CROUPIER, a complex thriller set in London's gambling world, is the story of Jack Manfred, an aspiring writer who, to make ends meet, takes a job as a croupier. Jack remains an observer, knowing that everything in life is a gamble and that gamblers are born to lose, but inevitably he gets sucked into the world of the casino, which takes its toll on his relationships and the novel he is writing. When he is tempted to break his own rules, he carefully considers the odds. But even a professional like Jack can't predict the cards he will be dealt.
Directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter (2000), Flash Gordon (1980)), CROUPIER stars Clive Owen (Close My Eyes, Bent (1997)), Gina McKee (Our Friends In The North), Alex Kingston (Moll Flanders (1996)) and Kate Hardie (Safe (1995)) and is scripted by Paul Mayersberg (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Man Who Fell To Earth, the (1976)). Produced by Jonathan Cavendish (Nothing Personal (1995), Into The West (1992)) CROUPIER is a Little Bird/Tatfilm Production for Channel Four Films with the support of Filmstiftung NRW and WDR.
Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and Channel Four Films' Head of Drama David Aukin had been developing a story about a gambler for some time. Mayersberg explains: "The origin of the film is a curious one. I had for many years tried to write a film about a gambler who plans a raid on a casino, but on the night of the robbery, he breaks the bank himself and so there is no money to steal. I could never quite make it work as the story was an anticlimax. I decided to look at it from another angle - to tell a story where fate intervenes to ruin the plans but good comes of it. If you gamble, you are aware of winning and losing streaks. I wanted to write a story where the two came together. In the original there was a character who never spoke, he was just an observer - the croupier. I decided to tell his story. I switched everything around and the croupier became the hero, the minor character became central and the gambler disappeared."
"I was inspired by Kurosawa's samurai story The Hidden Fortress, in which the lead characters are hangers-on. In Japan, many attitudes are the complete reversal of the European. I took what I thought was a Japanese view of the story. I just kept the essence of the original ironic tale. "
Jonathan Cavendish of Little Bird was approached by Channel Four's David Aukin to produce the film: "The script immediately appealed to me. It is a very modern story with contemporary ideas, but told in a very classic manner. The first task was to find the right director. Both David and Paul had known Mike Hodges for years and I am a great fan of many of his films."
"The three of us all wanted to work with him, which was a happy coincidence. Mike is very good on atmosphere. The script was very intense and had a compelling quality which draws you into the story and Mike is able to do the same cinematically. I think all Mike's films have a theme: an individual within or against the system; but in this case, the individual realises where he belongs. "
Much of Mike Hodges' early documentary work for World In Action depended on observing life within organisations from Mobil Oil to the US presidential elections. He explains the project's appeal: "The story seemed relevant to the times we live in and had a complicated psychology. I was intrigued by the role of the croupier. It sounds like a romantic job and conjures up thoughts and images, but in fact it's a very curious job. It's not very well paid and croupiers have an ambivalent relationship with both the people who run the casino (and make vast sums of money), and the punters - the people who spend the money.
The casino becomes a metaphor for life and Jack is like a scientist observing human behaviour close-up. I have that in common with the character - as I watch people's behaviour very acutely. The casino struck me as a bell jar where it's possible to examine human frailty and foolishness and to either sympathize with it or to despise it. Jack treads a fine line between the two. "
With Mike Hodges on board, Cavendish put together a co-production between Channel Four and WDW/WDR in Germany with the German production company Tatfilm, with which he had previously co-produced the BBC drama The Writing on the Wall. The film was shot on location in and around London and at Info-Studios in Monheim, Germany.
Clive Owen was cast as the central character, Jack Manfred. "Clive is extraordinary, he's the most precise actor I've worked with since Michael Caine. He also has an extensive knowledge of film making and its rhythms. I think he is ideally cast," says Hodges.
Owen explains what attracted him to the part: "I liked the emotional world underneath the surface of the script, which is not immediately apparent. It's very economically written with quite a simple story line, the casino is an analogy for something bigger. The voiceover is the film for me. Without that it would be too elusive. Jack has a conversation with the audience throughout. Part of my decision was also Mike's involvement; he's a joy to work with, he's very experienced which is very important when you're making such a complex film."
"Jack is very cynical, very calculating, he doesn't play to whims and follies. He's elusive and doesn't give much away. He goes on a journey to do with his sense of security."
"Jack has relationships with three different women: Marion, his girlfriend with whom he has a very traditional relationship. He loves her but she wants more from him. He knows she's in love with the idea of him. Bella, who sees the world in a similar way to him and doesn't demand anything from him; and Jani, who intrigues him. Jack isn't surprised to find out that she wants something from him. "
Mike Hodges: " We were lucky to get three very strong actresses. All three are also very different. Gina is a terrific actress; Kate has to be memorable in the smallest role and Alex is wonderful. She's very straightforward and conveys the freedom of her character's amoral behaviour beautifully. "
All the actors were attracted by the elusive quality of the script. Gina McKee explains: "The ambiguity and enigmatic quality tempted me. I wanted to try and unravel it. I'd seen Get Carter (2000) and liked Mike's attitude. He has a confidence that is very wholesome and an honesty which is refreshing."
"Marion loves Jack's image and the associations with writing which she can't fulfil in herself. It's a film about control and lack of it. It's about how you can fall in love with what you think someone is and when you find out they're not as you thought, you try and control them. Part of the film examines that and their relationship touches on that. "
Kate Hardie, who plays Bella says: "I liked the voyeurism of the script. I enjoy stories that are told from one character's point of view. The psychology of relationships and the way we gamble in relationships is quite a complex subject. When you write about people as Jack does, you start judging them; the narrator of the film is always telling you what he thinks of them. It's not clear whether he's a hero or not; it's quite ambiguous. I met Mike and I was keen to work with him. I like Bella. She's very clear and honest. She's quite straightforward. "
Alex Kingston plays Jani. "I was attracted to the part as she seemed very different from Moll, who I had just been playing. Jani is a dark figure. I love the character; she's not what she seems. She's manipulative and has a very similar personality to Jack which he immediately recognises. They are both transient people. He's a distant character and she's not intimidated by that; he's intrigued by her, and like him, she hides things. "
Hodges explains how he sees Jack's different relationships: "Marion loves Jack but it's his image rather than him. She wants him to be the romantic illusion of a writer. Image is very important to people today, we're all liable to fall foul of it. It's an uncomfortably truthful film. Marion doesn't realise she shouldn't be living with Jack. She imprisons him in a way and he is scared to give her up."
"Jani is a con woman and she enjoys it. She has to be played for real, as if she is the person she's pretending to be. She's completely amoral and it never occurs to her that Jack might feel something for her."
"Confidence tricksters get absorbed by the game, they are programmed as much as anybody and have to meticulously go through the motions of pulling off the trick. "
"Bella doesn't demand anything from Jack. She's very honest. He feels everyone else has made demands. It's not surprising they end up together as he feels the others are trying to ensnare him, understandable given the father he's got. "
Paul Mayersberg researched the subject by talking to croupiers to get the correct procedure: "A lot of the detail of the film has been supervised by experts in different departments. The psychology came from talking to croupiers. The most important aspect seemed to be how tedious the job is. The people who do it are attracted initially by the possibility of promotion and travel, but the price you pay is to be psychologically undermined. It's just like boarding school with its hierarchy, prefects and rules."
"I am resolutely not a gambler. It's seductive and undermines your life. I was interested to look at gambling from the point of view of a man who can't lose. He has contempt for gamblers and his kick is watching them lose."
"As a croupier, Jack's not typical because he refuses to gamble. His gamble is the writing connection. Writers all believe that, against the odds, they are going to be published and successful. "
The casino was constructed over three weeks, in Germany's Monheim studio, by production designer Jon Bunker, based on the actual size of one of the smaller London casinos. "Casinos have no windows or clocks and oxygen is pumped into the air so it's easy to lose track of time. Mike wanted to convey that sense of purgatory so we made the walls out of mirrors, which makes it much harder to film, but gives a sense of the casino extending forever. It also has the effect that when Jack enters the casino, the reflection in the mirror conveys the idea of him walking away from himself. "
Casino advisor David Hamilton was trained in Australia on the Gold Coast in Queensland. He subsequently worked in casinos on cruise ships in America, London and Russia, where he managed casinos and trained staff. In the film he plays a pit boss who runs several tables and as such, is responsible for the dealers. He also observes the customers, keeping a discreet eye on who's winning and sizing up their betting styles.
"When I was approached to be the advisor on the film, I didn't know how much of the film was going to be about the casino, whether it was going to be just one scene or more. When I found out the whole film was about a croupier, I was pleased because most representations of casinos I've seen previously haven't been that accurate. I found this script very realistic about the sort of lives that croupiers lead. "
Hamilton was on the casino set throughout to ensure accuracy. He was also responsible for coaching the extras to look like players. "None of the extras have been in a casino in their lives, so I've been teaching them how to play, how to place bets. I've been totally pedantic from start to finish and now I wouldn't be surprised if some of them took off for the casinos of Europe," he jokes.
Clive Owen, Kate Hardie and Paul Reynolds were all trained in a casino in London for 2 weeks by Carol Davis, a professional casino trainer. "They were all very quick to pick it up, because as actors they are used to mimickry. They will be very convincing on screen," says Hamilton.
Clive Owen says: "I spent 2 weeks training. It was hard at first, but it was just a matter of practice to become proficient. We concentrated on what was needed for the specific scenes rather than learning all the skills of a croupier. "
Kate Hardie adds: "Carol and David were both brilliant; they were very detailed, much more so than they really needed to be for the amount that will be seen on film. It made me realise that it's a very hard job, technically and mathematically, and we were only learning to look like we could do it. "
Alex Kingston had been to casinos once or twice before but had never had much interest in them. During her research, however, she came to understand something of their appeal: "I went to Las Vegas for the weekend as part of my research, just to observe the body language of the players on tables with higher stakes and found it very interesting. A reformed gambler showed me around and I played Black Jack, losing £100 in 20 minutes. I can understand the addiction of Black Jack as there is skill involved but there's no skill in roulette. I'd like to play with 50p chips. My trip certainly helped me feel relaxed in doing the gambling scenes. I found casinos quite sleazy: all that smoke hanging in the air, the silence, just the sound of the roulette wheel. No one communicating, just focussing on the spin of the wheel. "
Paul Mayersberg explains why the film is relevant to all of us: "The world of the casino is divided into gamblers and croupiers. The gamblers take risks and the croupiers have no risk at all; the odds are always in favour of the casino. We have a choice in life between working in the casino or the risk-taking of being a gambler. The question arises: do you want a life of security or a life of risk? The answer is: we want both. "