Friday, April 5, 2013

Making 'THE GAMBLER' Documentary

The documentary THE GAMBLER that I directed for Motive Television and was funded by BAI will be screened this tonight on Setanta Ireland (Freeview) at 10pm!!

I can’t wait.

I really enjoyed making this one – we followed a great character John O’Shea who gave us total access to his life and thoughts as he punted thousands of euros on sports events and played poker at the Irish Open, European Final in Monte Carlo and World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Here’s a blurb and trailer:

There were a couple of things I learned from making this one.

After one day of filming I realised there was a problem! It’s extremely hard to film poker with one camera when the game is in play. For hours, nothing might happen to your protagonist and then, suddenly, there would be a huge hand where he would win or lose loads of his chips. To capture these moments you need a lot of patience and more than one camera. In some of the poker documentaries I had seen, they simply hadn’t bothered but I thought it was important drama and I wanted to capture it.

To film it properly you have to have an idea of what your protagonist is up to, what his opponent is doing and then also be able to see what the dealer is doing. It’s pretty complex.

Believing, as I do, that an important part of documentary storytelling is capturing key moments of drama, I wanted to capture these big hands that John was playing. It meant having two cameras beside the table, sometimes standing for hours on end but poised to quickly start filming if John got involved in a hand. We would then film him and his opponent and try to get a sense of what the dealer was doing too.

To add to this we tried to build even more around the key hands by filming additional elements later. So, having taken note of the cards that were played, we reshot close ups of players looking at their hands and of the cards hitting the table as if dealt by the dealer. And of the players revealing their hands to decide who won. These were extreme close-ups so that they would be different enough from the footage and would, therefore (hopefully) cut well with the footage as a result. I think it worked, mostly thanks to having a really good editor who found a stylistic approach that suited.

We also did interviews with John to recap what happened in the hands and encouraged him to speak in a sort of past continuous style. We wanted him to tell us the story of each hand gradually, just giving us the facts of the hand as they unfolded. It meant we could build the story of the hand without getting ahead of ourselves. As the final card was turned we would cut back to the live action to see John’s real reaction and that would jolt us back into the present. In many cases he was losing big money, so there was drama in that.

It definitely cemented in me the idea that it’s important to work really hard and long sometimes to just capture little moments. They’re worth it!

Overall we wanted to make a non-judgmental film in which John told his own story. We followed the action and tried to capture the real drama of winning and losing major sums of money. One thing that was important was to always capture the beginning of a bet so that we would later be able to have the pay-off. Sometimes small moments lead to much bigger moments.

As John progressed through his year of gambling we followed him and by piling each scene on top of the last we built a sense of a poker player’s career unraveling. There was no need for VO or a third party voice. Seeing it happen was enough to tell the story.

In the end, I feel it made a pretty compelling documentary. I hope people enjoy it!


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