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Rupert Wyatt On Directing ‘The Gambler’ and Man’s Tendency to Self-Destruct

We go our entire lives trying to validate ourselves through acquiring as much as possible, whether it be money, love, or power. This quest fuels us, providing purpose in an otherwise irrational universe. However, lurking deep within the crevices of our minds, is the impulse to blow it all to hell. It lingers there, like an ember waiting to be dosed in gasoline.


English director Rupert Wyatt’s latest flick, The Gambler, explores such temptation by following the shady dealings of a nihilistic college English professor trying to self-destruct back to zero. Played by an exceptional Mark Wahlberg, our anti-hero Jim Bennet makes $500k at an illegal casino before blowing it all and finding himself over $200k in debt, all within the film’s first ten minutes. If that’s not enough to get you hooked, we also see John Goodman play a gangster who gets off on glorifying the guilty pleasures of American capitalism, and Brie Larson embody the sexy undergraduate bookworm every academic has left their wife for. And like The Gambler’s roller-coaster pace, Wyatt—who is coming off the massive success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes—is confident, edgy, and knows how to get right to the heart of the bigger issues that occupy our day-to-day subconscious. 46 stories above Manhattan at the Mandarin Oriental, we sat down with him to discuss gambling, power, and death.


Where did the idea to make the film come from?
The ’74 original is out there and has existed for some time, 40 years now. Karel Reisz, the filmmaker, James Toback, the writer, and Irwin Winkler, the producer, all had a conversation with Paramount about the notion of doing a remake. They brought Bill Monahan on. It’s interesting because Bill and I both believe in the concept of a remake, but not if you’re just going to emulate. I think he set out to create the antithesis of what the original was and really just use the title itself, the notion of gambling, as a way into a very different story.


The Gambler is unique in that it starts off with these longer, more unconventional scenes, such as the opening casino bit and Mark Wahlberg lecturing as a college professor. What are some of the challenges in shooting material like this?
It’s always finding a way into the scene through the right way. It’s finding the best place to put the camera. I think Greig Fraser, the D.P., and I, early on recognized this as a very dialogue-heavy piece of work: it’s very verbose, the characters are clearly leading us, we’re not leading them. We decided to be pretty clear in our choices to where the camera was going to go and then not move it that much.  It’s funny because if you look at a lot of gambling movies, you see these camera tricks that try to create excitement to the actual gameplay itself. And as I’m sure you know, the win-lose notion of gambling is of course very high-stakes and there’s an innate tension there, but the actual physical act of gambling is pretty dull, it’s not an interesting thing to watch. So my whole way in was to think of a genre like the Western and ask how Sergio Leone shot those gunfight scenes. They were all about the build up, the sense of anticipation, the eye-line, the silences, and then the actual act of violence was very quick and kind of like a bit of an afterthought. So that’s how I came to those scenes.


You said a bit earlier that this isn’t a movie about gambling as an addiction, that it’s about the top dog trying to become the underdog. Why would someone want to do that?
I think many of us in our lives get to this place, whether it’s people, material wealth, or something psychological, where we wonder what it would be like to blow everything up, to start again. That’s a very specific thought process and it’s one that actually is something you can control. So the addiction aspect of it to me was always redundant because an addict doesn’t have control: he’s somebody who’s surfing the drain and is somebody who’s really not in control of his compulsions. So Jim is a guy who has a very clear code and from day 1 on this journey that the movie spans, he’s on a mission.


What is his quest?
To get back to zero. To wipe himself out. To start again. The vacant lot sign at the end represents that in so many ways. Unlike Rocky, where it’s all about winning the crown and getting to that giddy height of success and adulation and all of that, he’s a guy who actually wants to go the other direction.


Is there an element of escapism in that?
Yeah, insofar as he’s escaping from his life.


Could that be associated with death? After all, there is a recurring theme throughout the film with Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be” speech. Every time Jim knowingly allows himself to get further and further into debt, I thought that might be a way of him secretly trying to kill himself.
I don’t believe in him as being suicidal. I believe in the idea that he’s actually willingly self-destructive, but so he can then wipe his slate clean and start again. I think he’s prepared to put his life on the line. To be that honest with himself and others around him is putting himself in a great deal of danger, so to do that obviously means he’s willing to risk his life. I think the whole hope and aspiration from his perception is that he goes into that dragon room at the end with the hope he’ll come out alive.


How does literature and his profession as a college English professor relate to his quest to get back to zero?
He’s a guy at the beginning of the story who sets out, in the lecture scene in particular, this agenda of his whole philosophy on life; which is that you’re either a genius or you’re nothing. I think over the course of the seven days, he begins to realize that life is a bit more complicated than that. There are shades of grey and that’s where Amy lies. It’s what makes us human and that’s why the whole notion of gambling, especially the whole win-lose aspect, is a great reflection on how so many people in our society live their lives. You either have to be brilliant at what you do, marry the best person in the world, or you’re nothing. Of course in real life, the shaded nature of life, is more than that, which he figures out.


How does power relate to this?
The power comes from the viewpoint. Frank is someone who believes in a fortress of solitude, being able to say, “Fuck you,” to the man because of material gain. And that’s, for him, where power lies. He talks about it and how America became the great nation that it is. Jim has a very different idea of what power is, which is having nothing… but from that basis, not owing anybody anything, not having any set of rules to live your life by. That’s where his power comes from.


What would you like audiences to take away from the film?
I guess it’s what drew me to the project in the first place. So much of mainstream cinema, and by that I guess I mean Hollywood, increasingly tells stories where there are no repercussions to people’s actions; there’s this notion of invincibility to it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a true reflection on who we are. You only have to look at so many superhero films to realize it’s all wish fulfillment, it’s all about the notion that we as a species are great and have no flaws that can’t be beaten. Of course, we know that’s not the case. I think the idea of telling a story within the mainstream that actually shows there are real consequences to people’s actions is really compelling and is what makes storytelling great. The reasons why we tell stories is that they reflect back onto us as a species and relate to who we are.


Text by Davis Richardson. Photo courtesy of Getty.

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Spank Rock’s Ten Favorite Albums of 2014

Spank Rock makes relentless, hyperactive party music that somehow sounds ADD and laser-focused all at the same time. A master at mixing styles, from hardcore European techno to club beats from his native Baltimore, the MC born Naeem Juwan is back with The Upside, a 7-track EP that features more of his signature frantic dance-rap. Working with producers like Boys Noize (who also worked with Juwan on his last LP, the beautifully titled Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar), Noah Breakfast, and Kid Kamillion, Spank Rock is ending the year with a bang—and some bangers. And with that year-end spirit in mind, we asked him for his ten favorite albums of this year. The result is a collection of critical favorites, obscure mixtapes, and Soundclouds. Check it out below. 


1. Hennessy Youngman, CVS Bangers Volume 3
“Where You At Elian?” 2014 was a tacky mess for american music, and music journalism is a joke. So, I spent most of my time sipping wine coolers and listening to my favorite album CVS Bangers III , full of air horns and gun shots to remind me that i’m still a hard ass nigger while singing along to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love”


2. Blonde Redhead, Barragán
Their ninth studio album is also one of their strongest. It’s beautiful, with great depth.


3. Death Grips, Niggas On the Moon
The poetry and production on this album is so smart, powerful and unique it turns all “relevant” rappers into jesters & whores.


4. Svnset Waves, Fog Pack x Svnsetwaves compilation
There’s about 40 songs on this perfectly curated compilation. Beautiful futuristic sounds. Music for every venue from the club to the bedroom.


5. PC Music, https://soundcloud.com/pcmus
PC Music has definitely introduced the most exciting sounds of the year. the broken, happy, sunshine, candy, J-pop production, and tongue in cheek over simplified pop lyrics create the purest feeling of happiness. Totally different from the depressing pop created by american consumerism.


6. A$AP Ferg, Ferg Forever
Ferg my favorite rapper this year. He got his own sound and lyrics that challenge rap tropes without being holier than thou. He also has a respect and love for hip-hop and its history that makes me remember why I love hip-hop so much, too.


7. Junglepussy, Satisfaction Guaranteed
Junglepussy on some authentic Pro Black Feminist shit that the rap world really needs. This album is both sexy and intelligent. She’s one of the first of this generation to really do it right.


8. D’Angelo, Black Messiah
I been a D’angelo fan from day one and was shocked to hear progression from him on this album. He definitely came through with another classic.


9. Nadus, Broke City EP
My personal favorite of the Jersey club producers. My Baltimore roots got me following and playing Jersey in every DJ set, and Nadus’ Broke City EP approaches the genre in a melodic and throughly composed way that makes it one of my favorite albums of the year.


10. FKA Twigs, LP1
The beautiful production of this album is what got it into my rotation and year end list.

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Meet Lorenzo Richelmy, the Unknown Actor Tapped to Lead Netflix’s Biggest Show

Marrying historical fiction with stylized action sequences, Netflix’s newest original series follows the adventures of history’s greatest explorer, the Italian merchant Marco Polo, throughout Asia as he chronicles his journeys and attempts to connect Eastern and Western trade. Taking a lesson from history, Marco Polo also aims to establish a link between Eastern and Western viewing audiences, broadening Netflix’s international market value while providing current subscribers a breathtaking experience throughout the formation of the Yuan Dynasty.


With a budget of $90 million (the second most expensive television show in existence after HBO’s Game of Thrones), Netflix took a big gamble on Marco Polo. Perhaps an even greater risk was casting an obscure Italian actor who couldn’t speak English as the show’s central character. However, three months later, Lorenzo Richelmy was the face of the project; wielding a new mastery of the English language, training ten hours a day in Kung Fu, and immersing himself deep within various Eastern cultures. All of these accomplishments are testaments to Lorenzo’s abilities as an actor, and also echo the pioneering ethos of his character. We called up the star of television’s newest blockbuster to discuss spiritual balance, martial arts, and the future of television.


What are some lessons you’ve taken away from the series?
You’re dealing with this 17-year-old guy who would go on to have these crazy, crazy journeys throughout all Asia. We all know what Marco Polo did, but we don’t really know how he did it, which I had to explore as an actor. He’s been our first modern man in a way, no? He was our first bridge between the East and West, so he’s open minded; he never judged. The great thing about him, this guy who found his way through the world, is that he knew that he had to understand the other cultures.


What is Marco Polo’s spiritual journey throughout the series?
We see him in the beginning of the show and he’s this young kid. And at the end, he becomes a young adult. In a spiritual way, he understands where his center is; and he understands that he always needs to understand where it is. You’ll see a passionate guy at the beginning, and at the end of the show he’s changed a lot; not only physically, but he also knows himself much more.


How do you think this paralleled your growth as an actor throughout the first season?
When I first started this show, I couldn’t speak English. I was new to everything, from martial arts to English. You’ll see from episode one to episode 10, Marco, and myself as an actor, change a lot. Now, I know English better and my body’s changed. Of course as an actor I practiced a lot, it was the biggest dream I could ever imagine and my acting skills improved.


It’s very impressive you could get so good at English in such a short period of time. How else did you prepare for the role?
I got cast three months before we started shooting. I started training two months before we started so I went to Malaysia where they were building all the sets and was training every day. Basically, I had to work out and train for ten hours a day and then at the end of the day, I had to sit in a bathtub with salt, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to move a finger the next morning. So it was pretty intense, but at the same time we had experts from all over the world and it was incredible. I had a Chinese guy teaching me kung fu, a Japanese guy teaching me sword fighting, and Khalkha guys teaching me Mongolian wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. To me, it was a full training and I was new to everything. But I have to say, that I had done two years of parkour so I think that enabled me to learn a lot quicker.


It’s like you’re an athlete and your mind and body have to be one.
It was an experience. I went on this journey from Italy to this super big production not knowing anything, so of course it was a big job, but at the same time it was beautiful. Can you believe an American production doesn’t have American actors? This is crazy! For an American system, this is crazy! It’s something big for them, and it’s changing something. Thanks to Netflix, the binge-watching, and the fact you don’t have commercials anymore, there’s a change in the quality of script writing because there’s more freedom. It’s a big, big change for television. And at the same time, they liked me. When it came to the casting, I can’t believe they believed in me, just this random guy. It was too much at first, but then I realized they did it and that’s what matters. Everybody was trying to create something unique. Even if it was a massive production, the atmosphere there was like we were making an indie movie.


How did you go about researching the role?
Through curiosity. We’re showing how a young man became a legend, so I didn’t have to act too cool or over the top because he was just a kid; he’s a 20 year old Italian who grew up in very unique time. I just drew from some of my experiences and my DNA as an Italian and then focused them to create a great character. [Marco Polo] had curiosity, but his confines also made him fearless; when you want too much of something, you don’t fear anything. He also didn’t judge, so he was able to accept and understand the reasons behind things at all times.


Earlier you mentioned the international aspect of the series and all these collaborators who were involved in its execution. Do you think there’s an inherent built-in metaphor with the silk road connecting Asia and Europe, and the series itself acting as this type of bridge between Eastern and Western audiences?
It is, and it’s wonderful they’re doing it with Netflix. We have now, with this huge show, the opportunity to tell the world an untold story of two cultures facing each other, the East and the West. There’s a big lesson in the whole show to be found. We are in the moment now, with social media and social networking, and we’re all looking at each other like we’re all the same. I can message a guy in China, and he can answer me back in two seconds! I would say all this improved communication is bringing us to be all the same, but we’re not all the same and we should never forget who we were and what our cultural backgrounds are. We should understand understand and love and respect the differences between each other, you know? We want to bring an audience into this crazy world that’s so different from what they normally experience, but at the same time find this guy, Marco, who’s not forsaking his heritage to another culture, while remaining accepted. I would say we’re finally in an era where we can finally accept each other’s differences. I hope people are going to learn something from the show, about both their culture and another one.


Text and interview by Davis Richardson.