Two weeks prior to filming, the five actors who play the M.I.T. team of card counters spent time with card consultant Kyle Morris to learn how to play the game. Morris, who lives in Las Vegas and consults for films, worked closely with the cast during filming and appears as a blackjack dealer in one scene.
Regarding learning the game, he offers, “The cast really surprised me. A lot of them knew absolutely nothing about blackjack but they knew quite a bit about acting. It was more important to teach them how to look and act like a blackjack player.”
Jim Sturgess admits, “I had never played blackjack before in my life. Kyle taught us basic strategies-how to hold yourself at a table, how to do the signals-just to make us looked relaxed at a blackjack table.”
Jacob Pitts explains, “Last time I played blackjack I was twelve years old. Kyle taught us basic strategies and all the signals, but he also showed us techniques for moving chips and manipulating them – the kind of moves that you pick up when you spend a lot of time in casinos.”
The one person who didn’t pick up the chip tricks is Jim Sturgess. “I asked Jeff Ma about it and he said, ‘No, I never did those kinds of tricks. I was the big player – if I was doing chip tricks, they would have sniffed me out,’” he remembers.
Liza Lapira says, “Before being in this movie, I never thought playing blackjack was fun. But thanks to ‘research,’ we got to go to a lot of cool places. It didn’t feel like we were working!”
Kate Bosworth laughs, “The research we had to do on this film was to learn how to play blackjack with real blackjack players in Vegas. How tough is that? I’ve been to Vegas and have gambled a bit, but now I feel like I somewhat know what I’m doing.”
Morris reveals, “A couple of the cast took it even further. Aaron and Liza practiced their card counting. A couple of times I’d spread the cards out and Liza would tell me what the count was and she would be right!”
Lapira isn’t so sure in her skills. “I got Beat the Dealer, the famous book by Edward O. Thorp, and tried to count cards. I’m sure I looked like a big freak in the Santa Monica Coffee Bean, counting to myself.”
Morris says that the cast did have some success at the tables. “I know some of the people in the cast had some big wins while we were in Vegas and chalked it all up to research,” he says. “Hopefully, later on, they won’t blame their losses on me.”
Once filming got underway, it was important to the filmmakers to shoot in real casinos whenever possible. Initially, the filmmakers were concerned that Vegas honchos would not want to cooperate in the filming of a story that shows them being taken by card-counters. “What we soon found out is that the casinos actually liked the story, because it makes people think they can beat the system, and do it easily. That helps bring the people into the casinos,” says Brunetti.
When filming began in Las Vegas, one of Luketic’s challenges was to capture the chaos of Sin City. “You can never completely shut down a casino,” says Luketic, “but we were able to get a table or two or a small section. We’d be filming at one table, orchestrating a complicated camera move, and at the next would be a bunch of frat boys having a great time. The casinos were great partners and helped us tremendously – I’m very proud of what came out of our two weeks in Vegas.”
Capturing the complicated tracking shots between tables and doing it in a highly stylish, sophisticated, brightly colored way was Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter, ASC. “Vegas never closes – the casinos have business 24/7. The key challenge was to shoot our scenes without interrupting the business going on around us. It was exciting.”
Carpenter adds that they were able to find creative and unique ways to achieve the look that Luketic wanted through very unusual means. “We found that we could add a lot of sizzle to our scenes by shooting a long lens through a 35-cent light-up Twizzler that we bought in a hotel gift shop,” he says. “It looks great, like you’re shooting through miles of neon.”
“Robert’s directing style on set in Vegas was very relaxed,” notes producer Dana Brunetti. “He’d arrive completely organized and knowing what he wanted to get, but at the same time, he would be open to new ideas and see where a performance would go. He created an atmosphere that was both loose-and-lively and methodical, and that kept things moving stress-free amid the pandemonium of Vegas.”
Luketic says the best-selling book had all the dramatic moments and tension the film needed, but to translate the story to film required him to make creative decisions on how to bring the internal world of card counting to the screen. “Blackjack really isn’t a spectator sport, but we had to make it into an arena game,” he says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we visualize genius? How do we get inside our lead character’s mind?’ Using specialized lenses and cameras and CGI, we were able to get right onto the surface of the cards and into the characters’ eyes. As a filmmaker, 21 challenged and pushed me.”
Production Designer Missy Stewart, who previously collaborated with Luketic on Legally Blonde, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, and Monster-In-Law, was responsible for presenting Vegas’s glitz on the screen. “We talked about how in Las Vegas there would be a lot of camera movement, the kids would be on the go, in a very animated, almost psychedelic environment.
“What you’ll see is what I consider the ‘new Las Vegas,’ which is the Las Vegas that the younger people go to for a weekend. It’s very different than the old casinos,” Stewart continues. “The Red Rock Resort & Casino, the new Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock-all hip, fun places to go to and to be seen in.”
Contrasting with the hyper-realized Vegas is a very controlled, quiet look for the Boston sequences. “Boston has the traditional look of a 19th Century city,” she says. “We embraced the idea that most of our Boston work would be in older buildings, like Doyle’s Tavern, that has been around since the 1800s.”
Carpenter concurs, “My favorite part of this movie has been establishing a different look for what we shot in Vegas and what we shot in Boston. We use a different color palette and a different way of shooting for the energy of Vegas versus the sense of enclosure that our character, Ben, feels in Boston.”
Luketic adds, “Working in two distinctly different locations was a challenge. But ultimately, with this highly talented group of filmmakers and cast behind me as well as the cooperation of the casinos and the cities of Boston and Cambridge, I think we have a great looking and exciting movie.”
Differentiating styles was equally important for Costume Designer Luca Mosca. After all, he was responsible for helping the actors transform from M.I.T. students into Vegas’s highest rollers. “It was great fun to create the chameleon quality of these kids from one environment into the next,” he says.
But changing the students into the coolest kids on the block is just one transformation. In fact, even as a student, Ben changes over the course of the film as he becomes more self-assured. “It was especially challenging to gradually build Ben, our lead, from a plain student in a maroon M.I.T. sweatshirt into a student with a new degree of confidence without revealing too much,” Mosca notes.
For the actors, donning their Vegas identities was part of the fun. Kate Bosworth says, “One of my favorite things about the project was the fact that the students disguised themselves so that they wouldn’t be recognized by the casinos. I had my ‘Southern Belle’ look, my ‘Soprano-Jersey Girl’ look, and my ‘Louise Brooks’ look. It was fun!”
Directed by: Robert Luketic
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth, Liza Lapira, Josh Gad, Jim Sturgess, Masi Oka, Sam Golzari, Jacob Pitts, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Donna Lows
Screenplay by: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb
Production Design by: Missy Stewart
Cinematography by: Russell Carpenter
Film Editing by: Elliot Graham
Costume Design by: Luca Mosca
Art Direction by: James F. Truesdale
Music by: David Sardy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Release Date: March 28, 2008