Director Gil Cates Jr. talks about filming in post-Katrina Louisiana, the poker pros in the movie and future projects
Director Gil Cates is a gambler at heart and his first film, Spent, was an semi-autobiographical tale of the perils of gambling. His latest film, Deal, which comes out on DVD on August 19, revolves around the high-stakes poker world, one which he had wanted to explore for awhile. I had the chance to speak with the co-writer/director over the phone and here's what he had to say.
Your first feature, Spent, dealt with gambling but Deal is more focused on poker. Have you been a lifelong poker player or a gambler?
Gil Cates Jr.: (Laughs) Well, Spent was more of an autobiographical story. I started out as an actor 15 years ago. I sort of lived that life where I was waiting for residual checks and waiting for auditions. I loved sports and betting football kind of became a lifestyle after a couple of years. That was a little more of like a release in my life. I made a few films between these two. I do play cards, Texas Hold-Em. My buddy Mark Weinstock, who I wrote the script with, both of us play Texas Hold 'Em. At the time we wrote the script, it was actually before, because it took awhile for the movie to come out, Lucky You and The Grand and before all those poker movies. We were like, 'Hey. There are no poker, Texas Hold 'Em movies.' The best one was Rounders and there hasn't been a better one since and that's when we started to write it. Of course, by the time we wrote it and sold it and it got optioned and shooting and then Katrina happened so we got pushed, the next thing you know we're coming out after a few of these other movies and it might seem like we just rode the train, but really we started writing it because poker started to take off. I'm not really a major gambler, but I do enjoy playing cards.
So did this whole thing start with Chris Moneymaker and the whole rise of poker? Is that when you started writing this?
Gil Cates Jr.: Basically, we started writing it in 2005, after Chris Moneymaker and when poker started to become popular, for sure, but before that TV show on ESPN came out (Tilt) and before a few films had come out. It's a great game and it's really openly a game more than the cards, which is what makes it so interesting and so interesting to the public and why we thought it'd make a good movie, in that it's really about people. Unlike other poker games, Hold 'Em is not about the cards you have, but about the way you play them and, of course, the obvious metaphor with life. That's kind of where we were coming from and why we decided to do it.
You have a really solid cast here with Burt Reynolds and Shannon Elizabeth, Charles Durning and your young star Brett Harrison. Did you have any of these guys in mind when you were writing this?
Gil Cates Jr.: Definitely, we were always thinking Burt. I just loved the idea. I'm a lifelong Burt Reynolds fan from when I was growing up. I'm 38 so growing up with "Cannonball Run" movies and of course his whole Boogie Nights resurgance. We just thought it would be kind of cool because of the character was where Burt was at. The character was a huge poker player who wasn't in the game as much anymore but still very respected. That's what was kind of neat about Burt doing this part, because Burt was hugely respected, one of the most popular and really great actors, going back to Deliverance and all that kind of stuff. I just thought it was a good metaphor for the role, like this is kind of like Burt, as opposed to seeing some current flashy name that was only a few years in the business. So we always had our eye on Burt. He was the first person we cast and he was very friendly. With Charles Durning, it wasn't the biggest part but it was a good part and it would be fun to have him there. And Shannon Elizabeth, who actually plays cards in real life, but her part in the movie she has nothing to do with playing cards, so that was a coincidence. With Brett Harrison, Mimi Rogers was kind of like the godmother for the movie. She helped us get in touch with the World Poker Tour, which helped us legitimize this as a real poker movie because we had them involved. She was doing a TV show with Brett called The Loop and she's like, 'There's this kid Brett Harrison. He's great. You should definitely meet him.' So we met Brett and he did the table read after we wrote the script and we thought he was perfect, so that's how we got to Brett.
I read that you actually had the whole World Poker Tour set flown in to Louisiana.
Gil Cates Jr.: Yeah. It was driven in on a big truck. Yeah, it was important to us, even before the cast. We didn't want to have to make up a name like the World Championship Poker Final. We wanted to have something legitamite. Lucky You used the World Series of Poker so we were able to use the World Poker Tour.
Can you tell us a little about filming in Louisiana? Why did you choose Louisiana as opposed to a gambling mecca like Vegas or Atlantic City?
Gil Cates Jr.: Well, primarily because of the tax credit. The company that financed the film, before MGM got involved, Seven Arts Pictures, they made a movie there and in Vancouver and I was glad to make it in the States, for sure. Obviously, those tax breaks from Louisiana was a big reason, but they also have riverboats and there's a Harrah's Casino there. We built some casinos but we also used some real ones and, of course, we had Vegas exteriors and stuff but it was primarily for the financing, but also because they happened to have a lot of casinos and things there, which made it kind of convenient.
You have quite a who's-who of poker pros here with Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly and world champions Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem. What was it like just being surrounded by all these poker greats and did they provide any consulting while you were shooting?
Gil Cates Jr.: Our official poker consultant was a guy named Scott Lazar, who finished sixth in the World Series of Poker in 2005. He also has a small part in the movie. He was our poker consultant, but it was awesome having those guys around, especially once I started to delve more into the card world and getting to meet them and hang out with them. They were hysterical. Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari, they would be on the set and, literally, in between takes, would be betting for dinners, lunches. We gave them their per diem and they'd immediately open the envelopes and put it on the table and do like high-card. It was just constant poker entertainment.
What was the overall vibe or mood like on the set when you were shooting this?
Gil Cates Jr.: The mood was pretty good. We were the first movie, post-Katrina, to shoot there. Deja Vu, the Denzel Washington movie, we were in pre-production before they were, but they actually started rolling cameras before we did because of just timing or whatever, but we were essentially the first film to shoot there, post-Katrina. I think everyone just felt really good being in Louisiana. As bizarre as it was driving to the set every day and seeing McDonalds' with blown-out glass everywhere and just crazy stuff, people were just grateful to have us there and they were so nice and warm and welcoming. That really helped us create a positive mood on the set. It wasn't like we were in L.A. and everyone wants to go home so they can have dinner at Katana that night. We all were going in the same hotels and the same food and we were kind of in it together, so it was kind of cool.
Have you ever played in a big poker event like the World Series of Poker or the World Poker tour, or is that something you're planning on doing?
Gil Cates Jr.: I've played in the World Poker Tour Invitational, which is largely just celebrity-based, and most of the money goes to charity, but it's like a 400 or 500-person tournament at the Commerce Casino every year. It's a combination of poker players and actors and other people. I've played in that a few times and it was really fun. I've played in a lot of smaller tournaments but I haven't done like a $10,000 World Series of Poker buy-in or anything like that.
Yeah, that's a dream.
Gil Cates Jr.: Totally. Actually, I might be in London next month. There's a European World Series of Poker or EPT, I forget which one it is, but there's a $1,000 buy-in Texas Hold 'Em event, so I think if I'm there, maybe I'll play that.
Is there anything you can tell us about The Chaos Theory that you're producing? How's that moving along?
Gil Cates Jr.: Great. It's really a cool movie. We shot it last December. A lot of crazy stuff was going on. It was during the writers strike. It's Milo Ventimiglia, who's in Heroes and Rhys Corio, who plays the director Billy Walsh on Entourage, the kind of crazy character and Mimi Rogers and Samantha Mathis. It's a really psychologically-driven script that I produced, the first time I ever produced a movie I didn't direct. It came together quick. My friend Vince Vieluf wrote the script and directed it. I'm really excited about it. It's kind of like "In the Company of Men" meets Fight Club.
Gil Cates Jr.: If you can sort of put those two movies together, I don't know if one can, but it's cool. I think it's going to be a really smart little movie.
Are you guys going to keep the title, now that the Ryan Reynolds movie came out?
Gil Cates Jr.: We're probably not. That's the title out there, that's on IMDB and that people know. We're going to keep it for awhile, but we might have to change it. Although, the Ryan Reynolds movie wasn't a huge splash, so maybe we can keep it. We're not sure yet, but until we can come up with the perfect title, that's the one we're going with.
Is there anything that you're currently writing right now that you can tell us about, or anything else you're looking at developing?
Gil Cates Jr.: Yeah, I have a few projects. One is, I like to call it a dark romantic comedy, called Lucky, that's going to probably go in the next four or five months. I actually just finished shooting a poker documentary called Pass the Sugar about Joe Hachem and the 2005 World Series of Poker final table. Of course, I met those guys doing Deal and Joe's brother, Tony and Caitlin (Murney), who produced The Chaos Theory with me, those guys are producing it so I'm in post on that. I've got a couple of other scripts that I'm really excited about. One is another romantic comedy with Sid Gains, president of the Academy and the producer of "Mr. Deeds" and Big Daddy, he optioned the script that my friend Kent and I wrote. So, I've got a bunch of stuff going on, but the main stuff that's taking my focus now is finishing The Chaos Theory and the poker documentary and, of course, doing whatever I can to promote the DVD of Deal (Laughs).
Of course. So, finally, not only just recently but throughout the years there have been poker films with The Cincinnati Kid and Rounders and others. What do you think sets Deal apart from other poker films that have come and gone in the past?
Gil Cates Jr.: I mean, The Cincinnati Kid and Rounders are awesome films and I wouldn't even compare Deal to that. But, since Rounders, I just think it's about the relationships. This film has been compared to The Color of Money but I really think it's about the relationship between these two people. Yes, it's set in the world of cards, but it's really about these people learning and growing from each other. I think the combination of having the World Poker Tour and all these poker players in it, so you kind of buy into the world that you're in, and, above that, you have these two people who are in these places in their lives and they both think they know something and think they're content where they are and they make a change by the end of the movie and they're probably going to both live their lives differently because of the fact that they met each other. It's just a good people story and I think that's what ultimately makes the movie work and what makes it good.
Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you. Thanks so much for your time, Gil.
Gil Cates Jr.: Oh, sure, Brian. Thank you very much.
You can go all-in with Deal when it hits the shelves on DVD on August 19.