Rupert Wyatt on ‘The Gambler’ and the Art of a Remake

Mj 618_348_the gambler and the art of the remake
Claire Folger / Paramount Pictures

Hollywood doesn’t gamble much anymore. It seems every film is a proven entity; either a sequel, reboot, remake, or comic book flick with a built-in audience and enough nostalgia to fill any holes left by a less-than-stellar story. But not all remakes are equal. The Gambler, a compelling new film starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Rupert Wyatt (who successfully rebooted Planet of the Apes in 2011) takes James Toback's 1974 vehicle, which starred James Caan as an English professor with a crippling fixation, and "turns it on its head."

"Everyone always thinks of gambling as a form of addiction, as a seeking out of the synthetic highs and lows of winning and losing," Wyatt explains while sipping soup in Times Square. "We went at it from a totally different perspective. What if you took gambling as an idea and you put it on our lives? You fall in love: Is that where you win or where you lose?"

Wyatt's take also deftly explores the idea of genius, and the torture of not having it while watching those around you waste their own. But for all the self-destruction on screen, and for the moments it's tough to watch a man assist in his own downfall, Wyatt and Wahlberg figured out how to turn what could have been a simple remake into a fun, thrilling classic all its own. We sat down with Wyatt to discuss the art and challenges of a remake, old school filmmaking, and why Wahlberg is "probably the smartest person" he’s ever met.

I’m interested in how you craft a remake; how much you honor the original while at the same time trying to create something new and fresh of your own.
I think we did honor the original in as far as we didn't go anywhere near it. [Laughs.] And by that I mean the idea of remaking something to emulate it is doing a disservice to the original. We as filmmakers never set out to do that. Bill Moynihan, essentially the originator of this movie as our writer, was the guy who took the notion of what a gambler is and turned it on its head. Everyone always thinks of gambling as a form of addiction, as a seeking out of the synthetic highs and lows of winning and losing, and he went at it from a totally different perspective. What if you took gambling as an idea and you put it on our lives? You fall in love with someone: Is that where you win or where you lose? It's bringing it out into the real world, and that opened it up for me as a filmmaker. Every scene didn’t have to be at a blackjack table for it to be about gambling. It’s actually more about conversations that people have: Who comes out on top, who doesn’t?

What are some other ways you explore that?
Just the way Bill wrote it. There’s a scene where Mark goes to a store in downtown L.A. to sell this watch because his character needs the money. The scene becomes less about the money, but instead about the whole notion of haggling. In a way it's a little bit of an homage to Monty Python's Life of Brian, the scene where the guy just wants to haggle, he has to haggle, he can't help himself. And that's the way we’re trained: to get a good deal. To beat the other guy regardless. So Mark's character's frustration is born not out of getting the money for his watch, but about the fact that he can't just go in there simply and sell his watch.

And the perfect exclamation point to that moment is where he gives it away, because the watch doesn’t mean anything to him. It wasn't about the watch or the money, but about the actual interaction.
Exactly, and that wasn’t in the script, but it was a good punctuation point.

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Is it better to do something like The Gambler that people don’t immediately recognize as a remake, as opposed to something with a built-in audience but admittedly high expectations, like when you rebooted Planet of the Apes?
Yeah… It's funny because I never thought of this as a remake when I came on to do it. I just read the script, loved it, wanted to work with Mark, and signed up to do it. I'm obviously realizing, perhaps somewhat naively, that it will always be compared to the original movie. But I have no problems with remakes per se. Shakespeare remade stuff all the time. He was telling the same story that had been told a thousand times before, but he was doing it from a very fresh perspective, and I think that’s what we were attempting to do with this. That said, the notion of doing a remake of a film that's iconic, such as The Godfather, would be a little ridiculous, because that story could be told without having to remake it. You could basically take that Mario Puzo narrative and say it's essentially the Count of Monte Cristo, you know what I mean? It's not that dissimilar. So I wouldn't set out to do a remake.

Do you have sacred projects that wouldn't remake even if they were offered?
I don't think I’m ever going to do a remake again.

So you don't have to answer this question?
So I don't have to answer this question. [Laughs.] No I get it. I get it. Look, I just love great stories, and that was the attraction to me. If I thought too hard about it being a remake I never would have done it. Fairly or unfairly, you have to face the fact that you're going to be compared with something that actually has nothing to do with you. The original movie was totally it's own thing. It came from James Toback's personal narrative. It's more authentic as the study of a man dealing with addiction than our movie could ever be because it came from a personal place. As a filmmaker, it would be entirely wrong for me to set out to remake his personal story. So we took the title, The Gambler, and said let's turn it on its head.

I really enjoyed that you allowed the scenes to breathe. The first lecture hall scene would typically last 90 seconds. Yours lasts 5 or 6 minutes. Are those boundaries you're pushing? Because that's how it used to be. 
Totally, and actually it was just written that way, so that's how I shot it. But that's what appealed to me. I could see on the page what Bill was doing in terms of the pacing. It was very deliberate. And I could see actually that he's no dummy. He understood that putting key pieces of information throughout the film as a whole meant that it was actually very hard to cut. You can't just lose a scene when there's a key piece of information in there. But it allows for scenes to breathe a bit more, and it's a performance piece in many ways for that reason. It’s Mark's… it’s Jim Bennett's story, so every aspect, every beat of the scenes plays out as to how he's existing within it.

Did you make sure Mark didn't look like Mark, since he's not necessarily acting like a stereotypical Mark Wahlberg character?
It's funny with Mark. He's an interesting actor and movie star in the sense that people have a very preconceived notion of who Mark Wahlberg is, and I don't know why that is. Maybe it's because I didn't grow up here and I wasn't part of the Marky-Mark generation, but he's gone through so many different stages in his life, and he had an upbringing as radically different as you could possibly get. That's great acting to me. First of all, it's the choice to actually do something like this that’s a testament to the fact that he is a pretty fearless actor, but it's also the fact that he’s able to then seamlessly and invisibly inhabit the part, and that's as much my responsibility as it is his. We set out incredibly early to dissect that character from the physical, how he carried himself, his weight, his pacing of delivery, everything about him was quite deliberate. In a way, when you put the sum of those parts together, you end up with a character that feels quite authentic. Anyone that's comes to it and goes, "Oh, I’d never buy Mark Wahlberg as a college professor because the guy only got his high school diploma last year online" in a way is forgetting that any number of actors who've come before who've played the most extraordinary array of different characters who don't fit their personalities or their own personal histories. That's acting, you know?

It's great to put something like this against Pain and Gain. He plays such a dumb guy there and such a smart guy here, and maybe he's not either of those people, so the acting shows the full spectrum.
Yeah… Mark is probably the smartest person I've ever met. [Laughs.] You don't see the ducks feet paddling with Mark. That's, I guess, perhaps why it seems so effortless. He's quite still. I never saw him lose his temper. I’m sure he can, but I saw him deal with fans mobbing him in a street the same way I saw him deal with talking to somebody on the set. He's very deliberate. He's figured out a way to exist within a world of his own choosing. And as a result, I think he's succeeded. There are some actors who become movies stars that don't ultimately know how to navigate that, and I think he's very smart in that he’s understood his value and what it's allowed him to do – films like this – which otherwise wouldn’t get made.

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Does it take someone like Mark to make this role work? Someone who, even in a completely self-destructive state, can come off as likeable?
I think he makes the character inherently more likeable than other actors purely on the basis that part of Mark's allure as a movie star is that he's very empathetic. He has the Spencer Tracey-like quality of the everyman. He's quite open-faced. This character he plays is incredibly nihilistic and calls people as he sees it whether they like it or not. Rages against the machine as this very "fuck you" to the world. I think we're able to navigate that and hopefully be swept up by that and be interested in it because it's an actor like Mark playing that.

It's also interesting to see someone balance being self-destructive, but being smart enough to understand what he's doing.
I loved exploring the notion of how in western society, especially in 2014, we're at this stage where we have a set of rules placed upon us that are so rigid. Our lives are played out according to how society believes they should be. We're seduced into wanting some material object. Even Men’s Journal. I love it. I read it and I go, "God, I really want that, that, that, and that." All the aspirational choices we can make in our life, and that doesn't always make us truly happy. Interestingly, this character is a guy who's looking to buck the system and say, "You know what? I don't want any of that. I want to blow it all up, because when I get rid of all that, then I can figure out who I really am." Which is basically the story of an overdog wanting to become an underdog, and that’s not necessarily appealing to a lot of people. People see the world in a Rocky-like way.

And that doesn’t make sense in the world of a gambler. A gambler always wants to have a one-up on the world. He wants to find an inside track. 
You’d have to ask really heavy gamblers more than me, perhaps, but my sense of it is that a lot of gamblers stay at the table and they don’t really know why. They know if they stay there long enough they're going to come away with nothing, and there's an interesting question there: Why stay at the table? Why not cash your chips in when you're up. I guess there's this sense that maybe you can do one more, maybe you can win one more. But the odds get shorter and shorter. That's an addict. Jim's different. He steps up to the table knowing he's not going to leave until he comes away with zero, which is why when it comes to him gambling, it's as unglamorous as it gets. When Jim hits a 3 on an 18 and gets 21, he doesn't blink an eye because he doesn't care if he wins or loses. He just wants to blow $260-grand. 

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