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.