Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.
“All In” (USA, 2009) World Premiere
Director: Douglas Tirola
Cast: Matt Damon, Frank DeFord, Annie Duke, Ira Glass, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Phil Hellmuth, Howard Lederer, James McManus, Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Tilly
Tells the story of poker focusing on why one of our nation’s oldest games has had a renaissance in the past decade and why for so many people poker is a way to chase the American Dream.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?
I have always loved going to movies. My mom tells a story from when I was a kid of how excited I got when I figured out you could go to more than one movie a day. However my initial attraction started with my first job on a film. While at graduate school for poetry and fiction and on my way to being a teacher, I took a film class which lead to an internship on a movie that the professor was producing that summer. After a month of interning I was offered a job as a PA for the entire production. I immediately loved the energy and process that working on a film brings about, the challenges that everyone constantly had to overcome, the idea of working with other people on something creative, with an absolute common goal – it was just awesome. I felt like I was doing more in one day than any of my friends did in a week at their civilian jobs.
How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?
I have always liked the world of poker in films. “The Cincinnati Kid,” The poker game with Paul Newman in “The Sting,” the poker game in David Mamet’s “House of Games” – people interacting with each other in a way they only do with poker, in dark places most people don’t even know exist is a seductive world. A friend who we worked with on another project suggested something about poker but we couldn’t figure out what the story was. Eventually we looked at poker like a character, a person, almost as if we were doing a biography of someone with a very long history and then decided this is the part of the story we want to focus on.
There were two things that always really excited me about making this film. The first is that through the story of poker we could talk about our culture’s willingness to so often take risk and really use poker as a way to talk about our nation and how the world sees us. The other is that when we first sat down to think of ideas of who we would want to interview for the movie or as we call it the “vomit draft” – which is a list of possible people to interview and places we would want to film regardless of the reality of getting permission or budget – when we went over this first list I knew making this film would be an incredible experience. Coming from production, the experience of who you will work with, where you will be going and who you will be interviewing is a big part of picking a project. This is a world you are putting yourself in for possibly years and we knew this would be an exciting world to live in.
What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?
The consistent challenge was getting people to agree to be interviewed. Though outside of the world of poker many of the professional poker players are not household names, inside the poker community many of these people are seen as Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter and they are being approached for interviews all the time. Getting many of these people and their handlers to recognize we were a serious documentary and not a video for a poker web blog was a challenge. Sometimes by the third or fourth question, the person we were interviewing would say something like, “I’ve never been asked these questions before, what is this for again?”
Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?
We shot in Las Vegas and New Orleans several times so there are a lot of fun anecdotes surrounding being in places that most people would never seek out. We filmed an illegal home poker game in Columbus Ohio, lots of food, lots of drinks and a wife and two kids upstairs awake. Our host was very nice and we were very grateful to be there – he also had a crew cut, was in state trooper good shape and spoke in the sort of authoritative tone that made it easy to believe he might be easy to anger.
We arrived at midnight and the ten men, some of who were strangers to the host and each other, had been playing and drinking for a few hours. As the host gave us a tour of his basement, it was clear he was feeling the intoxication of both a few drinks and being filmed. The footage we were getting was great.
Then he started explaining that there was over $2000 in play and that even though we were on a cul de sac in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio you couldn’t be too safe – he then lifted up his shirt revealing he had a gun. Our nice politically progressive cameraman got the shot and then turned, looked at me and said, “that guys got a loaded gun and he’s been drinking.” For the rest of the night everytime our host took a drink or lost a hand of poker one of the other producers would ask if we had a enough footage so we could wrap. Of course, we kept shooting until we got everything we wanted.
What other genres or stories would you like to explore?
I have been working on a script about a group of teenagers in the eighties on the last nite of summer, sort of an “American Graffiti” at the end of the cold war era when indie music, film and fashion start to become mainstream.
I would also like to revisit the world of poker in a scripted format. We recorded a lot of great stories and it is hard to resist trying to make something out of them.
Someday I’d also like to something about writers – possibly the group of american writers that focused on living in the suburbs and social class such as O’Hara, Cheever, Yates, as well as something about the gay American poet Frank O’Hara.
What other projects are you looking to do?
Over the past 2 and a half years, 4th Row Films has produced four documentary features. Someone asked me what the commonality in our work and I had to think because when we set out to make these four films we never said we were looking to make a slate of films about anything related. However the one theme they all seem to possess is that they are about people or communities that take great risks.
Right now we are doing early research on a number of projects. Almost like a studio trying to develop scripts and waiting for the right elements to come into focus. Some of these projects include: a film about the end of the era of music when rock n’ roll bands were still dangerous – before being a musician seemed like a corporate career choice, a group of southern teenage girls the summer before they go away to college, a specific college basketball game from the late 1980’s that has racial overtones and a film about the biggest annual party on Wall Street for the past decade and how it has changed with the economy.