A poker player’s journey through the south in Mississippi Grind
By Tim Wassberg
AS FILMMAKERS, ANNA BODEN & RYAN FLECK have always been drawn to complex characters whether it be a teacher in zi, a baseball player in Sugar or a psychiatric patient in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story.
With their new film, Mississippi Grind starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, they examine the psychology of gamblers as they embark on a road trip to the casinos of the Midwest & South.
Casino Player: What initially drew you to the world of casinos and small town play?
Ryan Fleck: It started in 2007. We were making a movie called “Sugar” which took us to Iowa which was not a place we were familiar with. On the weekends, for fun, we would go to this riverboat casino on the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities. It was really a unique experience for us because we had never been to any place quite like that before. We had seen Vegas. We’d seen Atlantic City. We’d seen the big glamorous corporate hotel casinos, but we hadn’t seen these darker out-of-the-way places.
And we were sort of drawn to the characters and this environment. So we filed it away in 2007 as a location for a possible story idea in future. And sure enough, when it came time to think about what we wanted to do next, we somehow pulled on that idea and decided to make a road picture about two guys that meet in one of these casinos and head south along the Mississippi River like Huckleberry Finn towards New Orleans.
CP: Can you talk about the journey the lead character Gerry takes as a gambler?
Anna Boden: Very literally, Gerry [played by Ben Mendelsohn] is a habitual gambler who lives in the Midwest in Iowa. He goes out every night after work to the poker room at his local riverboat casino and plays after hours. Sometimes it will be a tournament. Sometimes it will be cash tables. At the moment we find him, he is down on his luck. He meets this unfamiliar face who walks into this Iowa casino. This guy has a kind of charisma… and a strange ease about him. And Gerry decides that this guy Curtis [played by Ryan Reynolds] is his lucky charm. He thinks this guy can turn his luck around.
The journey that they take is down the Mississippi to all the poker casinos along the way. These are not necessarily places people would know about if they weren’t familiar with the poker world. They end up in places from Saint Louis to Tunica, Mississippi. Their plan is to use a thousand dollar stake to gamble and raise money to get into this kind of legendary poker game in New Orleans with a $25,000 buy in. So that is Gerry’s goal. We don’t know if he is ever going to get there to this final game but it is sort about the journey he takes along the way, the people he meets, the games he plays. And it is not just poker games—it is also horse tracks and dog tracks. He kind of likes to have his hands in everything.
CP: Can you talk about your research into private games versus casino games as well as the different cadence and energy each have.
AB: It would be pretty boring in a movie if the people were going to the same kinds of places every time we see them… jumping from table to table. We wanted to use the journey to really explore different places that were exciting and energetic for their own reasons.
RF: Out on our journey we took before we made the movie, we ended up in Memphis-West Memphis at Southland Racing, which is this great multi-purpose dog track and casino. We really wanted to shoot there and we ended up using it for B Roll in the movie. It is just one of those places that doesn’t fit into the usual perception of what casinos look like.
AB: There is a dog track there and literally you can see the poker area that opens up at certain hours of the day. You can be betting on poker there but also look up over the wall to see the dogs racing in the background. It is a very unusual, cool space.
CP: So you integrated these different senses and spaces to relate the psychology of these gamblers…
AB: Their journey and the places they stop along the way are elements that kind of build their story. We always want to stay with our characters in terms of what is happening at the table. We are interested in the cards. We are interested in the poker. But we are more interested in how it is affecting our characters.
Every stop along the way is a stepping stone and is changing our characters’ journey. The energy of these real places when the actors are there, it just brings a kind of energy into their performance.
CP: Within the poker scenes, especially with how the characters act in a hand—their masks, their would-be tells, their behavior—there is very nuanced detail. Was it that specific for you in the writing?
AB: It was specific—especially with the people at the tables. As far as the answer to your question, some of those things are written in. There is always the guy at the poker table who has the headphones in his ears and never says a thing the entire time. The headphone guy might not be playing music into his ears. We don’t know. But he always has his IPod and his little headphones in. We wrote that specific guy into the script with those specific details.
Some of the other details came from people we cast. And every time, we were at a poker table in the movie, we tried to cast the supporting roles as real poker players so we didn’t have to start from scratch teaching them how to hold the cards and when to bet and this and that. So some of those real life gamblers and poker players brought their own specific personalities to the table.
CP: Did you get any advice from these real life players you brought in?
RF: We had a poker consultant named Anthony Howard who helped us find a lot of these people. A lot of the players in the film are professional poker players he plays with in the Harrah’s in downtown New Orleans. So a lot of the people come out of that world. He was there if we needed to set up a certain kind of hand for the story and to guide us and make sure it made sense the way people were betting.
AB: He was also there to guide our lead actors who weren’t great poker players before they started the movie. He made sure they were doing everything right. He also brought them around to the Harrah’s in New Orleans to teach them and get them acclimated to the environment. Ben Mendelsohn spent a lot of evenings—many, many hours—at the Harrah’s with Anthony and the other poker players betting his own money, winning some and losing some.
CP: Can you talk about the idea of risk versus reward in this world you were observing?
RF: I think we just tried to make the poker look as real as possible and focus on the characters’ lives. At a given moment, we can know that Gerry is on a streak. At one point, we have him playing this hand against this woman during a home game. He has done everything right. He has her right where he wants her and then that river card comes up: the queen of spades. It is the only card that could have beaten him and it is devastating. I think we just tried to get into the minds of the characters in every game like that and milk the suspense.
CP: Are there lines of morality that must be crossed in how these characters play?
AB: It is interesting that you mention morality because it is confusing in poker. In poker, the right thing to do is lie. You are trying to convince people that you have a hand that you don’t have, whether it is a good hand or a bad hand. You either want people to think they have a better hand than you so that they bet more or you want people to think that they have a worse hand then you so you fold when you don’t have a good hand. It is sort of complicated because it takes a certain kind of personality to really enjoy that and to rise in that kind of space.
CP: Can you talk about capturing the essence of each city you visited and their gambling culture?
RF: The landscapes of the road picture were essential to the movie. There was a special place in Tunica for us. The first time we ever played poker in a poker room at a casino was at the Horseshoe in Tunica, Mississippi. We wanted to make sure our guys went through there because that was our first experience playing with folks. We entered a tournament, a low buy in, like a $65 tournament. Basically I had lost all my chips in about 18 minutes and Anna was there for like four hours because she just wanted to have this experience being there. She was playing conservatively and I was “all in” in about ten minutes. It was just a fun experience.
CP: Do either of you have any love of poker before?
AB: We had been to a lot of casinos before. But the poker room was kind of this mysterious area where people who really knew what they were doing in a casino seemed to plant themselves. We were not those people. But we always had a kind of romantic interest in that world. It was a little intimidating frankly for people that weren’t familiar with the game and the culture. I think, for anybody, the first time they step into a poker room at a casino to play, there is just a whole culture around it with all these unspoken rules. It is intimidating.
When we decided we wanted to make this movie, it was almost like a beautiful excuse to step into that poker room, get over whatever fear we had around that and learn something about this game that has been romanticized in our culture quite a bit. We really kind of took the process of research and writing as well as the journey we were taking and the one our characters were taking in stepping foot into all these casinos and forcing ourselves to sit down in those pokers rooms, no matter how bad or awkward we were at first. We used [this project] as an excuse to do that.