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Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven
By Sean Axmaker
January 29, 2007 - 12:35 AM PST

"We just vibed almost immediately."

Joe Carnahan fascinates me as a writer and a director and has since his showy debut film, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Made for a mere $8,000, he stretched his resources by turning exposition into spectacle and dialogue into action, setting up the plot in a driving multimedia monologue and editing his Mamet-inspired diatribes with runaway momentum. It's a triumph of sheer ingenuity and showmanship over story and substance. With his new film, Smokin' Aces, he revisits that idiosyncratic structure with a bigger budget, a massive cast, and greater ambition. Reams of exposition are spit out in the first twenty or so minutes of the film, delivered in rapid monologues and edited into a breathless rush, to explain how Vegas showman and wise-guy wannabe Buddy "Aces" Israel gets in over his head and turns state's evidence to save his hide, and why every freelance assassin races the feds to his Tahoe hideaway for the bounty posted by the mob. It's as if what we usually think of as the story happens before the credits even roll and we're left with an extended third act where we watch all the pieces come together as the characters fall apart in the chaos. It may not necessarily pay off in terms of character or dramatic heft, but viscerally, it is strangely fascinating.

Smokin' Aces has an ace in the deck. Everything revolves around and converges upon the self-destructive Buddy, played with acerbic egotism by Jeremy Piven. After a couple of decades doing yeoman's work as a supporting actor on numerous big screen films (his specialty is, in his own words, "the abrasive best friend") and TV shows (including HBO's original show-biz satire The Larry Sanders Show and three seasons on Ellen), he hit the role of a lifetime with Ari Gold on HBO's Entourage, earning two Emmy nominations and one much-deserved win. He also grabbed the attention of Hollywood insiders who know this power-agent - a character that spews more crass, cutting remarks in a single meeting than an insult comic in a whole night - all too well. The sudden high profile earned him the stature to land his lead in a major motion picture.

Carnahan and Piven teamed up to make the rounds and promote Smokin' Aces. These guys were definitely out to plug a film and the tag-team interview format had a tendency to become a backslapping contest. But a real rapport came through their joking interaction and Piven's wily sense of humor gave way to a soft-spoken seriousness as he talked about his craft as an actor.

Carnahan arrived at the oddly dreary luxury hotel room ahead of Piven (with its low watt bulbs and the overcast sky flooding the picture window with cold, gray light, it felt stepping into Carnahan's Narc). He broke the ice by showing me the poor man's shoe shine with a banana peel. Seriously. "It's not a real shine, but it's good in a bind and it gives your shoes a little pop." Piven, wearing a Chicago Black Hawks cap (always the Windy City fan), stepped into the room a few moments later and reluctantly allowed Carnahan to wipe the peel across his leather boots. Then he shot Carnahan a deadpan look and, in a low voice, said: "Thanks. I spent $1200 to make these look like I've had them my entire life and now you've shined them, you sonovabitch."

Smokin' Aces is an ensemble film but Buddy is without a doubt the central character. Everything revolves around and ultimately converges upon him. How did you cast Jeremy for the role?

Carnahan: I couldn't get Louie Anderson, he was choice one. Just kidding.

Piven: Irony doesn't print. Remember that.

Carnahan: Jeremy and I had a meeting very early on in the process. As Hollywood is wont to do, when someone is on a tear, as Jeremy was and continues to be, names begin to pop up about who's becoming very interesting. Jeremy is obviously very interesting and he and I kind of had a mutual admiration society. I'd met him years ago at the Narc premiere and I've always been a fan.

There's those guys that go into a movie and, whether you like the movie or not, there's these moments that you encounter where there's somebody who is going to bring it. I wasn't the greatest fan of a movie like Rush Hour 2, but the one scene in the movie that everyone talks about is Piven's scene. When he and I sat down to talk, within the first five minutes of our conversation, I felt, "This is it." We just vibed almost immediately. I thought it was apropos that the first real piece of casting on the film was Jeremy - Buddy - and that everything kind of emanated from there. It's funny that in addition to the material, you had a lot of people who wanted to work with other people. So it just kind of built from there.

Piven: It's funny, you know. My journey has been, you audition - multiple times - and you try to figure out ways to get yourself involved in a project. And then a great script comes your way like Smokin' Aces and it just so happens that you are a big fan of the director and you sit down and he ends up being really cool and just says, right there, "Well, do you want to go deep?" You juxtapose that experience with, literally, going in for the fifth or sixth time to screen test to play the abrasive best friend that you've done so many times that people are sick of you doing it. So this is a complete gift for me. Until someone allows you to play a role like this, people may not know what you are capable of doing.

Buddy is part showman, part wise-guy wannabe. I think of him as a modern Rat Pack figure without a pack. What inspired the character?

Carnahan: Sinatra, first and foremost, and my fascination with those pseudo-tough guy mobster wannabes. A guy like Sinatra, who had his own considerable fame and prominence, decided one day, "I don't want to be one of Sam Giancana's mascots, I want to be Sam Giancana. What's the difference? I've got just as much juice, albeit in a different world. Why can't I just apply this across and become this guy?"

And that, to me, is fascinating, because I think that Buddy ultimately is a child of this age where you've got the fame and it's not enough. He wants legitimacy. We watch The Godfather and we watch Scarface and we romanticize these ideas about what a criminal is, and in reality, when those things happen, a lot of people get hurt. If you don't really have that thug mentality, if you're not a real criminal and think like a criminal, you're going to wind up tracking mud all over the place, which is what Buddy does. You saw a little bit of that with Sinatra and Giancana with the JFK thing. The minute they got him elected, the Kennedys had no use for Sinatra beyond that. The Kennedys, for all of their Camelot ideals - they're as close as anything American society has had to royalty - they were incredibly self-serving. They didn't see that there was a larger picture. Sinatra's just cast upon the shoals and I thought that was just fascinating. My God, what's he going to do now? You have these great conversations in Chicago and they were saying, "Let's whack Dean Martin, let's kill Sammy Davis Jr." They were real pissed off. So I just took that and extrapolated that out, but that was the real inspiration.

Who or what did you draw from to fill out the character?

Piven: We bum-rushed Wayne Newton. We sat and met with him beforehand and got a real sense of him. There are real players like that. He's one of the last remaining members of the Rat Pack. But I don't think there's a person that will see Buddy's fall from grace without thinking of someone that they know or even themselves, because it doesn't matter what arena you run in, at some point you have to face yourself and your demons and who you really are. That's where we pick up this story with this guy.

Wayne Newton is someone I thought of immediately when I saw Buddy doing his thing on stage because he does everything. He's a complete entertainer.

Piven: He's a showman. We wanted to create someone who could exist today who is charismatic and interesting and has different flavors. You take someone who is accessible as a personality and you take the skills of a musician and put it all together and just make him someone that could exist today and could really live and thrive in a microcosm like Vegas, and just kind of go from there. I've been on the stage my whole life, so I know what it's like to get in there and to mix it up. So it was a natural progression to jump into the this role.

next >>>

"We just vibed almost immediately."
"Sometimes aggressively funny, sometimes aggressively violent, sometimes aggressively still and quiet."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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February 3, 2007. Seeing the Humor in Sexual Identity by Michael Guillen

January 29, 2007. Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven by Sean Axmaker

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January 25, 2007. Grindhouse: Chapter Four - The 1960's by Eddie Muller

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January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves

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