Right at the turn of the Millenium, the director Amir Naderi came to me buzzing with a story he'd heard on a photo shoot outside Las Vegas. A family had been led to believe their home harbored some hidden loot. Searching for it, they slowly destroyed their own home and with it their family. We got to work developing the idea for a film, having no clue that, 9 years later, it would end up oddly prophetic.
Vegas: Based On A True Story, currently in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of a blue-collar family on the outskirts of Vegas, holding its fragile life together by a thread, staving off the temptations of The Strip. While Tracy Parker (Nancy La Scala) tends a small garden in the desert, the casino skyline of the city winks insistently behind her. Her husband Eddie (Mark Greenfield) manages to limit himself to small-time bets behind her back, but it's clear that his restraint is about to make him pop. Enter Brian (Walt Turner), an elusive stranger who convinces the family that their house is worth more than they think. That's exactly what he says, "Your house is worth more than you think, Eddie." And then he hands him some cash and says, "This is just a down payment... Do the smart thing!"
Brian is the sub-prime guy.
Yes, the details of promises and lies he lays out in front of the home-owning family are different from what we heard from lenders in the mortgage crisis, but the parallel is clear. Brian plays the ponzi game, betting on other people's lives with other people's money. An outside manipulator dangling the promise of easy money in front of those who need it most. And those who need it most, end up homeless and destroyed.
When the shoot wrapped two years ago this week, when Amir finished editing the film a year ago, when we showed it last summer at the Venice Film Festival, we hadn't heard of the recession, or the mortgage crisis, we had not experienced the job losses, or had any inkling of the bad-debt and ponzi schemes that ran like fault lines under the whole luxury boom, under the whole economy as it turned out. We'd never heard of Bernie Madoff. We thought Fannie Mae was a cabaret act in the east village.
Since then -- well, you know the story. So the film is being seen very differently now than it was last summer, right before the crash.
Despite the arid realism of the location and acting, the film is being called a 'parable' by many, including Stephen Holden of the New York Times. As a director, both in Iran and the US, Amir has had an uncanny knack for fusing realism with fable-like story-telling. He has an intuitive feel for the understructure of society, of the desires and contradictions on which it rests. He knew that the glitter of The Strip in the backdrop, behind the desolate desert and the tight, hard lives of the Parker family, carried a lot more weight and meaning than we could assign it at the time.
In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, David Kamp wrote that the American Dream had turned into the dream of fast money and fame, in part because money is a fetish that has come to stand in for accomplishment. This is not just the ethos of blue-collar gamblers or small-time home-owners all too ready to take on a sub-prime mortgage. It was a whole culture, neatly summarized by all the reality TV shows, human beings manipulated, and manipulating, for a few minutes of fame and the promise -- only the promise -- of cash. It became the ethos of so many deals, so much of Wall Street -- betting on anything that could be bet on. And for a while it looked like there could be no losing bet.
One of the investors in the film happens to be a hedge fund manager, with a sense of irony about his own field. I showed him an early cut to raise post-production money and when the family began to dig for the treasure in their grounds, he turned to his partner and said, "This is just like our job, except we don't use shovels."
Apparently, the real person who told Amir the story of his family ended up a drifter in the deserts of New Mexico. That's what we all are now, drifting from news flash to news flash, bail out to state-sponsored bail out, sorting through our illusions, hoping that in this new era we will be able to move away from the mirage and go back to the dream.