Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wayne Kramer on "The Cooler"


What was the genesis of the script for The Cooler?

WAYNE KRAMER: My good friend,, Frank Hannah is a fountain of great ideas and he used to bounce stuff off of me all the time. I had only sold one project to Hollywood at the time (Mindhunters, which was in the process of being rewritten by the umpteenth writer) and had had a couple of scripts optioned, but nothing was really happening with them. My original goal was always to write and direct, but nobody was interested in letting me direct anything at the time since I had zero track record.

When Frank pitched me the core idea for The Cooler (a guy with contagious bad luck being used by a casino, who falls in love and gets lady luck which backfires on the casino), I instantly responded to it. I told him that's the idea he should be working on and that he should start writing it immediately. At the same time, I was looking to direct my first "real" feature and I had interest from a producer (Michael Pierce) about financing something at a real low budget. I just couldn't let the idea go and a few days later I called up Frank and asked him if he would be interested in writing The Cooler with me -- but only on the condition that I get to direct it -- and, thankfully, he was amenable to that.

So we sat down (fairly quickly) and worked out most of the story beats. We both blurted out Bill Macy's name as the perfect guy for the role right at the start. We wrote it with him in mind -- to this day, I don't think that another actor could ever do justice to that part. There was a time when Bill wasn't going to do the movie and another actor was being considered for it -- and I think it would have never been the movie I wanted it to be without Bill.

Since Frank has the gambling gene and I don't, when we were ready to write the actual script, I broke it down so that I would write the more character focused stuff and Frank would concentrate on more of the casino action and then I blended the scenes together into a singular work.

Were you concerned about budget at all while writing --- that is to say, did you write with keeping the budget low in mind?

WAYNE KRAMER: Absolutely. First and foremost in my mind was that I needed to deliver a script that could be shot for about a million dollars or less. One of the things that attracted me to the idea at the time was that it could be made for very little money. Most of it was set on a casino floor and in Shelly's office and a motel room.

Our biggest challenge initially was that it was written to be a period piece and that would have been cost prohibitive. By giving it a contemporary setting, I was still able to retain somewhat of a period vibe by keeping the Shangri-la casino in a "time warp." I don't think the film would have been as interesting if it was set in the 70's as we originally envisioned. This was a case of budget constraints on us making the material even better.

Even though the original was always about the changing face of Vegas, it just became more "relevant" in 2002 because Vegas was really exploding into this amusement park behemoth at the time.

If one breaks the script down, it's all set within the casino and hotel, other than two or three other locations. And that's the way we approached production, to try and shoot everything in one location - which is what we ended up doing. We must have shot about 90 percent of the film at what was known as the Golden Phoenix at the time (formerly the Flamingo in Reno). Even luckier for us, the casino/hotel was going through renovations, so it was closed to the public. They were literally tearing up the casino floor while we were shooting.

Can you think of one or two money-saving tricks you did while shooting that other low-budget filmmakers could learn from?

WAYNE KRAMER: Well, the more prepared you are, the more you're going to save money on what's important. This probably relates to the next question as well, but I knew every shot I wanted to film and where the camera was going to be looking. I had spent the previous six months up until the day of shooting storyboarding every frame of the film -- I was determined to leave nothing to chance. Of course, you make changes to your boards, but you have a strong blueprint for what you want the film to be and everyone can refer to it when they have questions.

Besides storyboarding, you want to limit your company moves while shooting, which means finding locations that are really close to one another, or even better, within the same structure.

We were amazingly lucky on The Cooler, because we shot in an existing hotel/casino and were able to not only use the casino floor (which we did significant production design work to), but their theater, including the backstage area, where we built the interior of Bernie's motel room, their employment office (doubling for a hospital), their hotel rooms, an upstairs restaurant was turned into Shelly's office and so on.

When we did venture outside of the casino, we probably only traveled a block or two, so we never had to wrap our main location. We also housed and fed the crew in the hotel, so we could just walk away from the equipment at night without having to worry about wrap time or travel eating into our budget and schedule. It was a truly miraculous scenario, but borne out of solid planning and scouting.

Is there a key lesson you took away from your experience on The Cooler?

WAYNE KRAMER: For me, I learned it was all about collaboration.

Surround yourself with talented people who understand your vision for the film and let them bring their best to the table. If your ego gets in the way, you'll only end up hurting yourself.

At the same time, you cannot allow your vision for the film to be usurped by cast or crew. You have to follow your gut and it's a difficult balance to maintain.

Directing is a tough job and everyone around you on the set seems to be having more fun - because you're too busy stressing about the next setup or an actor that you haven't cast yet, or a million different things. You have to stay focused at all times and be able to think quickly on your feet.

You also have to KNOW your film. If you know your film, you'll be up to the challenge. It's also about keeping the film tonally consistent.

Preparation and collaboration is everything. And CONFIDENCE. Even if it's an act. Never let them see you sweat.

Most important is that you work with good people. Trustworthy people. If you don't have a final cut contract, pray that your producers and financiers are behind you.

The biggest battles I've ever fought are in the editing room - or after test screenings. This is where I find a filmmaker is at his/her most vulnerable.

You can shoot a great movie, but the money guys have to be willing to let you release the best version of the film and not just the most commercial version. I thank Ed Pressman for having the balls to back me artistically on The Cooler, because it could have been a far different movie if someone like Harvey Weinstein had gotten his hands on it.

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