More than one movie has been made about poker, few are accurate, with most scripted for entertainment value, such as the scene in Maverick when the perfect card falls to make a miraculous Royal Flush. Rarely has poker been depicted as it actually is – until now.
The documentary “All In: The Poker Movie" was written and produced by Doug Tirola and depicts the true, gritty world of poker and those who play the game. I was given the opportunity to view All In: The Poker Movie and interview Doug to explore the story behind this movie.
LG: What prompted you to do the documentary on poker?
Doug: I have always had a love of poker from when I played with grandparents, but over the years I had stopped playing on a regular basis. However, a few years ago a number of things happened including being hired to film New York City’s largest poker tournament for a Wall Street trader named Richard Anthony, this and seeing how much poker was on TV, started the journey to making this film.
LG: Do you play poker, if so, what/when/where?
Doug: I don’t really play as much as I would like to, though, as you can imagine, I have been asked to join a number of games recently since the film is becoming better known. Maybe something in the film gives away my potential tells. There is a weekly tournament down the street from where I live and now that the film is over, I am going to try and start going. I didn’t want to get too caught up in playing while we were filming.
When making the film I had a poker teacher come in and teach everyone working on the film to play Texas Hold'em. No one had ever played Hold'em, however, I think this distance is one of the reasons the film came out so well.
LG: Did you consider Andy Beal VS the Corporation for your documentary or contacting Michael Craig, the author of The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King?
Doug: I would love to have met him but once the film really became the story of how poker boomed and came back into the mainstream of American culture, we felt that we had to focus on characters and stories that told our story. "The Corporation" story really could be its own story - maybe even a scripted movie.
LG: What was your guide to the choices of people you filmed - the pros and establishments? How did you find them?
Doug: I am a big believer in research. Reading, watching, and talking to everyone you can. Some people are obvious - Phil Hellmuth, Chris Moneymaker, Chris Ferguson. But a lot of people in our film came from interviewing other people. I think some of the people that I am proudest to have in the film are the people who might not be obvious to someone else making a film about poker. Nolan Dalla, Mori Eskandani, James McManus, Eric Drache, Haig Kelegian, Shane McCullough from the Amateur Poker League, Johnnie Marinacci and Mike Scelza, and then people like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Frank Deford who people within poker might not consider.
Ultimately we are trying to tell a story and you hope to cast the people who will best tell the story of poker. I felt strongly that we shouldn't have a narrator and that we needed to see and hear from a lot of people. The poker community is big and diverse and we needed to show that.
LG: How long did it take you to put All In together in terms of starting the entire project, from writing, filming the movie
Doug: It took over four years to make. During which time we made three other films including two that were NY Times critics’ picks and one for HBO. The time allowed us to travel to 12 states, attend the WSOP three times and a number of other casinos and tournaments that you can't do if, just say, we're going to Vegas a few times. It also allowed us to visit and talk to characters more than once which makes the film more of a story.
LG: How did you find the home game with the guy that packed a gun? I read a small amount of information on that somewhere on the Internet but can't remember where. Did you feel threatened at all in that shoot or did his role come across more as an image for his hosting the game and being in control of the game?
Doug: I went to college in Ohio and knew about the history of poker and gambling around Cincinnati and Covington Kentucky and the Ohio River. So Ohio was always an area I wanted to film. We centered the trip around going to the US Playing Card Company which is based in that area and then just started doing research. We found a company called Rat Pack Ohio and the people that run that company told us about the game. I think the camera was nervous. After that point I was just more excited because the entire game and location really represented so many things about poker. On one level it was a home game with some regulars who obviously played with each other and had become friends. On the other hand it was a game where anyone could walk in the door and they were playing for a good amount of money and the host took his responsibility of keeping the players and their money safe very seriously. We cut back to that game often during the film and the emotions and energy in that basement comes across - it was both fun and serious - I don't think the host was playing for the camera.
LG: It is interesting that you ran the entire picture of poker, using historians, the making of cards, the Wild West and the evolution of the game to what it is now. Were there any deciding factors on those elements being included or did you immediately know they would be a key part of the movie when you considered doing it?
Doug: I think for better or worse the large canvas we created for poker in our film encompasses a lot of my own personal interests. I think history adds importance to almost everything - I wanted to show as much of pokers’ history without it feeling like a history lesson - I wanted it to be the sort of history people would say ‘I can't believe I didn't know that’ or in general be reminded of how much poker has been in our culture and pop culture for years. A lot of what is in the film is because I just found it interesting but more importantly I was constantly asking poker players what should we be looking for, what would you want to see in a film about poker? After all, the story belongs to poker players and after they see the movie I hope they say - that's my story - that's explains why I love poker - how I got into the game.
LG: Do you feel that Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson's appearance and statements in the movie may not make it as appealing - or just the reverse, since the Full Tilt saga continues to roll on?
Doug: I think seeing Howard and Chris in the film discussing the topics and expressing their views on poker and the struggle between government and the industry will be illuminating though I am sure it’s also upsetting to many people who watch the film. However since we believe each of their interviews, which were about 90 minutes long, were the last in depth interviews with them before Black Friday, it would be irresponsible not to include them in our film. We will include the rest of their interviews as a DVD extra when the film comes out on DVD.
LG: How difficult was it to make a quick change ending with the Black Friday events or had this already happened when writing and filming the movie started? I have the feeling the movie was well underway when Black Friday hit, hence the question.
Doug: After Black Friday it took about a week for us to decide our schedule would have to change and that we needed to include it in the film.
LG: Was there any casino influence on your writing/filming; I am questioning mainly the funding, but any other influences from people in authority that would want online poker to be legalized?
Doug: No one from the poker industry, casinos, or poker community was involved in the financing of the film or the editorial and creative decisions of the film, nor any lobbying group for or against poker. I think people are initially surprised to hear that until they watch the film. There is no agenda to the film other than to tell an entertaining story and hopefully get the essence of poker across on screen. Some people inside of poker are surprised to hear that because of the access and people we got on behalf of the film. But if any company or entity was represented, that would have changed the film and given it an agenda that might have prohibited the inclusion of others. If there is any agenda or expression of beliefs in the film, it is maybe some deeper themes and philosophies I like to talk about and are no different than what I would express over a drink talking about any subject, not just poker.
LG: Were you aware of the degenerate world that poker presents before you started this documentary – like all of the pros saying they are broke or have gone busted numerous times.
Doug: I am aware, as I hope most people are that gambling, like many other activities can be dangerous and that part of poker’s history and certainly history on film and TV shows that darker side of poker players. However, the reason we included "the broke" section in the film was to show that, obviously for pros, this is part of the journey and the way the players talk and almost laugh at their own expense about being broke. It shows that in their cases they have not given up on life and almost like an athlete, they can come back from defeat. I know that for some this is a controversial message, but for me it is like a baseball player saying we have a game tomorrow and can come back from this. However I also think it is the job of parents to teach their kids about gambling, just as it is about drinking and other activities that need to be done responsibly. There was just a big lottery, half a billion dollars or something, I have never played the lottery - that is a much more dangerous activity than a weekly poker game.
LG: What are you working on now or doing next?
Doug: I am working on two films, one about bartenders and another about National Lampoon. ALL IN - THE POKER MOVIE is playing in theaters around the country including New York, Chicago, and LA but I hope that people who are not able to make it to the theater will watch the film when it comes out on ITUNES and VOD when it becomes available on Tuesday April 24th or order the DVD which will come our around the start of the WSOP.
LG: On my own personal note, having been in the business for years, I have dealt to or been associated with almost everyone in the film that is featured as a player, including some of the dealers. I’ve tried to think out how the movie would present poker to me if I weren’t watching from an insider’s view and in conclusion I believe you did a great job of putting together one of the most insane trips a person will ever experience when they take a ride through the world of poker.
Doug: THANK YOU SO MUCH for this kind note - I really appreciate it - especially from you - and thanks for helping our film get out to the poker world and world in general - if you are going to be in Vegas for the WSOP- I might go. It would be great to meet you - thanks again!
I would like to thank Doug for taking the time to answer my questions about what went into the making of his new poker documentary All In: The Poker Movie. I also interviewed Chris Moneymaker about his role in the movie which will be published soon.