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Sundance Journal No. 2: Bring Your Own Devil Sticks

Our correspondent’s continuing adventures in Park City.

Randall Emmett, Stephen Frears, Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall and D.V. DeVincentis

Beth Raymer, a gorgeous, effervescent woman of 35, is sipping whiskey with me in the basement of Park City’s Bing Bar at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Her odd, circuitous path to the Sundance Film Festival began, she explains in a high, girlish voice, when she quit her job as a stripper in her hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida, and moved to Las Vegas, hoping to land work as a cocktail waitress. Instead, she soon found herself in the employ of an eccentric sports gambler known as Dink, a master at spotting advantageous betting lines. Whether it was college basketball or horse racing or the National Spelling Bee Championships, Dink always seemed to know which underdogs would nose their way to victory and which favorites would crash and burn. With her winning personality and a head for numbers, Beth was an ideal sidekick.

Years later, she chronicled her adventures with Dink and other colorful denizens from the world of Vegas sports gambling in a funny, engaging memoir called Lay the Favorite. Her book was adapted by screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis (High Fidelity), and when English director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) caught a glimpse, he was instantly captivated by Beth’s inside look at a seedy subculture he’d never seen portrayed on film.

Frears, who’s joined us in the bar, tells the stories behind his casting decisions. Early on, the English actress Rebecca Hall (Please Give, The Town) was recommended to him for the part of Beth Raymer, but he was adamant that she was the wrong choice. The idea of a refined actress from a distinguished theater family in London playing a bubbly American ex-stripper seemed absurd. Before he allowed Hall to try out for him, he told her, “Look, I’m sure you’re very talented, but you’re wrong for this role, and you’ll never get the part.” Unable to dissuade her, he offered her an audition, and was floored — somehow, she’d managed to channel Beth perfectly. Frears welcomed her aboard.

For the part of Dink, Frears and DeVincentis thought Bruce Willis could be an interesting (and marketable) choice. As they prepared for a meeting with him in L.A., they were given an odd set of conditions. Though Willis had read DeVincentis’ script and been impressed, under absolutely no circumstances, they were told, were they to let it out of the bag that they knew he’d already read it. They were implored to pitch the film as though he was coming in blind. The reasons for all the subterfuge were never made clear, but in the days before they met with him, a strange nervousness set in — it’s one thing to try to land an actor of Willis’ stature; it’s another to do so through code and doublespeak. “Don’t let him know you know he’s read the script!” they were warned once more on the morning of their meeting. But when they walked in the door, Willis saw them and his face lit up. “Hey, guys,” he said, right off the bat, “I love the script!” He signed on for the role of Dink. On set, Frears says, to break up the grind on a long day of filming, Willis would occasionally shift personas and start quoting lines from his own action movies, in good-natured self-caricature: “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs …” and, “Yippee ki yay, motherfucker!”

Rebecca Hall has joined us now, too — tall, beautiful, and regal — along with actor Joshua Jackson, from the TV show Fringe, who plays Beth’s boyfriend in the movie, a journalist who falls for her and tries to extract her from the shady Vegas gambling scene. The bartender here at Bing, a handsome, cheery older guy named Corbin, brings us another round. When I mention what a cool guy the barkeep seems to be, Beth shrieks with surprise and laughter. “That’s not the bartender!” she cries. “That’s the guy who plays my dad!” Apparently, I have all the celebrity-dar of a bushman villager. The “bartender” is Corbin Bernsen, who starred on L.A. Law for almost a decade.

The mood is one of quiet excitement and palpable tension — Frears finished cutting Lay the Favorite just six days ago, and in a few hours it will screen for 1,300 people at Park City’s Eccles Theatre, the Sundance Festival’s main stage. How the audience responds may determine the fate of the movie that all of them have invested themselves into so heavily, with $15 million in production costs hanging in the balance. Time for another drink. “Hey, Corbin!” Beth says, laughing, now that we’ve let him in on the joke, “How ’bout another round?”

The Lay the Favorite team rushes off to a pre-premiere dinner, and I wander down Main Street in a blizzard to meet up with a friend. What seemed a quiet resort town a couple of days ago is now insanely mobbed. Filmmakers and their friends staple posters for their films to wooden kiosks — ensuring strong turnout to your screenings is essential if you hope to attract buyers and distributors. If your film can’t fill a theater at Sundance, the thinking goes, how’s it gonna fill a theater in Des Moines, Spokane, or Syracuse? On the next block, Playmate-looking women in white fur coats and white fishnet stockings pass out free L’Oréal samples. Two dozen Occupy protesters march up the street, chanting, playing a bugle, and banging on the lid of a garbage can with a gigantic icicle. At the tail end of their procession, a guy dressed in black jeans and a hoodie shouts anarchist slogans while twirling devil sticks, which I find delightfully old-school. I’ve missed devil sticks.

Main Street is so packed with cars, taxis, shuttle buses, and stretch Escalades that traffic has come to a complete standstill. Pedestrians weave through, dodging mammoth slush puddles. Perhaps the group I least expected to see at a film festival are the Vegas-style “bros,” rocking TapouT shirts and gelled hair, and their female counterparts, in black puffy vests, tiny skirts, and knee-high boots, asking for directions to clubs called Sugar and Tao. The idea of partying with celebrities like Drake, Taylor Swift, Elizabeth Olsen, and, well, Bruce Willis seems to have lured folks to town who prefer American Pie to American Movie and think a D.P. is something you find on BangBros.com. It’s weird — if someone blindfolded you, choppered you into Park City, and gave you a look around, depending on where you landed you might think you were in Aspen, Beverly Hills, Vegas, or Zuccotti Park.

In the middle of the fray, a friendly, dreadlocked hippie passes out bright yellow flyers for a late-night after-party. “Three trip-hop DJs, two video-art installations, and a drum circle,” he says enthusiastically. The cost? Fifty bucks for guys, 25 for ladies. Somehow, the marriage of high-art pretension and capitalist ambition feels appropriate.

I hop a bus to the Eccles Theatre. “I applied to NASA for a shuttle mission,” the driver says over the P.A., straight-faced, “and they gave me this bus!” Whatever lack of excitement there may be for the Sundance films among party-hoppers on Main Street, the buses are always full of cineasts. Some are film critics; some are well-known film-acquisition chiefs; others are simply local film lovers. Each 10-minute jaunt between theaters is a chance to quiz a stranger on which films they’ve seen and what they thought of them, which helps you plot your viewing schedule in the days to come. A buzz seems to be building for a magically dark fantasy film called Beasts of the Southern Wild and an offbeat drama/comedy called The Surrogate — tickets to all remaining screenings have completely sold out.

Lay the Favorite‘s premiere has also sold out, apparently. Outside the Eccles, scalpers circle the parking lot like we’re at the Rose Bowl — it’ll take 100 bucks to get you in. 100 bucks! For a movie! (OK — a movie and a glimpse of Bruce Willis.) Hell, I’m excited to see the movie, but if I didn’t already have a ticket, I’d drop the dough on the party with the DJs, the video installations, and the drum circle instead.

By 9:45 p.m., the Eccles Theatre is packed and Beth Raymer is both wildly giddy and wildly nervous. What if people hate the movie? What if they hate the Beth Raymer they see on screen? Sure, it’s weird to be a documentary subject, like the West Memphis Three’s Damien Echols, and watch a film crammed with footage out of your own life, but it’s got to be equally bizarre, in its own distinct way, to watch a fictionalized version of your life gently unspool itself for a crowd of more than a thousand.

Beth’s fears seem to subside as soon as the audience breaks into its first peals of laughter. From the get-go, it’s clear that the audience adores her character’s spunk and quirky intelligence. Rebecca Hall is tough, sweet, and endlessly endearing, and she looks like she’s having a ball with the role of Beth. Bruce Willis, as Dink, is a scuzzy softie who’s rough around the edges but always aims to do the right thing. Dink’s wife, Tulip, as portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, seems like a heartless gold digger at first, but becomes sympathetic as she later rises crucially to Dink and Beth’s defense. Vince Vaughn makes a rich and funny appearance as a manic bookie named Rosie who competes for Beth’s services, and Bernsen is quietly affecting in his small role as Beth’s dad. The movie’s tone is playful and bouncy, and as the action bustles along from Florida to Vegas to New York City to Curaçao, I feel the crowd around me grow steadily engrossed.

In the climactic scene, Beth lets her entire fortune ride on the Nets swiping a “W” from the Lakers, a somewhat preposterous notion for a movie largely grounded in such emotional truths. In fact, many of the sports betting sequences seem a little undercooked, and I’d have enjoyed seeing them pinned on actual events. But these are trivial complaints. The crowd gives Beth, Frears, DeVincentis, and their gleeful actors a round of enormous applause as the closing credits scroll up the screen, and Beth prances to the stage for the Q&A, absolutely glowing, members of the cast and crew at her side. When Bruce Willis is asked about his role as Dink, he motions for a man seated toward the back of the auditorium to stand — this is the real Dink, the brilliant gambler on whom Willis’ character is based. Like Bruce’s Dink, the real Dink rocks old punk-rock T-shirts and wears his socks pulled up to the knees. Unlike Bruce’s Dink, the real one has a scruffy mane of hair, a healthy paunch, and an affable, spiritual vibe that’s more Shirley MacLaine than John McClane. After the Q&A, a phalanx of excitable teenagers crowds around the real Dink and Tulip, snapping pictures, and though a bit shell-shocked, the couple seems to enjoy the crush of attention, unceasingly polite.

Beth and her Lay the Favorite cronies head for the after-party at a private nightclub downtown, and by the time I arrive by bus a half-hour later, a huge line is snaking out the front door all the way up Main Street. A word about access to these after-parties: As press, if I’ve sent a request to the films’ publicists in the preceding weeks, I can usually get on the list. But at some parties, simply being on the list isn’t enough — you need an additional VIP bracelet or laminated badge. There’s something deeply humiliating about standing outside in the cold in a throng of hopefuls, badgered by bouncers and sniffed at by 22-year-old publicists, while others waltz past inside, their position, connections, or star power making them more desirable than you. The larger the crowd outside a club, of course, the more desperately people want to get in, although the scene inside is always the same ? free drinks, free hors d’oeuvres, and a VIP lounge in back where the famous folks hobnob, safe from civilian riffraff. It’s possible, as ten minutes turns to an hour, and you’re still stuck in the ice and snow, for a certain kind of class rage to boil up inside of you: Fuck those posh people! Fuck the elite! They’re no better than me! What the fuck?!

What’s really weird, though, is how quickly those thoughts get turned on their head once you’re inside one of these parties. My thinking always seems to go like this: Wow, here I am hanging out with rock stars and Hollywood icons, being served fancy glow-in-the-dark drinks and tasty delicacies on a silver platter. I must be special to be in here. I am special. I’m being treated like a king because I am a king, unlike all those fucking losers stuck outside. God, look at those assholes. Why don’t they just go down the block to O’Shucks Bar and Grill with the rest of their kind? There’s no list at O’Shucks Bar and Grill. They’ll take anyone.

Outside the Lay the Favorite party, I see Dink and Tulip struggling to get inside while a trio of young publicists wielding clipboards block the way. “Nothing I can do,” one of them says. “There’s no ‘Dink’ on the list.”

He tries his birth name, but no luck there, either. It’s a crazy scene, when you think about it. Dink and Tulip’s life has been turned into a movie, with Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones as their avatars — there would be no Lay the Favorite movie, no premiere after-party tonight, if there’d been no Dink and Tulip — and yet they’re stuck outside in the cold while random fast-talking producers and agents, dressed to the nines, jabber away inside. They look totally lost, having gone from taking pictures with adoring fans to feeling like nobodies in the span of an hour. Finally, I jump in and intervene, and a bouncer who knows me from the night before, when I helped him sweep up some broken glass, lets us all through.

Inside, the mood is merry. More than anything, the after-parties are a chance for the cast and crew to celebrate all of the incredibly hard work they’ve put in to bring their movie to life. Since Stephen Frears just finished editing the movie the week before, everyone else was seeing it for the first time tonight, and they’re buzzing with excitement at how well it turned out and how thrilled the audience seemed to be. DeVincentis is taking long pulls off a bottle of red wine, a giant, relieved smile on his face. He also acted as producer on the film, and it was his relentless energy, more than anyone’s, that kept the project alive. “This was a hard one,” he says, eyes misting. “But we did it!” He wraps Beth, Rebecca Hall, and Josh Jackson in a string of buoyant hugs.

Corbin Bernsen ambles over. “Anyone want a drink?”

A few über-fans slip into the VIP area and begin harassing Frears. “Put me in your next movie!” a girl squeals. “Make me famous!” After witnessing a few of these uncomfortable episodes, it becomes quickly understandable why actors and directors get squeamish about mixing it up with the general public. At some point, Lay the Favorite‘s director and stars begin an exodus from the club, through a rear door into an alley out back, where limos and SUVs are waiting. Rebecca Hall dons a head wrap that seems to both protect her from the cold and conceal her identity from any roving fans. All alone, Beth leans against an outdoor stairwell, checking texts on her phone, a strange, sad look on her face. It’s the same look Michael Phelps seemed to wear when I’d see him around Ann Arbor a few weeks after he looted the Olympics for gold. When you spend years working toward one moment, and then suddenly it’s over, the highest of highs always seems to be tangled up with the lowest of lows.

Once the cast and crew have gone, I feel free to guzzle drinks and stuff my face more freely. I hang with Dink and Tulip and Tulip’s sister, who’s come up from Lake Tahoe for the premiere. They may be the nicest people I’ve ever met. Dink isn’t digging the vibe of the place, though. “Yeah, this isn’t really my scene,” he says, as neon lights flicker and some frittering electronic beat thunders overhead. “But hey, the food is sure yummy.”

Eventually the lights come up, and the club staff kicks us all out into the frozen night. Main Street is mashed with hundreds of people fighting over four cabs, while giant wet snowflakes swirl from the sky. Dink, Tulip, and Tulip’s sister huddle somewhat hopelessly under an awning, knowing it might take an hour to catch a taxi home. I tell them I’ll call a couple cab drivers whose numbers I’ve collected — they know as well as I do that it won’t make a difference, but thank me anyway. Fortunately — for me — my crash pad is within walking distance. I hug them each good-bye, abandon them there in the icy shadows, and start my hike up Main.