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Big Screen, High Stakes

A new film by Curtis Hanson strives to meticulously re-create the halcyon days of poker in 2003 and present a character study on human relationships
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

(continued from page 1)

The Lucky You story centers on the tense relationship between Huck Cheever (Bana) and his estranged father L. C. Cheever (Duvall). L. C. is a former college professor who left the family when Huck was young to pursue a career in poker. Over the years L. C. evolves into a very successful player, loosely modeled on Doyle Brunson. By 2003, Huck is also in the poker world, and he's clearly talented, but also highly self-destructive and on a financial roller coaster. (Some insiders snicker that screenwriter Roth clearly knew his subject matter when he came up with his lead character's name; a deal was struck with poker legend Huck Seed and the producers received clearance to use his distinctive moniker.) Barrymore plays Huck's girlfriend and Jean Smart is the game's top female player—the character is based in part on Jennifer Harman—who happens to be close with L. C.

Getting players aligned with the movie was a snap for Hanson and Fenelon. When they first researched the high-stakes scene, they already had their sights set on Brunson. "We vibed on him in a good way," says Fenelon. "And he agreed to do what he could to help us."

Brunson gave them access to the Big Game and to heads-up matches being held between various pros and billionaire banker Andy Beal. Once the director and producer had Brunson's seal of approval, other players stepped up to help. For many it was a relief to be working on a poker-related project that portrays the game in a positive light. After all, the two most prominent card-playing dramas—Rounders and the short-lived ESPN show "Tilt"—both focused heavily on cheating and the game's underbelly. But for some players the allure was less defined and less rational. Jennifer Harman, for example, was drawn by the potential to make cinematic history, capture an era and get a moment or two in the spotlight. "This is the sort of thing you put in your scrapbook," she says, sitting in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio, waiting for the arrival of fellow Big Game denizens. "The money we were paid for being in the movie isn't even close to what we can make playing poker, but opportunities like this one are what make the poker boom fun."

For Negreanu, who had a cameo on the first episode of "Tilt," the integrity of Lucky You was critical. "I had been told that there would be an element of cheating in 'Tilt,' and I was comfortable with that," remembers Negreanu. "But every character in that show turned out to be a scumbag and it was embarrassing to be a part of something that was so bad for poker. In this case, though, many other players were involved, Curtis Hanson has a lot of credibility, and Eric Bana seemed intrigued by the psychology of what makes poker players tick. I had dinner with him and his wife one night, and I can tell you that he was taking his research seriously."

Bana's desire to get it right pays off in at least one scene that rang very true to Negreanu. It depicts Bana's character turning up at the Bellagio poker room, palming a ring and offering it as collateral to secure a loan from his father. "The way he walked in was good," reports Negreanu, who appears in the scene. "He didn't look at the other players and was very discreet. That's how you do it [when you need to borrow money], even though everyone knows what you're there for. He sold me that he's a great poker player but is also a screw-up." In another nod to the realities of the life, Huck attempts an audacious proposition bet that gives him three hours to run five miles and shoot 18 holes of golf at 78 or better. The bet is inspired by one that Huck Seed accepted and won in glorious fashion.

Regardless of how factually correct Hanson wants his movie to be—the desired effect is something he refers to as "real in a dramatic way"—the rigors of filmmaking quickly became clear to the poker players. Shooting a single hand of poker from multiple angles and perspectives can take hours of tedious work and repetition. Some found it arduous, but cash-game specialist John Hennigan, a lover of gambling movies, embraced the process. Jason Lester, a veteran poker pro who came up through the New York scene in the 1980s and made the World Series' final table in 2003, flew into L.A. for one week (to play himself) and stayed for five weeks as a consultant.

Along with the rest of the cast and crew, he put in 12- and 14-hour days (this is the only real job he's ever had in his life), making sure that the hands played out properly, that the chip counts made sense, that actors were responding to situations in the way that bona fide poker pros would. "I'd hate for this movie to become a cult hit and to have kids tearing it apart five years from now—which they won't," says Lester, who tutored Duvall and Bana on how to be convincing pros. "Eric was terrific and caught on right away. Duvall was harder. You needed to treat him gingerly. He's not someone you can tell what to do. You have to suggest things. I saw right away how other people dealt with him."

How was that? "For the most part, they really weren't able to deal with him," says Lester. "He's a movie star and there is a certain deference that you pay in this setting."

Ironically, for someone who's not only consulting on a Hollywood movie but also appearing in it as himself, Lester has devoted most of his gambling life to shunning publicity. These days, though, poker is so mainstream that it's become as exotic as an eggroll, and Lester now sees value in having a public persona. "I stayed at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills every day for a month, they picked me up each day in a limousine, flew me first-class and obviously paid me," says Lester. "They took care of me very nicely. I stayed on so long that I actually missed some of the preliminary World Series events. So you know they had to take care of me and that I had to enjoy it."

For others, however, the thought of missing even one day of Series play was just too dreary to contemplate. Harman had been offered a meaty role in the movie, one that she later found out was modeled after her. But she turned it down due to the scheduling conflict and took a much smaller part, which was shot in Vegas at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel (formerly Binion's Horseshoe, original home of the World Series). In retrospect, she admits, "Of course I regret not taking the larger role. But if I won a bracelet, I wouldn't [be regretting it]." The part went to Smart, and Brunson, for one, isn't complaining: "His biggest moment was being hugged by Jean Smart," says Fenelon. "He told me that he'd shoot that scene over and over again if he could continue hugging her. Doyle is a fan of Jean's. He and his wife loved to watch 'Designing Women.'"

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