After the critical and financial success of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt had options. He began developing projects as a writer-director, material near and dear to his heart. He was not looking to direct someone else’s work. And then a remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 drama The Gambler, penned by The Departed screenwriter William Monahan, hit his desk.
“When you read something, if you see potential in it but you want to change it, it’s hard, sometimes, to make those changes,” Wyatt says of his resistance. “I thought to myself, Well, if I read a script that actually just works exactly as written on the page, that’s something I’m going to be intrigued by. And that’s exactly the case with Bill’s script: It came fully formed and fully realized, so I could visualize it very quickly.”
Wyatt’s The Gambler bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor, whole moments seemingly lifted from James Toback’s original script. But put side by side, the remake and the ’74 film resemble a double helix, intertwined and antithetical. Grantland is excited to share the premiere of the trailer for The Gambler.
We spoke to Wyatt about his film — one of the year’s few character-driven studio features — and its relationship with the original.
Was there a particular image or beat in William Monahan’s script that grabbed you, where remaking this film made total sense?
It was really the fact that he painted an L.A. that is not of people’s preconceptions. The characters within that have this extraordinary color and vibrancy. For me, one of Bill’s greatest strengths is his ability just to give voice to characters — write extraordinary dialogue. He writes in a very kind of Shakespearean, elevated style that really jumps off the page. Reading it was such a pleasure, but I could totally see characters communicating within these situations. I knew going in we were going to be able to do something different within the studio system, a really great, character-driven, freewheeling narrative all built around this one extraordinary, nihilistic character of Jim Bennett.
Are you surprised there’s still room in studio slates for films like The Gambler? How does it push through?
In this day and age, with the ever-expanding tentpole season, there are many great, character-driven, mainstream films being made and they are being made less and less by the big five studios. And I think it’s a rare opportunity, as a filmmaker, to have the chance to not only work on something that isn’t necessarily having to sell itself on the basis of one set piece and visual extravaganza after another. It’s getting the opportunity to really explore character and explore detail and nuance. The more internalized aspects of storytelling. I think that’s becoming more and more the domain of great cable television, not Hollywood. With The Gambler, I could see the chance to do it on the big screen — which, for me, is still the Holy Grail, and will always be the Holy Grail. People such as Mark [Wahlberg] get these films green-lit. That’s the reality. Mark signing on to do this and wanting to do this is a testament to him as an actor. He’s taking risks all the time. You can see that in his career: He’s an actor that will bounce between genres. Very mainstream pictures, and then utilize the cachet he’s built up over these years to then do really challenging, interesting roles. He’s not a guy who rests on his laurels, by any stretch, so for me to be along for the ride was a privilege.
How would you contrast James Caan’s Axel Freed from the 1974 version to Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett?
Bill very much reinterpreted the notion of the title — not even necessarily the narrative, but the title of what “The Gambler” represents. James Caan’s character was a man who was very much based on James Toback, the original writer. He was a man who was seeking the eternal high of this synthetic experience of gambling — the tables, the casinos, the bookies. In doing so, he was finding his life increasingly spinning out of control. He was not able to live in the real world; he was constantly seeking the escapism of the gambling world. That is obviously a true representation of a degenerate gambler, and his life was being destroyed by it.
What really appealed to me was ripping all of that up and coming at it from a very different perspective. [Monahan] was looking to do something totally different. He was setting out this agenda that this is not about a man whose life is out of control; this is a man who’s in a prison. He exists within a gilded cage. He has all of these opportunities, he has looks, he has wealth, he has education — all of these things that have trapped him into becoming somebody he really doesn’t believe in. It’s made him miserable, and so he therefore sets out, over the course of these days, to deconstruct himself, to blow it all up and start again. That is essentially the story of an overdog wanting to become an underdog. It’s a very anti-materialistic point of view. It’s basically saying, for a man or a woman to be who they truly need to be, wealth is not necessarily material. It can and should be spiritual. For a mainstream movie to be setting out those arguments is, I think, a fascinating aspect.
It sounds almost uplifting.
Yeah. It’s “uplifting” in the sense that it’s not Rocky — it’s not a guy who’s attempting to achieve greatness in some kind of “win” situation. He actually wants to get back to zero so he can truly start again. That is neither Rocky nor Leaving Las Vegas — it’s a guy who wants to set off on a great spiritual journey.
The original version feels tethered to 1974. Do you think your Gambler is time sensitive?
I think so. I think we are increasingly on this treadmill of our obligations in life or those goals set out for us in life — especially in Western society — where we’re always looking to acquire things, to own things, to be promoted, to reach the top of our professions, to do things that can sometimes blind us to who we really should be and what we should really be striving for. That’s an increasing phenomenon of modern society, the haves and have-nots. For a man to buck the system in this very nihilistic, brutally honest way and stick two fingers up at that and say, “All right, I’m going to get rid of it all, and I’m going to gamble on the things that really matter — on life — and risk my own life in doing so, to get back to a clean slate.” That’s really unique among many scripts I’ve read.
As a New Yorker, I’m not at all outraged that you transplanted your Gambler to Los Angeles, but I want to be.
The way Toback and [director] Karel Reisz’s character has an East Coast sensibility — the moneylenders and that criminal underworld — this deals with a much more progressive, material Los Angeles of 2014, and with a more Korean underworld of gambling, which is very much endemic of certain hidden parts of Los Angeles, which we’re very grateful to explore. Because they’re not the palm tree aspects of West Hollywood.
How much time did you spend gambling in the Korean underworld?
I talked to a couple of vice cops who gave me really good insight into the gambling underworld. The Korean gambling underworld is so closed off to Caucasians that it’s impossible to get in, so there was no real way of doing firsthand research, but I could sort of take inspiration from secondhand stories and Internet cafés that exist on the surface. You go in a trap door and you’re in a whole other world of gambling, and it’s only five, six miles away from where I am now.
In the trailer, we see Wahlberg show 13, then hit an 8. In the original, he shows 18 and hits a three. Easter egg?
That’s right. Yeah, that is one of the few scenes that closely resembles the original.
We also see Wahlberg’s character escort his mother to the bank to withdraw money. That’s a scene from the original — she withdraws cash so he can keep gambling and pay off his debts. What’s happening in your film?
He needs money from his mom, but he needs money from his mom in order to basically destroy his relationship with his mom. In the original film, it was a tragedy, because he was essentially taking money from his own family. In this Gambler, he is as far apart from his mother’s philosophy on life as he could possibly get. She’s somebody whose backstory — Jessica Lange and I sort of worked through this — was of a waitress in Reno, and was looking to basically reach the pinnacle of getting out of her situation, getting any sort of handhold on a material possession she could. So she’s probably been through numerous husbands and finally married the man that, ultimately, was Jim’s father, and basically worked her way into this place of great wealth and ownership, but ended up becoming trapped by it. But she doesn’t see it that way. She’s living, now, alone as a widow in this huge estate, and she has no understanding of why her son is not happy with his life — he seemingly has everything. So they have a completely dysfunctional relationship.
Brie Larson plays Wahlberg’s student and love interest in the film. It’s a loaded dynamic on top of a substantial age difference. How does that “taboo” relationship complicate his quest?
Well, in a way, they’re soul mates, and that’s what he sees in her. It’s not a short-term kind of physical fling. It’s why I really set out, from the get-go, to cast Brie, and we were thrilled when she signed on. She’s very young — 23 or 241 — yet she has this amazing, old-soul quality to her. She’s someone who’s been working, musically and actingwise, for at least 10 years already. So she seemed a perfect match for Mark, and, in a way, even though she does so much of this as a character, it made Jim better and all the more likable. He’s not the most likable character on paper; he says a lot of unlikable things and sort of tells people how it is, instead of how they’d like it to be. That sort of gets him into a lot of trouble, but you like him more for the fact that he falls for a girl like Brie’s character, Amy. She’s very much a free spirit, which is something that he really wants to be, so that’s why he’s attracted to her.
She just turned 25.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Escapist relied primarily on original scores. Is that the case here?
It’s going to totally change that, as far as the films I’ve done before. It was an amazing opportunity for me, and I’m thrilled Paramount got behind it. I wanted to use a lot of source music that would, in a way, chapter the film, because Mark’s character is a novelist. So I wanted to chapter the film with these music-driven sequences that take us through the story; bearing in mind his whole philosophy on life is this “genius or zero.” I saw him as looking for great artists — classic artists, a very eclectic mix of music. But each, in turn, are true individual, timeless songs. There’s a great new band that we found, called St. Paul & the Broken Bones, that has opening-credit music. For me, I was able to create my best soundtrack ever with this movie.
Is the film broken into literal chapters?
Yeah. It’s set over seven days, and the days are titles.
The Gambler ’74 isn’t a funny movie. But when you revise it with actors like Wahlberg and John Goodman, maybe it could be?
Totally, yeah. Their timings are extraordinary … I think, with this, it would be hard for me to claim, but I would like to aspire to sort of the Hal Ashby tone. Something like Shampoo, with regard to The Gambler. It has a very freewheeling sensibility about it, which is very influenced by his work. He’s one of those very few filmmakers who manage to ride that edge of pathos and humor at the same time — have you believe in those characters, yet, at the same time, create a very mythical world. You see it in The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Harold and Maude. There’s a kind of love of life in there, and that’s what I want it to be in The Gambler.
How important are rehearsals to crafting a character piece like this?
I rehearsed with Mark for weeks prior. He knew this script inside out, and, as an actor, I think anyone coming to this script and character really needed to do that, and he did it on an amazing level. He has seven-, eight-page monologues in this film, so the fact that he was able to step onto set and just know his characters so inside out, so verbatim. I think his background as a singer was useful for that. Bill writes in this very rat-a-tat, fast delivery. It’s a tough thing for an actor to be able to deliver the intonation and vernacular of the way he writes. Mark, as an ex-rapper, has this amazing ability to unleash it in a very articulate, but very fast, rat-a-tat sort of fashion.
You came out of Apes with great reviews and a box office success. In turn, your name came up for a number of other blockbusters. Were you driven to do something smaller after that? Is a movie like this a breeze after handling motion-captured monkeys?
I then, and still do, have great ambitions to make films on a large scale, [but] there’s something very freeing about working on a smaller budget. Still within the studio system, where someone has the privilege of working with the greatest crews and actors in the world. So they’re both incredibly appealing. I understand things very, very well and get inspired when I understand story — when I can find something that, narratively, is driven by that. So I was never seeking out The Gambler, but it just so happens that I came across it, read it, and immediately saw it. What happens next? I hope to do a totally different genre and totally different scale of movie.
Do you have a gambling game of choice?
[Laughs.] Life, I would say.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Vulture, VanityFair.com, and The Hollywood Reporter.