Four years after the release of “Incident at Loch Ness,” a wily mockumentary with a big, German question mark at its center, writer-director Zak Penn returns with “The Grand,” his friend Werner Herzog once again in tow, this time as a participant in a high stakes poker tournament. More forthright than “Loch Ness,” Penn’s comedy still balances the outrageous with the heartfelt, tapping the improv skills of a cast that includes Michael McKean, Judy Greer, Richard Kind and Woody Harrelson as the odds-off favorite. Penn found time in between working on “Section 8,” a sci-fi series for ABC, and writing the script for a remake of “The Dirty Dozen” to talk about making a movie where he didn’t know the ending, the German, and the conundrum of the mockumentary tag.
You said in an interview in 2004 that “Incident at Loch Ness” was more about making movies than searching for monsters, and that “the poker movie” [which became “The Grand”] would be about more than poker, but you weren’t sure at the time what those other things would be. What did they turn out to be?
What I discovered is that the movie is actually about dysfunctional families. There are two themes one is whether you believe in the idea of being lucky and how that dictates your life. Lainie [Cheryl Hines] accepts the fact that you can’t control the cards and you can’t control your family, whereas her brother [David Cross] believes that he can control everything around him. Jack [Harrelson] has given himself over to luck, he wants to believe he’s helpless to do anything about anything. Harold [Chris Parnell] completely controls his environment. But the other thing the movie turned into is an exploration of families. I didn’t even realize this until the movie was finished, but if you look at the relationship between Harold and his mother [Estelle Harris], or Gabe Kaplan and his kids, or Jack and his grandfather most of the characters are struggling with some sense of the pressure of a previous generation. That became the heart of the movie.
So you started with a treatment for the film, and let the actors improvise and drive the details. Did the themes develop over time?
The luck thing is something I knew from the outset, so when we did the interviews with the characters, one of the first things I asked was “How do you feel about luck? Are you lucky? Are you skillful? Do you believe in luck?” I asked them questions hoping that it would make sense somehow to cut in later, which it did. On that level, I very intentionally went after a theme and tried to work it into scenes. But the family stuff, a lot of it came out in the improvs, and my job as writer/director is to say, “That was great, do that again.”
The incredible irony of the movie is that, in playing the whole final table for real, and not knowing as a filmmaker what the ending was, we left the entire movie up to chance. The character who won was not who was set up to win. We said, whoever’s character wins, wins in the movie and we shot 12 different endings to cover all the iterations of people winning or losing. It was all shot the way you would shoot a televised poker event. We shot with 10 cameras. I told everyone we’re playing real tournament rules. If you get eliminated, you leave.
Did anyone have to learn how to play?
I think Chris [Parnell] had to learn how to play, he didn’t know how. Dennis Farina knew a little bit, but he had to bone up.
The film has been described as being in the mockumentary mold, but you’ve talked about mapping the structure along the lines of “Spellbound,” a pretty sincere documentary. “The Grand” is actually broader and has a bigger heart than what I’d consider a mockumentary. I wasn’t sure you were actually mocking anything, except maybe geek-driven competitive documentaries.
Technically, mockumentary refers to a movie that’s pretending to be a documentary and yet is making fun of them, like “Spinal Tap.” And “Incident at Loch Ness” is a good example. That film is clearly a mockumentary, in that it’s literally mocking the form of documentary. Yes, on some level “The Grand” uses mockumentary techniques, but if you actually watch “Best in Show” again, is it a mockumentary? There’s no narrator, no person shown making the film. It’s not structured like a documentary, it’s structured like a story. Sometimes people are talking to the camera, but for the most part, people are acting in scenes and the camera just happens to be there. So, for example, in a scripted documentary like “Spinal Tap,” there are no scenes that don’t have a documentary crew as an implied part of the film. Would you call “JFK” a mockumentary because people talk to the camera? No, it’s just a technique that [Oliver] Stone uses. Not to get too technical, but in “The Grand,” the sit-down interviews are all part of the poker show [within the film]. It uses documentary techniques to tell a story, sure, but it’s not a mockumentary, there’s no implied filmmaker. 80% of the movie is just shot the way a movie would be shot.
What do you think the attraction of the format is to filmmakers, and what is the function (and future) of mockumentary in a culture that at this point essentially mocks itself?
Well, if there weren’t sit-down interviews in “The Grand,” would we be having this discussion? Would we call it a mockumentary? Do you call “The Office” a mockumentary? Ostensibly, there’s a filmmaker there, but it doesn’t seem like it because they never deal with it. I would argue that only two things in the movie make it feel like a mockumentary, the interviews and the kind of Ken Burns-ish photo montages that tell you about the characters. And the reason for both of those are purely production-oriented. The most efficient, cheapest and easiest thing to shoot when you’re doing a low budget film are scenes of people talking directly to the camera. You can shoot for an hour straight with one set-up and get all sorts of usable footage with one camera and you can get around some of the editing problems you can have on a low-budget movie, which is you can’t do re-shoots or ten extra set-ups. If I’d had more money, I would have ditched a lot of that. I’d have found a way to turn it into a regular scene. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about that. It is an interesting issue it’s an aesthetic issue and there’s also a very real production and practical issue behind it all.
In the film, Werner Herzog’s character, the German, praises Las Vegas for being “a place without irony, there are only winners and losers.” And Herzog is on record as claiming not to have a sense of irony his character plays heavily into the sort of Herzog persona, did you have to convince him to do that?
Not at all. There was definitely some trepidation on his part before we did “Loch Ness,” about what I was going to do although not really, Werner’s not the type, he’ll go head first or not at all. But once he saw “Loch Ness” and saw how I was using his persona, how I was allowing him not to take himself seriously which is something I think he longs to do he likes being funny, and so it was pretty easy. Seeing Werner in this role, there’s an extra bonus level of funny to it because it is who it is. But it really is as far removed from him as you can get, in terms of character. He’s a very gentle, sweet guy, he’s really friendly. But the idea of him as a frightening Bond villain and that’s the way I pitched it to him was kind of perfect.
His introduction is pretty spectacular. It’s like John Wayne in “Stagecoach,” it’s right up there with the classic entrance scenes.
That’s more of a classic performance scene and a lot of Werner’s part is like that. You just have to be quick on your feet and stay in character [in improv], and he can do both of those things. Particularly in German, he’s really good in German. He didn’t have a problem with it, but I’m not going to tell you that he could get up on stage with the Groundlings and be as good as David Cross.
What’s your take on Vegas? The film seems ambivalent you have Jack Faro trying to keep the old downtown alive amidst soulless overdevelopment, but the Vegas that the Dennis Farina character is nostalgic for involves 13-year-old hookers and racial segregation.
You’ve actually pinpointed another of the themes I had in mind originally, which was that idea of false nostalgia, which I pitched to [co-writer] Matt Bierman, who came up with the story originally. One of the things that always strikes me about Vegas is this sense that no matter when you go there, everyone’s always longing for when it was better. It was better when the gangsters were there, it was better when it was classy, it was better when it was seedy…for a while, it was family friendly and people complained. Now, it’s seedy again and people long for when it was family friendly. And poker is kind of like that too that is the part of the film that is actually about poker. You talk to some poker players and they talk about how it used to be so much better, and how all of these internet players have ruined it. But the internet is what made poker so popular; before that, poker was just a game that was played in Vegas and a few other places, and in fact, it’s kind of nice that poker has become a much more democratic game. We lived in Vegas at the Golden Nugget, which is something I felt very strongly about, for about seven weeks and shot there for four weeks total.
You’ve had a 15 year-plus poker game going what’s your attraction to the game? Is there a character who comes closest to you in style or attitude toward luck?
I believe that luck is an example of the human mind transposing order onto something that is inherently chaotic. For many people, luck has come to mean something that rubs off on you or sticks to you, like by sitting in a certain seat you can influence what’s happening, whereas I firmly believe that you’re perceiving a pattern in retrospect where there is none. I like poker because it’s not just a game of luck there’s a lot of skill involved. And you can overcome the cards, unlike blackjack, where you just play against chance. Poker poses as a game of chance but is actually a game of strategy. I actually thought I was a better player before I made this movie. Once I had hung out with a bunch of pros, I learned I was not as good as I thought. But Lainie is the character who is most normal and grounded in her approach and is probably the audience surrogate. She has the healthiest attitude toward the game, so naturally I’d have to put myself in her boat. Either her or Doyle Brunson.
[Photos: Zak Penn on set; Dennis Farina and Hank Azaria; Werner Herzog “The Grand” Anchor Bay, 2007]