A couple weeks back, ComingSoon.net was in Las Vegas for the premiere of Sony’s upcoming blackjack caper flick 21, based on the best-selling novel “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich about a group of MIT students who learn how to beat the Vegas blackjack system by counting cards.
The action-packed caper film stars Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) as Ben Campbell, a student from a poor background who joins a team assembled by Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) to learn how to count cards and make money to pay his medical school tuition. Along the way, he gets closer to his beautiful and brainy teammate Jill, played by Kate Bosworth, and encounters Laurence ishburne’s Cole Williams, a tough old school security man who doesn’t particularly appreciate seeing his casino losing money to card counters.
The premiere at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino was as flashy as these things usually golots of fancy dresses, suits and even a trio of showgirlsand for roughly an hour, our roving reporter stood on the red carpet amongst a bevy of local and international outlets, most of them with video cameras and sizeable crews, while we stood there with our lowly Olympus recorder grabbing whomever we could that didn’t necessarily need a camera in front of them to talk to us. (And believe me, you’ve never been challenged until you come face-to-face with someone without having prepared any questions beforehand!)
Fortunately, we did have a brief chance to talk to the man of the night, actor and producer Kevin Spacey, who wouldn’t be around on Friday when we spoke to director Robert Luketic and the rest of his cast from the casino floor of the Red Rock Hotel and Resort–video interviews that you can watch later this week.
“I always thought this was a great story, and this was a story people could relate to whether they were gamblers or not,” Spacey told us as he stopped by just before the start of the premiere. “The idea of being able to learn how to count cards is not illegal and breaking the bank is something that anybody would want to do, but it was entertaining and also it had some echoes to ‘Risky Business,’ that coming-of-age story of a young guy suddenly finding a way to make lots of money, and how will that change him? What kind of moral questions does that raise?”
“My interest in this started way before I knew there was a book,” he continued. “Probably about a decade ago I started hearing these rumors from friends I knew in Boston, but we could never get any confirmation. It was sort of just a rumor, and then more than five years ago, a Wired magazine article came out that Ben had written, but I didn’t even know there was a book.”
Spacey’s Trigger Street production partner Dana Brunetti filled us in on the rest of the story. “A friend had told me about these MIT teens that go to Vegas and perfect the art of card-counting, and I thought that would be a great idea for a movie, kind of wrote a little treatment about it, and two years later, I saw the Wired magazine article and said ‘That’s the movie’, so I got a hold of Ben the next day, had him fly to L.A., got the rights to the book, set it up at MGM.” Brunetti’s co-producer Michael De Luca, who admitted to being a fan of ComingSoon.net for many years, came on board when the project was picked up by Columbia for him to work with Dana and Kevin on developing the film.
Earlier, we had a chance to speak with author Ben Mezrich about the origins of the novel that inspired the movie and how he got involved with the MIT students. “When I wrote the book, I knew what story I wanted to tell,” he said. “To me, this is sort of an American myth come to life, it’s like young kids taking on a big system, and it had a natural ending to it, so writing the book was actually the easiest book I ever wrote. I went to Vegas. I spent a different night in a different casino every night for a month and that’s where the book came from. I was with Jeff and the team following them around so they basically let me join the team to write the book, so I would go to and from Vegas with the team and carry money on my body, I was like one of the players. It was like method writing.”
Mezrich wasn’t too nervous about the students’ story getting more attention with the release of the Sony movie. “When I first wrote the book, there was some nervousness. I was telling some secrets, but they loved the movie, the ones that I know who’ve seen itthere’s definitely a few of them I haven’t talked to yetbut I’m pretty sure that most of them liked it a lot.”
Most people who read the book that may be interested in the movie might want to know how much of the book made it into the movie and how accurate it remains to the true story, and Mezrich expounded with his own opinion. “The way Jeff (Ma, the main MIT student involved with the card-counting) says it is that basically it was seven years of his life that I condensed down to a 300 page book and then we condensed that into a two-hour movie. There’s a lot of scenes that are right out of the book and reality, and then the ending is very Hollywood, there’s a lot more action. Kevin Spacey’s character is spectacular, but it’s also a departure a little bit. There was someone who’d been at MIT for 20 years who was sort of an authority figure who taught and trained the team, so that’s very real. But Kevin is the perfect bad guy. He plays that so well so he took it to the Spacey level, and it’s a really good adaptation. I loved the movie. Jim is playing Jeff, which I think he did a spectacular job. I mean, they look differently, but in reality, when you see the film, he actually plays him very closely. I’d like to think in honor of me, they called him Ben.”
Peter Steinfeld, writer of Be Cool and Analyze That, was given the first pass at adapting Mezrich’s novel, and he told us how that came about. “I first got involved with the book and the adaptation and really based my draft on that and worked on it for a couple of years and went through a couple different directors and different incarnations, and then Allan (Loeb) came on board and just completely rocked it and did an amazing job.”
This is a very different movie from Allan Loeb’s debut, the drama Things We Lost in the Fire, something he was well aware of when he came on board. “Different themes, different genre. There is drama in this but I think there’s a lot of fun and comedy in this. It’s a funny movie. It’s a lot lighter and a lot more fun. I would say that when I originally came on board it was already in great shape and it was just a question of bringing out possibly of the wish fulfillment, which was already there but just bring it out a little more, which is how the process works. I think there were a lot of directors on board and when I came on, there wasn’t a director, so I was more free to not have to work under a director’s supervision, which can be very liberating.”
The two writers talked about expanding the role of Kevin Spacey’s Micky Rosa for the movie. “First meeting I went to, Kevin was there,” Steinfeld told us. “In the beginning, Kevin wasn’t even going to be in the movie at all, and we just desperately wanted him to play the Micky Rosa character, because if anyone was ever cut out to be an MIT professor, it’s Kevin Spacey.”
“That was just an effort to bring all the parts to closer proximity,” Loeb explained, “because originally, in ‘Bringing Down the House,’ the Micky Rosa character had been an amalgamation of two different real people, who one of them I think was an MIT professor, It was just an idea to bringing everybody home to MIT, scenes in the classroom, just sort of let Kevin see these guys in action, see them with their intellect and brilliance and then bring them onto the team.”
Obviously, Mezrich must be happy with the results since he already has two other non-fiction books in development with Spacey and Brunetti Trigger Street with Spacey attached to star, his book “Ugly Americans” with DreamWorks and “Rigged,” which was just sold to Summit.
Last but certainly not least, we spoke to two of the supporting actors who enhance the film’s humor and sense of fun, two of Ben’s fellow card-counters played by Aaron Yoo, who gained many new fans as Shia LaBeouf’s best friend in last year’s Disturbia, and the ultra-cute Liza Lapira who appeared on various TV dramas and as a partygoer in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield.
Even though Disturbia is his biggest movie, Yoo can be seen in a lot of indies over the last few years including the upcoming Sundance favorite The Wackness and he mentioned that he liked doing both things. “It’s kind of cool. It gives me a little bit of leeway go be able to go back and do indies and also it got me to Sundance. I booked this when I was at Sundance with ‘Rocket Science’ last year and I put myself on tape one night, and two days before I was supposed to fly back to L.A., they were like, ‘Listen, don’t get on a plane to L.A.; there’s another car coming, you’re going to Vegas, you have a read-through for ’21’ on Monday.'”
“There’ve been a couple opportunities where it’s like ‘Is this project?’ but I don’t think the right thing has come along yet,” he said about possibly reteaming with Shia, although he did admit that it helped him bond with one of his “21” co-stars. “Everyone wants to work with Shia. Laurence and I bonded when we first met over how Shia does these things on set all the time that blows us on set as actors and I’m thinking to myself. It’s one thing for me to be like, ‘Wow, Shia’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, but for Laurence Fishburne to think that is amazing.'”
We asked Yoo whether he was getting recognized a lot more since co-starring in the hit thriller. “I get a lot of ‘I met you before’ and because I don’t have a very good memory I go, ‘Oh, yeah. Where did we meet?’ and then they’re like, ‘No, I’ve seen you in something.'”
Most of the cast got to spend time with Jeff Ma to find out about the characters they were based on, but Lapira was hoping to meet the person she was based on. “She was the one who didn’t come to set, but Kate’s character Jill, obviously Jeff, I believe Sam’s character, Andrew in the book, came to set, and they all filled me in on what really happened to my character and how she was. ”
“We had two experts to teach us basic strategy and how to handle the chips and look like professionals,” she told us about the research she did for the part, “and I also read the book that they read, and they taught us the hi-lo count and how to count cards.”
Of course, we wanted to know if any of that research for the film helped her make a bit of extra money by playing blackjack while in Vegas, but Lapira admitted she wasn’t as skilled as her character. “The joke is that I counted while the boys were playing and I counted badlyI was moving my lipsand the dealer just looked at me ‘You’re a silly girl who’s counting. Stop it.'”
21 opens nationwide on Friday, March 28, and you should check back for video interviews with Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne and director Robert Luketic later this week.