A surprise choice to direct “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” back in 2010, Rupert Wyatt forged a revival in quality for the franchise, leaving sequel duties to Matt Reeves on ‘Dawn’ while eyeing smaller, more intimate projects. He settled on “The Gambler,” a Mark Wahlberg-led remake of a 1974 film about a college professor moonlighting as a reckless gambler facing a host of loan sharks and gangsters, including John Goodman and Michael K. Williams in this version. Tense, offbeat and with a dark streak of humor, the film falls more in line with Wyatt’s 2008 calling card “The Escapist” and features an interesting turn from Wahlberg in the lead role.
Our review noted Wahlberg’s performance while also calling the film “a well-shot throwback.” I sat down with Wyatt the day after the film’s AFI Fest premiere, and found an amiable director willing to discuss the problems of “The Gambler” alongside its strengths, as well as his plans to move into television.
“The Departed” proved that William Monahan could ace an ensemble film. It seems as though when he set out on a single-protagonist story like “The Gambler,” he made sure it was going to have an extremely challenging arc.
Rupert Wyatt: It’s the story of an underdog who wants to become an underdog, which is the antithesis of most aspirational movies like “Rocky” or “The Fighter,” and so I think the challenge is to allow the audience to get an understanding of that. Mark and I always felt it was more important to be curious and empathetic towards his character. Bill writes with such an elevated kind of language —his dialogue is so colorful and rich, and he conjures up images through dialogue that are really terrific for me as a filmmaker. We don’t stay in too many places for long; it’s a very propulsive that way, but narratively less so.
It’s more existential than plot-driven.
Yeah, and it’s a challenge. I love certain filmmakers like Hal Ashby who are able to do that so brilliantly and show detail in such a great way, like “Shampoo” or “The Last Detail.” You go on a journey with this character and you understand that there’s not necessarily a goal, but you’re intrigued enough to want to follow.
This is shot in a more locked-down, deliberate way than many other gambling or crime films. How did you approach the visual element of the film?
When we set out on this project, our DP Greig Fraser and I decided that we would find the best place for the camera and keep it there. It was always about shooting this quite mathematically, because gambling is constructed in that way. So we didn’t want to move the camera too much —we wanted to land in a place and let the scene play out. Also, from a pure performance standpoint, it allowed the characters to breathe: actors on the caliber of John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson and Mark are at such a level that you just wanna sit back and let them go. It’s only as the story evolves and we get into the third act that we start to move the camera and create the stakes and a language with which we’re shooting.
You talked before about recognizing early on that Larson’s role was underwritten. When the script came in, was that something that you challenged? How far could that challenge go?
It’s a really good question. I don’t mean to duck out of the answer, but this was always Jim’s story. He’s our protagonist, and there’s a whole arc to [Larson’s] character to explore. Jim picks her out to be a genius, so let’s see her genius, how she’s idiosyncratic in the way she looks at the world. She could sustain her own movie, and I think sometimes there’s a danger when you’re dealing with an ensemble if you go too far into that, even though it would totally be justified. For better or worse —and some people may say worse— I feel that she, like every character in the movie, serves the protagonist.
I realized that [about Larson’s role] early on, and unless you go back to the very first brick and rebuild it, you can’t re-engineer something like that. Or if you do, you’re in danger of bringing down the house of cards. In all honesty —and I’m not being indiscreet here because this is always subjective— the previous movie I made [“Rise”] had underwritten female characters as well. But whatever I do next, I’m gonna write for Sigourney Weaver or Larson in the sense of a female character that has a purpose, a drive and an arc. I think more often than not, the female voice is underheard, and I say that as a white, middle-class male director. In a way, I represent the problem as much as the solution, hopefully.
I noticed Jon Brion provided the score for the film, but didn’t realize it until the end credits. It’s a very different score to what he’s known for.
Yeah, it was Jon Brion and Theo Green. They worked separately and did different things. Jon pretty much scored the first act of the movie at the gambling house, which is a lot more electronic and percussive. He did a soundtrack for “Stone” which was very different to the “I Heart Huckabees“-type scores, so I thought it was interesting for me to push it in that way.
You’re responsible for reinvigorating the ‘Apes’ franchise for Fox with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” There was seemingly a renewed confidence going into this past year’s ‘Dawn,’ but was the experience nerve-wracking on the inside initially?
I think it was for everybody. But it’s James Cameron who we have to thank, because “Avatar” opened the door for that kind of technology with performance capture. Specifically [special effects company] Weta —they’re masters of it. Like all lucky directors, I got to play with the tools without really having to look under the hood, so I could just focus on the performances with Andy Serkis and others. At the end of the day for a blockbuster, we were on location for most of it. The tech was always in the background until post. And then you make the movie again, because you go through this six, seven-step process where you start, as Matt Reeves did, cutting the movie together with guys in grey leotards. So you have a movie with human actors and later apes.
Hopefully, they release it because it’s fascinating to watch, but then Weta transforms the performances. It goes through very simple models, skin cover or the movement of the hair, to look and lighting. But with “Rise,” you couldn’t show a cold test audience guys in suits, because your scores would be totally zero. They’d be like “what the hell’s this?” And obviously the great expense of it all —once you’ve done it, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to change it.
Because of that, we couldn’t show anybody anything, and for me that was kind of wonderful. We were able to tinker in isolation from the studio until it was done, so in some ways the tech allowed us to work with this extraordinary creative freedom, specifically the ape scenes, and by that I include the studio as well. We weren’t reliant on an outside voice because you just couldn’t trust that voice. We were finished three weeks before the premiere on that movie, and no one had seen it. So it was a total crapshoot in terms of knowing how it was going to go down.
I know you directed the pilot of “Turn” for AMC. You’re delving into other television projects at the moment, right?
Yeah. There’s this passion project that I’ve been working on for five years, “Echo Chamber.”
About the IRA?
It was the IRA, but now it’s evolved into this ten-part series that’s much more science fiction. It’s the same story that I originally worked on, but Daniel Hardy, with whom I wrote “The Escapist” with, and I have been re-working it into a contemporary context in America. It deals with an alternate reality, but we’re writing all ten episodes before we go out with it, which is obviously a long time in the making.
What was that breakthrough to expand the scope like?
It’s funny, because the story I’ve always been fascinated by is about a guy who was in a career to go undercover, but there’s so much more to it. There have been many representations of the IRA, the troubles in West Belfast at that time, and I wanted to open it up a bit more, but at the same time stay resonant to the fact that it was a true story. For me, all interesting and challenging sci-fi is a way to represent who we are as a society through an alternate reality. So we converted it, and it frankly makes the project a lot more appealing and easier to get made.
“The Gambler” rolls into theaters on Christmas Day.