For 'Gambler' director Rupert Wyatt, a career of rolling the dice

'The Gambler' director Rupert Wyatt is making a career out of unpredictable projects

 

Even if she's lucky, a modern film director will only make a certain range of movies over her career; budgets, stories and genres will vary, but within reason. Certainly few filmmakers will jump around the map like Rupert Wyatt, a British-American helmer who in just three movies has racked up the kind of zigzaggy resume a filmmaker with far more experience never achieves.

Wyatt was a virtual unknown in Hollywood four years ago when Fox handed him the keys to reboot its flagship "Planet of the Apes" franchise -- he had directed just one movie, an effective but little-seen Sundance drama called "The Escapist." Wyatt took those keys and, with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," ignited a massive success, a critical favorite that ranks as the second-highest-grossing movie of 2011 that wasn't a direct sequel.

Then, despite Fox's pleas to stick around for a follow-up, Wyatt walked away. He chose instead to helm "The Gambler," a literary character piece that redid a not-fully-remembered James Caan film from 40 years before.

"The Gambler" opened Thursday, and it's an unusual hybrid -- a story draped in the genre clothing of high-stakes casino action but which remains, at its core, an existential fable about an English professor (Mark Wahlberg). It's a dicey bet -- a tweener of sorts -- a point underscored by the film's mixed reviews and uncertain commercial prospects.

Yet "The Gambler" is a fitting choice for Wyatt, who offers his own brand of misdirection, eyeing the same situation as the rest of us but taking a different view.

"There's something about being an outsider living in a country that's not your home," Wyatt, who grew up in a small town in southern England, said at a hotel restaurant here earlier this month. "It just allows you to be more objective, about a lot of things."

Wyatt, 42, is in the process of relocating his wife and children from Los Angeles to a home in upstate New York, and Paramount had put him up in the city for a few days as he promoted "The Gambler." The switch to a less entertainment-centric locale is just one more chancy move in Wyatt's life playing within the Hollywood system, but by his own rules. The director's career is a reminder of a film industry where clout can be as much curse as blessing; where big creative ideas must co-exist increasingly with bigger financial goals; where just because some very smart people are giving you some very seasoned advice doesn't mean you should listen to them.

After his 20s and early 30s as a producer in New York and Los Angeles -- he worked on movies such as the urbanscape documentary "Dark Days" -- Wyatt arrived at Sundance in 2008 with "Escapist," a riff on the prison-break movie that starred Bryan Cox and Joseph Fiennes.

Producers and executives on "Apes" liked the vision, and they liked his budgetary efficiency, and they hired him to direct the reboot. The marriage worked, and "Rise" became one of the breakouts of 2011. Then the fun started.

The halls of USC and NYU are filled with young people daydreaming that, many decades hence, someone might like their work enough to give them a budget of tens of millions to bring their vision of an iconic franchise to the screen.

Wyatt was in his 30s, had made one movie on a shoestring budget and got just that chance -- then decided to give it back.

Actually, he gave it back twice. After the success of "Apes" in 2011, he declined to sign on for the sequel, opting instead for "Londongrad," a fact-based movie about former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, with Michael Fassbender at Warner Bros. But Fox exercised an option on him, mandating he return to "Apes." He, executives and producers (the franchise is produced by Peter Chernin's company) embarked on a series of meetings. Wyatt said that he had specific ideas for the sequel the studio was initially on board with, but as the parties got further into development, differences appeared.

Among them was a pacing issue -- Wyatt wanted to tell a self-contained story about the clash between an emergent ape race and a hunkered-down human one, whereas Fox wanted to draw out the plot lines over more films.

Wyatt also said that his idea for the two races coming into conflict had the apes running out of resources in their habitat and encroaching on the city. In the eventual film it's reversed, giving the film a different, more cautionary spin.

Surely there are worse fates in life than the most powerful people in Hollywood begging to pay you millions to work for them. Still, life is short, and artistic capital precious. Just because the handcuffs are made of gold doesn't mean they're any easier to wriggle out of. So in September 2012, Wyatt walked away again.

"Some studios more than others see directors as a tailor -- their work is to make something fit that's already been cut. And there's validity to that," Wyatt said. "But I always find it challenging when you have to reverse into something that's preconceived." As a high-priority studio project, the "Apes" sequel, like many tentpoles at the Wall Street-focused studios,‎ had a release date before it had a script.

(Reached this summer to talk about the release of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," Fox production chief Emma Watts said she understood Wyatt's calculus but was nonetheless disappointed he wouldn't stay with the franchise.)

Interestingly, Wahlberg, who also produced "The Gambler" at Paramount, decided he wanted to hire Wyatt for the gig after seeing "Apes." "There was something about his vision, his ability to take something that looked like a simple genre movie be really human and real," the actor said.

Wyatt, in turn, liked what Wahlberg was bringing him -- a lyrical William Monahan script, but also, in a story of a dissolute academic getting in over his head with blackjack debts and then consciously trying to submerge himself even further with more gambling, a Trojan horse of sorts.

"When you make a film about gambling and it's starring Mark Wahlberg, everyone thinks it's going to fall into the tropes of the genre," Wyatt said. "This seems like a gambling movie. But really it's about a guy who's trying to break down the barriers of his life and is just using gambling to do that."

The filmmaker said he understood why some would question his decision to walk away from the Hollywood equivalent of the fancy sports coupe to work on a less sleek car that attracted a lot less attention. But he also said those skeptics had a fundamental misunderstanding of both the creative spirit and Hollywood leverage.

"A successful franchise gives you enormous value," he said. "But it gives you enormous value only to do the same thing."

Next up for Wyatt is an unorthodox and ambitious project that combines film and television in a new, or at least new-old way. "I want to bring back the movie serial," he said.

The project is called "Echo Chamber," and it's a futuristic sci-fi piece loosely inspired by the story of a real-life British soldier who was presumed dead in the Falklands War but turned out to be alive, which made him a perfect MI5 spy. Wyatt's idea is to shoot 10 episodes, totaling 20 hours, all at once. He hopes to make a deal with a distributor to release one new episode in movie theaters each month, with the episode playing in theaters for several weeks before moving on to an on-demand platform, making room for a new episode in theaters.

The idea of a financier or a distributor signing on for what are essentially nine theatrical sequels before the first one has even proved itself would seem like a sizable leap, especially with screens at a premium and cinematic content not coming cheap.

But Wyatt said it could be made cost-effectively. If they're shot back-to-back, each episode would cost about $6 million, which would essentially make for one reasonable $60 million package that could then be used to generate numerous ticket sales -- the same economy of scale that serials used to great effect in the early and middle parts of last century.

The shooting period, while intense, is closed-ended (about four months), which could help attract a film star who otherwise might resist too large a commitment.

Once again, Wyatt hopes to resist a trend -- he doesn't want to simply make "Echo Chamber" as a TV cable series, believing it best served by circumventing networks' pilot process, and also believing it can be more of an event in a movie theater. (The project was at one time set up at HBO.)

The idea, he says, also taps into the sudden vogue for serialized storytelling -- specifically the podcast Serial, which demonstrated that people will return at regular intervals if you just give them enough worthy surprises and cliffhangers.

Wyatt is deep into writing the serial now, and hopes to find financing and distribution partners soon, shooting in 2015.

"It is a bold idea, but I never would have planned for these films either," he said. "If you had asked me after 'Escapist' what I would do, I would never have said studio tentpole, then studio character drama."

Set in a Los Angeles we don't quite recognize, "Echo Chamber" comes in a format we don't often see. Then again, the same could be said of its creator.

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