Casino Jack: Interview with Director George Hickenlooper

In 2005, when the lobbying scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon broke, and how, together, they were involved in what was being touted as the biggest political impropriety to hit the Beltway since Watergate, I became fascinated. It was a story of hubris and greed so Gothic that as details unfolded it seemed to play out more like a satiric novel by Paddy Chayefsky rather than Woodward's non fiction masterpiece All the President's Men.. 

More interestingly, Abramoff came to be an icon of the “culture of greed” that seemed to be sweeping the capitol. The butt of jokes from Letterman to Leno, scorned publicly by George Clooney while he accepted his Golden Globe award for GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, Abramoff became the focus of news specials and documentaries that made his outrageous misdeeds seem worthy of the big screen.

First, in order to get to the heart of the story, I felt I needed to meet the Jack Abramoff himself who had been sitting inside a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland for two years. After several months of back and forth between an Abramoff representative, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Abramoff family, I was allowed six prison visits and approximately thirty hours of interview time with Jack Abramoff, where he was being held on a six-year sentence.  

My first imaginings of Abramoff’s incarceration were that he might be zipping around in a golf cart in a country club-like atmosphere that appeared to be the standard for all the former Watergate conspirators decades before. Times had changed. Walking into Cumberland Federal Prison, I found it to be stark, oppressive, impersonal, and feeling very much like… well, like a prison. It wasn’t brutal or harsh like Attica or Alcatraz, but it certainly wasn’t a holiday; Abramoff’s living quarters being a 175-square-foot concrete, cinder-block room with six bunks snugly filled with six prisoners, some convicted of white-collar crimes, others convicted for robbery or the sales of narcotics. 
 
As we walked into a large gymnasium-like auditorium I spotted Abramoff in the flesh, sitting by himself in the corner, on a metal folding chair. My first visual impression of him was that of a humbled, beaten man who was slouched in defeat, wrapped in a green prison jumpsuit, incongruously donning a yarmulke. It wasn’t until my first ten minutes of conversation that I realized what his friends, colleagues, and former associates had claimed — despite being portrayed in the media as being the Don Corleone of D.C., he actually had an extremely charismatic,  hilarious, and animated personality. In fact, he seemed so polished and charming one might suggest, like Eliot Spitzer, he should be deemed suitable to host his own cable television show.
 
After each prison visit (there would be five in all), I would retire to my hotel room and relay these stories to Norman Snider directly over my cell phone who would then incorporate them into his screenplay (Norman was a journalist himself who had spent hundreds of hours researching the Abramoff case and interviewing his associates for what would eventually become our finished screenplay).  For our second-to-last rendezvous, Kevin Spacey (who had just been cast) made the three-hour drive with me for what turned out to be a private meeting in the warden’s conference room.  He came with an open mind and grudging reverence for a man who had spent his last four years behind bars. As the two spoke, I watched Kevin listen to Jack for hours, absorbing his mannerisms, his intonations, his persona, like a sponge absorbs liquid. I mostly just listened and watched as the two seemed to get along like a house on fire. It was my view at that very moment that both Spacey and Abramoff could have had successful careers as stand-up comics. And in fact, the meeting culminated with Kevin doing impersonations of Bill Clinton and speaking to Jack as the President, and Abramoff speaking back to Spacey as Ronald Reagan. For a moment, it became a kind of hilarious, surreal presidential summit with these two iconic personalities from opposite worlds finding a kind of affable synchronicity – at least enough of one for Spacey to leave the meeting feeling as though he might have struck an emotional chord within himself and within Jack – a similar enough note that might make this vilified, Washington bad guy a palatable figure to portray as a kind of empathetic anti-hero.
 
During each prison visit, I felt the story we wanted to tell was transforming a serious subject from a third-person narrative into a kind of comical, first-person opera (only without the score). From Abramoff’s opening monologue (aria) in CASINO JACK, to his character’s purchase of Zamboni machines, to his ultimate fantasy about impersonating Al Pacino in …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL while telling Senator John McCain and his senate colleagues that they are all a bunch of hypocrites – these were all stories humorously told to me by Jack himself, from his point of view, coming from the emotional core of who he was. As these new yarns began filling out new draft after new draft, it was during these visits that Kevin, Norman and I realized exactly what the tone of the picture would be — dramatically comic with a touch of satire. Why? Because the Abramoff story itself was so Gothic that at times, if it were fiction, you would never believe it really happened. We also felt that the subject of lobbying itself was so dry, that to have taken a solemn or earnest approach would have been the equivalent of watching paint dry on a White House wall. It had to be funny, not only because Jack was funny, but because the real story was almost too farcical to begin with. And, as the director, I also felt that through humor, I could actually say more about what the problems in Washington were and continue to be to this day, and reach a larger audience by doing so. In a television and Internet age saturated with political pundits, programs and news shows, we had to come up with a fresh, new and original take on the very serious world of politics. So in this way, CASINO JACK, needed to be a funny and off-beat look at a very serious matter.