March 26, 2015

Blending Fiction and Doc in the Undercover Casino Production of 'Las Vegas Story'

Does the progress towards cameras being smaller and less conspicuous give narrative films more freedom to get closer to reality?

After befriending Christina Bocanegra at a nightclub in Las Vegas years ago, Byron Q created a script with a lead based on her experiences as an escort in the underbelly of the city. Instead of finding an actress to play the role and stage the Vegas Strip setting, Byron decided to cast Christina and film in secret throughout the casinos of Las Vegas. No Film School sat down with Byron to get an inside scoop on filming undercover in the hybrid fiction-reality film, Las Vegas Story.

NFS: Why did you decide to work with Christina Bocanegra and have her play a version of herself in a fiction film?

Byron Q: Originally we wanted to cast all actors in the film, but through the casting process we didn’t really find anyone that could play her part. Then the problem of casting the entire family of 4 kids to match with the lead actress -- it just seemed like a difficult process, and more importantly, and expensive one. I had met her family during my trips to Vegas, and I was really drawn to the dynamics and chemistry between her and her kids, and believed that it would be near impossible to recreate it through actors.  I had worked with non-professional actors in the same way on my first film Bang Bang, which was about Asian gangs, so I thought I would try it again.

NFS: What challenges come up when working in this vein of hybrid reality?

BQ: The biggest challenge is bringing out performances from the non-professional actors, while also balancing it with those of the real actors. Also, because of the sensitive subject matter, the mood and vibe on set needs to be right. It helped that our crew all stayed in a rental house and essentially we just lived like a family. On our days off, Christina would bring the kids over and we’d BBQ and go swimming. This made everyone comfortable with each other when it came time to shoot.

NFS: As a director, what is important with this relationship to make sure you don’t exploit someone playing a version of themselves?

BQ: It’s important to have trust, and for communication of what our intentions are, and to keep the bigger picture in mind. Also, as with any relationship, you have to build it. We became good friends over many years, so she trusted me to tell a truthful story.

NFS: How did you film in Las Vegas casinos? Did you have permission?

BQ: We couldn’t get permission. We literally called up every casino and they all turned us down before even any discussion of money. They just don’t want to deal with it unless your filming Hangover 2. I was inspired by that Sundance film Escape from Tomorrow where they secretly filmed inside Disneyland. I decided to do it in the casinos in the same way. 

NFS: Logistically, what was production like? What cameras did you have to use to stay hidden from the casino?

BQ: It was nerve wracking, and almost like some undercover secret agent stuff. We used Canon 5D Mark III’s for the interior casino stuff. We scouted extensively, and made sure we chose places to film where the lighting was already lit. Being in Vegas, it wasn’t too hard to find these spots. Then we had to go undercover, everyone dressed like they’re ready to party. (We should win best-dressed indie film crew, if there’s such an award.) Buy a couple drinks, tip your bartender, do a few whoops and hollers at passing people, blend in. It was funny because we would tell our crew to go away so as to not draw too much attention, so it was just me, my DP, and the AD most of the time. Our 1st AC Benny wandered off to the craps table while we were filming, and walked back with an extra $300. We also had a car chase sequence filmed on the Las Vegas Strip, which ended in a small crash. But that’s another story…

NFS: How about recording sound?

BQ: Eric, our sound mixer, would just chill nearby with his equipment, pretending he’s all alone. He was the one person we thought looked the most suspect, because he had headphones on, and wires running out of his backpack. Security looks for people like that who could be helping to cheat at the tables. We always told Eric to stay the hell away from us! Of course all the sound recorded in the casinos were only used as a guide track. In post we ADR’d all the scenes inside the casinos.

NFS: At any point, did you get caught? How were you able to deal with that? 

BQ: Surprisingly, we didn’t really get caught. The security inside was definitely on to us, we were being watched, but they couldn’t really figure out what we were doing. They thought we were just goofing around taking photos of each other. Once when we were filming in the casino parking garages, we got a little too comfortable. We had cables running across the lot, tapping into their power outlets, makeup and wardrobe had their chairs laid out in full activity -- I mean it was ridiculous, but these two security guys rode up on bikes and were like, "Uh -- what are you guys doing?” And my AD says, “We’re filming a movie.” Then they told us we can’t do that here, but if we go to the top of Bellagio’s parking garage, there’s a great view from there.

NFS: What’s the philosophy behind shooting this way?

BQ: My philosophy is you have to have balls and careful planning. You’ll be surprised with what you can get away with. We even filmed a scene at a blackjack table. I see it as something that is subversive, like street art. You’re doing something you’re not suppose to, but its like going against the system and taking back a little something.

NFS: What do you see as the importance of the hybrid documentary narrative genre? Where do you see this area of filmmaking going in the future?

BQ: I think it’s a really interesting way to make films, because of the blurring of reality and fiction. But more so, is the idea behind it. Not only are you seeing a performance, but you are witnessing the experience of someone who is going through a personal reflection and transformation. I think it just adds another layer to the complexity of a film. I think there will be a lot more of these kinds of films in the future, and each with varying degrees and approaches to it. With the way digital cameras are -- the size of the cameras -- it’s easy to hide them and film in live places.


Thank you, Byron!

If you'd like to watch Las Vegas Story for yourself, it's streaming on Reelhouse here.

Have you had experience filming in live locations with real people? If you have any tips, please share.     

Your Comment

18 Comments

That 1stAC is a friend of mine. Benny. Good to see he's doing quality work. The vibe of this film looks great!

March 26, 2015 at 10:19AM

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Caleb Price
Director
368

Thanks Caleb! Yeah Benny is the man!! great on the camera and fun to shoot craps with thats for sure

March 26, 2015 at 3:04PM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

I think the trailer needs a remix of the sound and music unless my system is off. Voices are lost against music.

March 26, 2015 at 10:42AM, Edited March 26, 10:42AM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1719

Yeah? Possibly, I made the trailer on my own, and I'm not much of a sound mixer

March 26, 2015 at 3:03PM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

What was the budget? How do you plan on making the money back?

March 26, 2015 at 9:23PM

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Caleb Price
Director
368

budget was under 100k. We've been shoppin it around to diff distributors and taking it to market, so far all the offers have been crap with very low MG. Sometimes u gotta take a loss, and look towards the next project. Sad but the truth, but we'll see how things pan out

March 27, 2015 at 10:53AM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

Agreed. The voices are very quiet.

March 26, 2015 at 3:35PM

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Looks good! The parking garage scene at 1:03 and the shot right after instantly made me think of Drive's trailer.

March 26, 2015 at 3:35PM, Edited March 26, 3:35PM

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yeah stylistically the film is very much inspired by drive

March 27, 2015 at 10:54AM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

Looks great for the most part. Some shots look cheap and hurt the trailer but I'm interested in watching this.

March 27, 2015 at 1:17AM, Edited March 27, 1:17AM

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Vincent Gortho
none
656

thanks vincent! Yeah you mean the shot of him at the blackjack table right?

March 27, 2015 at 10:57AM, Edited March 27, 10:57AM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

Yes. I don't intend to be reductive about the project. It looks great and I follow a lot of films that have a doc feel- run and gun. I'm looking forward to your project to gauge how I want to do mine.

March 27, 2015 at 10:19PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
656

it's streaming on reelhouse.org if u wanna check it out. Feel free to hit me up with any questions, always good to help other filmmakers!

March 28, 2015 at 11:39AM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

Awesome article. Would love to read more about your making of this movie.

March 27, 2015 at 11:51PM

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thanks drew! there's some behind the scenes videos on my youtube channel but that's about it. http://www.youtube.com/beyondcinema

March 28, 2015 at 11:40AM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

Just curious, what is the deal with getting releases and things like that if you're sneaking locations? Let's say the movie turns out to be a hit, and gets bought and makes a bit of money. Is it within the casino's rights to come after you for using their locations without permission?

Even if you're careful with signage and obvious location tells, are you liable to get sued for something like that?

March 28, 2015 at 12:08AM

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Anthony Chen
Cameraman
81

With most locations no one will come after you b/c in order to come after you and sue you, they have to spend money to hire lawyers and take you to court, and if you're an indie filmmaker, you have no money for them to sue you for, so its really not worth their time. If the movie is a hit, before the distribution company picks it up, either they or you will need to get E&O insurance which will cover something like the casinos coming after them. It could make your insurance fee higher, but that's probly all. You also gotta think of it this way, is it even worth their time to come after you? Unless you made a film that defamed the venue and is destroying their brand and image in a significant way, its not worth their time. And by coming after you, they could make it into a PR disaster that will blow up in their face if it gets out to the press outlets.

April 6, 2015 at 12:47PM

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Byron Q
Writer/Director
186

I think casinos in Vegas are very cool. I can not allow myself to go there, because I live elsewhere. I have to play here https://mr.bet/no/casino/type/table in the casino. This is also great. I love gambling since childhood. I have a great game experience. I always play a cold goal. This is my main rule.

July 28, 2018 at 11:21AM, Edited July 28, 11:21AM

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