Sheldon Candis (LUV) Talks Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler

A USC film school alum tries his luck with a movie set at his alma mater and starring one of his favorite Hollywood actors.

They say the moment you enter USC Film School, you’ll never be able to enjoy a movie again. You’ll forever be critical of the images before you… always dissecting a movie from the first frame to the end credits. In a sense, your privileged and obtained knowledge of the art form will forever taint your mind with rumblings of mise-en-scène and auteur theory, while eternally questioning ever single choice made by a filmmaker — “WWHPTC?” (Where Would Hitchcock Put the Camera?)

It’s a movie — get over yourself! Until you can do it better than Spielberg, buy your ticket, sit down and shut up. For myself, I’m thankful I still have the ability to enjoy going to the theater as a pure film fan. Understanding the art form as entertainment, but humbly acknowledging film as mankind’s greatest art form. My Zodiac-Gemini dual selves are constantly at war, though — “Art vs. Commerce,” “Entertainment vs. Education,” “Popcorn Film vs. Pure Cinema.”

Based on a True Hollywood Story: Years ago I found myself at a pool party thrown by a grandson of the Kinko’s CEO. Huge mansion in the Hollywood Hills. (I know, only in La La Land does such a story begin this way; not bragging, just setting the cinematic scene.)

Hanging poolside, it’s a scene out of Entourage. As beautiful women bask in the glow of the Southern California sun, I look up, and all of a sudden a custom-made, black, miniature Cadillac Escalade golf cart is coming across the expansive back lawn… in super slo-mo, Mark Wahlberg appears from behind the wheel. As he goes around introducing himself to every single person, I’m having a hard time remembering, is this real life or, in fact, a movie I’m watching?! There’s a freakin’ movie star walking right up to me… What do I do?! “Hi, I’m Mark Wahlberg…” “Ahh, hi Dirk Diggler, you may own the tapes, but you don’t own the magic on the tapes! Feel… feel… my heat!” (I wanted to say it so bad. I chickened out.)

This moment only confirmed for me why Mark Wahlberg is one of my favorite movie stars. Today, for the public record, I’m acknowledging for the first time that I’m one of his biggest man-fans. Wahlberg’s a likable guy on screen and, OMG, he’s actually a genuinely nice guy in real life!

From the first moment you see his character, Jim Bennett, on screen in The Gambler, you want this guy to win. He’s the Rocky Balboa of blackjack (sorry, couldn’t pass up a Rocky reference — it’s my favorite movie of all time!). Bennett is the beaten dog that keeps coming down the block for more, challenging the bigger bully-dog for his food.

The Gambler was shot on campus at USC, by the way. As I’m watching the movie, it’s like I’m stepping into a time portal, circa ’99, when I arrived at USC School of Cinematic Arts. It’s really crazy to think that I was a part of the very last undergraduate class to shoot, develop and edit Super 8 film. Every weekend you would scramble to write your short, beg your friends to act in it and crew for you. Sunday nights were marathon edit sessions (that entire semester I had eye infections from my contacts). Come Monday you were tramping across campus, a big bulky projector in one hand, a cassette-tape player in the other.

We projected the movies against a wall in class, waiting for the “2-pop” in the countdown leader, when you’d hit “Play” on the cassette player for perfect synch sound. Talk about old school! Those were the days. They will forever be etched on my cinematic heart, and I’m really thankful for all my USC School of Cinematic Arts professors, advisors and classmates. For me, it was more than just coming to Hollywood with a suitcase and a dream; I was fortunate to obtain a special knowledge of cinema while at USC.

Oh yeah, Michael K. Williams sighting! From The Gambler to Inherent Vice to narrating Rand University, a solid ESPN 30 for 30, Mike K. is having an amazing year. I will always be grateful that Michael K. Williams showed up in Baltimore to do my first film, LUV, in which we cast him against type as a sleep-deprived but benevolent detective. Hollywood, are you listening?!?! Mike K. doesn’t have to always be the violent Omar or Chalky figure. Mike K.’s got range, baby! In LUV, his character Detective Holloway (named in honor of my father) is the only positive male role model for the film’s protagonist Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.), an 11-year-old boy searching for his mother.

Based on a Baltimore True Story: One of the LUV producers, Joel Newton, drives Mike K. one morning to his favorite breakfast spot, Blue Moon Café. As Mike K. walks in, a couple at the table spot him coming through the door, and the boyfriend says, deadpan, without missing a beat, “Omar coming!” Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!! (Had to tell that story.)

Anyway, back to The Gambler. Mark Wahlberg is always solid as the everyman character on screen while also playing roles that embody the Saturday-matinee hero we all love. He’s either gonna be that ordinary man who overcomes extraordinary circumstances, like in Boogie Nights, Invincible, The Fighter and Lone Survivor, or be that badass hero in Contraband and Shooter. He can be very funny too — in Ted, he’s hilarious, and as Dignam in The Departed, he’s intensely hilarious!

And when you pair him with a special auteur like James Gray, we get gems of cinema like The Yards and We Own the Night. FYI: James Gray is highly underrated in his class of American auteurs. In my opinion, James Gray is part of the same conversation as P.T. Anderson, Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino. I bet when you saw Two Lovers you didn’t expect it to be that damn good!? Listen to James Gray’s director commentaries — it’s like attending your favorite film professor’s class in your boxers. Thanks, James Gray — love you, man!

What were we talking about again…? Oh yeah, The Gambler, that’s right! Director Rupert Wyatt does a great job of making gambling and high-stakes blackjack thrilling. You’re literally on the edge of your seat when those cards are turned. These moments don’t feature a lot of coverage or fancy auteurism; it’s editor Peter Beaudreau’s pacing and an ensemble of brilliant actors that create a nauseous excitement for us, the viewers. This is the reason why we must continue to see movies in the theater — there’s nothing like the communal experience and hot-blooded hysteria we experience with Jaws and Gravity on that giant screen in stark darkness, people!

Or the shared cultural sensation of Do the Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood. Do you remember when you saw Boyz n the Hood on the big screen for the first time? We all cried together — Black, White, Asian and Latino — when Ricky was shot at the end.

I’m not afraid that cineplexes will ever become extinct, by the way. They will always exist on the basic principle that young men will always need a place away from their parents to kiss young ladies. Vive la Cinéma!

Is it me, or does John Goodman make every freakin’ supporting role the best…? It’s been great these last few years, seeing him devour the screen in Flight, Argo and now The Gambler — John Goodman, you are a Golden God!

And Jessica Lange, every moment on screen… wonderful!

The Gambler, as a complete movie, isn’t anything that extraordinary. But it has a director in Rupert Wyatt who clearly knows the story he is telling while an ensemble of wonderful actors deliver the goods. Brie Larson is the classic Hollywood ingénue; she wears these roles well, and it’s easy money for her. I’m excited for when we’ll see her playing main characters, giving conflicted/multi-layered performances. She’s gonna soar when she gets her turn as leading lady.

Oh yeah, and it would be remiss of me to not mention the great storyteller James Toback. This is a remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film The Gambler, which Toback wrote, the title role being played by badass James Caan.

If you’ve never watched The Beat That My Heart Skipped, it’s another gem of a Toback remake, a riff on his 1978 film Fingers by French auteur Jacques Audiard of A Prophet fame. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is heartbreakingly good.

I say go see The Gambler, enjoy it as a thrilling popcorn film. Do the crazy unthought-of thing and actually go see it in a theater. Gamble on the possibility you might just still have a great experience one night out at the movies.

Sheldon Candis is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He made his feature directorial debut with LUV, starring Common, Dennis Haysbert and Danny Glover, which world premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and is now on Netflix and iTunes. He has created viral Web content for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rock the Vote and world-infamous street artist Banksy. Most recently, he directed a digital series for Under Armour featuring ballerina Misty Copeland.