Casino: Production Notes

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Working from notes this time instead of a finished book posed some problems for Pileggi but also illuminated special qualities of Scorsese's method: "Writing this script from nothing, just from notes, was a lot harder than writing GoodFellas," said Pileggi. "When you're like I am, you just write a script. But he's writing the music, he's writing the shots, he's writing the visuals, he's writing the tone. He was writing a movie as I was writing a script. It was fascinating to watch. It was an amazing exposition to be able to see the way his mind works and the way he's able to move his stuff. He would have notations for music on cards, he would draw pictures on cards of scenes. He was seeing the movie in its totality in his head. He's the same little kid who sat home and used to draw these religious movies on the telephone book edges. He makes them in his head. It's quite amazing."

While the film bears ostensible similarities to Mean Streets, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, Casino is "not really a mob film," explained Scorsese. "It's about people in Vegas at the end of its heyday," when organized crime was losing its stronghold on the city. "It was almost like the end of the Wild West, the end of frontier towns of the 1880s," he added. The filmmaker has always been fascinated by Westerns (Taxi Driver was, in many ways, inspired by John Ford's The Searchers) and Casino can be seen as part of that tradition. Like the panhandlers of another era, millions descended upon this outpost in the desert seeking gold. And, like the frontier towns of the Old West, Vegas in the seventies was an oasis of unguarded cash, ripe for looting by organized gangs. In Casino, these desperadoes come head-to-head with the authorities while the town grapples for its identity. It's an American epic of manifest destiny in the West. The film interweaves the grand scale of the Vegas story, its political subplots and clashes between the law and the mob, with the relationships between Ace, Ginger and Nicky. Scorsese likens it to "balancing five balls in the air... What I'm trying to do with this picture is get at how the domestic situation, after 12 or 13 years, undoes the entire empire that they created...It's based on a situation in which a relationship among three people - the old friendships, transgressions, trusts and betrayals - is what precipitates the fall of the whole system."

Scorsese, fascinated by hubris, the sin of overwhelming pride or self-confidence, feels the central theme of Casino is a classic one. "The story is the oldest story in the world: People doing themselves in by their own pride and losing paradise. If they handled it right, they would still be here. Everybody'd be happy. But it got out of hand...I think I learn more in a movie or in a story when I see what a person does wrong and what happens to them because of that. Antagonists are more interesting." Scorsese continues, "Vegas is a place that, to a certain extent, when you make it here, it's like power is a drug in a way. Everything's heightened here. And it could be very delicate for people to not overdo it." Scorsese has composed an orchestration of all the nuances of day-to-day life in a casino in the seventies that captures every detail. By telling the story in all its minutiae, the director's ultimate purpose is to provoke his audience into accepting the world of the casinos they see on the screen as their own. "My desire as a film director," Scorsese explains, "is to provoke the audience. That's always been a goal of mine. Like in GoodFellas. What these people do is morally wrong, but the film doesn't say that. These guys are just really working stiffs. They understand that if you cross a certain line it's death. But that's 'business.' And it is business. In that world, it's normal behavior. There are a lot of characters and a lot of information to get across. So the way we do it is to have these simple shots with voice- over commentary, and every scene goes by fast, fast, fast! That's what you have to do to show how these people lived, and make an audience really understands what they did." To render the intriguing story behind the casino business with pathos, Scorsese enlisted the efforts of a familiar team. His relationship with De Niro is film legend. It has been said that when Scorsese and De Niro work together, a symbiosis occurs, a fireworks that bursts on the screen, forged from the depths of their longtime bond as collaborators. The same can be said of Joe Pesci who, with Casino, marks his third film with Scorsese.

"Marty is probably the best director I've ever worked with and one of the best directors of our generation and previous generations," says Pesci. "And Bob, we work so well together. It's like breathing in and out. It's so easy for us - we feed off each other. I work with him like I work with no other actor. We have a great time, it's very creative and collaborative between the three of us. Marty is a filmmaker, not a director. That's why he's better than most. He can take a camera and make a movie by himself. He can write, light, work the camera."

To portray the violence-prone, cocky Nicky Santoro, Pesci was allowed to go off on tangents lo display his character's wild-eyed zest for the enforcing business. It is the hazardous combination of his violent nature and dogged sense of loyalty that results in Santoro's pursuit of the American nightmare. Scorsese and Pileggi give some of the most graphic scenes in Casino to this character such as when Santoro finds an inventive use for an industrial vice.

Nicky's loyalty to Ace is tested by Ginger McKenna. He fails. Pesci's love scene with Sharon Stone will certainly be remembered as one of the more offbeat couplings in recent film history. "'It was great working with Sharon," commented Pesci. "I think she was great in the part. She's so sensual that my love scenes with her are probably going to make me look hot!"

For her part, Stone is equally happy to have been chosen for the role. *'Working with Marty was something that I didn't imagine would happen to me," said Stone, "because he doesn't often do pictures that require an artist of my type." But once she got through months of shooting in Vegas, Stone became aware that she was doing her best work. "I knew I had abilities that I hadn't yet had an opportunity to demonstrate," said the actress, adding that her character's job is to drive Robert De Niro's Ace crazy and that she really nailed it. "Sometimes the movie was a little bit like Who 's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets GoodFellas, and we had some scenes that were pretty hairy," she added. "We would cut, and we'd just look at each other and giggle so much because we'd been so out there. [Bob and I] went way beyond what I understood that I could do, doing things that I had never guessed I would be able to tackle."

To help capture the atmosphere of a bygone Vegas era, Scorsese employed an inspired bit of casting, using veteran comic Don Rickles in the serious role of De Niro's aide de camp, casino manager Billy Sherbert. "Billy is a casino manager and De Niro's friend," said Rickles. "He's the guy who knows the business and knows about gamblers and their partners. Someone who knows who he can trust and give a certain amount of money to."

Rickles, who actually worked in Las Vegas during its golden years, added another dimension to the piece. "Billy Sherbert is a combination of guys I've known," said Rickles. "It didn't take a great amount of concentration on my part because I grew up in this town. I pretty much knew these guys. I just played them like I used to see them walking around." Scorsese knew that casting old school Vegas entertainers would add an important level of authenticity to the film. "You can't tell a younger person how to walk through a casino the way these older fellas did in the heyday of the Dunes and the Desert Inn and the Sands," summed up the director.

"It was a great day then," recalled Rickles. "The Sands was a hangout for all of us. We used to hang out there in the steam room a lot with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra. What I liked about Vegas at that time, even though it was controlled by - for lack of another word - the mob, was that there was one boss. It wasn't like corporations today. In those days, you went up to the main office and you saw the boss, so to speak, like De Niro plays. You went to him and said, 'Can I have more money?' or 'Can I get a better dressing room?' It was more of a family. Now, it's like working for the bank."

And what was it like working with Sharon Stone? "Beautiful. And if I were thirty years younger and wasn't happily married, maybe we could work something out!" Don Rickles is but one of many Vegas veterans who brings firsthand knowledge of the colorful and glittery show town to the film. Comedian Alan King plays teamster heavy Andy Stone, Dick Smothers (of the comic duo The Smothers Brothers) does a surprising turn as a corrupt senator and Vegas greats Frankie Avalon, Jerry Vale, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows all appear in cameos as themselves. Real life roles are played by local anchors Gwen Castaldi, Mike Bradley, Dave Courvoisier and Paige Novodor and attorney Oscar Goodman.

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