Interview: Writer/Director Hue Rhodes (SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS)
In writer/director Hue Rhodes' SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS, a retelling of Dante Alighieri's classic "Dante's Inferno," insurance salesman John (Steve Buscemi, giving one of his best performances to date) has left his past life as a gambler without lady luck on his arm. That is, until fate pulls him back towards the vile temptress known as Las Vegas, as he must return for his first case as a newly promoted fraud investigator. Paired with veteran fraud investigator and sidekick Virgil (WEEDS' Romany Malco), the two set out on an epic journey, encountering along the way a sexy & smiley face obsessed coworker (Sarah Silverman), a wheelchair-bound stripper, a human torch, and an armed nudist colony. And that's only the top of this twisted deck of cards!
If that alone does not make you want to roll the dice and check out this film, then perhaps the following interview with Mr. Rhodes will, who was nice enough to answer a few of our questions for this very special exclusive interview.
Check it out after the jump!
You've stated that SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS has some roots in the classic tale "Dante's Inferno". What elements of that story attracted you and, subsequently, what elements do you feel like your film shares with Alighieri's?
I remembered enjoying Dante, but not knowing why. And I liked that. So much of what's written about screenplays is dogmatic. People tout rules of thumb as though they were divine laws. Side note: every executive, agent and creative person in Hollywood has read the go-to screenwriting books. There are tremendous fortunes at stake, and the pressure to succeed is mind-numbing. No one wants to fail. So if it were possible to make truly transcendent movies by reading those books, then more studio pictures would be transcendent.
Okay, Dante. It's a beautiful poem about a character who gets a brief guided tour through hell. He encounters sinners being tortured in fantastically elaborate settings, he talks to them, and then he moves on. I can't tell you what Dante's arc is, what his turning points are, who his allies are, who the change agent is, or who the antagonist is. And I suspect anyone who could would be curve-fitting, as the mathematicians say.
"The Inferno" struck me as a surreal road trip, and I wanted to capture that spirit. I wanted to take realism and push it as far as it would go, so that the story would be 100% believable, yet absurd. I also liked the generosity Dante extended to the damned. In the poem he stops and and speaks to them, which was heretical for his time. In SAINT JOHN Steve Buscemi's character also stops and talked to the marginal people he meets. He takes them at face value, doesn't judge them, and in exchange he learns information about the case.
SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS is your first full-length feature. With that said, you have an impressive cast including Steve Buscemi, Romany Malco, Sarah Silverman, Peter Dinklage, Tim Blake Nelson amongst others. Not to mention the fact that Spike Lee and Stanley Tucci came on-board as producers. What were some of the challenges in attracting such iconic actors?
The hardest part about working with stars was that I was star-struck. Everyone on set was as gracious and down-to-earth as you could imagine. But I was still a little overwhelmed. I don't think I let on, though. As with professionals in any field, confidence usually goes hand-in-hand with experience. So directing these actors wasn't difficult, because they were so experienced and talented.
Las Vegas is a vile temptress. People's lives have been dramatically altered there in a flip of the cards or a roll of the dice. What do you feel makes that city a great setting for a film?
I think Las Vegas is the land of truth. Does the businessman from Plano go to Las Vegas and develop inner demons, or did those inner demons come with him from Plano? I think the latter. The journey of "The Inferno" is one of personal understanding. Dante starts the poem confused about who he is, and ends it with clarity. In SAINT JOHN, the hero starts out in denial. There is no better place than Las Vegas to disabuse someone of their inauthentic self-image.
A lot of people are saying that independent cinema is dying with mini-majors while others have the opinion that it is not dying, yet the lines between an independent film and non-independent film are blurring. As an independent filmmaker, what is your opinion on this subject?
I am hardly an authority. But I think the discussion of "new distribution" actually harkens back to film's roots. Back in the silent two-reeler days, people shot films, paid for the prints, went on the road and showed them directly to the public. Now we have festivals, and markets, and lots of people in-between, which means lots of entities that have to make their profit margins. I can't say what the future of film will be, but my guess is that it won't be able to support so many intermediaries, financially. For SAINT JOHN, Indievest is both the producer and the distributor, which means they paid for production, for the film prints, for the posters and for the TV commercials. Every person in that company, from the individual investors to the chief executives to the office manager, are on twitter and facebook, promoting the film. I myself use Typepad, Tumblr, TweetDeck, Facebook, MySpace, Bit.ly, Disqus and a wide array of Google alerts to communicate directly with bloggers and viewers. And coming full circle, a small group of twitter users and I met over pizza last night to discuss SAINT JOHN. So whatever path indie film takes, I wouldn't be surprised if it winds up back where it started - people shooting films and sharing them directly with the audience.
What's next for Mr. Hue Rhodes?
I'm writing a screenplay about a wedding. Loosely based on my own wedding, except this one is overrun by international gangsters.
SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS is currently in select theaters around the U.S. The film hits the Inwood Theatre in Dallas this Friday, February 19th.