Following on from his preceding, remarkable endeavour Rise of the Planet of the Apes – British filmmaker Rupert Wyatt is now trying his hand at something a little different, with The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman.
We had the pleasure of speaking to the renowned director, and the decision behind Wahlberg’s weight loss for the lead role of Jim. Wyatt also speaks of Scorsese’s former involvement in the project, while also bemoaning the lack of important female roles in Hollywood – which he even admits is an issue in this very production.
I never really refer to the original, from a filmmaking point view, nor from a script point of view, because the script I was working on is Bill Monahan’s and his reference point was the Dostoevsky novella, so even though there are certain narrative – obviously the main character being an English professor and aspects of his family and things like that, it was really coming at a very different angle. For me the original is about addiction and ours is not. So I never really looked at it neither as a burden or a blessing to be honest.
Mark Wahlberg lost a lot of weight for the role, why did you both feel that was important in regards to the character of Jim?
It wasn’t so much for the character, but more for Mark as an actor to find his way into the part. He was very physical when I started working with him, he’d just come off Transformers. He was big. The character of Jim clearly has interest in himself from a physical point of view, doesn’t care what he eats and isn’t looking after his health, so it just made no sense. So we had a choice, pile on the pounds and get really fat, or go much more rakish and skinny, and that was the choice that we made.
I read he also attended college courses as well, and he called the role of Jim the most challenging he’s ever undertaken. It must mean a lot to you as a director when the actor invests as much as Mark did in this instance?
Yeah. I knew going in to it when I read the script that Mark was already attached, as he came to me with the project. I knew it was clearly a passion project for him, the notion of taking on what is, on the page, quite an unlikeable character and it’s a challenging part in a challenging film, and not necessarily everybody’s cup of tea. It didn’t so much put pressure on me, it actually inspired me a great deal, I realised I was going to have the opportunity to work with someone that is a very natural, gifted actor who can quite often play in genre films, and does so, but also pepper his career with these really interesting, unexpected roles, and this was one of them.
Am I right in thinking that Leo DiCaprio was at one stage attached to the role of Jim?
That was before my time so I don’t really know any details to that, but I think, from my understanding, back in 1974, there was a moment when Scorsese was going to direct it, which didn’t happen and Irwin Winkler, the producer of the original and producer of our film, has a long-standing working relationship with Scorsese, going back to Raging Bull, which he produced. So when Paramount decided to come at this project again and revisit, Scorsese was the first to be approached. And I think his relationship with DiCaprio meant they were going to be coming together, I think.
Jim is not the most likeable of protagonists – how did you go about ensuring the audience remain on his side and sympathetic to his case?
Yeah he’s not a likeable character, he’s an outsider in many and someone who is looking to rage against the machine, and the challenge for us, and the question we always ask ourselves, was, do we necessarily have to like the protagonist? And clearly you don’t, you just need to be interested in him. That was always our agenda, to retain interest in the choices he makes. Even if those choices are insufferable that aren’t ones we would necessarily take, we just wanted the audience to retain a curiosity about the journey he’s taking.
Another star of this is John Goodman, who you manage to get naked, bald and saying “fuck you” countless times over – that must have been an enjoyable scene to shoot?
It was yeah, he’s an amazing guy, and effortless. Directing him is complicated in it’s simplicity, if that makes any sense. He’s an actor who brings so much of his own understanding of timing and just how to sit within a frame. These things that all the great actors have an innate ability to do, so for me my job was just keeping him honest and sort of acting as his mirror basically, reflecting back on to him how he was inhabiting the scene and the film as a whole. So yeah, it was a privilege to work with him.
You’ve gone on record to state your disappointment at under-written female roles in Hollywood, which you’ve claimed is even the case for Brie Larson’s Amy. Is it quite frustrating for you, and is it tough to try and add more dialogue, or more weight to a character during production? Can that be a difficult prospect for a director?
It’s more complicated than that, in a sense that, and just speaking from The Gambler’s point of view, it’s an interesting one because, and you’d have to ask Bill Monahan this question, but my understanding is that in the original film the female protagonist was just a showgirl, and the idea of the character was that she was a pretty superficial person and a hanger-on and I feel like in some ways the unfortunate translation of that part fell between the two stools of that. Amy is such a different character to that, she’s the beating heart of the film, she’s the reason why he makes changes in his life and finds redemption, which is the reason why this film isn’t about addiction, because he does find redemption and I don’t think addicts find redemption, they just learn how to control their demons. But ultimately I feel like, in many ways, the Amy character needs to be more explored in specific scenes dedicated to her. The reason why she was so alluring to him, the reason why she was this genius he marks out in the crowd in the opening lecture – and we don’t really get to see enough, apart from through his eyes.
It’s always that conundrum when telling a story that is an ensemble piece, that you have a very clear protagonist, in our case, a man who is in every single scene in the movie. It’s hard in some ways to serve the other characters around them and give them fully formed arcs, because of course they are ultimately there to service our protagonist, and so I think you have to go back to the fundamentals of the scriptwriting to change that, and I very much understand from a brevity point of view why we only get to understand Amy through Jim’s eyes and not actually through a more God’s eye point of view. It’s often the case, there should just be more female protagonists, that’s my feelings. There are just more male protagonists than there are female, and that should change, it become more equal.
Your preceding film was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was a huge, multi-million pound blockbuster with CGI and motion capture and the like. But when directing a film like The Gambler, does it take back to basics a bit more for you? Is there more freedom as a director?
Yes and no. There’s no fundamental difference, it’s still filmmaking and you’re still creating a narrative within a pre-written scene. It’s just different tools I guess. This being an ensemble piece and the less-effects heavy allows you to be a bit more nimble, it’s more like theatre in that sense, you can move faster in the narrative and shooting the narrative. When making an effects heavy film you always have to have one eye on making sure the camera becomes as important, or more important sometimes, than the narrative in terms of its placement and how things are being captured. But yeah, for me the allure is telling good stories, so whatever tools you use, in the case of Apes it was motion capture to create the apes, and that was fascinating to me and something I want to continue doing, but this was more of a chamber piece, an ensemble piece I was really drawn to from the notion of telling the story of an antihero.
The Gambler is released on January 23rd.