Wayne Kramer
Wayne Kramer

Ask any of today’s top writer-directors about the
work that first inspired them to make movies and you’re likely
to hear the names of Ford, Welles, Fellini or Godard bandied about.
But ask writer-director Wayne Kramer who prompted him to make movies
and he’ll give you one name: Batman.

“I grew up in South Africa, where we didn’t have television until
I was 12. The first thing I really responded to at that age was ‘Batman.’ I
flipped out for it. I saw maybe three or four different episodes
a year on 16mm prints at other children’s birthday parties. It
kind of instilled in me this huge desire to come and live and make
films in America.”

Flash forward 25 years and Kramer is making
that dream a reality. After two indie features-Blazeland (which
he calls “an epic
of misfortune unto itself”) and Crossing Over-Kramer is
making a name (and career) for himself with The Cooler, a
gritty tale of the Las Vegas underworld starring William H. Macy,
Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello and Ron Livingston.

On the eve of the film’s release, Kramer spoke
with MM about
his goals as a moviemaker, being a collaborator and what it’s like
to go up against Alec Baldwin.

Jennifer Wood (MM): When you began making films, what
were the goals you set for yourself?

Wayne Kramer (WK): I set the goal for myself to become a writer-director.
I never separated the two. The joy of filmmaking for me is to
write the
original script and then transpose it to film. I feel far more
confident directing my own stuff. It’s already processed in my
head. I don’t have to be reading someone else’s script, trying
to decipher what the visuals are; they’re already there.

When I first got to Los Angeles, I thought
it would be easier to become a director by starting out as a
screenwriter and having
good material. But in retrospect, I should have gotten into music
videos, because those guys got noticed as filmmakers much quicker.
Although I was writing screenplays, I wasn’t demonstrating my skills
as a visualist. I’ve always been a pretty good illustrator, so
I would storyboard scripts once I was finished writing them-and
that usually got some interest… But they were still looking for
a directing reel and I didn’t really have it.

MM: When and how did the idea for The Cooler first
come to you?

WK: The original idea was Frank Hannah’s. He sent me an
e-mail one day asking me what I thought of the idea. I thought
it was incredible and since I was already having success as a screenwriter,
I suggested we write it together-but only on the condition that
I got to direct it. And I promised him that I would get the film

MM: What were the parts you each played in the writing
of the film? What was the collaboration process like?

WK: Since I knew I was going to be directing the film,
I was up front with Frank about how I wanted to approach it. We
worked on an outline together over about two or three days, then
I divided up the scenes for us to write individually.

Since Frank was a big gambler and knew much
more about Vegas and gambling than myself, I assigned him all
the gambling scenes and
I selfishly took all the relationship and more character-driven
stuff. I had a good fix on Shelly and his dialogue and knew that
I could give a strong voice to him, as well as the Bernie and Natalie
relationship. Once Frank delivered his scenes, I merged them together
and then proceeded to polish the material to give it a singular
voice. I think this was the only way I could have worked on the
script, since I’m not a great writing collaborator. I think I’m
too selfish. I had never collaborated with another writer before,
and I’m back to writing solo these days.

It had nothing to do with Frank not being able
to step up or any lack of ability on his part, but more to do
with how I hear voices
and see scenes in my head. Everybody does that differently and
it’s difficult for me to compromise with someone else’s vision.
But I kept Frank in the loop on every change I made and ran it
all by him. If he had strenuously objected to anything, I would
not have included it. Since the whole film was built on Frank’s
original premise, I always wanted to keep him a part of it. And
I could never have created such authentic gaming sequences myself.
Frank knows that world like no one else. He was even technical
advisor on set. And I would get him into the cutting room to make
sure the gambling scenes were making sense.

MM: How was The Cooler different,
from a writing and directing standpoint, than any of your earlier
films? What
were some of the challenges you faced on this film that you hadn’t
faced before-and what were some of the luxuries you had on this
production that were new to you?

WK: Well, as I said, I had never written with anybody before,
so it was a little tough having to accommodate another voice in
the writing process. In terms of the directing, it was an amazing
experience. I had done extensive homework on the visualization
of the film; I had over 1,000 storyboards and was still storyboarding
while we were in production. I was blessed with an incredible crew
and the greatest DP in the world, James Whitaker, who is now one
of my best friends. It was the complete opposite of my nightmarish
experience on Blazeland. I had a DP who got and respected
my vision for the film-and brought so much more to it. We were
never threatened by each other. It was a director-DP marriage made
in heaven. I wish that kind of collaboration on every filmmaker.

For an ambitious feature film, we had very
little money (under $3 million) and a brutal 21-day shooting
schedule! But everybody
was up for it, and everybody loved the material. I had an amazing
first AD, Richard Fox, who was just magic with the extras and keeping
the crew on their feet. It makes all the difference in the world
to get that kind of support. A director can’t make the film by
himself, which is why I refuse to use the “A film by” credit, because
it’s completely untrue. Even though I write and direct, I don’t
claim to have made the film all on my own.

We finished the film on schedule and didn’t shoot a single pick-up!
I was shooting a fair amount of second unit during production,
essentially leapfrogging between first and second units while on
the casino floor. We needed so many little shots of chips and cards
and dice and so forth. The storyboards really helped me keep track
of the stuff I needed. Jimmy was able to give me about 75 percent
of my storyboards, which is unbelievable given our schedule. And
I don’t think the film looks cheap.

We shot in super 35mm and the 2:35 aspect ratio
makes it seem like a huge canvas, especially in the casino. We
were lucky enough
to shoot in a real casino (in Reno)-one that was undergoing renovations
and allowed us to own the floor. We also housed our cast and crew
in the hotel and shot about 90 percent of the movie in the place,
turning it pretty much into our own little studio. I had the luxury
of having a crane for about three days of filming and a full-time
Steadicam (we shot about 70 percent of the film on Steadicam).
Colin Hudson, our operator, is so steady, you think we’re on a
dolly half the time. Everybody had such a great attitude-it’s great
to make a film under those circumstances.

MM: You were able to assemble a truly amazing group
of actors for the film. How did you approach the casting, and
who was the first to sign on?

WK: Frank and I wrote the role for Bill
Macy. He was always our guy. I dogged his agent for two years
to get him to sign on.
It was worth it. He’s the only guy who could have played Bernie.
Once Bill signed on, everybody else came running. It’s a well-known
Hollywood secret: if you want to attract an amazing cast, get Bill
Macy to agree to be in your film. Everyone else will follow. I
was a first time director, so I certainly wasn’t the big draw.
Aside from the script, it was definitely Bill.

Alec had known our exec producer, Ed Pressman, for many years
and Ed got the script to him. Alec had also worked with Bill a
few times before, so there was already a rapport between them.
They really respected one another. I think it took a while for
me to win Alec over, but once production started, he got more comfortable
with me. Maria had been slipped the script and wanted the role
badly. Once she came in and read for Natalie, I knew she was the
one. They were all amazing to work with.

MM: Being, essentially, a “first-timer,” were
you ever intimidated by your actors?

WK: I was never intimidated by the cast-I didn’t have the
time to be! Besides, I don’t scare easily. Seriously, I know what
I’m bringing to the table and I’m a pretty confident person, so
it wasn’t a big deal. Occasionally, I’d catch myself saying, “Oh
my god, I’m directing William H. Macy” and I’d shake my head. He’s
been one of my favorite actors for the longest time, so I never
lost sight of what a thrill it was. I was also giddy over the fact
that Alec would be playing Shelly, since I admired so many of his
tough-guy performances. And, man, did he deliver! He’s scary and
charming all at once. Baldwin has serious chops. He knows so much
about film acting; I learned a lot from him.

MM: As a writer-director, what is
the approach you take to working with actors?  Is every scene open to improvisation?
In what ways are you looking to have the actors contribute to
the “writing” process?

WK: I like to discuss the script with
actors in depth. In the beginning, I’m not fishing for a performance,
but for mutual understanding. We never had any rehearsal before
production started
(aside from figuring out the sex scenes) on The Cooler,
mainly due to time issues, but I had several discussions with all
the actors about how I saw their roles and the feeling I was looking
for. It’s important that we all be on the same page. Then when
we turn up on set, I don’t mind improvisation if it’s in line with
what their characters would do.

The great thing about being the screenwriter
as well is that I have the confidence to allow my actors to change
the script without
feeling threatened by it. Actors bring so much to a role, and to
shoot their ideas down just because it didn’t come from me is directorial
suicide. Your film will never live and breathe if you constrict
your actors to exactly what’s on the page. Some of the best magic
comes from a slight deviation. But if you have a strong vision
for what the end product is, you can always control it.

There wasn’t that much improvisation on The Cooler, but
there was just enough to give it a real pulse. In some sequences,
I’m pretty adamant about sticking to the dialogue, while with others,
I don’t mind the actors playing it a little looser. There was one
scene toward the end of the film where Alec wanted to dump most
of the dialogue and I pleaded with him to do it as it read on the
page. I wasn’t sure if he would-until we started shooting and then
he only did it my way. We both knew it was the right decision and
there’s a huge payoff when you see that scene with an audience
(it’s the scene where he breaks Ron Livingston’s arm in the men’s
room). If actors want to “contribute to the writing process,” I’d
prefer they bring it up with me before we start shooting. It’s
a pain in the ass to start rewriting on the spot. There’s a big
difference between rewriting and improvising. It’s great working
with Bill, because he respects the script. He’s a writer himself,
and unless something’s clearly not working, he has no desire to
start changing it.

MM: What was the greatest lesson you learned in making The
Cooler that you will take with you to future projects?

WK: It’s all about the casting. Really. If you hire great
actors, you’re going to get real performances. If the script is
solid and you’ve got the best actors you can get, then it’s just
about steering the ship in a sensible way. The same goes for the
crew. It is essential that you be completely in sync with the DP-personality-wise
and aesthetically. That’s your most important relationship on the
set, aside from the actors.

MM: How has the great reception of this film impacted
your future in Hollywood?

WK: The Cooler has impacted my
career in a huge way. Ever since Sundance, things have just exploded.
I get offers
every week to direct big and small films. I’ve passed on some serious
money because the projects haven’t been right for me. Essentially,
I want to direct my own scripts and that’s what I’m going to be
doing. I sold a writing-directing pitch to Sherry Lansing at Paramount.
It’s called The Sleeping Detective and it’s another role
for Macy. He’s going to play a narcoleptic private eye in a contemporary Chinatown-like
thriller. Once again, very noirish.

I’m also going to be directing an original
screenplay of mine called Running Scared, which will probably
start production in late January. It’s a gritty mob drama that involves two 10-year
old kids and a dirty mob gun. It’s very fast-paced and quite disturbing
in places, but always with a lot of heart. I might also be directing
the David Begelman story, Indecent Exposure, for Ed Pressman.
And then I want to do another original screenplay I have called Dubbing
De Niro
about an Italian dubbing artist who loses his gig dubbing
De Niro’s voice and travels to New York to convince De Niro he
should use his voice again-and gets mistaken for a mob boss entering
the country. It’s like Cinema Paradiso meets Goodfellas