There's a movie coming out this weekend and I'm in it!
It's called "Mississippi Grind," starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as gamblers who meet in Iowa and then head south through St. Louis and Memphis on their way to New Orleans for a high-stakes poker game. The movie co-stars Sienna Miller and Annaleigh Tipton, with Alfre Woodard in a small role. As a "featured extra," I play a poker player involved in a heads-up hand with Ben's character.
The scene takes place in St. Louis, but we shot it in New Orleans.
On Friday, the day "Mississippi Grind" opens, I'll have writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as guests on my KTRS show to talk about the movie (which is already getting pretty good reviews), and the long process of how an idea eventually becomes the final product that you see on the screen.
My involvement in the film goes back more than three and a half years. At the time, I was doing the Final Table Poker Radio Show with Dennis Phillips, and we heard that two filmmakers were coming through town doing research on a poker movie. Dennis was in Las Vegas, so I met Anna and Ryan one afternoon and told them all sorts of stories about playing in casino poker rooms as opposed to home games, the various kinds of players I'd encountered, and what it's like to travel elsewhere to play.
As we talked, Anna took notes, and they especially loved a couple of the stories -- one of which I've shared here. After a couple of hours, we parted ways, but I kept in touch every six months or so to check on their progress as they wrote the script, cast the actors, and acquired financing. I was amazed it took so long, but in late 2013, they told me they were finally going to start filming in New Orleans in February, 2014 -- and if I wanted to be an extra in the movie, they'd be happy to have me.
I'd never been to New Orleans, but I had enough frequent flier miles on Southwest to get a free roundtrip ticket, so I booked a flight and made reservations at an inexpensive hotel not far from where they'd be filming. It was also close to a Harrah's casino that I knew by reputation as a place where I'd have a pretty good chance to get into a loose $2-5 no limit hold'em game and recoup my expenses. I also spent an extra day playing tourist in New Orleans, which I wrote about here.
These are the notes I took during the entire experience of being on the set and having been saving until now to share with you...
We're shooting on the Creole Queen, a paddlewheeler on the Mississippi. I get there at 3:45pm, sign in, fill out vouchers I’ll need later to get paid when the day ends at 3am. Not counting an hour for “lunch” at 10pm, it’s a 10-hour work day, for which I’ll be paid $108.
Brought my own clothes – a suit, shoes, 2 shirts, 2 ties. Costume supervisor Reba didn’t like that my blue dress shirt had button-down collars, gave me one without them. Also had me wear a bowtie.
Anna and Ryan greet me when I get to the set, thank me for coming, and tell me that they used two of the stories I told them in their script. I tell them I was glad to help and thank them for allowing me to be part of their movie. Jeremy Kipp Walker, one of the executive producers with whom I’ve traded e-mails, introduces himself and thanks me for coming, too.
I told Sienna I really enjoyed her in a movie called “Interview” with Steve Buscemi. She replied with a smile, “Oh, you’re the one that saw it! That’s very sweet of you to mention. Thank you.” She told me that the shoot on that movie (which Buscemi directed) only took 9 days, with some shots lasting as long as 20 minutes.
None of today’s shots last that long, but there is LOTS of waiting, mostly for the camera crew and lighting techs to move equipment and set up for each shot. Measuring how far it is from the lens to the person in the closeup, or the cards and chips on the table. Then re-measuring. Then changing the lights a little bit in the foreground, then in the background. Then setting the second camera (most of the time two cameras rolled simultaneously, often right next to each other).
There's not a tremendous amount of makeup on any of the actors (none on the extras), but attention is paid to Sienna’s hair, and regular touch-ups on the primary actors. For my scene, some anti-glare stuff was sprayed on my bald dome and some pancake makeup patted on my forehead.
Anna and Ryan do about a half-dozen takes for each shot – Ryan Reynolds walks through the room, the Steadicam follows him to the bar, where he turns around and interacts with Sienna from across the room. Then they break down and reset to shoot the same thing from behind the bar. Then they reset to get in close on her as she reacts silently to his actions. Then they reset to follow Ben as he sits down at my table, interacts with us, and reacts to what Ryan is doing at the bar.
Ryan and Anna watch everything through a wireless portable video monitor (imagine a double-size iPad) that shows them both cameras at the same time. When they want to give an actor some direction, they always go over and talk to them up close, never from across the table or the room. They’re on the same page about everything, which must make it easier to direct as a team. They also seem to trust their cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, who has worked on Ryan and Anna’s 3 previous movies, “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” (the first of theirs that I saw, it includes Zach Galifiniakis' debut), “Sugar,” and their 2006 breakthrough, “Half Nelson” (which introduced the world to Ryan Gosling).
The crew also includes assistant directors who keep things under control on the set and make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be at the right time. There are continuity people who have to make sure that everything is set up the same way at the beginning of each take. This includes using an iPad to photograph every little detail, from how everyone is dressed, to how many chips are in front of each player, to where the champagne glasses are on the table. There are grips and cable pullers and gaffers and lighting techs and a script supervisor who writes down everything said on camera.
In the scene, an older guy is playing piano at the bar. He has to play the same song over and over. After an hour of multiple takes, he’s tired, and the music sounds tired, but there are more takes to do from another angle, so he has to play it again.