"If you want something from me, you're gonna have to rip it out of my talons."
Welcome to the voracious, cutthroat world of high-roller gambling. Fortunes are won on Sunday and lost on Monday in Two For the Money--a high-stakes drama set in the adrenalized world of wheeler-dealer gamblers--where riches are made and destroyed with the flip of a coin. With millions of dollars on the line, reckless players engage in a "who's conning whom" game where the bets are high and the losses even higher.
Two For the Money marks the return of Al Pacino to the role of power player. With a searing performance that punctuates a career spent stealing the screen in such epochal films as The Godfather and Scarface, Pacino commands the screen as Walter Abrams, a recovering addict-turned-betting advisor with a delicious lust for power. With the energy and charisma that have made him an icon, Pacino bares his acting teeth in this film.
In such hits as Any Given Sunday, The Devil's Advocate and with his Oscar®-winning performance in Scent of a Woman, audiences know Pacino brings out the best in his cast. Time and again, he has played a character who takes a young man and transforms him into a seasoned competitor who comes to equal (or surpass) his own power. Part Svengali, part Pygmalion, Pacino-as-Abrams tears through Two For the Money in yet another tour de force performance.
Working alongside Pacino, Matthew McConaughey plays sports gambling phenom Brandon Lang, a self-assured (but washed-up) former college football player who is on the cusp of exploiting his true talents: his ability to consistently pick football winners. This uncanny knack attracts the hungry Walter into Brandon's small-time world. Brandon holds his own as an ingénue sports advisor, fighting for his piece of the turf against the paternal, yet ruthless, Walter.
Gamblers Start Somewhere
Inspired by a true story, Two For the Money is the itch screenwriter/executive producer Dan Gilroy needed to scratch for some time. Gilroy had been searching for a true gambling story, not the agonizing downward spiral of a degenerate gambler. In his mind, James Caan had already mastered that character in The Gambler.
Gilroy knew it had to be about sports, but he never thought that unlocking the heart of such a tale would come from a golf caddy. "Listen, do you want to hear a story for a movie?" Gilroy recalls a young man telling him six years ago. "His story hooked me," Gilroy notes. Brandon Link was that caddy…and that story.
A former walk-on for UNLV basketball with an injured knee and few skills but his athletic prowess, Link took a job selling products over the phone--working for an audio text company. One day he filled in for a co-worker giving picks on the sports gambling line. "He discovered he had a true facility for picking games," says Gilroy. His winning streak caught the attention of a New York sports advisory firm, and the rest is history.
"The basis of this film's story loosely follows what happened to that guy," Gilroy says. But the game was changed to football; the story was expanded, deepened and embellished. "It was the sports services, the sports advisors, a glimpse into this legitimate subculture on the fringe of this extremely large illegal enterprise that interested me," muses Gilroy. "It's a movie about the people who 'feed off' guys who bet--the men who make the $200 billion world of gambling spin 'round."
Director D.J. Caruso, a lover of sports and an occasional dabbler in gambling, found that Gilroy's script "just spoke to me. I was looking for a drama, and this dealt with the familiar themes of innocence being corrupted--what happens once that innocence is corrupted and how that person gets back to where he began. I was intrigued by Brandon's journey and bringing the audience into the world of sports gambling. We hear about it, but I've never seen a movie about it."
Notably, sports advising is not illegal. However, all gambling, including sports betting, is illegal except in four states--Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana. Of all sports, however, football is "the game that's primarily bet on," says Gilroy. And the networks feed the frenzy. "The NFL is no longer just a Sunday game. They now have Monday Night Football, Thursday night football, wild card weekends--it just goes on and on. They've expanded the franchises and therefore expanded the game."
And when you watch the network games, "You realize that they kind of cater to gamblers," adds Caruso. "They talk about point spreads, favorites, who they're picking and make it interesting. Guys in Vegas set the line, and after that it boils down to flipping a coin. You realize it's a 50-50 gamble."
"Sports advisors are almost like psychologists," comments Caruso. "First, they have to figure out what your needs are. Then they have to get your money. But at the same time, they treat each client in a different way. If somebody needs to be abused in order to come around, the advisor will abuse. If someone needs to be lifted up and comforted, they are comforting. The film deals with this underbelly of that world."
Exploitation of the vulnerable is key to the advisor's agenda. Their every move is calculated to manipulate the level of panic or gullibility of the gambler on the line--the one who is willing to hand over 10 percent of their take for some winning advice. If an advisor is on a winning streak and they have a repeat offender on the line, they will push to bump that percentage higher.
The bettors pay because sport advisors theoretically know more about sports than the bettors do, either because they have studied the game or have inside information. Explains Gilroy, "When you're a gambler and you start having losing weekends, you start to question your own process. And that is when you move to another level and seek outside help in picking winners. If these sport advisors give you winning picks, then you're going to stick with them. If you've lost on their picks, you're suddenly in a twilight zone of hurt where you don't know what to do," he says. Instinct guides the bettor back to the advisor in hopes that they will get them out of the hole they just got in.
But no matter how long the winning streak, no crystal ball is infallible.
Advisors "can get on these amazing rolls, but ultimately, things will turn around…and that is where our movie takes place," says Caruso, "when it starts to spin out of control."
A Sure Bet: Picking a Star Lineup
Matthew McConaughey knew he picked a winner when he first saw the script for Two For the Money four years ago. When Caruso came aboard, the project gelled with Russo and Academy Award® winner/ eight-time Oscar® nominee Pacino joining the project. "I was looking for a good dramatic story and a salesman role, and this was a perfect fit," McConaughey says. Being a former ballplayer, he too enjoyed making his own picks on weekend games. He saw Brandon as a winner in more ways than one.
"The sport means everything to Brandon and because I'm an athlete myself I, like Brandon, love the sport," he says. "It's about the purity of the game, not the money. Brandon is a character who's always been a winner--a guy who has worked hard to get what he has. He's a good man. Then he blows out his knee. While still trying to stay in the game, he's helping take care of his mom and little brother. He's got a job that pays $10 an hour working a 900-service line. Since he knows sports, he turns out to be pretty good at picking winners against the line. Then he gets this call from a guy in New York he doesn't know, and all this guy wants Brandon to do is to keep picking winners for him. It sounds so simple."
But opportunity can come with a heavy price. Once on board, Walter discovers Brandon has a knack for selling. In no time he's being groomed as Walter's slick front man for his weekly TV show. New territory means a new identity. Goodbye Brandon Lang. Hello John Anthony--"The Million Dollar Man with The Billion Dollar Plan." He never lets clients forget, "All your money stays and plays with me."
"So here's the guy who's the pure athlete--the best picker in the game, and the face jock--selling on TV," says McConaughey …"the golden boy who, after awhile, has trouble winning. When he starts losing, he tries to figure out how to win again. That's where everything gets really tough for him."
Consequences escalate in ways Brandon never considered when he starts to lose. "Death threats," says McConaughey. "In an indirect way, his mother and family are in a lot of danger. It's not just his job on the line. It's the fate of everyone in the firm, as well as Walter and his family's livelihood. Everything hinges on Brandon turning it around. Walter and Toni's relationship does not look like it's going to make it. They're just going down, down, down. And all this can be okay if Brandon can pick a winner. That's the pressure. The winning pick is a life-or-death alternative in a lot of ways. And that's what makes this a great drama."
Great dramas attract amazing performers to pull them off. "When you look at the caliber of performances, let's just say this is not a small picture," Executive Producer Guy McElwaine notes. "You have never seen Matthew McConaughey like this. He's an exceptional actor and this not only proves it, it takes him to another level."
McConaughey, Russo and Assante all agree on one huge motivating factor: Pacino.
"He raised the bar," says McConaughey.
"He is one of the greatest actors of our time, an astonishing person to work with and an incredibly generous actor," feels Assante.
For Russo, "There's something about him that feels like family for me. Maybe it is because we're both Sicilian. I could be married to him! You know my husband wrote me such a great part, and I had a chance to do it with Al. There is this one scene that is so amazing, and let me just say if I never worked another day in this business, it's cool. I got to do it, and it was great!"
Caruso calls Pacino "the template. He's the nucleus of this acting group, his character is the center for everyone else to grab onto. Because Al is so willing to try things and not afraid to fail, that actually made Matthew and Rene much more free to do the same. When you play with someone more experienced than you in a particular sport, they say you rise to that level. I think Matthew has risen to that level. He surpassed my expectation of what he could do. I have never worked with someone who is as well prepared as Matthew."
He describes Russo as the consummate pro, "incredibly generous and giving. You know when you are shooting a heavy drama like this, it is important to have a release," Caruso notes. "There was a lot of laughter on the set between the actors and the crew. There was a really good vibe every day."
Bring on the Anonymous
When it comes to gambling, "You'd think degenerate gamblers would be addicted to the high of winning," poses Gilroy. "But the more you talk with them, you find many feel more alive when they are losing. What they remember are the losses, not the wins. The wins just slip through their fingers."
Walter's constant need to teeter on the edge of the abyss, to feel "really alive," is what attracted Pacino to the role. "Walter's got to feel that loss because that's how he knows where he stands, who he is. It's tied up in his identity. That is what's so scary and so misunderstood about addiction," Pacino says. "That's why I was drawn to this story and wanted to do it."
Caruso describes Walter as "probably the most dysfunctional man in America. He's had an alcohol problem, a drug problem, a gambling problem, an eating problem, a nicotine problem and he has a heart condition. As Toni notes in the film, 'If there's an anonymous, he's been there.'"
For Producer James G. Robinson, Chairman of Morgan Creek Productions, that dynamic is what makes the story so powerful. He sees the story as a very terse drama about dysfunction set in a world that caters to addicts' self-destruction.
"You look at the people who work for Walter, who seduce people to bet their money, to get their money. Even if you are not interested in sports betting, it's a fascinating backdrop," Robinson reflects. "People completely unravel their lives, bankrupting themselves because of these parasites who feed on their desperation. Walter is both the reformed gambler who builds an empire and the man who feeds off of those recovering in gamblers anonymous groups."
Pacino hits home on Walter's motivations. He feels he functions best "when he's desperate. But Walter's handicapping skills aren't what they used to be, so now his energy is put into selling…but it's like half of him is missing."
Things begin to shift when he discovers Brandon and sees a future for his family.
"Brandon becomes a focus for Walter, and he can start to live through this kid," Pacino continues. "This kid is a genius. He's the Mickey Mantle of handicapping, and Walter's clever and gifted enough himself to be able to spot a Brandon. He wants to take this kid and turn him into what he never was. And he's at a point in his life when he's looking for a change. He has a real love for his wife and child and believes that they won't be able to survive after him unless they are taken care of. Brandon is his way out. It's giving him a chance to leave, to put his life in order. He thinks Brandon is the guy he can leave it to."
Sometimes too much of a bettor's "business" is riding on their advisor's pick. If and when they lose, the outcome can turn deadly.
"I play a guy named Novian who is symptomatic of the worst kind of addictive gambling," comments Armand Assante. "He is an obsessive, deviant, psychopathic, degenerate gambler. There are very few people in his category on the planet, who gamble in millions and millions of dollars. People like this guy have power and wealth that are astonishing. For them, gambling this kind of capital is a high like there's no high, and they don't want to ever know a low. They are also addicted to danger and dangerous situations. Danger is a way of life, and they constantly keep people off balance because it's just in their nature."
The rush of winning and losing--complicated by a number of types of addiction--is at the heart of this character drama, explains Gilroy.
"Walter is somebody who is a former degenerate gambler who's been clean for 18 years. But in the course of the film, he stumbles because Brandon is picking 80 percent," he notes. "Toni, Walter's wife, is a former heroin addict addicted to Walter's brokenness. They have a very, very co-dependent relationship."
"What they do to survive is what I love about this story," says Russo, whose real-life husband, Gilroy, wrote the part for her.
"Toni was a junkie," Russo explains. "She's traded shooting heroin in her arm for controlling Walter. She doesn't know how to let go yet. This is her way to survive, and it is healthier but not the healthiest. From her point of view, Walter is special. He saved her and he has a huge heart despite his flaws. He's out there with his emotions, reactive and explosive. She's subtler, calmer and appears to have it together.
"But if Walter goes down, she goes down. So when he falls, she wouldn't abandon him because she can see the good in him and she fights for that. She sees purpose in Walter, and she wants him to know how loved he is--in all ways. Walter can't accept that. He's always testing it."
Gilroy says he wrote the part for his wife because, "There's a side of Rene people haven't seen, this very dramatic and emotionally available side. That's her strength. By nature, Rene is somebody who is very detail oriented, very aware and cautious. That plays well against the character Al plays. Toni is Walter's check and balance."
Despite what Pacino calls Walter's "innate sensitivity," he does fall deep and hard. "He doesn't want to corrupt Brandon, but he does," Pacino says. "He can't help himself because he's corrupted. This story is about the corruption of genius, of talent, of innocence. That's what I like about this story: it's a parable."
Although seemingly above the corruption that surrounds him, Brandon--through a juggernaut of success--has his unrealized desires brought to the forefront.
"Brandon doesn't bet, and on the surface, he doesn't look like he's addicted to anything," says Gilroy. "He is addicted to gaining others' approval, specifically the approval of a father figure he didn't have as he was growing up. This search for acceptance leads Brandon to Walter."
"In a way, Walter sort of becomes a father figure," says McConaughey. "They become partners, friends, at least from Brandon's point of view. They're winning, and there's room for everybody to win. Brandon starts to feel part of the family. And then, he gets the rug pulled out from under him."
"In his education of Brandon," Pacino notes, "Walter lets it get out of control. He allows Brandon to fall into the pit of need, of acquiescing to material stuff."
"Walter rode it out with Toni in tough times. And he made Brandon. He believed he was giving this kid a great future. He loved them both and they loved him," comments McElwaine. "In the end, this is a story of redemption. On some levels they wind up saving each other, but not as you would think."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
D.J. CARUSO's (Director)
DAN GILROY (Screenwriter / Executive Producer)