George Hickenlooper, who abruptly died at 47 in Denver on Saturday morning as he was preparing for a film festival screening of his new film “Casino Jack,” had a career that spanned genres. He made acclaimed documentaries, including the “Apocalypse Now” chronicle “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” and “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” His short films include “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” which was expanded into Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winning feature “Sling Blade.” And he made narrative features, among them his tale of model and Andy Warhol protégé Edie Sedgwick, “Factory Girl.”
“Casino Jack,” is part satire, part broad comedy and part drama; it follows Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) through a world of power, privilege and over-the-top spending, until Abramoff was sent to prison in 2006 on fraud and corruption charges that rocked Washington’s corridors of power.
I spoke to Hickenlooper in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where he screened the film.
I just came from the press and industry screening of your film …
How did it go? You’re the first response I’m hearing from it, so be brutally honest. How did it really go?
I thought it played well, although some people seemed confused by the tone. But when you’re dealing with that subject matter, the excess of that culture of lobbying are so extreme that you almost have to push it toward comedy.
Yeah, yeah. And the subject’s so dry that it would just be tedious and dull to play it straight. The model I used was Paddy Chayevsky’s “Network.” Look at the tone of that. At one point it’s satire, with Peter Finch saying, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And on the other hand you’ve got these incredible intimate moments with William Holden and his wife, when he’s f—ing Faye Dunaway.
For me, I think there’s a good balance of tone in this. But I think a lot of people aren’t used to films that have that balance of tone. In the last 30 years, independent film has become what I call Pottery Barn cinema. It’s a little bit ostentatious, it’s beautiful to look at, but it’s lost its sense of storytelling. And so I think when you have a picture like mine, which is a balance of comedy and drama, people are not quite used to seeing that.
They’re used to seeing movies that are pure satire, because the commodification of American cinema has gone that way. In order to sell a movie, you have to make it fit the model. I think filmmakers like Monte Hellman and Hal Ashby, who allowed their stories to breathe, would be challenged in today’s marketplace.
Well, you could say that Hal Ashby was challenged in the marketplace of his day, too.
That’s true. Yeah, sure. I’m just being pretentious.
Was it tricky to find that balance of comedy and drama for “Casino Jack”?
Absolutely. Kevin (Spacey) and I talked quite a bit about it while we were shooting the picture, and I love that challenge. It’s not something a lot of people do. It’s tough. Ernest Lubitsch did it well, Preston Sturges did it well, Howard Hawks did it well. It’s a tough thing.
What was it that appealed to you about the Abramoff story?
I’ve always been fascinated by characters who have had great success and are in free-fall. Edie Sedgwick, in “Factory Girl,” I was interested in how she fell from the grace of Andy Warhol. “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” — Rodney Bingenheimer, an L.A. deejay living in the shadow of celebrity and wanting to be there, but it’s not something he can really have.
“Big Brass Ring,” the same thing with William Hurt’s character. That’s another political film I did from an old Orson Welles script. So I’m interested in the concept of failure. I mean, Welles is one of my favorite filmmakers, obviously, and it’s a theme that ran in his work, and one that really fascinates me.
How much was the movie affected by your meetings with Abramoff?
Without him, I wouldn’t have had the movie. I had a script that was written by Norman Steiner, a journalist who interviewed people who knew Abramoff. But then I had the good fortune of meeting Abramoff five times in prison, at the Cumberland Federal Penitentiary in Maryland. He gave us five or six-hour interviews, and he was very funny and charming and charismatic.
He told us stories, and I brought Kevin to meet Abramoff, the last time we met. Jack does great impersonations, and Kevin does great impersonations. So at one point Jack was talking to Kevin as Ronald Reagan, and Kevin was talking to Jack as Bill Clinton. It was a very funny presidential summit.
Kevin absorbed it like a sponge. And even though they’re very different politically, I think Kevin had a grudging respect for the guy. Because Abramoff was essentially thrown under the bus by the Republican party, so they could say “We took care of the lobbying problem.” When in fact it’s worse than ever, I think.