D.J. Caruso Interview

The director talks about working with Pacino, gambling and dealing with the NFL for Two for the Money

Bursting on the scene with his hard hitting The Salton Sea, Director D.J. Caruso is quickly showing himself to be a director from the old school. With his ability to handle many different types of material, he followed that tale of man’s journey into the bowels of hell, with Taking Lives, a thriller about a serial killer who takes on the identities of new victims.

In Caruso’s newest offering, Two For the Money, he sets his sites on the world of high stakes gambling. While the true story of a former college sports star, turned professional “adviser” to gamblers throughout the world, might seem out of his depth, Caruso deftly handled the tale of Brandon Lang showing his rise, fall and eventual redemption. Starring Al Pacino in the mentor role of Walter Abrams and Matthew McConaughey as the impressionable Lang, Two For the Money is a fast paced, inside look at a world few of us even know about.

Was there originally more of Armand Assante’s character (he plays the part of high roller, Novian, in the film) in the real life story?

D.J. Caruso: Those were the only scenes that were in the film. It’s a true story so the arc of that character, we condensed Brandon’s story into one Football season, because we thought it’d be a better storytelling device. This arc took place over about three years. Where Brandon advised this character for a long time and he made a lot of money. In cinematic terms it was sort of condensed down, but those were the only scenes that were scripted with Armand.

After The Salton Sea and Taking Lives, are you moving more toward the character drawn films?

D.J. Caruso: I love character drawn films. Even though The Salton Sea, was I guess sort of a noir type thriller, I was more connected to those characters. On this, I was excited because there was no drugs, no serial killers and this was just about the people. I think whenever you get a chance to work with Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo and have real characters that are identifiable, and Al’s character particularly, incredibly complex. I would do it again in a minute. Making a movie in 43 days for $20 million dollars is something Al’s not used to, was a challenge. I’d like to make a movie like this every year for the rest of my life if I could.

What about the connection between gambling and drugs? Gambling being like a drug?

D.J. Caruso: Gambling is a drug. The dopamine that’s produced in your brain is identical almost to someone using speed. Not as severe in a physical sense, but Al’s character is a compulsive gambler and the person that’s based on, the reason why I was attracted to the story is because he is one of the most dysfunctional men. He was addicted to everything. He had a food disorder, a drinking problem, he had a drug problem, he had a gambling problem so to try to overcome all those, he was an incredibly complex character. So yeah, the gambling is the drug in this.

Did you attend any Gambler’s Anonymous meetings?

D.J. Caruso: Oh yeah, I went to three or four Gambler’s Anonymous meetings. A couple in Glendale. One in Hollywood. It’s interesting too, because, not only what was eye-opening for me, was not only all of these sub-Bicycle Casinos and all of these casino’s opening, not only was it sports gamblers but housewives who would play Texas Hold’Em in the middle of the day. There’s this whole sort of new element seeping into Gambler’s Anonymous, so we learned a lot about that and Walter’s speech in Gambler’s Anonymous, was not to make this sort of Devil’s Advocate speech, but to make this a real sincere, this is really who we are and this is who I am, and I understand that and you guys don’t. A lot of the sincerity of that came from going to those Gambler’s Anonymous meetings.

Were you intimidated at all working with Al Pacino?

D.J. Caruso: Oh, sure. Particularly before rehearsals start. Once we come out of rehearsals I feel very comfortable knowing how we can work together. It’s a daunting task. It’s like what my wife said, “If the The Godfather one or two comes on, even if it’s twelve thirty, I’ve lost you for like three hours.” It was such a gift to work with him. But you know, the first time you give Al Pacino direction was sort of a telling moment. Okay, let me take my headset off and let me go talk to him, but he wants to be directed so badly that it was actually invigorating, but, it is intimidating, because you think, “Gosh, who am I?” and “Why should I tell him how I want it done?”

The thing that Al and I were trying to convey, for the people that don’t gamble or aren’t compulsive gamblers, was that the high really is in losing. It’s a tough concept to grasp because we all want to gamble and we all want to win, but in the losing, like when he says, “When they’re raking the chips away is when I feel most alive is because now I’m desperate.” That was the thing we worked most on. He is a tragic character who ultimately becomes silent at the end because his wife, who’s sort of this voice of reason, as much as she’s trying, is just trying to slap him in the face and say, “It’s much simpler than all this. It’s me, you and our daughter that’s really what life is about. It’s not about any of this other stuff.”

Was it important to have Brandon come from a pure place to play off of Pacino?

D.J. Caruso: I think it was for me. Because being a gambler, or trying to understand if you guys have ever bet a football game, or have the audience understand if you’ve ever bet a football game, is that it’s not about the purity of the sport. You cannot watch a football game or an athletic event, at all the same if you have bet on that game. It was important for me to say, this is a guy, who the purity of the game was beautiful, and the relationship of trying to please Dad was replaced with Walter, and I think to return him back, when he first got out, the first thing he did was find a Pee-Wee football game. Just so he can remember, “Wait a minute, this is a sport that I love. This is a sport that I played.” And it just became so not about the beauty of the sport. That was important for me as a filmmaker and as a sports fan. I wanted it to be for the audience, almost as if they were gambling with Brandon. As if they went to Vegas with this character, and they started playing Blackjack and they started winning, “Oh isn’t this great!” And then they get their suite upgraded, all of the sudden they went to the store and got a nice suit. I wanted the audience to experience a gambling experience. A winning experience and then sort of take the ride down.

As this is based on a true story, how much license did you take with some of the material?

D.J. Caruso: There’s some taken. A lot of it, characters are combined. The biggest license taken was Brandon played basketball at UNLV. He got on that team, blew out his knee, and before I got involved, Dan Gilroy, the writer, very smartly decided in order to make it a more, to have the audience understand the story better, to understand that Brandon was a football player and that’s why he understands football, and can advise people because he was a player. We thought it was a better storytelling device, but that was the biggest license taken.

What did you think Matthew McConaughey brought to the role of Brandon?

D.J. Caruso: I think Matthew’s a guy you can’t help but root for. What he really brought, which was a little different than what I initially thought, I think it was a smart choice, was this was a guy who never felt sorry for himself. Like when he blew out his knee, it was the MC Hammer hotline he was running, not the Jessica Simpson hotline, he never got down. He was always trying to win, always trying to come back, always looking, even though deep down he probably felt, “God, what am I doing with myself?”, but Matthew is a very positive character. His approach to the character was, he was a quarterback, he played football, he was going to always try to win. I think that was Matthew’s biggest asset. You like him and it’s a guy who’s trying to win. How could you not like him? I think if the movie works for somebody, they are gonna be just as seduced by the world as Matthew is, because he’s taking them through it. Ultimately, as an audience member you might feel a little bit guilty that you got caught into it. The irony of the movie is as we get to Super 40, because we couldn’t say Super Bowl, it’s a coin flip. How brilliant was he really? Was it just a streak of luck? Was it just a run? Was it something else? It is gambling. Ultimately, it came down to a guy flipping a coin.

Was it intentional not to hit the audience over the head with gambling information?

D.J. Caruso: I was worried how would my wife, how would a housewife... how would someone who has never bet on a game understand “the line” or “the over”? I think Dan Gilroy had a great device when Walter’s daughter who’s six years old sits on his lap and they watch that game. And he says, “See honey, see that? See the team on the right?” And if a 6 year old can understand it then I think the audience members all feel like, “Okay, I understand this. I get it.” I was very concerned because I understood the words so well, was I going to be able to convey it to the audience without getting so much exposition in there that the movie would just sort of slow down? I think we did, I don’t know. We had these two previews and I was expecting all of these gambling questions and everybody got it.

Did you deal with the NFL in making this movie?

D.J. Caruso: The tragic thing for me as a filmmaker is that I’m always assuming all along, “We’ll get NFL footage, we’ll get college footage...” And knowing we only had 43 days to shoot the movie, everything you’re seeing, all the actors are reacting to greenscreens on television. We didn’t have it, we thought we were going to get it and they didn’t cooperate at all. Basically, I’m talking the actors through what’s happening on a green screen. We had to hire Allan Graf who helped come in and shoot some second unit football scenes, that we’re specific to our film. The NFL was so uncooperative. We couldn’t call a team New York, because the blue was the same color as the New York Giants. The NFL lawyers were just watching everything we did, and ready to sue us and shut us down because they do not want to be associated at all with gambling.

That was tough because then we didn’t have the time or the money to do it. Like I said, we made this movie for $20 million dollars, outside of the studio system then it got into Universal. So I was counting on it and had to scramble, halfway through the movie to figure out, “Gosh, where am I gonna get this footage?”

What was the audience reaction to some of the more darker material of the movie?

D.J. Caruso: There’s not many movies where you actually piss on your moviestar! There was a couple of people coming in to see a Matthew McConaughey, Al Pacino, Rene Russo movie... and the women come in with their shopping bags, cause they were at the mall and that happens and they’re just horrified. So you do get a few people who kind of run out, but as a filmmaker, for me, outside of like an opening weekend, the preview screenings are just horrifying. I’m telling you, it ruins me for a couple of days because they’re just horrifying. Because you’re worried that somebody who’s involved with the movie is gonna be influenced by what this one guy, who happens to be a fireman, says, because, “Firemen never park their trucks like that. They always go this way.” And so it’s horrifying... but I think if there’s a plus to them, I think if there’s something universal, like if 100 people said, “I don’t understand an ‘over/under.’ I just don’t get it.” Then as a filmmaker there’s a storytelling problem.

So I think they could be beneficial, but I can’t even hear what’s going on because... it’s everyone’s right to be a film critic, and particularly in Los Angeles when someone says, “Well you know, at the end of Act Two...” And you think like, “I don’t even know where Act Two is what is this guy talking about?” It was a good process on this movie, I’ll tell you why, I had no idea but if you see this movie with 500 people, once we introduced Al’s character in the first 40 minutes, there’s laughter, there’s a lot of fun so it’s almost like a real gambling experience where everyone’s having a great time, everything’s rolling, it was refreshing to see the audience have such a good time. And then it gets very quiet when it gets dark. That has been excised from one of the first previews, and it will be a little bit more on hopefully the directors cut and the DVD, there was some more darker things that happened, that I think for a general audience were too much.

What’s next for you?

D.J. Caruso: Right now I have a film at New Line with Kate Hudson it’s called Sleight of Mind, written by Ron Bass who wrote Rain Man. It’s a drama about Kate Hudson and her boyfriend, who are two grifters, and their plan to bilk this guy, who’s struggling with Alzheimer's in Miami, out of all his money. It’s not as dark as it sounds.

Who plays the Alzheimer guy?

D.J. Caruso: We don’t have him yet. We just got a greenlight on the movie last week. Of course they all want Jack Nicholson, “Get Jack! Get Jack! Get Jack!”.

Two For the Money rolls the dice in theaters on October 7th, 2005.