A Q & A with Smokin’ Aces 2 director P.J. Pesce

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In 2006’s Smokin’ Aces, Jeremy Piven plays a drug addicted informant who is placed in the custody of a FBI agent (Ryan Reynolds) that must protect him from a gang of would-be assassins. Directed by Joe Carnahan (Narc), its over-the-top violence and pulp friction turned the film into a cult hit. Produced by Carnahan, its direct-to-DVD sequel, Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball, doesn’t have the same star power. But it retains the original’s obsession with dirt bag killers that like to show off their high-powered ammunitions. Director P.J. Pesce recently spoke about making the movie, which arrives in stores tomorrow in both Blu-ray and DVD editions.

When producer Joe Carnahan told you to do whatever you wanted with Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassin’s Ball, did you literally say, “Far fucking out”?
I think that is a precise quote. I was just doing another interview and explaining how I became involved in the project. I got a call to go meet with Joe and after a few misfires and going to a café that Joe didn’t show up at, he called me personally and said, “Why don’t you come up to my house.” I said, “That’s fine but you have to feed me.” He was totally agreeable and his then-girlfriend and now-fiancée had made a beautiful chicken and wine dinner. We had that and a couple of bourbons and a cigar and a 20-minute meeting turned into three hours. We found that we had similar backgrounds and I really believe that after that first meeting, he gave me so much support and trust that it inspired me to really push myself visually and in terms of the storytelling. I’m really proud of all the performances, too. It was great to have that support.

The first film was so outrageous. Did you set out to top it?
I don’t know if I wanted to top it. I just knew I had to keep it in the same tonal ballpark with the same amount of outrageousness but at its heart it had to be a pretty serious story. Like a graphic novel. There was this serious narrative underpinning but these crazy, outrageous characters. I was trying with whatever I could with one third of the budget and one third of the time.

Tom Berenger is great in the film.
I’m convinced it’s one of the best performances of his career. It’s such a different thing from everything else he’s done.

I didn’t even recognize him at first.
Most people don’t recognize him and then there’s a point when you see them jolt in their seats and hear them muttering, “That’s Tom Berenger.” I had worked with him in these prequels and sequels I’ve been doing for the last ten years. I did one of the Sniper chapters with him in Thailand in 2004. We spent two or three months there and really enjoyed working together. He read the script and really laughed out loud when one of the Tremor Brothers says he looks like the guy from Platoon. Joe wrote that line when we were in a hotel room in Vancouver rewriting the script.. We hadn’t even talked about Berenger yet. As soon as he came on set, we started looking at costumes and make-up and I thought, “Dick Cheney.” I got the exact same glasses that Cheney wears and had him comb his hair back.

Did you try to get the cast from the original to return?
We wound up getting three or four of the original cast. The difficulty is that direct-to-DVD movies are this ghetto. People look down on them. Agents will have actors who flat out don’t do them. The Directors Guild refuses to hold them up for any awards. If it were a cable movie, it would have a separate category. We’re the red-headed step child. Though they’ve made so much money, they help to support the studios. It’s unfair. And then you get these online, pimple-popping bloggers who are just like, “Those movies all suck and anyone who directs them must be crap.” What are you going to do?

The movie is not just one long shoot out. There’s a subtext about covert American activities. Why was that part of the plot important to you?
That’s the thing that Joe was interested in. When I first met with Joe and the studio, I wanted to clarify that stuff. The first film was very dense and I just wanted to make the narrative clear and make the politics clear. It was very interesting. We posited that this guy was an amateur magician who could appear to disappear. That’s the only way it would work. Then, we backwards engineered the stuff that was already there that he had created these connections to some of the most famous crimes of the last decade. He was part of this neo-conservative, ultra-right wing group that was creating this in order to further their own political aims. The thing that was so surprising is that as we’re finishing the movie, I read in the New York Times that Seymour Hersh reveals in his book that Dick Cheney was creating these secret hit squads for the CIA that could go into countries and assassinate people and executive whoever they decided without any legal oversight. Some fool could say the guy who lives next door is Al Qaeda and a drone goes in there and blows him and his family up. Then, you find out later the guy wasn’t Al Qaeda. He was just fucking the guy’s wife and so he wanted to have the United States help him assassinate the guy. The Dick Cheneys of the world think “collateral damage.” That’s the basis of the political underpinnings of the movie. It wound up coming true as we were finishing the movie. That was the thing that was astonishing to me. I originally had a final end crawl that named Dick Cheney and said Seymour Hersh was essentially doing the same thing [that Berenger’s character did in the movie]. The studio flipped out and the legal department was jumping up and down. They said they have a lot of distributors in the red states so we had to change it.

You did keep a Seymour quote of some sort.
Yes. And anyone who’s politically aware knows what that refers to.

On the DVD’s extra commentary, you and Joe Carnahan say you’ve had a few drinks. Were you just joking or was that really the case?
I haven’t heard the commentary yet. I remember the next day asking if they wanted us to do it again because we got pretty hammered. I am a cocktail buff. I like digging up old manuals. I got Joe turned on to drinking perfect Manhattans. One time when we went out, he said, “What are you doing ordering that girls’ drink?” I said,” Girls’ drink, motherfucker! That happens to be the drink that Sinatra had. If you are a careful viewer of The Hustler, you’ll see it’s Fast Eddie Felson’s drink, too. So in your face, bitch.” He has now become a perfect Manhattan drinker. While we were doing the commentary, I mixed up a couple of cocktail shakers full. We were well oiled by the time it was done.

Oiled enough to come up with a concept for a Smokin’ Aces 3?
Well, actually, we have discussed that. Everything from sending Vinnie Jones and Martha Higareda’s characters to Eruope. I recently got my European union passport. I want to take advantage of that and go shoot in Paris or something.

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