Director George Hickenlooper was working at the time of his tragic death (via accidental overdose) in Denver on October 30 at age 47. He was premiering his latest film, Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey in a story inspired by true events that is “so Gothic that at times,” according to Hickenlooper, “if it were fiction, you would never believe it really happened.”
Spacey plays Jack Abramoff—a famed Washington lobbyist who uses his clout to influence many of the world’s most powerful men to satiate his lust for excess and influence. Casino Jack opens in select theaters in NY and LA on December 17, before a wider release.
While he was filming Casino Jack, Hickenlooper kept a photo diary of the shoot. Below are ten exclusive images taken from the set and Hickenlooper’s accompanying captions – poignant, funny and often heartbreaking.
Before his death, Hickenlooper wrote a director’s statement about the creative process behind Casino Jack, from his and Spacey’s interviews with Abramoff in prison to adding his first-hand accounts to writer Norman Snider’s script. Excerpts are below:
As we walked into a large gymnasium-like auditorium I spotted Abramoff in the flesh, sitting by himself in the corner, on a metal folding chair. My first visual impression of him was that of a humbled, beaten man who was slouched in defeat, wrapped in a green prison jumpsuit, incongruously donning a yarmulke. It wasn’t until my first ten minutes of conversation that I realized what his friends, colleagues, and former associates had claimed — despite being portrayed in the media as being the Don Corleone of D.C., he actually had an extremely charismatic, hilarious, and animated personality. In fact, he seemed so polished and charming one might suggest, like Eliot Spitzer, he should be deemed suitable to host his own cable television show.
Caption: Kevin was an amazing collaborator. He was brilliant, focused, efficient – the consummate classically trained actor. I am sure it comes from his Julliard background. As a filmmaker I find it much more rewarding to work with actors who are classically trained. It’s about the work and only the work.
As the two spoke, I watched Kevin listen to Jack for hours, absorbing his mannerisms, his intonations, his persona, like a sponge absorbs liquid. I mostly just listened and watched as the two seemed to get along like a house on fire. It was my view at that very moment that both Spacey and Abramoff could have had successful careers as stand-up comics. And in fact, the meeting culminated with Kevin doing impersonations of Bill Clinton and speaking to Jack as the President, and Abramoff speaking back to Spacey as Ronald Reagan. For a moment, it became a kind of hilarious, surreal presidential summit with these two iconic personalities from opposite worlds finding a kind of affable synchronicity – at least enough of one for Spacey to leave the meeting feeling as though he might have struck an emotional chord within himself and within Jack – a similar enough note that might make this vilified, Washington bad guy a palatable figure to portray as a kind of empathetic anti-hero.
Caption: The Senate Hearing Room, which we shot in a government building in down-town Toronto. To create the illusion that Senator John McCain was in the room, we licensed C-Span archival footage of McCain at the actual hearing and then shot that off of a video monitor opposite Kevin. The double in the background playing McCain had to study the senator’s movements and match them identically. If you look closely, he does a pretty amazing job. I learned this lesson from Bob Zemeckis when he doubled the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in one of his early films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
During each prison visit, I felt the story we wanted to tell was transforming a serious subject from a third-person narrative into a kind of comical, first-person opera (only without the score). From Abramoff’s opening monologue (aria) in Casino Jack, to his character’s purchase of Zamboni machines, to his ultimate fantasy about impersonating Al Pacino in …And Justice For All while telling Senator John McCain and his senate colleagues that they are all a bunch of hypocrites – these were all stories humorously told to me by Jack himself, from his point of view, coming from the emotional core of who he was. As these new yarns began filling out new draft after new draft, it was during these visits that Kevin, Norman and I realized exactly what the tone of the picture would be — dramatically comic with a touch of satire. Why? Because the Abramoff story itself was so Gothic that at times, if it were fiction, you would never believe it really happened.
Caption: Grabbing a high angle shot of Spencer Garrett as Tom DeLay and Paul Stephen as Reverend Mueller, both in deep prayer after Abramoff and his cronies begin to go down. This was the set of DeLay’s Capitol Building offices, which we shot on the West Wing set of the Toronto White House location.
Caption: Exchanging a few thoughts with my brilliant Production Designer Matthew Davies. Matthew works from the core of the central characters outwards. Matthew and I strongly believe in John Ford’s assessment that atmosphere is as much a character in a film as your lead hero.
Caption: I have always been a fan of the legendary Graham Greene, one of our finest working actors. He did a great job taking on the role of Bernie Sprague who was a sub-chief of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.
Caption: My DP Adam Swica takes a light reading on the SunSail casino floor. Some guys have the best jobs. We had a very difficult time finding this location. We ended up shooting it in a strip club near downtown Hamilton. Our extras were not included. Go figure.
Caption: Working with one of my favorite actresses of all time. Kelly Preston is a remarkable human being and a great dramatic actress. It was a privilege as a director to tap into this part of her. Rarely do I make a kind of spiritual con- nection with my cast. Kelly was a wonderful exception. She is truly very special and I adore her.
[The Director, George Hickenlooper]
Caption: Contemplating my existence on the wonderful White House set. Onwards and upwards. Hopefully.