Monday, August 30, 2010

An Interview with George Hickenlooper, director of the Jack Abramoff biopic "Casino Jack"

Hickenlooper (right) with "Casino Jack" star Kevin Spacey

"Casino Jack” premieres at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in the Galas section.

Flick Pick Monster: You seem drawn to outcasts: Francis Ford Coppola and his cast with “Hearts of Darkness,” Monty Hellman in your documentary about him, Andy Warhol in “Factory Girl,” Rodney Bingenheimer in “Mayor of Sunset Strip,” and now Jack Abramoff in “Casino Jack.” Would you say this is, as they say, your trademark?

George Hickenlooper: [I'm] not sure if I’m into trademarks because in general I'm against the commodification of any art form, particularly when it comes to the cinema. This trend in the last 30 years has had a very corrosive and infantilizing [effect] on filmmaking. In the independent film world in the United States, it’s this type of framing device that has created a kind of "Pottery Barn Cinema," [as] I like to call it -- where filmmakers and critics both feel a need to pigeon hole work with a kind of label or sheen that makes it more palatable for the consumer. Critics and fanboys alike love it when they can salivate over certain styles or fashions or trends which ultimately feed on themselves and the filmmakers, leading to a generation of work that might look nice next to your potpourri but at [its] heart has no real or timeless qualities that [are] demanded by meaningful storytelling. Less I digress, allow me to answer your question—I am interested in characters who are outsiders or who are in some way in a deteriorating frame of mind. My other pictures 'The Low Life', 'Dogtown,' and ‘The Big Brass Ring,' also explore this idea. For 'The Big Brass Ring', F.X. Feeney and I adapted the original screenplay by Orson Welles about a political candidate who is recovering from the loss of a major election. In our adaptation we kept that same idea of loss but made it more intimate, creating the story of a politician who suffers from the loss and guilt of a brother killed in Vietnam. It’s this sadness and tragedy of life that fascinates me to no end. I believe that characters like this are true to life and in a way they are appropriate metaphors for how life decays. We are all beautiful rockets that eventually burn out, and I like to shine my attention on those last few sparks, those last few moments of glory. Finality is what gives life its beauty. Without finality we would all be trees falling in a massive forest for no one to see.

FPM: Was the film influenced by Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”? If not, how did this project come into being?

GH: I wasn’t aware of the relevance of [the] Gibney documentary until he started accusing me of stealing his title. Considering the fact that Jack’s universal nickname in Washington was ‘Casino Jack,’ I felt it was a bit presumptuous of him to assume ownership of the name, especially when we had announced our title first. Regardless, Gibney’s film had no influence on me. It was actually Billy Moyers’ PBS documentary ‘Capitol Crimes’ which got me interested in the story. It was so gothic and operatic in its scope, I immediately though this would make a great film. And not a political film, but a film about hubris, greed and corruption on a stage that could rival the world of Mario Puzo. It was fresh and interesting and smart and so I found the writer, Norman Snider, who is a former journalist and a Canadian, and I thought together we could come up with an interesting perspective on Jack Abramoff.

FPM: It’s interesting to see Kevin Spacey play both Ron Klain and Jack Abramoff in a span of only a couple of years. Any comment on this?

GH: I actually never saw 'Recount’ nor did I take it into consideration when I was casting ‘Casino Jack.’ I felt Kevin had a certain bravado and charm that would nicely accentuate the personality of Abramoff. I met with Jack five times where he was incarcerated in Cumberland, Maryland, so I got to know Abramoff a bit and I just felt his charisma and charm was something that might be suited to Kevin Spacey.

FPM: I appreciate the fact that you took the approach of making a biopic/dramatization, not a fictionalization. A recently example of this was Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” which was about Valerie Plame and referred to her by name versus Rod Lurie’s “Nothing But the Truth,” which was implicitly about Plame but was sort of a concealed satire. I use this comparison because your film is similarly political and similarly about a controversy. Would you say your choice to direct a dramatization comes out of your documentarian bent.

GH: Well, for me a good story is a good story whether inspired by facts or not. Does my background as a documentarian make me more inclined to tell these kinds of stories? Not really. It just worked out that way on my last two pictures. And with respect to whether you’re Lurie or Liman, I think by virtue of the fact that we’re all telling narratives that are written by writers and ultimately played by actors, we are bound to blur the lines between fiction and reality at some point. Whether you say it’s “a true story or “inspired” by a true story, it is ultimately subject to the filmmaker’s perception and discretion, so I think your question about Lurie vs. Liman may be splitting hairs a bit. Both are very good films, and both deal with the subject of betrayal and rights of privacy in very intelligent and profound ways. You don’t necessarily have to call her character “Valerie Plame” to underscore the issues and relevance that her experience brought to our collective social mores. I felt the same way when I told the Edie Sedgwick story in ‘Factory Girl.’ I felt that I didn’t have to be slavish to the minutia of her life because her overall life experience in Andy Warhol’s factory, and her insatiable desire to achieve fame, was something completely relevant to our culture today --- loss, abandonment, and that desire to fill that deficiency with love. Consequently as a narrative filmmaker, I am not opposed to sometimes taking liberty with fact for the sake of making the story as a film work as a whole. Narrative filmmaking is always narrative storytelling and it should never pretend to be documentary unless you’re Orson Welles doing ‘War of the Worlds’ for CBS Radio. Or worse case scenario Oliver Stone making ‘JFK,’ which profoundly convinced me that Lee Harvey Oswald acted as a lone gunman.

FPM: Has the film [“Casino Jack”] been seen by anyone who is portrayed in it? If so, how did they feel about it? If not, what do you anticipate their feelings will be?

GH: Well, Jack told me in prison that he hated the movie just based on his reading of the script, which we had to smuggled into him disguised as an attorney’s document. Of course, his hating the script was part of his charm and a testament to his being an [effective] lobbyist by doing his best to convince me to take on another project instead. What he may not have realized at the time was the hours he spent talking to me and telling me stories in his effort to tell me that his story really wasn’t that interesting were stories that ultimately made it into the movie. So in a way, yes, I had my documentary cap on and art was imitating life here. Things Jack told me in prison started going directly into the movie. In fact, the very end of the film is based on a favor Jack asked me to do for him. So in an odd way, like a documentarian, I found myself a participant in my own narrative film. At moments it was surreal.

FPM: You’ve now tried biopic, narrative, and documentary. Which of them you most prefer to do?

GH: I love all three. Documentaries are pure cinema in the sense that you are using raw film to create your narrative. There’s something exciting about finding your story in the chaos of that footage. At the same time I love the elegance of narrative filmmaking and working with other great talents to create a truly magnetic narrative experience.

FPM: Which filmmakers have an influence on your work?

GH: Wow, that’s a tough question. When young film students ask me who to watch I usually suggest the following: Buster Keaton, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Robert Wise, John Schlessinger, Hal Ashby, Dziga Vertov, Jean-Luc Godard, Vittorio de Sica, Carol Reed, William Wyler, Peter Bogdanovich, King Vidor, Monte Hellman, Ernest Lubitsch, Roman Polanski… [just] to name a few…. I guess all these guys are a part of me.


litdreamer said...

Congratulations on scoring this interview, Nick! So does this mean that you will be attending TIFF 2010? And might we be seeing a review of Casino Jack at some point in the future?

Also, you're HOW OLD, again? You interview like a seasoned pro. :-)

Nick Duval said...

Unfortunately, no matter how much I'd like to be watching Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project, The Housemaid, and Black Swan in Toronto, I can't make it.

I will, however, be covering the NYFF, and, if I get my way, you'll being seeing some reviews of films by Weerasethakul, Reichardt, Chang-Dong, Beauvois, and Godard.

And when Casino Jack comes out, I'll be sure to see and review it.

I'm just-about-14.

Elise Nakhnikian said...

Nice interview -- thanks for sharing it. It's interesting to see how he seems to almost reflexively start every answer by deconstructing/objecting to the question, even when he winds up answering the question in the process.

Nick Duval said...

Elise- That's exactly what I thought.