After helping relaunch the Planet of the Apes franchise, director Rupert Wyatt could have seemingly jumped to any number of major blockbusters, but for his follow-up he instead took on something of a smaller scale. While still staying in the studio system, he set his sights on a remake of the James Caan-led drama The Gambler, this time featuring Mark Wahlberg in the lead and a William Monahan script.
I recently got a chance to sit down with the director for a one-on-one interview during the junket in New York. We discussed his use of diegetic sound, what attracted him to the project, working with less CGI, his collaboration with Greg Fraser, casting Brie Larson and John Goodman, capturing a different side of LA, what movies he’s looking forward to, and much more. Check out the full conversation below, which has mild spoilers.
I first wanted to touch on the use of diegetic sound in the movie. Almost every music cue you make sure the characters are actually listening to it. For example, the “Creep” cover and you go past the choir. How did that come about?
Yeah, I like the abrupt nature of the cut-offs, in the sense that we were constantly disrupting Jim’s life, but also The Last Picture Show did it, actually, where a lot of seemingly source music plays out in the scene itself on the radio. I’ve just found that another way of getting the audience into the actual scene itself rather than playing out a soundtrack so they feel like they are actually part of a whole, if that makes sense.
Yes. That specific one, the cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” was one you knew you were going to use during production?
Yeah, I did. I shot the scene to it and it just tonally worked so well. It created this melancholy and this sense of sadness at the parting and what he was doing, which was actually, “I need to walk away from you right now. Hopefully one day I can come back to you.” Of course he can’t tell her why so we tried other things against it just to see. I actually found out the day we were shooting — Jacqueline West, our costume designer had designed The Social Network. When we were shooting she said, “Oh, that’s the piece of music that was used on the trailer!” I was like, “Oh, crap.” But then I figured it was the trailer, it wasn’t the movie. We couldn’t find anything better.
Watching the trailer, and then coming to see the movie you don’t expect the ten-minute monologue Wahlberg’s character gives, along with the scene after that. You don’t normally see that in a studio Hollywood movie. Is that something that attracted you early on?
Yeah, very much. Only because it does set out his agenda very clearly very early on. It does it in a context that’s quite challenging, both from the point of view from getting an audience to really engage with a scene that runs that long and is that dialogue-driven, and frankly that static. If you’re in a lecture scene there’s not that many places to go, certainly from the audience’s point of view. So I saw that as a great challenge. It’s a different set of rules making a film like this than a more action-driven film.
Getting to that point, going from The Escapist to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was it a relief to work with less CGI? I know you worked directly with the actors on mo-cap there, but how was getting back to more independent sensibilities?
Well, the only part of the CG work that became so intrinsic to the process for me on Apes was the post-production process. The actual making of the movie was no different. Our actors, as you say, playing the apes were there on set. The technology around that, WETA’s cameras and the stuff the WETA guys did, part of their strengths is that they keep that away from the filmmaking process. We don’t have to step on their toes and vice versa. They were very invisible, but obviously when you get into the post and you are transferring a human actor into an ape, there are so many stages to doing that, all of which are a little bit like making a movie over again. You have to rebuild the performance and the action, but retaining the honesty of what was on the screen, because Andy [Serkis], in the case of Caesar, if he picks up a glass of water, his arm is a human arm. If an ape does that, an ape is only going to be doing that [shortens his arm and picks up water bottle] and there’s only so much animation you can do with the length of his arm to actually make it sort of just physically work. So then obviously in post you have to then reengineer slightly the body form and that can change the performance. So you’re always working to keep it to Andy’s performance, so that was a challenge and very time-consuming, whereas a film like this it was nice to get back to kind of, this is theater.
Your collaboration with Greg Fraser — who is a fantastic DP, and his career is kind of now skyrocketing with Star Wars and Foxcatcher — how did that come about? Did you approach him specifically?
I did, yeah. I had seen his work in Killing Them Softly and Bright Star, the Jane Campion movie, and Zero Dark Thirty and Snow White [and the Huntsman]. He’s very diverse and his style is across all of those movies but he has a very clear eye. He’s funny because he’s an Aussie so he’s very pragmatic and down-to-Earth and doesn’t like to convolute anything whether it be conversation or the scene itself. But he’s a real poet, although he’ll never admit to it he has this amazing artistic eye which is wonderful to have on set.
The shot after Wahlberg’s character gets rid of the $260,000 again, you have the Goodfellas/Vertigo-esque short where you’re zooming and pushing out. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Ah, yes. By the window.
Was that something he brought up or did you want to do that shot?
That was me, actually, only because I wanted to convey — not dissimilar to Goodfellas — that the world is changing for him now. So, yeah. That said, he executed it well.
With Brie Larson, she really clicks with Mark Wahlberg. Had you seen Short Term 12?
Oh, yeah. That’s where I first saw her. I had seen Scott Pilgrim actually as well and 21 Jump Street and Rampart I had seen. But Short Term 12 is where I saw truly how extraordinary she is.
For her audition process, I remember it was extensive, just reporting on it for our site. Which scene did you have her try out first?
Well, I always knew I wanted her. I didn’t have anybody else in mind. But of course filmmaking is a collaborative process, so there were people we had to see, needed to see, the protocol was such that we should see. You can always get stuff from those meetings which is really good for the part, but from the get-go I wanted her. I admire Tarantino in the sense that when he writes something he has a very clear idea of who he wants. He writes a part for somebody and then goes after them. That just gets rid of all the bullshit. In terms of, there’s a lot of hustling that goes along with casting and you can find yourself ending up with the wrong person for all the wrong reasons. It just made so much sense to me to cast someone like Brie, who is such an old soul and pretty mature for her age. It made that relationship so much more understandable. It was less Lolita and much more about kindred spirits. There are not many actresses 24 or 25 in Hollywood that can bring that. Well, there may be, but I knew that with Brie I knew I was going to get that.
With John Goodman, how did his character’s design come about? Introducing him shaving his head is great.
Yeah. I asked him when we first met if he was up for it. He said normally no, because actor’s don’t like to shave their heads. You can’t work for six months. But he was going to take a break, so he said, “Yep, let’s do it.” He was very open to ideas and he is a terrific guy.
There’s a lot of little oddities in the film, like Mark Wahlberg twirling the umbrella at the tennis court.
That was actually Mark. It wonderful because he’s this fish out of water in so many different environments in this film. He’s always an outsider, so it was sort of great. I wanted to stick him up at the top of the umpire’s chair, but he took the umbrella up with him.
There’s also the great shot showing the collapse of his psyche with the house, the flood. Was that in the script?
No, that was something we added and my effects guys who I’ve worked with since my short film days actually, Atomic Arts, did all the effects on this film. They did some of the CG on Apes. Not the apes themselves, but some background work. We built that sequence from scratch. We did a Lidar shoot, which is this amazing invention where it sends out an infrared signal on a 360-degree basis so you can stick it in the middle of this room and in a couple of seconds it would map this entire room and then you feed it into a computer and it gives you the 3D model, in this case, this room. So we did that with a location outside Mark’s house and then we built digitally the flood. I liked the idea that it was representative of obviously not only the cleaning of the stables, but it leads us into the third act and Mark’s journey upwards, but also the idea this his world is essentially that vulnerable.
That also comes into play with the seven-day countdown. I loved the lettering and the style. Was that in the post-production process?
Yeah, it was, our title guys. I know I wanted to play with the seven-day, that was something, again, we added to structure the film a little bit more and chapter it like a book because with Jim being a novelist it seemed to make sense. The actual design of the day cards we decided to make them a little more integral into the frame.
When you were on set, did you know the actual shots that were going to be incorporated?
Yeah, most of them. Some of them fell by the wayside. Therefore we needed to put the day shots over frames we didn’t initially imagine. The girl dancing in the strip club, that was always going to be a day shot.
With the underground gambling area in Koreatown you make it quite an extensive journey. In some movies, it’s just a backdoor and someone says a password or phrase and goes in. With your film, it’s this actual descent and you never know what’s around the next corner.
Well, my main influence on that whole thing is the journey De Niro takes at the end of Deer Hunter where he’s seeking out Christopher Walken‘s character and he’s taken to the journey through hell to the Russian roulette scene, so that’s what I based it on. Of course with our case we’re going through the underworld of Koreatown and just what lies beneath these closed doors. I like this idea as he journeys he goes through the lower level aspect of the gambling, whether it be the poker machines, then gradually gets to more and more opulent surroundings, even though they are pretty hellish, right to the dragon room at the end, which is the high stakes room, which was all based on research.
This is a great LA movie, which is not in the sense of just showing the Hollywood sign. As you say, you see Koreatown but other areas not widely captured.
Yeah, Greg and I made this rule which is if we see a palm tree in the frame, we’ll move the camera. We just didn’t want to play to the preconceived notion of what LA was and that was because I wanted to give LA a heartbeat and make it a slightly warmer place. More often that not that kind of white light of Los Angeles and the valley lit up at night from Mulholland Drive, that sort of gridlock Less Than Zero shot is always peoples’ pre-conceived notion of what LA is. Of course it’s much more than that and it’s culturally very rich and architecturally incredibly diverse. The districts are so self-contained. They are all like multiple cities within one city. So, as a journey, to journey through that was great because it’s like the seven circles of hell. They are all very different and they were color-coded and that was my way into each of those locations, was through the characters.
There’s another LA movie coming out this week, actually, Inherent Vice. Have you seen it yet?
[Shakes head indicating no]
Ah, Michael K. Williams was in that film too and both movies have this LA, like you said, not how you expect LA.
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing that. Also, Nightcrawler, which I haven’t see.
As a follow up to that, because Mark Wahlberg kind of broke out with Boogie Nights, PTA’s first movie, was that the first time you noticed him?
I’m trying to think, actually no. I think Basketball Diaries is where I first saw him. Was that before?
Yeah, a little bit.
Growing up not in the states I never knew Mark as Marky Mark or the underwear model or Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. That was before. I was elsewhere. That was not part of my pop culture. I’ve always known Mark as an actor first and foremost.
The Gambler is now in limited release and expands wide on Christmas Day.