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Tribeca Takes: Leslie Cockburn on American Casino

Director Leslie Cockburn was making the TFF 2009 doc American Casino just as the subprime mortgage crisis—the film's subject—unfolded. She talks about the meta-ness of it all and audience reaction in the current economic climate.



In January 2008, when we began shooting American Casino, there were already alarming signs that the subprime crisis could lead to financial collapse. Still, the notion that the country was heading for a crash was not the received wisdom at the time, and the decision to go ahead with the project posed a considerable risk. We basically just closed our eyes and jumped. (Steven Spielberg once advised me that when you want to make a movie, “Leap before you look.”)

Looking back, the fact that we were filming as the crisis unfolded meant that we did not have to rely on stock footage. This gives American Casino a very intimate feel. We were at Bear Stearns before it closed. We were there watching as Lehman imploded. We were there at the auctions. We were with people as they packed up their houses and went into bankruptcy. We were with the bankers as they looked at the wreckage of their ingenious schemes, leveraged up to 10,000 times. We could take our time explaining, through the voices in the film, what exactly had caused the disaster.



The film has no narration. Only a couple of questions are audible. Nothing comes between the viewer and the subjects, which gives the film its power. When Casino opened at Tribeca, two-time Nobel winner Joseph Stiglitz was in the audience, and when he called it “shocking and powerful,” I knew that we had succeeded. The blizzard of news stories on the meltdown had left most people confused about how and why it happened. So even though we are going into theaters 20 months after inception, the film is still a revelation for people. They finally understand what has happened to them. The greatest compliment has been from the dispossessed. “You have given us a voice,” one of them told me.

We amplified that “voice” with the soundtrack. Three songs were written by artists in inner-city Baltimore, including a number called Losing my Home, written by 11-14-year-olds in an after school program for troubled youth. The lyrics are searing because they grow out of the musicians’ own experiences of parents losing houses and jobs. We were able to bring some of those musicians to New York for the Tribeca premiere. We also turned to the Depression lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home, performed by Bruce Springsteen. Seeing the blasted neighborhoods of Stockton with that haunting song brings home the pain of millions of people ruined by what former regulator Michael Greenberger calls “this fiasco.” For the underlying musical themes, full of pathos and irony, we turned to Moby, whose work enhanced the sense of impending disaster.

The screenings so far, particularly at Tribeca, have turned into town meetings. People are very anxious to talk. One very sophisticated audience--full of financial engineers, traders, economists, regulators--came alive, with Wall Streeters shouting questions at each other. This took the film to another level. It awakened something in the people who were at the epicenter of the crisis. It tied what had happened on Wall Street directly to the ravaged neighborhoods of Baltimore, Stockton and Riverside. It tracked the faltering mortgage of a high school teacher in inner-city Baltimore all the way through Goldman Sachs to the office of the Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, who had run Goldman when the teacher’s mortgage had been securitized. The film put a face on the Bloomberg screens. It made Wall Street think.



Behind the scenes of American Casino:



 



When the film opened at Tribeca, I had no idea whether we would find distribution. We had educated ourselves about the “new distribution model,” best laid out by Peter Broderick, who teaches filmmakers how to keep control of their work. After the Festival, Jim Browne, who runs Argot Pictures and came highly recommended by Broderick, approached us. Argot was enthusiastic about distribution for Casino and set to work in May. Film Forum in New York picked it up for two weeks in September (2-15), followed by bookings at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (August 14), the Roxie in San Francisco (August 21), the Music Hall in LA (September 18), the Landmark in Washington, DC, and theaters in Milwaukee, Denver, Providence, Santa Fe, Austin, and upstate New York. The list continues to grow.

I was surprised to find that many of the theaters still prefer to show 35mm rather than HD. Now that HD has finally reached the point where the look really is as good as film, thanks to the HDX 900 Panasonic camera which we used throughout (24f/film look), one would think that every theater could be equipped for HD. Turning the HD into film was nerve-wracking, as the initial prints were too dark. We experimented, lightening them and taking out some greens. The prints now look perfect.

Producer Andrew Cockburn and I will attend as many openings as possible, because each of these cities has been scarred by the financial gambling that has impoverished school systems, gutted pension funds, stripped fire and police departments, diminished city services and blighted whole neighborhoods. Every town meeting will be different. One reviewer described American Casino as a “revelatory howl.” At the town meetings, the voices sounded like that. “My 401(k),” one man said with anguish. He could not finish the sentence.
 



Watch the trailer:


 



American Casino
opens at Film Forum on September 2.

Documentary filmmaker Leslie Cockburn has also been a film producer, journalist, writer, and professor. She has won numerous awards for her work and lives with her husband Andrew in Washington, DC, and Ireland. Read her full bio.

Leslie Cockburn's Director Bio from TFF 2009:




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