A Talk With Gil Cates, Jr.
No Crying Over A Bad Hand

If you hear the name “Gil Cates” and think it sounds familiar, it’s probably because Gil Cates, Sr. has produced the Academy Awards umpteen times over the last couple of decades.  He was also the dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television from 1990 to 1997, and is the Artistic Director of UCLA’s Geffen Playhouse.  He’s the uncle of actress Phoebe Cates… and he’s the father of director Gil Cates, Jr.

Cates, Jr. has been producing and directing his own films for nearly a decade now, and his latest film—Deal, set in the world of high-stakes televised poker and co-starring Hollywood legends Burt Reynolds and Charles Durning—was just released on DVD this week after a disappointing limited release in theaters earlier this year.

Courtesy of a national publicist, I had the chance to talk with Cates, Jr. over the phone for fifteen minutes.

Gil Cates, Jr., director of Deal and The Chaos TheoryTo start with—and I really hate to bring this kind of thing up with filmmakers—it had to be pretty disappointing that your per-screen average for the limited release of the film was as low as it was.

Gil Cates, Jr.: Yes, of course it was—and of course we all wanted it to do better.  The movie was, as you know, released on only fifty or fifty-one screens; but with the marketing budget that MGM had, they actually did a really good job.  I think part of what hurt the movie a little bit was the date of the release being pushed.  We wrote the script, shot it, and finished it before Lucky You and The Grand and these other movies were released; but we ended up coming out after them—and that’s just the way it happens sometimes.  But I don’t think that helped.  When we wrote the script, there were no other poker movies out there; that’s why we wrote it.  We were like, “Hey, let’s write a really smart Texas Hold ’Em movie!  There hasn’t been one since Rounders.”  And by the time we came out, there were like three movies, and poker had just exploded.  In the last James Bond movie, even, they changed the game he plays from baccarat to Hold ’Em. I think if we had come out a year earlier—if the entertainment gods had let it happen that way—I think Deal would have done a little bit better.  But there’s a combination of things: that and some press issues, some people’s availability.  You know, it is what it is.  The movie came out there, people were aware of it.  So hopefully, it’s got life on DVD and cable.  You can’t control those things; all you can do is make the best movie you can and hope it goes well. So, yes it was disappointing, but I don’t really obsess about those things too much because, you know: on to the next.

Well, it’s also an issue of managing expectations on both ends, isn’t it? 

GC: Absolutely.

With audience expectations and your expectations, with the budget and the size of the project.  I mean, clearly we’re not talking The Dark Knight here.

GC: No, no, no.  Absolutely not. The Dark Knight opened on four thousand something screens with a budget of a hundred and whatever million, and we opened on fifty and had a budget of five.  So…

Yeah.  And when it comes to DVD releases, if I’m representative of anybody, expectations are a little bit different for a DVD release than for a theatrical release. 

GC: Definitely.  And a lot of times, the theatrical release will help the DVD release.  There is an awareness about the film, and I think we’ve got as many legitimate poker players in our movie as in any other poker movie that came out; we have the World Poker Tour involvement, too, so we didn’t have to make up a championship game.  We are the only movie the World Poker Tour has ever associated with, so we have things going for us—and hopefully the film will have a life on DVD as it moves on.

Well, I’m a very, very, very small-time poker player, and with past movies have been very frustrated with the actual play of the game.  So on that score, I was very pleased with how the games were played in Deal.  I remember in particular watching Maverick, and just being aghast at how the games were portrayed.

GC: Yes, exactly.  And I think today the game is so much better because when Maverick was made they didn’t have “hole cams” and the things that now make the game so interesting to watch. 

Are you a poker player yourself?

GC: I am.  I’m not a hard-core poker player, but I love the game of Texas Hold ’Em, and that’s where my buddy Mark Weinstock and I came from when we wrote the script—we played a lot of home games, and would occasionally go to the casino to play.  I do play, but I’m not the crazy-obsessed every-day online person.

I thought it was interesting that Alex’s tendency early on in the film is to always want to try to draw to the inside straight flush.  That’s so much like my own tendencies when I play—I’m always hoping for the long shot, because I figure, “One of these days, somebody’s got to hit one of those!”

GC: Right. Well, I think the idea is that, to start the movie, he definitely has a combination of luck and he’s also good with numbers and calculating odds.  But at the end of the day—which is kind of the metaphor of the movie—it’s not the cards you’re dealt, it’s about how you play them… and about knowing your opponent and knowing yourself.  It’s a metaphor for life.

Well, is that also a metaphor for your feelings about filmmaking at all?

GC: Toward my feelings about life!  Toward relationships, everything. I feel like everybody is dealt a certain hand, so to speak, and it’s up to you how you want to play it.  You can’t just look down and go, “I’ve got an Ace-King, so I’m definitely going to do this,” or “I’ve got a Two-Seven, the worst starting hand in poker; I’m definitely going to fold.”  There might be an opportunity, or a reason— You know, Joe Hachem won the 2005 World Series of Poker with a Three-Seven, and then a Four-Five-Six came on the board.  (I only know that because I’m doing a documentary about Joe right now.  I may have known that anyway, but now only more so.)  But you just don’t know.  It’s all circumstantial.  So that is kind of the way that I like to live life.

So, then, what is next in the cards for you?

GC: Well, I’m in post-production right now on a poker documentary called Pass the Sugar, which is about Joe Hachem and the 2005 World Series of Poker final table—which is a really interesting year, with a lot of really interesting people.  And I produced a film called The Chaos Theory—with Milo Ventimiglia from Heroes, Rhys Coiro from Entourage, Mimi Rogers, and Samantha Mathis.  And that is in post-production—the first time I ever produced a film that I did not direct.  I produced it with Caitlin Murney, who I’m also working with on the poker documentary.  I also have a romantic comedy and a dark romantic comedy that have both been optioned, and hopefully one of them is going to shoot this fall—a film called Lucky.  And then another film that has been optioned by a very good producer who is working on the cast right now.  I don’t like to jinx these things, but yeah—I’ve got a lot going on.

Well, your father has had quite an extensive and amazing career—obviously, you had to have grown up around the business.  Was making films something you always wanted to do?

GC: Definitely.  Most people know my dad now for other things—for producing the Academy Awards shows, or being involved with The Director’s Guild, or running the Geffen Playhouse out here in Los Angeles.  But when I grew up, he was making movies.  So I grew up on sets, in editing rooms, on sound stages, and watching composers making scores happen—so that was my environment, that’s where I felt most comfortable.  So yeah; when I grew up, I was making Super-8 movies with my friends when I was thirteen years old.  I think the first movie we made was called Dis-Celibate Man, about a super-hero who de-celibatizes women… very exciting… followed by The New England Hardware Massacre, one of our horror titles.  So I always enjoyed making films, and this is where I felt most comfortable—being around creative people, and working toward kind of a unified goal.

Well, there’s kind of an interesting father-son subplot to Deal, where the son doesn’t want to follow in his father’s line of work, and the father doesn’t approve of what the son has chosen to do.  Was that part of the appeal of the project, also, being able to explore father-son relationships and choices?

GC: Not because of my own experience.  I’m really close with my dad—he’s one of my best friends.  I love him.  So it wasn’t really that.  In the movie, it’s about how someone who’s older thinks he’s set one way, and someone who’s younger thinks he knows it all.  And it’s about how they help each other.  I guess maybe subconsciously, there was some of that in there, but in no way the sense that I was basing this on my relationship with my dad. Dad’s great, and has been a great father, friend, and mentor for me.  No doubt about that.

In a book called Wide Angle: Interviews With Directors, by Jack Rothman, your father talks about the business and says, “We live in a society of unbridled greed, and the studios are a big part of that.  Huge conglomerates control film studios, which are only a small part of the corporate empire, and the bottom line is central to their thinking.”  What is your perspective on the studio system as it stands today, and your aspirations as a filmmaker working within a system that controls everything from production to distribution?

GC: Well, I think it’s a blessing and a curse.  Most of the films that I have made have been made “independently,” and the distributor comes on after—as was the case with Deal.  Seven Arts Pictures financed the movie, and then MGM came on and distributed it.  And now MGM and Fox for home video.  But it’s one of those things where it’s great, creatively, not to have a studio involved because you can do kind of what you want to do with the cast, and go through the whole process.  But on the other hand, help from the studios is kind of what we strive for; a few of the films we’re working on now, I want them to be $20 to $25 million budgets with more time to shoot and know that our movies are going to open on 3000 screens.  You kind of need that, commercially.  So in a dream world, you can make your movie the way you want to make it, and then have a distributor come on and spent $10, $20, or $30 million advertising it, and on P&A and stuff. It’s really complicated, because some of the movies being released now are not as good as movies once were; but at the same time, you need the studios because they’re the ones who have the biggest outlets to hit all the places you need to in order to get your movie seen.

Right. Obviously, the objective is, when you make a film, to get in front of people—and you have to go through companies who actually connect movies with people.

GC: 100%.  And there’s no doubt that there are movies that are made now—and we both know this—just to make money.  They’re just about getting people there on opening weekend in order to make a certain amount of money; but they’re not necessarily crafted the way that they used to be. 

Right.  Aiming for the ROI, and that’s about it.

GC: Yep.

Yeah.  Well, another thing that your father said in that same interview was about filmmaking.  He says it’s “a unique, engrossing, and fulfilling experience.  It’s a narcotic.  Anybody who does it once, willingly, never wants to stop.”  I have to imagine that probably expresses your own feeling about directing, as well.

GC: Definitely.  There’s so much work that goes into movies getting made from the beginning to the end.  It might take you two and a half years; and of that, you’re on set for maybe two months, and then into post-production for eight months or a year.  Once you get to the point where you’re making that movie, it’s the best feeling in the world.  There are, of course, crazy days, long days, tiring days, exhausting days, challenging days—but ultimately, when you’re sitting there in the editing room with the editor and you’re able to put together scenes and make them better than you ever imagined, it’s an interesting thing.  I don’t know what else in life is like that.  When you build a building, I don’t know if you’ve got that kind of spontaneity, where you can start building but go, “Yeah—but you know what, if we remove this and remove this, we’ll actually make the floor bigger!”  But with a movie, you can say, “If we take away this line, and move it over here, you can actually change the story and make something better!”  And that’s the best feeling to me.

So, the last question for you—

GC: Can’t be any worse than the first question!

Oh, my wife liked that comeback!  Anyway, given that you invest two and a half years of your life in making a film—and considering all the difficulties involved—how does it feel reading what critics have to say, given that they invest, at max, maybe three hours watching and thinking about your film?

GC: Every film is different, and it’s about managing expectations, as we talked about earlier.  But I suppose that if you a made a film that you thought was going to affect millions of people and change their lives—and every critic in the world smashed it, I suppose there could be some weird Ego involved.  But with Deal, we wanted to make a good, fun, poker movie.  And I think that’s what we did.  But if critics want to talk about the poker movies that came out before ours, well, I know what really happened and the hand we were dealt; and if they want to talk about the actors involved—it doesn’t affect me.  Maybe it should affect me more.  I don’t know. But just make sure you spell my name right!

Well, we’ll be sure to get that part right for you.  Thanks for your time, Gil!

GC: Sure thing.  And tell your wife to have a good weekend!

Be sure to also read Greg’s review of Deal.