Sunday, April 26, 2009

TRIBECA: Don't pick up that shovel! Amir Naderi's VEGAS: review and interview

Is it possible for a single movie to capture --via the travails of one family over a small span of time -- what is currently happening to America? I wouldn't have said so prior to sitting through Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi's new work VEGAS: Based on a True Story. Now, I'm not so sure. For all its faults, and there certainly are some, Naderi's movie shows us how characters can disintegrate when their own defects and desires come up against some deliberate misinformation. Whether this

misinformation comes via their government, a stockbroker or -- as in this case -- just a guy they've let into their lives, the results can prove equally horrific.

That Vegas is set in Las Vegas -- not the glitzy, "family-friendly" hotels we're used to seeing, but the workaday world of the hand-to-mouth, small-casino crowd -- might make the movie appear too specific and non-representational of America at large. I don't think so. Isn't living on credit a form of gambling? In any case, the father, mother and son pictured here look pretty typical, as played decently enough by, respectively, Mark Greenfield, Nancy La Scala and Zach Thomas. Mom and Dad have some addiction issues (gambling, cigarettes, and control among them), but they're trying, with varying degrees of success, to manage these. Then a small event happens that sets the movie on its course; around 90 minutes later, we leave the theatre, to twist a Bond reference, both shaken and stirred.

The three main performers (with some help from a few good supporting performances) have the yeoman task of carrying the entire movie, which was directed and co-written by Mr. Naderi (with the help of Susan Brennan, Bliss Esposito and Charlie Lake Keaton). The actors start slowly, seeming initially a little drear and uncomfortable, but they eventually pull us in and by film's end have delivered the goods. Stylistically, Naderi (shown above in black-and-white) offers few flourishes, nor does the rather grim location -- a small, nondescript house and yard -- call for these. The director keeps things simple and a little boring (digging holes plays a major part in the movie but I don't think we need see as much of this digging as we do). It's the people and their downward-spiraling situation that grab us.

What has happened and why is never fully explained; the viewer is free to believe this or that about him or her. Yet Naderi gives us the information we need, so that -- no matter how we parse the situation -- the results would likely be similar. The lure of easy money has held America in thrall for years, decades, centuries perhaps. Isn't this an integral part of The American Dream - from our first Gold Rush to the recent and foolish housing bubble? What Vegas: Based on a True Story offers us, finally, is the result of this dream. It ain't pretty.

Where can you view this unusual movie? Making its American debut at the Tribeca Film Fest, the film is looking for distribution and will screen again at the Tribeca venue AMC Village 7 on Sunday 4/26 at 10:45 pm, Thursday, 4/30 at noon, and Friday, 5/1 at 3:15pm.

As timely as Vegas: Based on a True Story appears, the movie, it turns out, is already two years old. We can accuse Mr. Naderi of prescience, perhaps, but not of pandering to current events. After the screening, we meet at the Tribeca PR headquarters, University and 13th Street, with Naderi and his leading actress, Nancy La Scala, with a brief time to ask but a few questions. While the director himself comes across as some kind of Iranian "player" who possesses a good sense of humor, Ms La Scala, glamorous and dressed to the nines, looks nothing like the rather plan-jane wife and mother she portrays in the movie.

(Editor's Note: there may be some spoilers along the way in this interview, so be warned.)

Initially the filmmaker makes himself scarce, so we speak first with Ms. La Scala, who tells that she has also appeared in Species 2 and Jane Campion's In the Cut with Meg Ryan.

Greenfield, Thomas, Naderi and La Scala at the Tribeca premier
(Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images North America)

TrustMovies: Is that why Meg Ryan was at the screening of Vegas this morning?

Nancy La Scala: Was she there? I didn't know that. No: We did cross paths during the shooting of In the Cut, but that was all. Though one of the things I learned from her during the shooting was that you should only be called by your character's name -- and nothing else -- during the shooting. Otherwise things can get too confusing. As soon as Meg is out there, even if she is walking on the street, you call her by her character's name (her name in the film was Frankie). So that was something interesting I learned.

Does this usually happen on movie sets?

No, but since then I have made sure that when I am working, that's how I am known -- for instance, on this film, as "Tracy."

Boy, this one really is a very strange move. Depressing!

It's different all right. Especially during the times we are going through right now.

I hate Las Vegas; always have. I think it's hell on earth -- whatever shiny exterior they might give it. And now, it's supposed to be kid-friendly and family-friendly? Gimme a break.

Sure, if your kids and family love to gamble! People get so consumed by that.

Yes, like your character, who is so compulsive. Somebody said to me after the screening that he didn't buy the fact that you would leave you child like that. But that's not true. The boy left you and went back to his dad. And you were into gambling previously, and we see how quickly your character gets into the digging, once she's decided to.

Yes, and throwing away the tomato plants, which has been her life completely. She nurtured them so much, like she was nurturing a family.

To me, this movie seems to reflect American right now.

Interesting -- that the film is appearing during this time. What is really interesting is that when we were started working on it, it was like a snowball effect, starting with people losing things like their jobs. Walmart had come in, then Panda Express, Hollywood Video and all. But yet one mile down the street from all that, you'd find someone living in a bus trailer, with all this junk. And you'd realize that they had lost their job. Pretty soon so many people were like this. But then you'd see these same people in the bar having a drink and playing the slot machines. I wondered sometimes if people really understood what they were going through? Do you allow yourself to let go of what you want -- and just appreciate what you have?

Or in Tracy's case, let go of everything: What you have, what you want -- the whole thing.

When Tracy finally makes that decision, it's sort of like following the two addictions she had before.

What's finally so odd and crazy-making is that everything in the movie seems like it could be a scam. The visiting Iraq vet, the police inspector. But if you look at America right now -- the world, really -- the same thing seems true. Everyone from

Above: Naderi and Thomas during Tribeca.

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America)

governments to our leading bankers to those of us who've been investing in what they've told us to invest in. It's all a scam.

Yes, and it doesn't matter what kind of situation it is. You could be buying hot dogs from the guy on the street corner and not know what you're getting. That's why I found the story so interesting. This isn't your typical American movie, with some Hollywood ending.

Is the movie not based on any one true story?

This is based a true story of someone Amir knew, when he had gone to live in Vegas. He met a lot of different people, and this story is based on someone's life. You see so many of these people, going through such great loss, and yet they have these addictions-- gambling, drinking, smoking, whatever -- even Tracy has the addiction of having to always be in control. That was her addiction.

Well, one of them.

(At this point, Amir Naderi enters the room, seats himself,
and we move the conversation over to him.)

You've lived in America for awhile, right?

The filmmaker tells us, in a very thick accent, that he was indeed born in Iran, though he has now lived a major portion of his adult life in the United States. When I ask about the retrospective of his work put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center some years back, he explains that the retrospective actually opened on September 10, 2001, and by the next day was among all the other sudden "non-events" that were swept away by 9/11. Talk about luck and timing....

To get to your new movie, I had some problems with it toward the beginning but as it went along, it grew more interesting and strange and finally it captured me completely. I found it one of the most depressing films I've seen because it seems to stand for American now -- what's left of it. We have lied to ourselves about the situation we were in, and our government has done the same thing, so that now we don't know what is real and what is not.

Amir Naderi: Funny but when we made this film, we did not think about these things. We filmed and we edited it, and we finished it two years ago--

Two years ago? You finished this two years ago? How long did it take to shoot?

Six months. I tried to put my characters through all this -- the situation, the house, the whole thing…

And the difference in the house at the beginning compared to the end of the film. My god…

You know we really tried to take care of that house. We watered the yard every day, and we took care of that house as we were filming, too.

How did you raise the money to make this movie?

This was a kind of crazy situation -- making a film in Vegas. It is so different there from making a film here in NYC. Here, you have control; there, no. And so the first money raised to make the money -- $25,000 -- I lost it.

What do you mean, you lost it?


You lost the production money to make the film by gambling it away? Are you in a 12-step program? (Naderi and La Scala laugh heartily) Were you a gambler before you came to Las Vegas? Before you started to make your film?

I came here to shoot photos for a book about Las Vegas and I was here for five or six years.

Were you a photographer originally, before you became a moviemaker?

Yes. And I like to show -- not the big, famous casinos -- but the small casinos.

You show a couple of these in your film.

Yes, I find these are the real Las Vegas. Very pure, this. I find the people who live there in Las Vegas and work there, they are very pure.


Yes: They know nothing about life except gambling and easy money.

Hmmm.. I would call them maybe innocent, rather than pure. Or maybe stupid.
Did something like what you show us in the film really happen?


Is then, that man who comes to talk to the family, really a policeman, after all? Or this an additional scam?

The detective? No, I found this guy later, and I added him to the story. For the drama.


Because I find that audiences, they like Rashomon -- the different stories. And I try to find the truth that way. I am a filmmaker, with imagination. I do it that way.

You were born in Iran..

I was.

Under the Shaw, in that time? You lived there during the Shaw's reign?

I left my country for good 25 years ago. Around 1983, and then I lived in New York.
What did you get from my film about me as a filmmaker? Was I more Iranian or American?

Funny: I did think about this occasionally while I was watching. Vegas did not compare to much Iranian film that I have seen -- except maybe in the seeming simplicity of the characters as they are introduced. And the lack of a big budget That's about the only things. Otherwise, I'd say you are now more American.

The PR representative motions that our time is up, so we say good-bye
and good luck with finding a distributor. This film certainly merits one.

(All photos from the film itself, unless captioned otherwise.)

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