SLEIGHT OF HAND: PRODUCTION DESIGN AND SHOOTING THE FILM
On the design of Aces, executive producer Robert Graf comments, "In terms of structure, this film is like a farce. There are a number of people converging at the same place, at the same time, with people coming and going, paths crossing, elevator doors opening and closing--all in an attempt to reach the penthouse where Buddy is hiding out. There's a big gun battle, mayhem ensues, with fire, chainsaws, machetes and choreographed sequences."
Though it sounds exhausting to map out, the designers, cinematographer, editor and assorted crew were all up to the challenge of making Carnahan's world come alive.
Vital to Carnahan during production was continuous input from his crew. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who first worked with the director on a short film for BMW, remarks, "If it's something inspired by the moment, there's no problem breaking whatever was talked about and letting improvisation take over. Joe is both a very visual person and a very concept-oriented person. I might have an idea about a location, and it has to make sense thematically in the script. Once we figure it out visually and thematically, we're pretty much done."
"It's great having a collaborator like Mauro," returns Carnahan. "He's such an intelligent, film-literate guy. We had a lot of conversations about how we wanted to shoot the characters."
"Joe's intention is to shoot these scenes and not cut away and see the actor look like the hero just because he cuts it together in the editing room," says Reynolds. "He leaves the camera on, just allowing the action and the emotion to unfold."
A crucial scene between the killer Acosta and FBI Agent Carruthers, however, highlights the camera difficulties for the director that could penetrate any shoot. Shot entirely within the four walls of an elevator car, cinematographer Fiore admits of the scene, "It was very challenging. Often, you can attack a scene with two cameras in those action sequences. We weren't able to do that in those elevators, because of the mirrors everywhere."
Adds Carnahan, "I deliberately went out of my way to storyboard that so--as Ray (Agent Carruthers) becomes suspicious of who this guy is--the shot is a two-shot, but it's his reflection that goes on infinitely as Acosta's reflection. You're looking at this money image of him on the elevator wall in front. You owe that to an audience to try to do these types of things."
"A lot of the camera moves are long, continuous moves that make the whole story flow together," observes SFX coordinator Larz Anderson. "It's a very effective way of telling the story. It also makes it a real challenge for us. With all these shots that have these long, intricate moves, there's not a chance to hide all your wires or your tubes--even the easier effects become much more challenging. Our wireless setup has helped us quite a bit to make some very complicated shots possible."
LOCATION AND DESIGN
To film Smokin' Aces, Carnahan took the team directly to Lake Tahoe, Aces' hideaway in his script. The region, known for its pristine pine forests and crystal-blue lake waters, attracts naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts year-round, but has another side that gives its history a rich underworld lore. Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack lived it up on the other side of the lake at Crystal Bay, and Francis Ford Coppola chose Tahoe as a location to shoot his compelling The Godfather: Part II.
"Tahoe to me is gorgeous," offers Carnahan. "I grew up near Lake Tahoe. It's such an interesting place because you have this collision of polar opposites. To set this wild, surrealistic story against such unbelievable beauty amps it up.
"I rarely write a script for a location," he continues. "But this is one of those instances where I knew I was going to put my characters. I knew the layout and actually wrote the script for the Horizon. Similarly, I knew Caesars, called the Nomad in my story, across the street."
Devising the visual palette for Aces' world was the job of production designer Martin Whist. To give the film the authenticity of place, the production spent eight days in Lake Tahoe capturing some of the scenic beauty in scenes at Cave Rock in Zephyr Cove and along Lake Tahoe Boulevard--as well as establishing the hotels and casinos, where action plays out at the Horizon Casino Resort and Caesars Tahoe (renamed the Nomad during filming). These hotel scenes had the potential to be some of the most disturbing parts of unsuspecting tourists' vacations.
Unfortunately for guests of the Horizon and Caesars, gunfire was raucous and aplenty on filming days. A memo distributed to hotel guests noted, "Chosen windows on the 7th floor of Caesars Hotel and 10th floor of Horizon will be breaking on cue with gunfire. Please note that some of this gunfire may be quite loud..."
Taraji Henson was at the center of all the commotion. As she explains, "It sounds like thunder when you release the bullets. You can feel your whole insides shake; the whole floor shakes. I'm pretty sure that the guests in the hotels loved us."
Fortunately for all involved, the filming that included aerial shots, car chases, gunshots and SFX windows blowing out 100 feet above the street went off without a hitch and the crew safely returned to Los Angeles. There, production designer Whist had designed Aces' penthouse suite and the hallways of the Nomad, used for the bulk of the shooting. "The suite is called The Lynx, and the snow lynx was the source of everything," explains Whist. "When I first read the script and knew we had to do a penthouse, it popped into my head that it had to be based on the snow lynx. So we created our diorama based on it."
WARDROBE AND HAIRSTYLES
Award-winning costume designer Mary Zophres found her experience working on Smokin' Aces "capturing many of the characters in, often, one costume change. It was invigorating to me, how to get the point of one character across in one costume."
Some of Alicia Keys' wardrobe as Georgia Sykes had to make her look more than just hot. "She has to become a hooker who can conceal five weapons, cartridges and all kinds of ammunition," says Zophres. "That was a huge challenge. We made her outfit out of a jumpsuit we purchased at the Inglewood Market. Then I found a short coat, and we hacked off the sleeves and collar, and that's what she wears--this little fur bolero, to cover her weapons.
"The Tremor brothers are a mixture of white trash, white supremacists and just psychotic gross," says Zophres of the distinctive look she devised. "They have no regard for anyone else but themselves. And they dress accordingly."
It's wasn't only the wardrobe that contributes to the look of many of the characters. Key hairstylist Teressa Hill applied a combination of haircuts--designed in collaboration with Carnahan and the actors of the ensemble--for characters such as Darwin, Jeeves and Lester Tremor. With actors including Alicia Keys and Jeremy Piven, who couldn't alter their look because of their day jobs, wigs were an easy way to create a different style.
"Jeremy is someone who is very recognizable," says Hill, "and we wanted people not to think of him as his character on Entourage. So, we decided to create a look with longer hair. I had a lot of gray put into it for the final look, and I progressively revealed the gray and the length of the wig over the course of the scenes."
Production wrapped, the filmmakers reflect on the very exhausting, wonderfully strange experience that was principal photography on Smokin' Aces. Producer Eric Fellner sums up the sentiment of much of the cast and crew--who were willing to brave hairy stunts, long days on set and memorizing razor-sharp dialogue to bring the world of Joe Carnahan to life--"Although genrewise it's very different than a lot of the films we've done, it still relies on character and good storytelling."
Excited by the upcoming release date, writer/director Carnahan, flashing a wicked smile, concludes of his film: "It's my all-out, gonzo, over-the-top American movie."
In the words of assassin booker Loretta Wyman: "How 'bout that love?"
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
JOE CARNAHAN (Written and Directed by) returns to the director's chair following his critically acclaimed cop drama Narc, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and earned him a Best Director Independent Spirit Award nomination. His first feature film was Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, in which he wrote, directed and starred. Financed with his own monies, it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.
Carnahan has also written and directed the innovative short internet film The Hire: Ticker, starring Clive Owen, Don Cheadle and F. Murray Abraham.
Carnahan's writing career includes screenplays for Pride and Glory, a police drama currently in production starring Colin Farrell and Edward Norton, as well as adaptations of Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo and James Ellroy's White Jazz, which will go into production at the end of next year with George Clooney producing and playing the lead role.
For the small screen, Carnahan directed and is executive producing Faceless, a crime drama pilot for 20th Century Fox Television. He has also recently finished a pilot for NBC entitled The Double.
Carnahan is a native of Sacramento, California.
WORKING TITLE FILMS, co-chaired by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner since 1992, is Europe's leading film production company, making movies that defy boundaries as well as demographics.
Founded in 1983, Working Title has made more than 80 films that have grossed over $3.5 billion worldwide. It's films have won 4 Academy Awards (for Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo, and Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth), 22 BAFTA Awards and prestigious prizes at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals. Bevan and Fellner have been honoured with two of the highest film awards given to British filmmakers; the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema at the Orange British Academy Film Awards (2004) and the Alexander Walker Film Award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards. They were both recently made CBEs (Commanders of the British Empire).
Working Title has enjoyed long and successful creative collaborations with filmmakers Richard Curtis, Stephen Daldry and the Coen brothers; and actors Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson among others. It's worldwide successes (in addition to the above-mentioned) include Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis' Love Actually, Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot; Roger Michell's Notting Hill; Mel Smith's Bean; Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter; Peter Howitt's Johnny English; Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Chris and Paul Weitz' About a Boy; both Bridget Jones movies (directed by Sharon Maguire and Beeban Kidron, respectively); Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice; and Kirk Jones' Nanny McPhee. The company has also had great success in the UK with Mark Mylod's Ali G Indahouse, starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Edgar Wright's award-winning sleeper hit rom zom com (romantic zombie comedy) Shaun of the Dead.
The success of Billy Elliot on film has since been repeated on the London stage. Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall reunited for a stage musical version in 2005, with songs composed by Sir Elton John. The hit production, marking Working Title's debut theatrical venture (co-produced with Old Vic Prods.), continues to play to full houses in London and garnered nine 2005 Olivier Award nominations, including a win for best new musical. Preparations are now underway to take Billy Elliot to Sydney and then New York where it will open in 2008.
This year saw the release of Paul Greengrass' United 93 to critical acclaim worldwide; Phillip Noyce's Catch A Fire; and Paul Weiland's Sixty Six. 2007 is lined up to be one of Working Title's busiest years ever with the release of six films; Ringan Ledwidge's Gone with Amelia Warner, Shaun Evans and Scott Mechlowicz; Shekhar Kapur's The Golden Age, the long-awaited follow up to the successful Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Clive Owen; Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; Mr Bean's Holiday starring Rowan Atkinson directed by Steve Bendelack; Joe Wright's Atonement, adapted from the book by Ian McEwan, starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Romola Garai; and Adam Brooks' Definitely, Maybe starring Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Derek Luke, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks and Rachel Weisz.
Return to main menu