Tribeca 2017: Martin Landau, Paul Sorvino, and Howard Weiner on “The Last Poker Game”

"Old guys' buddy movie" premiered at Tribeca Film Festival

Apr 27, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


As his wife’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, retired doctor Abe Mandelbaum (Martin Landau) moves with her into an assisted living facility. At first, he sees his new home as a hopeless place, where people at to the ends of their lives go and wait to die. Not long after arrival, though, he meets Phil Nicoletti, a boisterous talker and one-time philanderer who shares his unwavering passion for life.  The two become unlikely best friends. When a new nurse takes a job at Cliffside Manor with the secret motive of finding her biological father—whom she believes resides there—the two compete to convince the young woman that they are her long-lost dad.

The Last Poker Game is a strong showcase for its two stars, both elder statesmen of their craft and living, working legends of the screen. The 88-year-old Landau has been active since the 1950s, appearing with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and earning Oscar nominations for best supporting actor in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (He won the third time.) Sorvino began his career on the stage, originating a role in the celebrated ‘70s Broadway run of Jason Miller’s That Championship Season; some of his many acclaimed screen appearances include Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and television’s Law & Order. In the movie, these two esteemed veterans are working with roles as nuanced as any they’ve had in their careers. These characters speak candidly and, yes, often vulgarly, but the dialogue feels natural and honest. There are love scenes, but they’re played with a tenderness and respect that’s perhaps never been seen on film for a character of this age group.

What’s even more impressive than two old masters knocking a pair of well-written parts out of the park is that the film’s director, Howard Weiner, is a rookie filmmaker at 72 years old. A world-renowned neurologist, Dr. Weiner first wrote the manuscript for a novel that would eventually become the basis for the film. With some advice from his son, an Emmy-nominated TV writer, he penned a screenplay version and set about raising funds to make the movie.

The filmmaker and his two stars stopped to talk to us at the Tribeca Film Festival, where The Last Poker Game made its festival debut.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: What did you see or experience over your career in medicine that gave you the inspiration for this story?

Howard Weiner: It came when I saw my grandmother in a nursing facility. As a doctor, I see old people in many capacities, but personally I was very struck by that. She was a member of my family. When I thought about that, I thought it was something interesting and wondered, “Could you capture this?” That was what started it. And then I had an old girlfriend who was adopted. She went to search for her natural parents. It was an amazing story, what happened – and I was struck by that. Then I thought, you know, these two things could go together.

And Paul, Martin, what interested the two of you in these roles?

Paul Sorvino: I was paid $15 million to do the picture.

[They all laugh.]

Sorvino: No, it all starts with the script. My agent got the script and said, “You’ve got to read this.” With independent movies you think, “Oh, yeah, maybe, okay,” because sometimes they’re not going to be up to snuff. I read this and I was absolutely entranced. I said, “Call them back right away. Let’s make a deal.” And then when the deal was almost done, they told me they were going after Martin Landau and I said “Hallelujah!” Done! Done! I have to do it.

Martin Landau: I also read it and it resonated like crazy. What I liked about it was that it was a doctor’s idea of a rest home, and not a Hollywood idea of one. It has something within it that turns and changes, and as I was reading it I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride. And again, when I heard Paul was going to do it, I thought, “Oh, wow, that’s great.”

Sorvino: It’s an old guys’ buddy movie!

Landau: The great thing about this story is that had these two characters met under any other conditions, they would not have had the relationship they had. I mean, had he been my patient, he would have been in and out of the office. But in this nursing home, they’re two unlikely friends and yet, they need each other.

I’ve known [Paul] a long time but we’ve never worked together before. This gave us the opportunity. And I met Howard – I insisted on meeting Howard – because I heard he was a 70-year-old first-time director, and he’d written the script. So we met and had breakfast, and I immediately connected with him. I liked him immediately.

As a first-time director, I’m sure it was helpful to have actors of this caliber working with you. Could you delegate some things to them, knowing that they’ve been doing this for a long time and would know how they wanted to handle it?

Weiner: That’s exactly right. First of all, we established a close relationship. We were comfortable with each other. I learned a lot from them. Before we did a scene, we would sit together, away from everybody. We would talk about it so we understood what the scene was like. Sometimes Paul or Martin would suggest a different line, which was usually right. And so, I really took advantage of all of their abilities and sensitivities. Sometimes I’d want things a little different, but somehow we always worked it out. We always came to the same place, but there’s no question that they had a major influence on the movie.

Landau: We would get together first thing, probably putting on wardrobe or just before we would go on. Most of the time scenes are rehearsed in front of the crew, and what happens is that the actors accommodate the camera, rather than accommodate the other actors. With Howard, we were very clear: let us find out what this scene is really about.

Sorvino: He’s the head of The Actors Studio, so he’s talking from a different elevation. You know what I mean?

Landau: I’m the artistic director of The Actors Studio West. Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, and Ellen Burstyn are the artistic directors of The Actors Studio here in New York.

Sorvino: The best actors in the world.

Landau: And so, I teach actors a lot. But what I’m basically is that what’s on the page is one thing, and what we do with it is another thing. [Paul’s] input and [Howard’s] input were always vital. We often cut lines because we could act them, and not talk about them. By the time we got on the set, we knew what we were doing, and the cinematographer—who was very good—used what we were doing to shoot it. Where most films go awry is that they go onto the set before they’re ready to go onto the set, and the cinematographer becomes half of the director. You don’t want that.

It was [Howard’s] script, his vision, his understanding of a nursing home, and we got all of that just from reading the script. But, that doesn’t mean we could get all of the values out of a scene until we screwed around with it. And we never repeated ourselves. It would always have a different thing about it.

Sorvino: Or even different words, and this was encouraged by Dr. Weiner. I don’t care how good you are—and we’re really good, okay? Suffice to say, we’re really good actors. We know our craft very well. Movies is a craft, it’s not an art. Stage is an art, movies is a craft. You really have to know what you’re doing to be consistently good. Some people are good in one movie but not the next, and there’s a reason for it. When you study your lines at night—which luckily I don’t have to do, because I’ve got a very good memory for lines—but if you do, let’s say you’re doing Shakespeare. Then you have to know them letter-perfect. I don’t care how good you are, you can’t in one night be prepared the next day to say something and do something as if it were happening for the first time. But if I say, for instance [in a deadpan voice] “Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome?” Now, I can study that like so many of our fellows do. [In a loud, exagerrated Shakespearean tone] “Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome?” They do all this vocal crap, right? But if I say, “Why are you all so happy, you dumb bastards? What the hell is going on here?” Then I bring it back to the text. [With intensity] “Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome?” Now, all of a sudden, you have something that affected you. It would affect anybody who sees it, but it comes from you and your insides.

Now, if you’re doing a contemporary English script, as this film was, and you have leeway from the director-author to make changes, you are saying it really for the first time. Not that we changed the whole script—we played it, for the most part, as it was written—but under his direction and his permission, we were able to deviate a little bit. Only the best directors do that. Many directors are too scared. But this is a man of great confidence and intelligence. To be a first-time director and do this was really surprising. I didn’t expect it.

Landau: I didn’t expect it, either.  And whatever he says goes for me, too.

Sorvino: [Laughs, then orders into the wings] Okay, I’ll have a ham on rye…

Landau: Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, having some business, do entreat her eyes…” You know, one of the things about doing Shakespeare, it was written in the 1600s. There’s no silences, everything is spoken. The soliloquies are all thoughts. “To be or not to be…” What is that about? It’s about doubt. And [Paul] has doubts in this picture, I have doubts in this picture.

Today when I watch episodic television, I see a bunch of experts on a track. Everyone’s an expert. Most human beings—mammals—have the ability to say “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” If we should and don’t, uh oh! If we shouldn’t and do, uh oh! That’s our problem. Every other “animal” works spontaneously, off of reflexes and intuition. We don’t. But, we also don’t know what we’re doing half the time, and I love that in [Paul’s] performance, and I always try to include it in mine. I always stress it when I teach, because that’s the difference.

When people talk about old Hollywood, or ask what was exciting about old Hollywood, it was its uniqueness. [Paul’s] a unique guy, I don’t know anyone else like him. And [Howard’s] a unique guy, I don’t know anyone else like him. When you look at old Hollywood and you look at Bogart, and Eddie Robinson, and Spencer Tracy, they were all different. Today, everyone wants to be like someone else.

Sorvino: Today they’re all doing this manner of speech. [With many pauses] “Yeah, sooooo… I thought we could go down there aaaaaaaand then…” They think this pause-acting—this Shatner-ian kind of pause-acting—is going to get them somewhere. It’s unsupported. No one sounds like that. The first thing that I hate is when you say something to these young actors, they get rid of their first impulse. They throw it right out, and then start speaking. It’s like playing tennis; get the ball, dropping it, picking it up, handing it back. There’s an infection going on in modern-day acting, and it’s all over television with the exception of a few great ones—Claire Danes, people like that who are fantastic actors—but for the most part the disease is talking as if “they…. think… this sounds good, or this… makes it… kind of interesting.” Who the hell talks like that? Where does that come from?

Landau: [Laughs] They’re just not Billy Shatner.

Sorvino: No. [Doing Shatner] “Bones, Bones, four hundred men… women… Spock? Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.”

You mentioned the stage. With this film being so dialogue-driven and about the relationship between these two men, can you compare it at all to performing a play?

Sorvino: This is a trade, and you learn it on the stage.

Landau: What’s important is unpredictability and inevitability. How something gets there you shouldn’t know or anticipate. It should happen for you, whether it’s a trade or an art—call it what you will. As I said before, all an audience wants to believe is what’s going on is happening for the first time ever. I don’t want to see the rehearsals. I don’t want to see anything other than what’s going on, and be surprised by it and affected by it. That’s what good acting is about, and what good play-writing is about, and good movies are about, and good theater is about. And [Howard] understood that intrinsically. There are guys who have been doing it for thirty years who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Sorvino: And a bad director can hurt you. The best you can hope for when you hear about a first-time director, you say “Please, God, let them leave me alone.” Now, [Martin] and I are at such a position in our careers where they really don’t fuck with us too much. The only way to say it is that. Some young guy says something to me and I’ll just look at him, and he’ll say “Okay, do what you want to do!” Most directors who are unsure of themselves, who are just beginning, will try to enforce their preordained or pre-supposed thoughts about this, and that hurts you. No matter how strong an actor you are, you must keep yourself open and vulnerable for change.

Landau: I often come in with ideas and I’m ready to go. If the director—the writer—doesn’t agree with it, I change it. I’m quick to accept that. I can honestly tell you that in probably thirty years I haven’t been directed by anybody. I’ve worked with Woody Allen, Coppola, Tim Burton, Hitchcock… If I look at it, none of them have really directed me. If they didn’t like it, I figured they would say something and I would [change] it. And so what I do is I come in, say the words, do what I have to do, hit the marks, and get the fuck out of there.

Sorvino: There are only so many people in the world who can do what he says, okay? He walks on the set with this huge backlog of work, and his experience, his intelligence, and his talent. He comes up to bat and he’s not like, “Okay, where’s the bat?” He comes up to bat and he’s like this. [Narrows eyes, confidently raises an invisible baseball bat.] He gets into stance and the pitcher knows he’d better throw a good one, because this guy knows how to hit. That’s the case with this maestro.

This film portrays this age group with a respect that you rarely see, and a level of intimacy you certainly never see. What do you hope audiences walk away from the film thinking or feeling?

Weiner: I want them to look at old people as real people. Old people are real people. If you look at old people from above, you make them children; if you look at them from below, you put them on a pedestal. These are real people. I mean, teenage boys talk like [these characters.] There’s nothing wrong with older people talking like that. Tolstoy said when he was 80, “I’m 80, but inside I feel 20.” But everybody inside has that 20-year-old. So they’re just people, like everyone else, and I want people to see that and understand that.

Sorvino: There’s stuff in this movie you’ve never seen on film before because it’s never been done before.

Landau: I was talking to them about this yesterday. There’s an attitude… I’m 88 years old, I’ll be 89 years old on my next birthday, and I’m ten years older than [Paul.] People have an attitude about me to begin with, but I don’t feel the need to have to prove myself. Young people think that old people are a little bit diminished in the head, or think this, or think that, but I’m probably as strong as I’ve ever been or as quick as I’ve ever been. I just won’t be playing Fred Astaire anymore. [Laughs]

Sorvino: [Singing] Isn’t it a lovely day to get caught in the rain…

Landau: In the rain…

***

The Last Poker Game premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. 



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August 28th 2017
6:52pm

This is a meaningful movie. <3