Mark Rydell talks “Even Money” with Jennifer Merin

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In “Even Money,“ acclaimed director Mark Rydell, known as an ’actor’s director,’ casts Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger and Forrest Whitaker as characters whose lives reflect the harsh consequences of adaptation to gambling. The film is Rydell‘s first theatrical release in more than a decade.

“It’s tough in today’s market to maintain your integrity,” says Rydell, “but luckily I’ve managed to do it. It’s hard to find substantive material that deals with human beings. When you do, it’s worthwhile pursuing that project.”

“When I read the first draft of “Even Money,“ (first-time writer) Robert Tannen’s deep examination of the characters impressed me, and I liked his interweaving of four stories that come together in the end– that’s a style that gained popularity with the films of Robert Altman, who was a very good friend of mine. “Even Money” was filmed in the spirit of Altman.”

MERIN: How did you change that first draft?

RYDELL: Robert Tannen, who’s a very skilled young man, and I went over the material syllable by syllable, examining each scene’s intent and the way it was executed. We worked together to solve problems, improve situations. And, we kept writing even while we were shooting– because a film’s a living thing, it changes as you work on it, particularly during the shooting process, when actors of immense talent bring that talent to the set. Suddenly things you might have thought inviolate become infused with their gifts, and you have to be elastic enough to examine something you hadn’t perceived before and embrace change.

For example, Grant Sullivan (cast as a bookie) is a professional fighter. Originally, the script didn’t have that profession for him. We rewrote to give him opportunity to demonstrate his special skills which work for the part– he’s a man who’s struggling with his violence because he’s fallen in love and wants to do the right thing. With the Magician, Danny DeVito’s part, we added his ambition, his need for a resurgence in this career– that fed his relationship with Basinger. You discover these things as you work on the material.

So many talents come together in making a film. A director’s a kind of a father figure guide always looking for ideas to execute the film in the best way possible. You never know where ideas are going to originate– a great idea can come from a craft service guy. You have to leave yourself open to continual development of the material.

MERIN: I find your comparison of directors to father figures interesting. Many women directors speak of themselves as Earth mothers, but many male directors whom I’ve interviewed identify themselves as army commanders. Your have a decidedly different approach, I‘d say….

RYDELL: Director doesn’t have to be army commanders, although that element enters into it because directors are natural born leaders, and the barometer of their skill is their ability to engage everyone working with them– 50 to 100 crew, 30 cast members– and get them aiming for the same target. When your concept is defined and clarified for everyone, you take them on a trip. You include them in the journey, instead of using them like a commander uses an army– which implies, in my mind, lack of communication. I’m a fan of communication. Good ideas come from everyone. I’m going to get the credit for them anyway, so I’m very happy to accept the generosity and creativity of the people with whom I work.

MERIN: “Even Money” explores the world of gamblers. What are you saying about that ethos?

RYDELL: It’s rather shallow to say gambling is awful. What’s really going on? Relationships, lives, aspirations– marriages can be destroyed by gambling. People who’re hungry to invest themselves in a better future take risks, perhaps, that they’re not prepared for. We illuminate their lives, show what happens to them.

MERIN: How does “Even Money” fit into your filmography?

RYDELL: That’s an interesting question, because this film has few predecessors. Some people say it’s the “Crash” about gambling, but it‘s its own thing.

It’s unusual to see a film these days that’s about human beings. Studios are not making these kinds of films since they’re targeting young audiences– 13 and 14 year olds– who produce hundred million dollar weekends. The attention is focused on technology and dazzle, and very little substance. These days, studios tell you bring us a tent pole picture– like Spiderman, something that produces huge revenue. They want a circus– or a crude vulgar comedy. It’s very hard to sell to the majors now– ‘though it’s hard, too, to condemn them for trying to meet their financial goals. But it lacks soul.

I take my role as a director very seriously. I find it a kind of noble profession. There’re very few professions where you can sit people all over the world in dark rooms and try to show them what you think is the truth about human behavior and perhaps even change or enlighten people. I don’t mean to be self-aggrandizing here, but you do have an opportunity to illuminate truths that they might never be exposed to otherwise. I take my responsibility quite seriously. I think it’s a really powerful profession. Unfortunately, the way the industry has change since corporate entities, market research and pursuit of the bottom line– the dollar– rule, and the sense of responsibility and artistic aspiration have diminished so much, it’s very hard to be a serious director today.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).