Saturday, September 11, 2010

What Casino Jack director George Hickenlooper learned about Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey and the difficulty of getting a decent latte in Hamilton

Among the most hotly anticipated premieres at TIFF 2010 is Casino Jack starring Kevin Spacey as the slick but shady political lobbyist Jack Abramoff at the heart of the Washington influence-peddling scandal during the Bush Administration.
There have been a couple of dry "true crime" documentaries about the whole sordid affair but the reason Casino Jack is stirring controversy prior to its release is that director George Hickenlooper (Mayor of Sunset Strip, Hearts of Darkness) – who's drawn to the stories of colourful personalities dwelling on society's fringes – used a series of exclusive jail house interviews with Abramoff to enhance his film. It should make for a revealing and highly entertaining glimpse into the dirty business of Capitol Hill – even if it was filmed in  Hamilton, Ontario.     

Casino Jack premieres at Roy Thompson Hall on Thursday (September 16) at 6:30 pm and shows again at the Visa Screening Room (Elgin) on Friday (September 17) at 2:30 pm. 

Here's my interview with director George Hickenlooper...

Which aspects of the Jack Abramoff story in particular were most intriguing for you to explore in developing your concept for the film?
I was fascinated with how the politics of democracy had become the politics of greed and no one seemed to notice. The culture in Washington like the rest of the U.S. over the past 30 years had become a culture of consumerism. It's like, "what can I get for myself without having to give anything back?" Lawmakers in Washington, rather than being leaders, were now locusts feeding off the tattered remains of our Republic. This may sound like a liberal position but it's not. I was once a hardcore Regan Republican and even believed in the progressive George W. Bush who was staunchly pro-education and pro-immigration while serving as Governor of Texas.
But something insidious happened to our great country where our leaders adopted a corrosive way of looking at the world through a monetary prism to the point where our whole way of life had become commodified in every sense of the word, from politics to popular culture. We lost our way as a nation. The U.S. had lost its sense of humanity and its soul. I believe Abramoff was one of these lost souls, an idealist who believed in the power of the individual as steward of civilization but his views were warped by the money, power and hubris of capitalism run amok.  


What exactly was your goal in making a film about the Abramoff scandal?
As with any of my film projects, the goal is to make an entertaining movie, something that has laughs yet at the same time, says something about who we are as people and where we're going. As a filmmaker, I'm not a great believer in having a mission beyond entertainment. I think movies become heavy handed or ostentatious if you step beyond those initial intentions.    

Having Kevin Spacey play the lead role is an inspired bit of casting. Did it take some coaxing to get him on board?
We were lucky with Kevin. We sent him the script and two weeks later he invited me to lunch in London and he signed on immediately. He loved the role and the challenge of humanizing someone who had been vilified and demonized by the media like no other Washington political figure since Richard Nixon. I think we were both attracted to the idea of creating an empathetic anti-hero which is rare in contemporary cinema. It was delicious to venture into that shade of character.  

What did he bring to the film?
Kevin is one of the great actors in the history of the American cinema. I would place him up there with Brando, Newman, Tracy and Fonda. He brought life to Abramoff's character like I could never have imagined. I think we both benefited from visiting Jack in prison. When Kevin sat with him, I could see Kevin soaking up everything about Abramoff like a sponge. 

Over the course of your series of jail house interviews with Abramoff, did you find him eager to set the record straight about certain events? What did you discover that had a direct impact on the film?
My guess is that Abramoff was willing to meet with us because he felt there was an opportunity to be heard and he was. Many of his stories from those jailhouse interviews wound up being played out on the screen. What I got most out of meeting Abramoff was a sense that he was thrown under the bus by his own party. I think that President Bush and the Republican-held Congress and Senate were eager to see Jack go away because it would create the illusion that "the problem" had been dealt with. In reality, the problem is worse than ever. 


How did your perception of Abramoff change after spending time with him?
I was surprised by how very charming and funny he is – I mean stand-up comedian funny. He has the kind of sense of humour that could get him his own TV show or a guest spot on Saturday Night Live. Of course, I shouldn't be too shocked by his charm. It makes sense why he was such an outrageously successful lobbyist. There's a certain warmth and delight you feel when you meet Jack. I suspect much of this is calculated but I have to admit that I really enjoyed his company. Ultimately what I gleaned from those interviews with Jack gave our picture a heart and soul in addition to a strong point of view. Not to undercut Norman Snider's magnificent contribution as a screenwriter but there's no substitute for having access to the real deal. 


Abramoff, who has had some dealings with Hollywood, apparently fancies himself a bit of a film buff. What sort of discussions about cinema did you get into?
The first film discussion we had concerned my script about his life and why he felt I shouldn't make it into a movie. Jack went into lobbying mode and tried hard to convince me that his story was not that interesting. He went on about how it would just bore audiences and how no one wants to see movies about politics. He tried to convince me to do an action film instead. I assured him that there was plenty of action in his story which brought a laugh out of him.


Did he have any specific advice to offer about making Casino Jack?
His advice came in the form of the wonderfully colourful stories he told, most notably how he didn't want to plead the fifth during the McCain-led Senate hearing. He said he fantasized about telling all the senators present who were about to hang him out to dry that they were all hypocrites for taking money from him when they were seeking re-election. During that moment  where he sat silently behind the microphone he momentarily had this fantasy of becoming irate like Al Pacino's character in the film And Justice For All. So I literally incorporated that dream into the film and Spacey masterfully brought it to life. 


How important was it for you that the script remain true to the historical record with regard to the extent of Abramoff's contact with President George W. Bush and his inner circle?  Did you feel free to include previously undisclosed incidents gleaned from the interviews, knowing Abramoff's tales may have been embellished?
First, let me say that my film is not a documentary and neither is it a traditional biopic. If you come to the film looking for either, you will be disappointed.
The narrative is told from Jack's point of view and as such, doesn't try to objectively present the facts. Once I had direct access to Jack, I approached the making of Casino Jack much like I did Hearts Of Darkness. Even though Eleanor Coppola did not make that film, it was still her story and I wanted to tell if from her point of view. So I used her diary notes in addition to contemporary interviews with her to make it feel like a subjective sojourn into the events surrounding the making of Apocalypse Now.
Similarly with Casino Jack, I incorporated stories Jack told me, whether true or not, because I made the decision early on that the film would be from his perspective. So when it came to the Bush White House, even though President Bush's administration was denying ever knowing Abramoff, Jack was telling me that he was over at the Oval Office having lunch with President Bush and Karl Rove all the time. Furthermore, Jack told me his two sons would often hang out with the President to the point where Bush had a running gag with Jack's youngest son. Jack's boy would ask the President why he didn't have a business card of his own which flustered Bush. So the next time they'd see Bush, they'd ask him again about his business card to which the President would respond with a card that was handwritten. 


What was it about Hamilton, Ontario of all places that made it a suitable location as a surrogate Washington, D.C. for the shoot?
To be honest, it was the half million dollars worth of financial incentive that made Hamilton such an attractive location. We had a tight budget and we were looking for money wherever we could get it. So it wasn't so much that we chose Hamilton as Hamilton chose us. McMaster University had a lot of nice architecture and served well for the bible study group in addition to the closing sequence in prison which was actually the McMaster science lab. It all seemed to work, thanks in no small part to the magic of CGI and the good folks at Invisible, an outstanding Toronto-based computer graphics company. 

Did you gain a new appreciation for Tim Horton's while on location in the Steel City?   
What I discovered about Hamilton is that there's only one goddamn Starbucks which made my getting a hot latte every day quite a challenge. Considering that Hamilton is Tim Horton's home base, somehow I don't think it's a coincidence that there's only one Starbucks in the city. Do you?
[Note: There are actually two Starbucks locations in Hamilton but the other one is way out on Upper James on the Mountain]

What affect, if any, did Alex Gibney's documentary Casino Jack and The United States Of Money have on your project?
None at all. I've only seen part of Gibney's doc. I just didn't find it that compelling. It lacked an interview with Abramoff so in a way, the film had no heart and soul. It seemed like a lot of facts made to look slick and stylized what I like to call Pottery Barn Cinema. I was a much bigger fan of Bill Moyer's Capitol Crimes PBS documentary about Abramoff. 


There's some confusion about the title "Casino Jack." Who came up with it first and who has the legal rights to use it?
Abramoff's commonly known nickname in Washington was "Casino Jack." The fact that Gibney is trying to claim proprietorship of the name seems silly to me, particularly since we announced Casino Jack as being the title of our film first. When Alex started whining about both films using Casino Jack, I just found it amusing. He was jumping up and down and he even sent us a legal letter. It just seemed a bit presumptuous of him to claim that he owned  "Casino Jack." Anyway, his film is a doc and mine is a narrative so it's apples and oranges, right? 

What's so good about The Toronto International Film Festival?
There's no doubt in my mind that TIFF is now the most important and most relevant film festival in the world. It's not only the launch pad for the Academy Awards but even more significantly, it introduces the most important films of the English-speaking cinema. Many of the other major festivals, particularly Sundance and Cannes have lost a bit of their currency. TIFF remains consistent and I think it's because Canadians have impeccable taste. I know, I've lived here. 

What do you enjoy most about Toronto?
I'm actually toying with the idea of taking up residence in Toronto. I've shot numerous times in Toronto, I've lived here for over a year now. I find the culture more livable, literate and more interesting than what's happening in most of the U.S. Sure I love New York and Los Angeles as much as anyone but Toronto has a European sensibility about it which better suits my tastes. Maybe the Dutch blood in me runs strong, I don't know, but I just love Toronto. And the film people are incredible. Gary Howsam is one of the finest producers I've ever worked with

Since you've probably already started work on your follow-up film, what can we expect next?
Well, I've got a project with Pierce Brosnan, a wonderfully rich romantic drama called How To Make Love Like An Englishman that I'm really excited about. Then I've got another project with Dean Zanuck which we're hoping to start shooting in Italy next year and there's also a script I'm developing that's set in Spain so I'm definitely feeling that European vibe stronger than ever. 

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