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Written by By Chris Irvine   
Dec 26, 2004 at 07:00 PM
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Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino
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Joe Alexandre has been making movies for years. His horror movies "Into the Chasm" and "Psychotropic Overload" are disturbing psychological thrillers that leave your mind spinning afterwards. But most recently, Joe decided on a change of pace and created an interesting and in-depth look into the roots of Vegas and the Mob tie-in through real life interviews and testimonials. The result, "Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino" is receiving critical accolades across the U.S. for this young director. Recently, we sat Joe down for one of our patented quickie interview to discuss his inspiration for such a project. Here’s what he had to say:

Dark Gallery: Please tell us a little about your video.
Joseph Alexandre: "Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino" is an in depth exploration into the real people who formed the basis for the Scorsese mob epic "Casino".

DG: How did you come up with the idea of making this video - how did it unfold?
JA: It was one of those rare instances where I was given money and commissioned to do a piece on this subject by indie guru John Pierson. I’d been in contact with him and he was interested in me doing a segment for his new show Split Screen on IFC. I did a 7minute segment that aired on both Bravo and IFC. But, I’d shot so much footage I also cut a 30 minute version then whittled that down to 24. I also have 12 and 14 minute versions.

DG: What ideas, themes, etc. were you trying to convey with the video?
JA: I knew John gravitated more to things that had levity or were humorous as evidenced by some of the films ("Clerks, Chasing Amy, Slacker, Roger & Me") he was involved with as a rep or producer. Initially the film was going to be sort of a light, hearted riff on the film. But, as I got into it that just didn’t really fit. It was much darker and much more real. The tone was set our first night of shooting when we interviewed my good friend Mike G. He grew up around both ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal (DeNiro in the film) and Tony Spilotro (Joe Pesci.) His first cousin was part of Tony’s crew and he told us a story about his cousin, Leo, shooting his own brother in a bar room beef. The gunshot severed his brother’s spine, and later the brother died due to complications from the shooting. Leo ended up doing 15 years when Spilotro’s gang was busted and all the indictments were handed down. But, shooting your own brother, that’s harsh. Also, because of legal reasons Scorsese had to change all the names in the film and couldn’t even refer to Chicago by name, hence the constant references to ‘back home’ and this of course plays into the title of my film. Many people who aren’t exposed to this kind of urban reality think of it all as just Hollywood hype, but the mob was very real. I was also very conscious about not aping Scorsese’s visual style, my film has it’s own unique style with a lot of stock footage and Beta and super 8. It’s almost more like Errol Morris but not really. Hopefully it’s all Joe Alexandre.
Eventually, I realized especially in post that I wanted to rip away some of the gloss of the mob film mystique. I’m a huge fan of Scorsese, and "GoodFellas" is a masterwork, but because his style is so intoxicating, it invariably ends up glamorizing the life. In my experience, very little was glamorous about it. The constant harassment by the feds, unwanted media attention, violence, betrayal, and paranoia is apart of an ‘outfit’ guy’s existence. I think "The Sopranos" is very well done, but I think Tony Soprano’s fairly well adjusted family life is a bit of a joke. It’s a little bit too bubble gum and lightweight compared to the reality.

DG: Tell us a little about the people you interviewed - did you check credentials, things like that?
JA: I was pretty lucky in that I knew a lot of these guys before I made the film so it wasn’t like I was an outsider coming in to interview them. One guy we interviewed was, along with his brother, Sam Giancana’s muscle. His brother, along with a mob boss in Milwaukee named Frank Balistrieri, was the basis for the composite character Remo Gaggi in the film who was referred to as the top boss. This man also got ‘Lefty’ (DeNiro) his position at the real Stardust casino (referred to as The Tangiers in the film.) He was way up there in the ‘outfit’ hierarchy. We interviewed a guy very close to Alan Dorfman, (Andy Stone in the film played by comedian Alan King.) Dorfman was Jimmy Hoffa’s protégé and a go between for the mob and the teamsters. He and his father met Dorfman for lunch the day before he was gunned down outside a Hotel in Lincolnwood, IL just outside of Chicago. Mike G. had connections to several of the real people and we interviewed a woman whose Father was a top boss in the Chicago ‘outfit’. ‘Lefty’ used to pick up her family at the airport in Las Vegas and personally drive them to the Stardust. I really was lucky in that I didn’t need to do much research. I knew who these people were and how they were connected to the film. In this case, no credentials were necessary, their reputations preceded them so to speak.

DG: Anything really crazy happen when shooting? Any Mafia folk contact you when they heard about this, and if so, what was said?
JA: Things went pretty smoothly. Although, the man who was connected to Giancana told me just prior to shooting his interview that he always tried to save guys from their own stupidity. He couldn’t have stupid people around him or else he’d “have to get rid of ‘em.” It wasn’t until some time later, mainly because I’d known his daughter for years, I realized he was giving me a veiled warning not to do anything stupid. Luckily, I’m still here. The guy who was connected to Dorfman gave us a lot of detailed information while his wife was behind the camera asking him politely keep his mouth shut. I was able to cut out some of the specific names of people he’d mentioned who were still alive after the interview. It’s amazing how some people really open up once the cameras start rolling.
The most chilling thing that happened didn’t have anything to with my film but was still a good reality check. A woman named Susan Berman, her father was mobster Davie Berman who was a partner of Bugsy Siegel, was slain mob-execution style in her LA home just late last year. She wrote about her life in Las Vegas and some of her dad’s exploits, but nothing apparently that sensitive. Just a pleasant reminder how real this stuff really is.

DG: What format did you shoot on?
JA: Betacam SP and Super 8 film. I edited it on Beta to Beta with a video toaster for cg and dissolves.

DG: What was the budget?
JA: Around $5,700. But, when you count all the festivals I entered and the several hundred dubs and press kits it gets closer to $9,000 or so. I did get $3,500 from Pierson, plus money from WTTW the Chicago PBS station for a licensed broadcast, and an advance from a website it streamed on. I’m hoping to get the rest of the budget from vhs/dvd sales but it’s been slow going. Come on guys, help a brother out and buy a copy. I’ve also got it into about 11 different fests including a NY and LA screening (and an upcoming screening in Santa Monica as part of the Documental series.) It’s definitely been worth it though as it’s given my so-called film career a certain validity

DG: Tell us about your favorite filmmaker.
JA: So many it’s tough to single out one: Scorsese, Kubrick, and Welles and also Michael Mann ("The Insider" is one of the best films I’ve seen in years), Robert Bresson, Keneth Anger, Robert Frank, and Oliver Stone.

DG: What is your dream project?
JA: I’ve been wanting to do a biopic on Ian Curtis and his band Joy Division, but a NY production company just optioned a book his wife wrote so we’ll see. Now that Roxy Music is touring this summer I’d love to follow them with a DV camera.

DG: What's lined up next for you?
JA: I just finished a DV feature called "Into The Chasm", which stars John Crowther (actor/ writer who is the son of famous NY Times film critic Bosley Crowther.) The film still needs fine- tuning, especially the sound, but I’m shopping it for some post funding. I’m also shopping my script "WiseAcre" which is loosely based on my experiences in making "The Real Casino" and is a sort of darker more real version of "Get Shorty". I have a producer/manager whose getting it to some name talent so it just may be my breakthrough film. I also wrote a big budget sequel to "Into The Chasm" which is getting some serious studio interest. And a couple other docs I’m working on including a piece on a guy named Zobin who is unlike anyone out there. He’s a performance artist/ video artist/ musician and it would be like "American Movie" on acid, peyote, and ‘shrooms.

DG: Any advise for young filmmakers?
JA: Do your homework. You can’t just dip your toe in, it’s got to be 24/7. With DV it’s much easier to make a film, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be doing it. When you see Kobe go in for the slam, or Tiger hit a putt, or Eric Clapton wail on guitar people usually don’t say “oh, I can do that.” But, for some reason everyone thinks they can write and direct a film. Also, I see a lot of young filmmakers who have no concept of Cinema history. They’ve never heard of Dreyer, Tarkovsky, or Ozu let alone seen their work. So many young filmmakers are just ripping off shots from Scorsese or Tarantino or aping "The Blair Witch Project". Do something that’s personal and meaningful, something that you can take pride in, because chances are you’re going to stick with it for quite some time. Good luck!


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