What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas... & Atlanta
"The challenge with a film set in Las Vegas," says Mark, "is that you need to try to find a few new ways to show this city that we've seen so often."
One thing was certain from the early planning stages -- it was essential to shoot exteriors (and some interiors) in the actual city. They shot two weeks in Las Vegas, in a number of Vegas locations including at Stratosphere, the neon sign museum, in front of The Mirage and Bellagio (on the Strip itself), on Fremont Street, at Binion's, at McCarran International Airport, and at ARIA Resort & Casino.
Production Designer David J. Bomba (Secondhand Lions) had the Vegas in a new way mandate in mind the whole time.
Mark references a scene in which Douglas and Steenburgen walk through a museum of old Vegas signs as an example of a way to capture vintage Vegas juxtaposed against modern Vegas. "What David did here was quite fresh and original. And he also managed to push the famous neon colors of the city in interesting ways."
And then there's the roller coaster ride at Stratosphere -- a breathtaking POV of Vegas and a scene the key participants (Douglas and Steenburgen) would have gladly seen dropped.
"It was the first day of shooting," recalls Mark. "Jon had taken Mary and Michael on the ride the previous weekend so they would know what to expect. They were still a bit petrified -- but to their credit, they just went for it."
Well, sort of.
"I hated every second of it," says Steenburgen. "I'm not going to say I enjoyed it or I was brave or I really didn't try to make it end. I did. It was 30-mile-an-hour winds. Michael and I went on the ride before the shoot day just to see if we were going to die of a heart attack! Well... we tried to see if we could put a stop to the whole thing! He was braver than me and I'm a pretty brave person. I zip-line. It wasn't my finest hour. I'm not proud of my behavior. I did try to lead a revolt."
"Painful. That was the worst experience," Douglas says. "Let me explain. When you get on that ride you don't quite understand what's going on, what's about to happen. Of course they wanted us in the first seat. You're up there, close to1,000 feet, the wind is blowing and you can see further than you would ever want to see in your entire life! All of a sudden it rises: the track goes out and over the end of the building into the air and then...drop. 1,000 feet in the air and it drops just like that! Needless to say, they got the shot and we were very happy to get out of there. I did come back as a total hero -- my son knew about the Stratosphere. He couldn't believe I did it."
But it was ARIA that would become the production's 'home base' in Vegas. ARIA and parent company MGM Resorts International were key partners and ARIA served as the primary setting where the main characters stayed and partied in Vegas.
Bomba: "ARIA is part of City-Center, the newest part of Vegas, and it has an edge to it. It's a new entity that brings an added elegance. It brings a modernized look to the Vegas of today."
The production shot exteriors at the hotel including scenes at the ARIA pool. The ARIA interiors, including the VIP penthouse Sky Suite, a chapel, and the hotel's Haze nightclub would be recreated later in Atlanta. The production team worked closely with the ARIA team to ensure the replication was exact. This collaborative process included ARIA sharing blueprints and design plans and giving unprecedented access to shoot photos of the interiors and exteriors of the property so the recreations in Atlanta would be authentic. Performers from the property's Cirque du Soleil show Zarkana made appearances throughout the film, an actual ARIA blackjack dealer served as a blackjack dealer in a key scene in the film (serving up Archie's winnings), and ARIA allowed the production to use their employee uniforms in Las Vegas and Atlanta to ensure all was true to an ARIA experience.
"How do you recreate Las Vegas, which is very specific? Well, first of all you don't shoot the exteriors in Atlanta. You make sure you shoot the size and the scale and the scope of Vegas in Vegas," says Turteltaub. "That said, the hotel room can't be a hotel room. It's got to be THE hotel room 'cause that's Vegas. So we had to build the hotel room - the one that everyone dreams of and wants to stay in and thinks that's what everybody stays in when they make it in Vegas. The biggest compliment I think the production designer got was after he had built this extraordinary set to be the (ARIA) suite they stay in, David, the editor, was confused how we were able to shoot that scene in a real suite in Las Vegas when we had already flown to Atlanta. The editor was confused. So if he is going to buy into it, I know the audience is."
ARIA's penthouse Sky Suites "were absolutely gorgeous," Bomba says. "One wall of the Penthouse expands 50 feet. So we created these night drops, which are like huge billboards that we put outside the windows (of the ARIA set in Atlanta). They were actually views you would see if you were in the villa suites at night in Vegas. We added different lighting to make the effects correct and you could not tell. They were shot from about 40 floors up, looking out over a portion of Vegas, with the lights glittering over the city. It was pretty spectacular. Aria is such a beautiful, elegant resort and to recreate that villa suite was quite a feat. We also took several shots of the pool while we were at ARIA. It has been filmed before but we shot it in a different way."
Indeed, "Bomba did a brilliant job of matching not just the general tone and opulence of Vegas, but the specific characteristics of ARIA," says Turteltaub.
Atlanta was also home to Billy's lush Malibu home (Bomba: "the beach house we found in the middle of the city."), served as the Brooklyn backdrop for the flashback sequence at the beginning of the film (Bomba: "(the Brooklyn street set) proved a major hurdle as we had to pull something together in two days, so we recreated one-half block of Atlanta to look like Brooklyn in the '50s"), and was home to a recreation of Haze nightclub, Deuce Lounge, Binions Lounge, and the ARIA wedding chapel. The production also filmed Kevin Kline being dropped off at a Florida airport...at the Atlanta Convention Center.
Attention to detail in the Vegas recreations was imperative, as was establishing the crew of four as distinct individuals:
"Each character had his own world and his own struggles (at the beginning of the film)," notes Turteltaub. "Sam lives in a world surrounded by old people that are older than he is and acting older than he is. That's why we put him in a pool in a senior center. The key with Archie was to create a home that was perfectly nice, but felt very empty when Archie was left alone in it. The trick to creating Paddy's world was to make a home for his wife Sophie, and then remove her from it. That meant that David had to give the apartment a feminine touch and fill it with clutter and pictures that remind us of her. And with Billy, it was the lack of clutter that showed that he was living strictly in the present."
As for working with the talent, Bomba says Freeman and De Niro in particular "were interested in where they were sitting (in those establishing scenes) and what was next to them (as an extension or expression of their characters' worlds.)"
"Each of them was so generous. None of them came into the room and just took over. They were very collaborative," Bomba says.
"My favorite part is always the research, recreating something and hoping at the end of the day that what has been created evokes an emotional response from the audience," he adds. "But I never want the scenery to overwhelm the scene as it is always meant to be supportive of the story, not overtake it. It is always about being supportive of where the director is taking the story, the world he is trying to convey. What is great about Jon is he is very clear and always creates a safe place for the creative experience...an amazing director to work with."
"We ended up really with the movie we shot," says Turteltaub. For the director, the Last Vegas production was in some ways a transformative experience.
"Having limited resources means that as a director, you have to be very specific about what you want. The thing I enjoyed most was the speed at which we had to work. Because we needed to move very quickly, it forced me to focus on what really mattered and not spend a lot of time on things that might matter. When you make a big action film there are dozens of people looking over your shoulder making sure you are living up to their expectations, so you spend a lot of time and money making other people happy. On a movie like this, I just needed to satisfy my own sense of whether we were making a great movie or not."
When it came to performances, Turteltaub found his answer in the editing bay.
"The thing you realize when you watch the footage versus just watching what you're doing live (on the set) is what a movie star is. You see the power in that unspoken, unidentifiable thing that make these guys have that special onscreen presence," he explains. "So when you're cutting the film and watching it, you really see how good they are. You see the details... that spark that you can't always see when you're on the set. The truth is there's so much, it was hard to cut things out. You want to be on all four of them at all times and you can't. Sometimes you've got to be on just one or another. And there's a lot of struggle to figure out how do I not show that? That's really good, but it's not the thing that you need at that point so you've got to cut it out."
Editor David Rennie (National Treasure: Book of Secrets) is familiar with Turteltaub's process. Although this is his first collaboration as solo editor, he has teamed with Turteltaub on many of his pictures over the years.
"I met David on my very first feature 25 years ago when he was an assistant editor," Turteltaub says. "It's easy to spot brilliant, funny and talented people. We've been close ever since and have worked together several times. We know each other extremely well...which isn't always a good thing. I always say that people are a lot nicer to strangers than they are to their friends... and I'm very close with David, the poor bastard!"
Rennie says because the two have worked on several films together and are close they've developed "a sort of shorthand. But I tend not to have any pre-conceived notions. It is always his call. I don't want to have ego in the cutting room. It is always about what best services the story."
Because the film was shot with digital, "you basically turn the cameras on and let them go, so there is a lot more coverage because we are not shooting with film. The good news is you get a lot more to work with, but from an editor's point of view it means a lot more work."
Rennie says the schedule was very short on this film -- "35 days of shooting and I had to edit it in 35 days. Jon shot 6-7 pages (of script) a day, which is very fast."
When it came to how the picture would be shot, Turteltaub tapped the skills of Cinematographer David Hennings (Horrible Bosses).
"Everything I knew about David I knew from reputation and everything I heard said, 'hire him'," says Turteltaub. "There were two key things I was looking for other than the obvious need for the film to look good. I needed a DP (director of photography) who was nice and fast. People don't realize that being easy to get along with is not just a social issue, it's a time issue. On this movie, there was no time for fighting, arguing, stewing, complaining, or handholding. I think we moved so quickly not just because of David's skill as a cinematographer, but also because of his easy and fun personality."
When it came to creative choices in terms of lighting, camera technique, the look or mood, Turteltaub's directive was clear -- "Actors first. Performance first. Character first. That's what guided us. Let the cast be the most important part of the picture-taking process," he says. "And once we had that, it was make sure Las Vegas feels big, bright and intimidating."
Like production design, the actors' costumes help tell the story.
Turteltaub, the producers and actors have high praise for Costumer Designer Dayna Pink's "knack for finding clothes that help tell the story." "The actors would say 'that's helping tell me who my character is'," comments Turteltaub.
Case in point: Kevin Kline.
When he first saw his wardrobe Kline says, "I thought the wardrobe was inspired. He (Sam) definitely had a unique sense of personal style."
Pink says creating the accouterments for Kline's costume was a high point. "Maybe my favorite moment in the fittings was when we found the cap and glasses for Kevin's character. We tried several things but when he added those two pieces we knew we had found him. I remember him looking in the mirror and when he turned and looked at me I saw Sam standing in front of me. We were so excited that I think I was screaming!"
"It may sound like a bunch of esoteric mumbo jumbo," says Turteltaub, "but costumes can be a roadmap to a character's history. You're thinking of things like when did the character buy this? When was the last time they wore it? What does it mean for them to have this? How many clothes do they have? All this nonsense is really important to making something feel very real. Often you have to buy new clothes to play old clothes. How do you make it look old the way that character would make it look old? What is dirty versus messy, torn versus scruffy? Those kinds of things."
Pink agreed. Costumes are "mostly determined by character and who these guys once were and who they are today. Jon and I had lots of communication and many Skype sessions about it all, but mostly I think he trusted me and just added little gems to what we were doing."
It is her first collaboration with Turteltaub but she previously teamed with Fogelman on Crazy, Stupid, Love. "I have worked with Dan before and I love his writing so much. I also love to dress men and I have a background in men's fashion so the combination of a Dan Fogelman script mixed with not just four men but these four men was something I really wanted to do. Then I met Jon Turteltaub and there was no way I wasn't doing this movie."
For her the experience was "more like crazy exciting. Roll your sleeves up because anything is possible with this group of amazing men who have done it all and worn it all! It was awesome! I cannot speak highly enough about each of them and the honor it was to help them find their way to these characters. It is always a collaboration and a process to get the characters' looks nailed down. I will say that this journey was more fun than most. It was the little touches that made them real and they were open enough to trust me to try things."
It was her spirit that proved infectious on the set, Turteltaub says. "Everyone's in a good mood around Dayna. So when she gets everyone dressed, they leave the dressing room happy. When she's on the set, everyone lights up."
When Turteltaub was looking for a way to show contrast between generations he found it in music. "So much of the film takes place in nightclubs and parties, and in today's Vegas that means a lot of hip-hop and electronic music. So that's where we found the contrast," he said. "This was a very tricky movie to score. We needed a sound, a style to accompany these four older guys. But as time marches on, old-guy-music isn't so old anymore. These guys were teenagers in the rock and roll era. It's hard to show the generation gap when they were kids who listened to rock and roll. So we went for something that was timeless... something bluesy. (Composer Mark Mothersbaugh) then found a way to alter that sound with a single instrument that identified with each character. Michael Douglas was represented by a guitar; De Niro by a clarinet, etc. It's extremely subtle but it's beautifully done."
Since this was the first time he had teamed with Mothersbaugh (The Royal Tenenbaums), initially Turteltaub was very nervous. "Mark is definitely a cool person and I'm definitely not. But it turns out we had a great time together and communicated really easily with one another."
Mothersbaugh found Last Vegas "a great opportunity to write a score for a comedic film that covered both the touching moments and the throwback Vegas sound. The music I created fell into two categories: a) Orchestral, emotional, human story-telling, and b) Late 60s, early 70s jazz organ combo, sort of a Green Onions (Booker T. and the M.G.s) / Ray Charles vibe to be the theme music for the four main protagonists, both their camaraderie and their outdated notion of what Las Vegas is about these days. My main influence for the score was the old Vegas vibe -- the sounds and the style."
"Jon had a very clear idea of how he heard the music, and was both intelligent and articulate," adds Mothersbaugh.
"And the movie was well-written, well-constructed, and well-acted, so that stuff all just comes together to make a composer's job much easier."
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