The Long Shadow of Las Vegas

Writer-director Bryan Wizemann on how his Vegas upbringing has influenced all his films, including his latest, You Mean Everything to Me.

It was very cheap and easy to live in Las Vegas in the ’80s, and Vegas attracted people who needed to live cheaply and easily. People like my father, who moved us from Boston to wiggle out of an affair he started with our (underage) babysitter. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my hometown and often try to put that past behind me, yet my last three films have been born out of that past and the city’s influence on my childhood.

Growing up in Vegas meant thinking every city had casinos up the street, a strip club on the corner, slots in the grocery stores, and a 40-foot sign advertising “Nudes on Ice” on your way home. And I was a naïve kid, who couldn’t believe that actors kissed on screen. (I thought it must be some filmmaking sleight of hand or they put scotch tape on their mouths beforehand.) Because of this, the lawlessness of Vegas was always unsettling, both in what I was exposed to and how early those exposures came. When my parents were together while I was in grade school, I was teased for being rich (we had a two-story house with a pool, which in the late ’70s in Vegas wasn’t such a huge feat). In middle school, after my parents divorced and my father left the country, leaving us with nothing, I was teased for being poor.

Bryan Wizemann and his younger brother Alan in Las Vegas, c. 1980.

My last film, About Sunny, sought to be a fictional story about a woman who must face the prospect of selling her kid to give the kid a better life. What I ended up writing was pulled from my adolescence, with a single mother who worked as a deli cashier by day (and a janitor in secret at night), qualifying for free school lunch, walking with my friends to the 99-cent pizza place after school (but never having a dollar to buy one), or fishing change out of the mall fountain with my brother for a hot-dog-on-a-stick. There were moments of freedom and joy within this, but the times without stick with me most. We were lucky enough to film in Vegas, which I had to fight for, even though the city itself is only in the film’s margins. I wanted to show slot machines in the 7-Elevens, the ever-present strip clubs, the strip-mall video poker bars, the cheap casino breakfasts, the constant 24 hours of it all, and the transient nature of existence that comes with that.

Before that, I made a micro-budget feature called Losing Ground, based on a play I staged at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory Theatre in New York’s Lower East Side. It features the same cast and is a pretty strict adaptation that unfolds in real-time. It’s set entirely in one of these strip-mall video poker bars, one I came to know well when my mother suffered a four-year gambling addiction after going through a devastating bankruptcy brought on by someone embezzling from her company. Money, or the lack of it, again became a source of great stress for her, and the only way she could cope was to throw more of it away. Also, the microcosm of a handful of people at 3 a.m. in one of these places – people who’ve already been there for 12 hours, who have dumped hundreds of dollars into a machine and are writing bad checks to get more to gamble more to get back to even – is surreal.

Bryan Wizemann with his brother Alan and father Lou at Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas, c. 1982.

I also met my first love in Las Vegas, in the seventh grade. It turns out, I was a people pleaser and wanted to do right by others, especially her. I thought that giving yourself over to someone else constituted being a good companion. And when someone like me meets someone who is more than happy only to receive, you soon have a problem. Though we never really dated in the traditional sense, it slowly became an emotionally manipulative relationship, though I think neither of us knew it at the time. She got pregnant by someone at age 12, and was so far along before she realized it that they had to drive to California for the abortion. After a stint in rehab and having a child at 15, we reconnected.

It seems all my friend’s high school or college stories of sex and drugs are my middle school stories. We were feral kids, and I knew no one’s father. I came home from school to an empty house, and I don’t remember ever having to be home at a particular hour. None of my friends had to either. Crystal meth (we just called it “crystal”) seemed ever-present, an easy way to make it through a night shift as a blackjack dealer or cocktail waitress, which were plentiful jobs back then. My girlfriend’s mom’s keychain jingled with little chits that said: “30 days sober.” Also, not uncommon. That same girl I loved was soon caught up in a manipulative relationship of her own, one that I now understand hinged on coercive control. Her boyfriend once forced her to sleep with a friend to show her devotion. It was ugly and abusive, and I couldn’t believe it was happening and was powerless to stop it.

Bryan Wizemann in Las Vegas, c. 1990.

Another friend in high school found herself working in a strip club. They were everywhere, and it was a quick way to make money. All she was allowed to wear was a belt and heels, and the deal was you danced with customers to try to lure them into the back champagne rooms, but only if they bought a (highly marked-up) bottle of champagne for entry. It wasn’t long before someone dated her, took over her life, and ushered her into prostitution. When I met him, he played cards at her kitchen table while she ran around the house naked and high, a handgun tucked into his belt. I could never quite glean the details of their relationship and how it became so abusive.

I later researched these relationships in articles and interviews and documentaries, and whatever else I could find. I was hoping to mine those stories to see how such relationships devolve. The sad fact is that the transition from a somewhat normal relationship to prostitution seems incredibly quick. One doc asked a woman why she was out on the street, and she said, “I don’t know, we were on drugs, we ran out of money, and my boyfriend now makes me do this.” All too matter of fact and all too heartbreaking. I never knew the term “coercive control” until I delved into this project. People do all kinds of things for love and sometimes withdraw that love to get what they want. I imagine these abusers confuse love with ownership and concern with micromanagement, all driven by deep insecurities that would only be enhanced when their control is questioned. I still don’t understand what in the human condition leads to this, but by dramatizing one specific fictional case, I was hoping to get closer to some understanding. I held onto these stories for almost 30 years before exploring them in the script for my current film, You Mean Everything to Me.

Bryan Wizemann in the Eldorado Casino in Las Vegas during the shooting of About Sunny in 2010.

Whenever I point folks toward a film I’ve made, I almost always feel like I have to apologize for it in advance. I know not everyone looks forward to a kind of realism that explores poverty, or addiction, or exploitation. I didn’t invent these things; they are aspects of life that have touched my own and that I can never seem to let go of. They are all tied back to Las Vegas in one way or another. If anything, film allows me to explore these obsessions and work through the aspects of the human condition mediums such as film often ignore. They are personal, to be sure, but I hope they resonate with others who have the same questions.

Featured image shows Ben Rosenfield and Morgan Saylor in Bryan Wizemann’s You Mean Everything To Me. All images courtesy Bryan Wizemann.

Bryan Wizemann is an independent writer, producer, director and editor of film based in Brooklyn, NY. You Mean Everything to Me, his fourth feature film, stars Morgan Saylor, Ben Rosenfield and Lindsay Burge and is out December 17 through Factory 25. He previously wrote and directed About Sunny, starring Lauren Ambrose, Dylan Baker, and Penelope Ann Miller, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead, and was distributed by Oscilloscope. His feature Losing Ground was adapted from his critically acclaimed New York stage play and features the original cast. It premiered at Cinequest with distribution by FilmBuff. His first film, the experimental 16mm feature Sense, starring Maria Dizzia, was programmed at the Johnson Museum of Art and the Angelika Film Centre. (Image by Jeff Vespa, used with permission.)