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Imagining Dante in Vegas: “Saint John of Las Vegas” Director Hue Rhodes

Imagining Dante in Vegas: “Saint John of Las Vegas" Director Hue Rhodes

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.

“Saint John of Las Vegas” (USA, 2009)
Director: Hue Rhodes
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Tim Blake Nelson, John Cho and Emmanuelle Chriqui
Steve Buscemi plays John, an ex-gambler-turned fraud investigator who must return to Las Vegas to investigate an insurance claim.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

Filmmaking hasn’t always been my goal. I went to school for engineering, and worked for years in the internet. But I wrote on the side, for pleasure. When my internet company shut down, I took some photography classes, which I also enjoyed. I bought a video camera and made a documentary. I enjoyed all the parts of filmmaking – writing, cinematography – so I decided to pursue it as a career.

I have come to believe that by loving all the components, however, something else can emerge. In his book The Timeless Way of Building Christopher Alexander refers to “the quality without a name.” That’s what I aspire to, now.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

I went to Las Vegas in the winter, and a friend took me to a casino far away from the strip. From the other side of town, the main drag looked so cold and distant, which contrasted with the hot, sultry stereotype of Las Vegas. I was reminded of The Inferno, and Dante’s surprise at finding the lowest level of hell cold and frozen over with ice. Inspired, I re-read The Inferno, and it was this surreal ride. I thought it would be a great template for a road movie. And it was.

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

My main goal was to help everyone make the same movie. We all watched a core group of films, and we plastered the production office with photos and artwork, for inspiration. I wanted to point everyone’s creative instincts in the same direction.

Towards the end of editing, we re-arranged a few scenes into an order which didn’t make sense. But felt right. As a former engineer who likes order, this was a difficult step for me. But once I took it, I spent more time asking myself how changes felt, rather than if they maid sense.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

The hardest part for me was the loneliness of being a director. It was tempting to take comfort in on-set laughter, or to seek group approval when making a tough decision. But you don’t know if something will work until the very end. Maintaining decisions within that uncertainty was difficult for me.

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

We lit a guy on fire. It involved a team of support people, a stunt man slathered in subzero gel, oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, ambulances…it was insane. Right before we ignited the stunt man, I turned to the AD and said “what kind of sick fuck wrote this movie?”

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I like exuberence. As long as the story allows for that kind of behavior, I’m open to it.

What other projects are you looking to do?

I’m working on a near-term post-apocalyptic script, a movie about young kids in the Civil War, and a musical about international tax law (trust me, it’s going to be great).

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