Having made his debut feature with the acclaimed 2008 thriller The Escapist, British filmmaker Rupert Wyatt directed the hugely successful Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in 2011. Reviving a franchise that had long since slipped into the doldrums, it was hailed as a summer film with an all-too-rare streak of intelligence.
Wyatt’s latest film is a very different proposition: a remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan, The Gambler is a slickly-written drama about a college professor (an against-the-grain Mark Wahlberg) in hock to some very dangerous people. With his debts mounting, Wahlberg’s gambler resorts to a series of schemes to try to pay his way out of trouble, only for his self-destructive nature to send him sinking further into the mire.
As The Gambler’s UK release approaches, we catch up with Wyatt to talk to him about the process of making the movie, stepping from the effects-heavy Apes to screenwriter William Monahan’s verbose drama, and the future projects he has in store.
Dramas like this aren’t necessarily easy to push through Hollywood these days. Was The Gambler tough to get going?
Not really, just because Mark Wahlberg was a champion for the project. Prior to me coming onto this, it was very much a passion project for him. So I think it was essentially greenlit on the back of him, which is often the case with films that, on paper, aren’t as commercial.
Because some films aren’t as appealing to multiple demographics – the four quadrants, I guess you call it – but this is a film that is a bit more challenging, and in my mind, potentially quite interesting to approach as a filmmaker. But it was greenlit when I came onto it.
Do you think it’s an anti-materialist film in some ways? It’s interesting to see Wahlberg’s character stripped of everything, and it’s almost as though those things were weighing him down.
Yeah. You’re the first person to ask me that question. I was really drawn to that notion of it, because to me, this isn’t a film about addiction, as the original film was. It’s fundamentally a story about a man who uses gambling as a means to self destruct – not in a suicidal way, but as a way of essentially blowing all the social trappings that he has, which don’t make him the person he wants to be. He wants to blow those up so he can find, I guess, a form of spiritual wealth.
He is a very anti-materialistic guy, I guess you could call it, yeah. It’s getting rid of all the white noise in one’s life, and being able, then, to start again and make choices on your own terms – that don’t involve the fortress of solitude or the accumulation of great wealth, as per Frank, John Goodman’s character’s mantra.
This might be me projecting myself onto the film, but there’s an interesting scene where Mark Wahlberg has to borrow more money in order to bail himself out of debt. So he almost becomes like a too-big-to-fail bank. I wondered if that was intentional?
I never looked at it as an allegory of that. But it certainly is that notion of the demons surrounding money, the allure of money, are always present. The idea of accumulation and over-extension is what can undo many of us. It wasn’t lost on me as a filmmaker, the chance to do something that is a bit more… anti-mainstream is the wrong word, because I really wanted it to be as appealing to as wide an audience as possible, but at the same time, it’s a film with consequences for the characters.
There are repercussions for their actions, and that’s increasingly rare in mainstream Hollywood cinema. There’s always that Get Out Of Jail Free card that protagonists often use in blockbusters, and I think there’s something wonderful about watching something where there are consequences to a character’s actions.
It’s interesting as well to see you do a piece that’s all humans after something like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which was dramatic but had a lot of special effects. Did it feel good to step back to something like this?
It wasn’t initially my intention to not do the sequel and do this film. I had other plans that I still have, but they’re just taking longer than I thought. This was a film that came along and was a really good opportunity for me, because I love building things from the ground up, and interestingly, both this and Apes were pre-existing screenplays.
There’s something wonderful about that, on some levels, because it gives you a certain freshness and a freedom to explore – Bill Monahan’s a far better writer than I’ll ever be. And I can come at it from an objective perspective. That said, I do find it challenging as a filmmaker to reverse into things that are pre-existing, and sometimes it’s more interesting to build your own house than it is to buy one and the bathrooms are in the wrong place.
But in this case, when I read it, I immediately saw it, I understood it. I was drawn to the cause and effect notion of it, or I at least understood how to create that within the script that was there. And I liked the quest aspect of it. And it was a bit more free-wheeling than the cause-and-effect narratives I’m normally drawn to, so it was my opportunity to emulate some of my favourite filmmakers – Hal Ashby or someone like that, whose films I really admire. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m normally inclined to make those sorts of films, but this was the opportunity to try that.
It struck me as well that it retains that real 70s tone of the first film, where you get characters spreading out and talking about whatever’s on their minds. You learn a lot about them through conversation. What was your approach to shooting that? Was it quite spontaneous or did you storyboard heavily?
I didn’t storyboard those particular scenes, because again it was an opportunity to tell a dialogue-heavy story. Traditionally, everything I’ve done, from my short films to the two features I did before, I’ve always found it exciting to tell a story through imagery.
With The Escapist, the prison escape film I made, I came at it from the perspective that prisoners don’t really talk about themselves very much because it makes them vulnerable. So many of them were people of few words, which gives you the opportunity to approach it visually. The same with Apes, obviously; apes don’t talk, at least when I was working on it! So again, it’s a little bit like shooting silent cinema – you have to tell the story through pictures.
This was something different. Bill’s writing is so verbose, these stream of consciousness monologues, so it was a challenge for me because I’m thinking, I have a 10 page scene here of a college lecture. How do I place the camera here? How do I set this up, because everyone’s very static in a lecture. There are two people talking in a spa over the course of six pages – there’s not a lot of blocking one can do, or should do, really. I really let the actors lead me, and work in that framework.
That said, the card sequences, the Blackjack game scenes, those were back to the form of filmmaking that I’m more used to. I approached those as though I was shooting a western. Watching someone play Blackjack isn’t one of the most interesting things, so rather than speed ramp or create visual trickery to sex it up, I basically used people’s eye lines and silences. Kind of like Sergio Leone, how he shot his westerns – that was really fun to do it that way.
Absolutely. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what you’re doing next?
I’m working on a couple of things. I’m working on a science fiction film, and also a science fiction TV show [Echo Chamber]. Basically science fiction!
I’ve read that you’re a fan of Philip K Dick, so can we expect anything along those lines?
It is, in the sense that it’s very grounded and relatable to our world. It’s not space opera or anything like that. The TV show is a ten-part series that has a science fiction trope, but is actually more in keeping with a film like The Battle Of Algiers or something, but told in a science fiction context.
Rupert Wyatt, thank you very much for your time.
The Gambler is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd January.
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