"He (Buddy) also drinks, self-medicates, the whole cliché, y' know? The strung out has-been jerk-off snitch drunk. The seven-layer loser. I'm praying he puts up a fight--please, please, please…" --Rupert "Rip" Reed, Showbiz/Mob Attorney
Welcome to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where everyone is zeroing in on Buddy "Aces" Israel.
Sleaze personified, illusionist Aces (Jeremy Piven) grew up in a world full of card sharks, gamblers, killers and thugs. By 21, he was keeping company with major criminal muscle--headlining sold-out shows at MGM's main room. After becoming the unofficial mascot for the Vegas mob, Aces started believing his own press and buying into the hype. He decides to showcase his showbiz power and parlay it into a life of crime. He wants to be his own mob boss…the movies make it look so easy. What Aces winds up doing is running afoul of the very organization that had taken him in, and his one-time benefactor, mob power broker Primo Sparazza, becomes his mortal enemy.
Rumor of a $1,000,000 hit fee, fronted by Sparazza, hits the streets and spreads far and wide, attracting an assortment of degenerate psychopaths and assassins--all gunning for the bounty on his head. Apparently, Aces has agreed to turn state's evidence against his criminal cronies in Vegas…in order to save himself from life in prison. The FBI, sensing a chance to use this small-time con to bring down big-time target Sparazza, places Aces into protective custody, under the supervision of two agents dispatched to Aces' hideout.
With all eyes on Lake Tahoe, a rogues' gallery of killers collides in a mad race to the Nomad Casino penthouse suite, where they hope to hit the jackpot and rub out Aces.
MURDER AND MAYHEM: SMOKIN' ACES GETS DEALT
When writer/director Joe Carnahan came onto the indie-film scene at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival with a sobering, raw cop drama entitled Narc, he left audiences a bit shocked. The complex drama, which earned Carnahan a best director Independent Spirit Award nomination, was recognized as a film that didn't fit the typical pattern for the genre. It was deemed "explosive stuff" full of "seething passion" (Susan Stark, The Detroit News), "…an ambitious picture that recognizes no limits" (David Denby, The New Yorker) with "…the velocity of a hot slug from the barrel of a gun" (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times).
Entertainment journalists had predictions about Carnahan's next project, but it was one of his original screenplays that would next see the light of day. Under his direction, nurtured by the team at Working Title Films who were willing to gamble on a volatile mix of eccentric characters, dark humor, unorthodox form and raw violence, all twisted in a jigsaw of a plot--pure Carnahan--Smokin' Aces was greenlit.
"I've always wanted to make a film like this," states Eric Fellner, producer and co-chairman of Working Title Films. "One that has murder and mayhem…for want of better words."
"I met Joe after Narc," recalls executive producer Liza Chasin, who as president of production for Working Title Films was largely responsible for developing the project. Her first lunch with Carnahan would prove memorable. "He gave me 30 pages of Smokin' Aces, and that was it. He said, 'Just read these, and tell me what you think.' Of course, it was the biggest tease you could give someone because it was the setup of these unbelievably interesting characters in this crazy world he'd painted."
"I called him and I said, 'That was so mean,'" Chasin continues, "and he replied, 'Well, buy it, and I'll write the rest.'"
Chasin sent the pages to Fellner in London. "I read it, and I loved it," says Fellner. "So we commissioned him to develop it further. A year later, we received a screenplay of 186 pages, and it was fantastic," he continues. "It was so dense with the most vibrant, vivid characters, impossible scenarios and wonderful setups. And we thought, 'Wow, this is great, but it's a novel. It's not a film.'"
"It was unmakeable, and it was also fantastic," agrees Chasin. "It was the most original piece of writing any of us had read in a long time."
"I thought it would be nice to write something that was fun to read," recalls Carnahan. "In trying to connect these disparate events and characters so they coalesce and feel that they're intrinsically linked, I wanted to write it on the page the way it would be cut together--so it would have a real snap to the pace and not let up. It's also very, very black comedy."
Carnahan winnowed the story and delivered a version that, as Fellner puts it, "suddenly started to resemble a movie," although it was still over 135 pages long.
"The page count has always been long," admits executive producer Robert Graf. "Joe tends to write like a novelist. He's very descriptive and writes florid passages about blood and guys flying through the air in bits. Some of it he means literally, and some of it is flavor to help the reader understand the nature of the movie."
In his script, Carnahan had created a larger-than-life, hyper-real world crammed with human drama, tough emotion and ambiguous boundaries against a backdrop of mayhem and destruction. The inhabitants of his mind included characters from uptight FBI agents and washed-up magicians to the mobster old guard, sleazy bail bondsmen, tarnished vice cops, street assassins, torture experts, bottom-feeding lawyers and three demented mercenaries who all converge on Lake Tahoe at the Nomad Casino penthouse suite. And that was just in the first 30 pages.
"This wide array of characters and all the sundry freak shows they meet along the way are the spine of Smokin' Aces," offers Carnahan. His story picks up three days before his protagonist, Buddy "Aces" Israel "is going to meet with federal prosecutors and give up the whole racket in a move the FBI believes will dismantle what's left of the mob in this country. You catch him on the dying gasp of his criminal career, about to enter the witness protection program and disappear."
"There isn't any common theme in Working Title material. It's not necessary that it's a comedy or it's a romantic comedy or a drama," relates Fellner. "It's that it has good characters and good storytelling and a good script. The genius of Joe's writing is that he can create in very small bites an enormous tableau. There is so much texture that it allows the actors to create something quite special with each of the roles."
With the production team (much more) comfortable with the script size and (very much) assured of the director's vision for the film, it was time to start casting the players of Carnahan's topsy-turvy world.
THUGGISH GUYS & SMOKIN' HOT VIXENS: CASTING ACES
A production of the size and scope of Smokin' Aces would require creative casting…bringing unknown actors together with seasoned professionals. For the filmmakers, securing the right actor for the correct role was more important than star-fueled billing.
Executive producer Chasin comments, "Joe has written this massive ensemble, with more meaningful speaking parts than almost any movie I've been involved in, and yet each of them are truly individualized and characterized in a way that stands alone."
The seemingly daunting process of finding the appropriate actor for each character in Carnahan's script was not terribly difficult. As producer Fellner explains, "It was a pleasurable experience because lots of people wanted to do it. We were able to pick the people that we really wanted to have."
"Ultimately, it's the best people for the job," states Carnahan. "If that means unknowns, then it's unknowns; if that means all major stars, then it's all major stars. I was really lucky to get an eclectic cast."
Discussing his star illusionist, Carnahan relates, "Buddy is based on my fascination with two things: Las Vegas--particularly a schmaltzy Vegas of the '60s and '70s--and Frank Sinatra's quasi-association with the mob. I always thought if Sinatra ever decided to parlay his entertainment status into a completely different venue and become a thug, that would be a fascinating character to follow. I thought that he'd wind up tracking mud all over the place and screwing everybody up."
Jeremy Piven was interested in working with Carnahan since he saw the filmmaker's Narc. He found it to be "visceral. It's totally authentic, and I was blown away," the actor notes. "To me, there are very few guys where you hear their name and you're there. But I heard Joe Carnahan's name, and I said, 'Sign me up.'"
"An actor can complete a role you wrote, and it becomes something wholly other than what you intended," notes Carnahan, "which is where I get the big charge as the director. Watching Jeremy transform himself into Buddy Israel and making that character whole was a joy."
On one side of the law, Carnahan wanted to cast a trio of men who could bring their signature styles to the FBI suits who aim to pull Aces into protective custody. He found that in Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia.
The intensely patriotic FBI Agent Richard Messner would prove to be the heart of the Smokin' Aces script. "Messner is a noble character," reflects Carnahan, "and Messner is who I think audiences will attach themselves to."
For the role, filmmakers approached actor Ryan Reynolds, who responded to the fact that Aces wasn't "a paint-by-numbers script. Every character has a secret and has a surprise. Joe allows his characters to govern themselves by their own code of ethics, and that line between protagonist and antagonist is very, very blurred."
Best known for his wide range of performances--in films such as the comedy Just Friends, actioner Blade: Trinity and thriller The Amityville Horror--Reynolds comments on his role: "Playing Richard Messner was something very different for me…but also just exciting to play an FBI agent who isn't the cowboy, but who is very good at what he does and has conviction in what he's doing."
Messner's closest relationship in the film is to his fellow agent/partner, Donald Carruthers, a veteran G-man whom Reynolds feels his character sees as "a friend, brother and father figure all at once. It's a fine line between a fraternal relationship and a paternal one. My character is very attached to him."
The role of Carruthers went to veteran actor Ray Liotta. "I've played cops before," says Liotta, "and it was really a great chance to work with Joe again." Liotta both produced Narc and turned in a blistering performance in one of the film's lead roles, as renegade cop Henry Oak. "Having worked with him in Narc, I feel an allegiance to him, and I think he has an allegiance to me."
The man running the investigation, who sends them on the mission to take Aces into custody, is their superior, FBI Deputy Director Stanley Locke, played by Oscar® and Golden Globe nominee Andy Garcia. "Andy loved the script," notes Chasin. "He met with Joe and quickly signed on."
"The movie ultimately seems like a black comedy to me," relates Garcia. "There's an absurdity to everything that's going on, which is what's attractive about the material. Locke is the man running the investigation, and there is a twist in the plot. At times, he is the only person aware of it."
Carnahan needed to cast three more actors to play men who, while possessing the same dedication to country as the federal agents, were also (barely) on the good side of the law. He found the perfect guys to play a trio of bounty hunters and ex-cops--who were looking for a quick buck by snatching Aces out from under the FBI and thugs' hands--in actors Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson.
Affleck, readily agreeing to the role of bail bondsman Jack Dupree, found the unorthodox casting admirable. "Joe has singularly gone through and cast unknowns who are great and people who are stars, but in ways you haven't seen them. It's a compliment to his sense of creative integrity that he doesn't try to follow trends." He adds slyly, "Any character that wears a pinky ring is one well worth playing.
"Some writer/directors write in one voice and it has various faces," continues the actor. "Joe has distinctive voices, and they're interesting and weird. He's definitely got noir, out-there dialogue, and it inspires everyone who comes in to work."
"The man clearly loves language," contributes Peter Berg, who plays "Pistol" Pete Deeks, a disillusioned ex-vice cop who is recruited by Affleck's bondsman Jack Dupree for this bail skip. "It's challenging, almost like doing a play. He clearly believes that there are no small characters. That's why everybody's has so much fun--they are treated like their character is really the star of the film." Coincidentally, Joe's brother, Matthew Michael Carnahan, wrote the screenplay for Berg's next film, The Kingdom.
Martin Henderson, who plays reticent ex-cop (and frequent sparring partner of Deeks) Hollis Elmore, read the script and responded to the fact that his character was the only one of the hapless trio who found the scheme to get Aces not only harebrained from the get-go, but insanely dangerous. "The film is obviously very, very violent and perverted, but it's funny," he comments.
To play his bad guys, Carnahan wanted actors who could literally take the copy off the page and easily make it their own. Of his style in creating an ensemble cast, Carnahan confesses, "I think every writer's greatest fear is that your characters all sound exactly like you. What I thought would be a good challenge was to develop an ear and write, for instance, dialogue for two young black women and make it sound legitimate."
It sounded quite realistic to Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Alicia Keys. Keys, in her inaugural role in film, plays bad girl/street assassin Georgia Sykes. On approaching her for the part, Chasin recalls, "I'm not sure Alicia ever thought she'd make her film debut playing a girl packing a gun, dressed like a hooker. I credit her for flying in the face of that and saying, 'My audience knows me for who I am as a singer, but I'm going to give them something unexpected for my turn as an actress.'"
Says Keys of her initial reaction to the script: "The more I read it, the more intrigued I became. It was not only so interesting that each character had its own life, but I loved the way that every story combined into the next story. Everything you thought that it was, it was not. By the time I got to the end, I was enamored."
Keys is paired by her booker--big pimpin' Loretta Wyman--with an equally ruthless partner to smoke Aces. Sharice Watters, played by Taraji Henson, is a little woman with a big gun. Henson, who received acclaim for her role as Shug in Hustle & Flow, found playing Watters a fun exercise in style and attitude. She was not only required to physically transform herself from a naturally striking, petite actress--putting on no makeup, wearing her hair in cornrows and developing a badass attitude--she found herself using language that was brutally street and crazy smooth. Of her attraction to the script, Henson reflects, "The most amazing writers to me are the ones who write dialogue well. Joe is writing for mobsters, girls from the hood, straight-laced people. It was just brilliant."
Keys also spends screen time with another newcomer to the world of film, hip hop artist and Grammy nominee Common--who won the role of Buddy's steadfast, right-hand man, Sir Ivy. The bodyguard has some hard choices to make when it all starts going down for his boss, and Carnahan was looking for an actor who could portray "the calm center of the storm and a man who has great nobility--understanding that the 11th hour is upon them."
About his first acting role, Common says, "I've been writing songs for 20 years. This was new to me. The words become yours, but you're saying somebody else's words, hitting certain marks, learning where your light is. This is such a good way to express yourself: a way to tap into yourself and do things that you don't do as a music performer."
From bad-ass to just completely crazy-ass, Carnahan's villains take a psychotic turn with the Tremor brothers--three of the ugliest, most soulless neo-Nazis the bucolic lakefront of Tahoe has ever seen. Once they hear of the bounty on Aces' head, Darwin, Jeeves and Lester Tremor hop in their '66 Bonneville--painted primer black with flames and Luftwaffe insignia--and hit the road for murder and mayhem. Quirky, complicated and startling to say the least, the brothers were brought to life by three fresh faces: Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling.
No amount of describing their singular wardrobe and boots, haircuts, tattoos, distinct speech patterns and brotherly camaraderie can do them justice. "They're the kind of guys that'll wipe out the whole cafeteria to get one guy--and enjoy doing it," laughs Carnahan of his "three-headed hydra from hell."
"I think it's the combination of the makeup and the outfits," says Chris Pine, who nailed the audition and assumed the role of Darwin. "Without a doubt, once you put all that stuff on and get the teeth done, it's no problem slipping into that character. All I have to do is look at my brothers. We're so maniacal."
As if there weren't enough menacing firepower aimed at obliterating Aces…in Carnahan's world there are even more shadowy figures who come out of the woodwork to make a bid for Israel's million-dollar price tag. First up…chilling torture expert Pasqual Acosta is played with clinical precision by actor Nestor Carbonell. Second, master of disguise Lazlo Soot--replete with masks, prosthetics and concomitant torture devices--is played in two permutations. International actors Tommy Flanagan and Joel Edgerton both spend times as the wordless slayer and organ extractor.
Got them all straight? An added bonus for audiences is the appearance of some very well-known actors in some of the smaller roles. "In the casting process, there were a few roles where it was clear that they were going to be one-day parts or at most two-day parts," says Chasin, "and that's where Jason Bateman and M*^&#$! F*%^ (look for a certain security guard) come in." The actors' time was at a premium, but after reading the script, they both wanted to be part of the film.
Carnahan acknowledges his gratitude to this diverse mix of talent for their participation in his massive ensemble piece as he says, "I will be forever thankful that they decided to make my madness theirs for a while."
BECOMING EXPERIENCED KILLERS: CARNAHAN GETS HIS CAST FIGHTIN' READY
Training the assorted players of Carnahan's ensemble cast would require dedication and discipline from even those with the smallest of roles. CGI aside, chainsaws, monster-sized 50-caliber sniper rifles and numchuks do not operate themselves. Neither do 52 cards, effortlessly arcing through the air.
To prepare for the role of lecherous illusionist Aces, Jeremy Piven found it necessary to learn how to handle the decks of cards he would be asked to constantly flip throughout the shoot. "Joe made it clear that we need to see this guy doing it, otherwise we're in trouble," notes Piven. To get to the level where he would look like a man who knew his way around a deck, Piven trained with Scottish sleight-of-hand artist R. Paul Wilson.
"He had to start from scratch with me," says Piven, "and it was all hard to do. I grew up doing mime. I play drums. I work with my hands, but working with cards is totally different. I have a scene where I have to pull off three tricks within this monologue. It was incredibly challenging."
Cards require a certain kind of coordination, but illusion is something else. "The real test with magic is not doing the trick; it's working with the audience and making them a part of it," points out Wilson. To give Piven a feel for what it would be like to be Buddy on stage in Vegas, Piven (introduced as Buddy Israel) appeared one night as a special guest performer at Hollywood's famed magic club The Magic Castle.
"It's one thing to theorize about what it would be like to be in that arena, but to actually navigate successfully--even just for a moment--gives you immense confidence," says Piven of the experience. "The feeling of pulling the trick off, seeing the look on people's faces was amazing. I don't think I will be challenging Paul or David Copperfield, but…"
Magic wasn't the only trick required of cast and crew. Although none of the actors had before put themselves in the action-hero category--save Reynolds, due to his grueling training regimen for Blade: Trinity--the entire cast was called upon to do some very demanding physical scenes.
The Tremor brothers had the lion's share of physical preparation for Smokin' Aces. "I have a huge new respect for actors doing action sequences where they're handling weapons and timing and mechanics of guns," remarks Maury Sterling (Lester Tremor). "I had to get two shotgun rounds, fire the shotgun, unload two rounds, get two more shells in and then pull out my pistol and shoot the burning stuntman. I think that's the most nervous I've ever been."
"The big challenge for me came in the last few days of shooting," recalls Kevin Durand (Jeeves Tremor). "I was carrying Darwin and Lester with my three guns and all this Kevlar, which is so stiff and heavy. With all that, plus their guns, I was walking with 400 pounds while shooting a gun."
"I fire a machine gun and handle machetes; it's awesome," raves Chris Pine (Darwin Tremor). "Before, I never had the drive or a passion to do these kind of movies, but getting Joe's script, full of guns shooting and blood spurting--plus the character-driven material--it's the best of both worlds."
While Piven was learning parlor tricks and the Tremor boys were studying how to delve into psychosis, Taraji Henson and Ryan Reynolds were trained on the art of loading firearms and dodging bullets. Also, Ben Affleck and Peter Berg were getting acquainted with the finer points of mock, exploding bullet "squibs" and special effects blood.
"This gun is now an extension of my hand," says Reynolds. "It's pretty weird for a young Canadian man to be working with guns this much. We had to learn in such a way that the most practiced of marksmen could watch it and say, 'Wow. That guy really knows what he's doing.'"
Reynolds also had to learn how to think like an FBI agent in a tight spot. Regarding the film's climatic shoot-out at the Nomad, Reynolds recalls, "Our trainer said to us, 'This is the worst-case scenario for you to walk into, getting off an elevator and stepping into a hallway with three different blind hallways.' He taught us how to get out, move across a room, carry yourself, shoot 24 bullets and reload two clips in the process--all in under 10 seconds."
"I never held a gun in my life, outside of a toy or B.B. gun," remarks Henson of her extensive training with a 50-caliber sniper rifle. "I played a cop on television, but this was deep, serious training. The kickback and the sound wave just drain you."
Special-effects coordinator Larz Anderson headed up the team that made the guns fire, glass break and blood spurt on cue. For example, in the film's pivotal climatic scene, his team went through 400 squibs and "shot" 20 people. "All the special effects are done in camera on the set," he provides. "It's all real."
Relates Carnahan about training his team of actors to accomplish the desired effects--and lensing them versus heavily leaning on CGI--"I think it is so much better to tie these effects in. To actually see someone fire a gun and a squib go off while the lamp behind them shatters in the same frame is great. When I have the level of talent I have on this film, I owe it to them to tie these things in."
READ MORE ABOUT THE PRODUCTION DESIGN AND SHOOTING THE FILM
READ MORE ABOUT JOE CARNAHAN (Written and Directed by)
READ MORE ABOUT WORKING TITLE FILMS