on his mind.
Movie Picture Show: What was your reasoning for remaking The Gambler?
Rupert Wyatt: When you build something “from the ground up,” it becomes a labor of love. Sometimes, it’s more of a challenge making your own work than sometimes taking something that pre-exists and has an actor like Mark (Wahlberg) attached. So, when I left (Rise of the Planet of the) Apes, my intention was to do something that I had been working on for ages – something I still hope to do. It just takes time. You gotta convince other people to come on board, you gotta get the money. It’s just a different process as a filmmaker. When you take something that’s more of a director for hire, the challenge is to put your stamp on it and do something different with it. And there are two equally valid things. There’s any number of great directors like Mike Nichols who did do that as a career as well as their own work. Then you have the total filmmaker driven Paul Thomas Anderson guys who are building things “from the ground up” – Chris Nolan. My intention after Apes was to do my own thing, it was just taking longer than I had hoped. I was getting to a place in my head where I’m going “I’m not going to get better at being a filmmaker if I don’t work.” So, I started to read other scripts and The Gambler came along, and I fell in love with it. And I never set out to remake the original. I knew from reading the script that Bill Monahan (writer of The Departed) had done something totally different. It’s not a story of addiction, it’s about a guy who uses gambling to escape his life.
How did Monahan approach the script of this version of The Gambler?
He completely reconfigured what it means to be a gambler. He doesn’t believe in gambling as an addiction; he doesn’t believe in that whole notion. He came at it from a totally different point of view which is I’m going to use gambling to tell this story of a guy who’s trying to change his life.
What views do you and Monahan have on remakes?
He and I talked earlier on about the whole idea of remakes. Neither of us are against them in any way provided you approach the subject from a different angle. To emulate the original would have been doing a disservice to myself and the original filmmakers. I don’t have James Toback’s personal experience within the gambling world or his experience as a teacher. He was telling the story of his own personal addiction, so I was not looking to emulate that.
How faithful were to the script that Monahan wrote? Did you ever want to go off and change anything about it?
No. The reason why I signed on to do this film was because there had been other scripts – when I started to read other people’s work, I had sort of read something and saw something in it and wanted to kind of reshape it. That’s a challenge from the point of view of something’s happening and it’s green lit to then change it. A lot of people involved don’t want that to happen, because the green light then becomes potentially a red light. So I sort of promised myself, in order to save myself and other people’s time, if I read something that I can see and exist in way that I want to make it, then I’ll do it, and that’s the case with this script (The Gambler).
Care to speak of any examples of things that you did choose to alter?
Obviously, as a director, I read something and part of my job is to make that transition to the screen, so the first scene we meet Frank (John Goodman), that I shot in a Russian spa, that was originally written in Downtowner’s restaurant. I just thought it would be more interesting to both Jim’s character and Frank’s (character) to set Frank in a place that represented him more and also put Jim in a more challenging position: in the heat of a spa. So it’s those kind of choices that I made that changed things. Other than that and a few structural changes, it was pretty much verbatim.
What kind of research did you personally do before filming?
It was exploring Los Angeles really. When I read the script as well, the really appealing thing for me was the idea that this film was set in L.A., which is where I live. I’ve grown to love L.A. As a city it’s really diverse, it’s culturally complex and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. When I first came in, I didn’t really get L.A. I just saw it as a strip mall and a pretty artificial, anonymous place. Then over time, I began to realize that there’s real history here, there’s a culture here. Architecturally, it’s a fascinating place. It’s a really free city in that sense. I explored it by making this film in a way where I hopefully made it its own character.
Speaking of Los Angeles, instead of flying to Las Vegas to New York City as he did in the original, the protagonist in your version of The Gambler simply travels from L.A. to Palm Springs instead.
Morongo Casino in Palm Springs (California) is the seventh circle of hell, man. It’s a terrible place. And it’s one of the few places where people can still smoke inside, so it’s weird, like going back in time. I used to smoke, but that place kind of reminds me of the days growing up when you get on a plane with thick cigarette smoke. It was crazy.
Whose idea was it to have Wahlberg lose weight for this role?
It was my idea from sitting down with him when we first met. It was something we decided on very early on. Mark was at a pretty physical place, because he had just done Transformers (Age of Extinction) and Pain and Gain, and by nature, he’s a guy who’s very much focuses on his health and his body. Like all forms of acting, it’s sort of to shape shift into a character from a physical place as much as a mental one is a key thing. And to play a college professor, a guy who spends a lot of time inside his head, a lot of cerebral people don’t think that much about their bodies. They’re either over weight or they just don’t eat, and so we had choice there. So he decided to drop the weight rather than put it on. It was a challenge. He had three months. I didn’t know how much he was going to drop – we just thought “let’s go for it” and see how we’re going to do it, and he dropped sixty odd pounds. It’s crazy.
What about the change with his lips? Was that done for story telling purposes?
A lot of people noticed that. The studio noticed it and started calling me going “What’s the problem with his lips?” It’s because he’s not eating. A lot of people thought it was a special effect. It was an extraordinary thing. A couple of days on set, I’m like “Man, your lips are blue.”
Since his upbringing was so different from the character he plays in The Gambler, what did you think of Mark Wahlberg tackling this role?
I knew immediately the fact that he wanted to do this part, and the fact that he wanted to do this film, I knew I was going to get 150% out of him, because for him to make that kind of choice is testament to him as an actor in a sense that he was really wanting to challenge himself. His own personal upbringing is markedly different from a guy who’s born into a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) like west coast family with a lot of money, educated, all of those things and ultimately a college professor. That’s very different from Mark Wahlberg’s own youth. It was clear to me that he was wanting to test himself. The work that he put in, the research in terms of what that meant for him as a vocation, what a career in teaching is like. He did a lot of work there, he talked to a lot of professors, but we decided again early on not to go in the route of the guy with the elbow patches and jacket approach to teaching. I wanted to make him a rock star of the college in the sense that this is a guy who’s an outsider, so other teachers are very different from him. Having Mark play that part really helped me in that. He came at it from the point of view of performance. Interestingly, his background as a singer, I think this is why he likes Bill’s writing so much, it allows him to articulate a lot of dialog very quickly. It’s like a rap. A lot of actors, great actors really struggle with that amount of dialog, and Mark is not that guy. He can really unload verbally a great deal in a short period of time and do it in an articulate way.
What about Michael K. Williams? What did you want to do with his character?
What I wanted to do with Michael Williams, in particular for Neville, was play against the troupe of west coast gangster sort of rapper character and play much more to the soul of that character. We based him a little bit on a kind of a west coast Frank Lucas: a guy who is a criminal, but at the same time is somebody who’s working within his community, giving back to his community, is a little politicized in a sense that he’s equal opportunity: he has both men and women within his business network who work with him. So, trying to do something a little bit different with the notion of what a west coast gangster is like within the African-American community. And the Korean aspect is the same as well. The Korean culture I found to be a little bit more impenetrable. I found it hard to get into, because I knew less about it. But there were some great little traits that we picked up: the idea that Korean men of a certain hierarchy, stature love having their nails done at nail salons. That was something that wasn’t in the script, so we put that scene toward the end in the nail salon for that reason. We were just trying to create color to these characters. To give them their own histories I guess.
What did you guys do to develop John Goodman’s character?
We kind of based him on a certain unnamed Hollywood movie star of a certain age who loves going to basketball games and looks like an unmade bed and sort of lived a thousand lives. He’s a guy who, for me he was the devil. He was basically a guy who was very charming, but also incredibly dangerous who sort of can understand Mark’s viewpoint, Jim’s viewpoint which is I don’t want to be part of this world of material success or excess. He got that, but his own personal viewpoint is entirely different. He’s a guy who believes in being able to say f*ck you to “the man” by having two and a half million dollars in the bank and the fortress of solitude and all of the things that we’re programmed to believe in which is like “work hard, make a lot of money, screw over enough people so that you can then be able to defend yourself from those who want to attack you. In a way, that’s representative of America today.
Is John Goodman writing his own dialog? He had some pretty interesting lines.
He’s an actor. And by that, I mean that with every respect I can give him, but it was all Bill’s writing verbatim. He said himself, it’s a lot easier to deliver that kind of dialog, because it’s so well written. But he’s got extraordinary timing. A lot of comedians have this where they understand beats. It’s musical. I think the fact that he can shape shift and transition into these characters says as much about his intelligence and understanding of roles, but it’s also about comedic timing and the nature of pathos and all that kind of stuff. He’s an actor, man. He’s very different in real life than I perceived him on-screen. He’s quite a quiet man interestingly.
I can see how you could get a cast like the one you have in The Gambler, but how’d you get that kind of cast in The Escapist, your very first feature film?
It’s actually not dissimilar to The Gambler really. I think when you have a really interesting, strong lead actor, it’s a lot easier to build around it. Because actors, when they read the script, they want to know who they’re playing against in the scene invariably, so it’s very alluring to them when in the case of The Escapist, they know its Brian Cox, so Brian was my tent pole. I could build a really interesting cast around him. I also had years to cast that movie. I went after people for a long time. I actually had, Pete Postlethwaite originally was going to be in it and he dropped out. Then I had Tim Roth who was originally going to be in it and he dropped out. Then I was able to recast with Liam Cunningham in the Pete Postelthwaite role and Joe Fiennes in the Tim Roth role. But other than that, everyone was there from the beginning. Seu Jorge, I had seen in City of God, the Brazilian singer misty as well as an actor. So I contacted him, and two months later I got a message back from his manager. But yeah, I just wanted to find interesting actors to populate that prison.
What about this Echo Chamber television series? I know that’s a project you were looking to develop?
It’s a passion project that I’ve been working on for six years that’s a t.v. project that’s evolved into this ten part series, it’s science-fiction. It deals with the notion of spy craft basically, and going undercover into a particular world. It would take me forever to explain, but yeah, it’s something that I would make, and direct all ten episodes.
How do you feel about where these visual forms of entertainment are headed?
For me, long form story telling on cable t.v. in particular, or Netflix is becoming a little bit like the novel was thirty-forty years ago, fifty years ago. It really is where the very best form of story telling is happening. It’s increasingly hard to seek out those projects in Hollywood, because Hollywood is recently becoming much more about franchise movie making. Interestingly, it’s like this, if you think of t.v. in the fifties where you would watch serials on t.v., Hollywood is a little bit like that now where franchise stories are happening kind of like weekly serials. And television is now becoming the domain of really interesting, deep seeded led narratives where you get the opportunity to tell really great character arc stories over the course of ten hours.
Would focusing on television take away from your filmmaking?
I don’t know, I mean I’ve been working on it for six years. I have a science-fiction film that I really hope to make as well, so it comes down to who’s going to give me the money first. I have a real passion to do something of my own making basically.