First Posted: 12/15/2014
After helping reboot the “Planet of the Apes” franchise with 2011’s mega-hit “The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,” Rupert Wyatt was not keen on directing another remake.
He was, in fact, developing his own projects when he happened to read William Monahan’s script for “The Gambler,” a revamping of the 1974 film starring James Caan. Wyatt was so impressed by the screenplay and the chance to work with Mark Wahlberg, that he decided to go all in on the character-driven project.
“We all make career choices, and they’re all gambles to some degree,” says Wyatt. “I wanted the opportunity to work on a movie about characters… Those kinds of movies are increasingly rare these days. But I thought it would be a valuable experience, and hopefully make me a better filmmaker.”
Originally, Monahan (who scripted “The Departed”) wrote “The Gambler” with director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio in mind. When they passed, Wahlberg quickly stepped in, and offered the directing job to Wyatt.
It’s easy to see why Wahlberg and Wyatt were so drawn to Monahan’s script. In contrast to the superhero pictures that Hollywood regularly turns out, “The Gambler” is a slow-boil thriller that tracks the journey of a man on a big losing streak.
A college professor by day and a card player by night, Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) finds himself in debt to a number of shady gangsters (John Goodman, Michael K. Williams). Co-starring in the movie, which opens on Christmas Day, is Jessica Lange as Bennett’s mother, George Kennedy as his grandfather, and Brie Larson as Amy, the student who might be his salvation.
Wahlberg, who received his only Oscar nomination for “The Departed,” was eager to re-team with Monahan. “I just fell in love with the idea of playing a part like this,” says the actor. “[This character] is extremely unapologetic. He doesn’t care whether he lives or not until he meets Amy, who gives him a reason to get out of his situation.
“It’s difficult at that stage of the game because he is in so deep with so many people. He finally finds a purpose in something to motivate him to want to have a fresh start in life.”
Just as “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was more reboot than remake, Wyatt insists that his version of “The Gambler” turns the original upside down and inside out.
In the superb 1974 film, Caan is driven by a self-destructive impulse that’s almost painful to watch. But in the remake, Wahlberg’s character is motivated less by masochism than a desire to distance himself from his super-rich family.
“I see the original as a study of addiction,” says Wyatt. “James Caan’s character is seeking to fill a void. He’s a masochist. Mark’s character already has a clear code. But he’s trying to get down to zero so he can start over again. It’s a hopeful journey, not about the thrill of pain.”
On paper, Wahlberg might sound like an unlikely choice to play a college professor. But the instructor he portrays, a man who peddles nihilism to his students, is something of a campus rock star.
“We never wanted to make a movie about a tweed-suit wearing [scholar],” says Wyatt. “Mark’s character is a performer and students line up for his lectures. It’s all about performance for him, and given Mark’s background as a performer, he was the perfect fit.”
Wyatt says he was intrigued by the schizophrenic quality that defines “The Gambler’s” central character.
“It’s a Clark Kent story in a way, because by day he’s a literature professor working in a California university, and by night he’s this nocturnal animal that inhabits and explores these very hidden behind-closed-doors worlds of high society, elitist, exclusive gambling houses up in Hollywood Hills, as well as the criminal enterprises that go on downtown and underground.
“He manages to find his way into these unlikely places and, by day, he goes back to what some might consider a very normal conventional life.”
When production began on “The Gambler,” Wahlberg had just completed “Transformers” and was in tip-top shape. Wahlberg’s impulse was to pack on the pounds so he’d look schlubby. Wyatt begged him to do the opposite so his character would have a hollow, haunted look.
“Mark’s a very physical guy who takes very good care of himself,” says Wyatt. “But this character lives inside his own head. So we had a choice to have Mark eat too much or too little. I talked Mark into starving himself.
“We wanted to create a wolf-like physicality about him. He’s still very much the handsome movie star that he’s always been, but he has this amazing, haunted look.”
All the time Wahlberg was losing the weight, he and Wyatt spent a good deal of time hanging out together. They’d check out gambling joints in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, as well as university lecture halls, trying to nail down the specifics of Bennett’s dual worlds.
While the original movie was set in New York City, Wyatt was determined to set the remake in Los Angeles, where he’s lived for the last five years. But rather than capture the glitz and the glamour of Southern California, Wyatt took his cameras all over the city, from such tony locations as Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades to Downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown, Pasadena an Dana Point.
“When I first got to L.A., I thought it was very artificial and bland,” says the filmmaker, who was born in the South of England. “It felt like one big spread of strip malls. But it is so much more than that. I wanted to capture the warmth of Los Angeles.”
In some ways, Wyatt thinks of “The Gambler” as his personal tribute to ‘70s movie-making, the freewheeling era when directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian DePalma were given carte blanche to explore characters and subvert genres.
“The ‘70s were one of the only times when there was a perfect alliance of story and character,” says Wyatt. “If you look at Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet – they were telling great stories but it’s the characters in their movies that add resonance.”
As much as Wyatt loves the ‘70s iconoclasts, his heart lies in what he calls “art-pulp,” or genre filmmaking with an artistic bent.
“Think of Walter Hill movies like `The Warriors’ and “Southern Comfort,” says Wyatt. “They’re genre films with high concepts but [Hill] subverts [audience expectations]. That’s what I like to do too.”
Recently, “Star Trek” and “Stars Wars” re-booter J. J. Abrams has sung Wyatt’s praises and hinted that Wyatt might be tasked with directing “Star Trek 3” or one of the “Star Wars” sequels.
Wyatt says he has yet to be approached about either franchise but would be game to journey to galaxies far, far away. In the meantime, he’s developing a TV series with a sci-fi angle.
“I think [TV] is being redefined by shows like `Deadwood’ and `The Sopranos’ and `The Wire’ and `The Knick’ and `True Detective.’ They really give filmmakers [creative freedom]. The series I’m developing is like a 10 hour film, and I’d love for it play on TV and in cinemas at the same time.”