Documentarian Douglas Tirola has had an incredibly diverse career in the film industry, dating back to 1989 as production assistant on When Harry Met Sally. In the decades since, Tirola’s career in numerous aspects of directing, writing, and producing studio and independent films have led him to found 4th Row Films, where he is currently making a series of documentaries on a range of topics, including the acclaimed Making the Boys, and the award-winning All In: The Poker Movie, which releases on iTunes today (April 24th) and Video On-Demand on May 1st. All In: The Poker Movie examines the recent poker renaissance in America, beginning with the movie Rounders and encapsulating the rise of online poker and celebrity poker player Chris Moneymaker, through the US government shutting down online poker on “Black Friday” in April of 2011. In it’s economical 98 minute running time, Tirola’s film examines the full breath of the history of poker in America as told by numerous experts including poker legend Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Rounders star Matt Damon, and sports writer and historian Bert Sugar. I recently had the pleasure of an in-depth chat with Tirola, in which he shared a great deal with me about making this exciting and informative documentary. Here’s what Tirola shared with me about his documentary career, what he learned about poker and the people most famous for playing it, and crafting All In: The Poker Movie.
Jackson Truax: What were your first experiences with poker? How did that lead to your interest in the game?
Douglas Tirola: I was taught poker by my grandparents, staying over there on Saturday nights growing up. They had the basic card table with the four legs that fold up and then you can put it behind your couch in a small apartment… I just always loved poker. I consider myself a poker player. But I really didn’t play poker on a regular basis, probably since high school… I liked the cinematic image of poker. I loved The Cincinnati Kid…The Sting, and House of Games… Then a few years ago poker came back into my life when I was hired by a Wall Street trader to film what was to be the biggest poker tournament in the history of New York City, at the Hammerstein Ballroom… He wanted a documentarian to do it, so I put together a shoot… That’s what got me exposure to the underground poker world. Then I ran into poker on TV, and World Series of Poker… I suddenly just thought it would be a great idea for a movie.
JT: How did you find your footing and niche, as a producer and director of documentaries?
DT: We started this [production company] 4th Row Films, and we were developing film and TV projects and having a little bit of success. We were approached about helping out with a documentary. We’d always thought about doing documentaries [and] an opportunity just presented itself. We were filming an event at Jay-Z’s 40/40 club in New York City…we got to meet a DJ named DJ Green Lantern. He was Eminem’s DJ. A couple months later, his manager/producer called me… We had a conversation…about doing film work. He said, “Are you still pursuing documentaries?” I [said], “We’re looking to make some good movies and documentaries.” The guy just said, “Come down to my office right now… There was guy there named DJ Scooby Doo. This guy, DJ Scooby Doo had a cousin in a prison in New Jersey, a really rough prison right in Newark… This cousin had snuck in a video camera… It was a place where they send gang members to be deprogrammed… Somehow, this guy had found this camera in there and shot some video. Basically, they were looking to do something with it. That led to us making the first film, which was called An Omar Broadway Film, which is based on these tapes… That movie was accepted into Tribecca and then ultimately bought by HBO during the festival.
JT: When you set out to make All In: The Poker Movie and decided to take the leap of faith inherent in making a documentary, how did you know you’d have the characters, story, scenes, and access that you would need to make a compelling film?
DT: Once we started to interview people, and saw what the world was like, and that the characters had something to say, there was a sense that there was a movie… From that first research, we realized, “Okay, here are the things that are coming up all the time.” We came up with the big idea of a tipping point story. This is the renaissance of poker, the re-birth, the poker boom… We would ask people, “Why do you think poker had this comeback?” How did it go from being something associated with old people playing in a community center and teenage boys who can’t get a date Saturday night playing in their basement, to something that’s on nine networks…and when [people] think about poker, they think about George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio having a poker game in the Hollywood Hills?… Now you can buy poker sets with the Yankees or Spongebob on them… How did it get so widespread?… We said, “Here’s the story that we’re trying to tell. Here’s the cast [that] we’re going to try and enlist to tell it…” The most important people are the non-poker people that help define the story. [Writer] Doris Kearns Goodwin, or [journalist] Frank Deford, [“This American Life” host] Ira Glass, [we were] certainly very lucky to get Matt Damon in there.
JT: Were people generally excited to talk to you? I would imagine it was easy with historians and journalists, but was it harder with poker players?
DT: I wouldn’t say it was easy to get Doris Kearns Goodwin or Frank Deford… In the movie, they both come off awesome. But neither of them are experts about poker. What you find when you ask a lot of people for interviews, is that people don’t want to sit in front of a camera when they might be revealed to not be an expert… She’s not an expert about poker. She knew about presidents and politics… She knew some things off the top of her head. But it was very clear she had gone and done research about presidents and politicians playing poker so she’d be prepared for this… We were able to ask her all these other questions about America and society and what people do as social activities, which is really a lot of why we wanted her in the movie… It took several phone calls and letters, and trying to make a case of why she’d be great in this. Same thing with Frank Deford. He said, “I don’t even like poker…” The poker people, there were some people that were difficult to get. Some were easier… There apparently have been a number of people that have tried to make poker documentaries that have either not come out…or someone made the movie, produced their own DVD, and would sell them at a poker tournament out of a booth or something like that. So a lot of the people [said] “I’ve done five of these. They never go anywhere. This one’s either not going to go anywhere, or it’s going to be bad…” There’s this whole other universe of poker media, that’s covering the world of poker on a day-to-day basis. So a lot of these guys are interviewed so much. But it’s not an interview the way a filmmaker would think of it. Someone’s walking out of a casino ballroom after a tournament, and they’re grabbed in the hallway with a flip-camera…and someone does a five-minute interview and they put it on their poker blog. And it’s about what sort of cards they just got in the tournament. So in a lot of cases, we’d have an interview with somebody, and five or ten minutes into the interview they’d say, “Wait. What’s this for again?” Because the questions were so much more philosophical [like] “Where does poker fit into society?” or “How did you get into this?” They just weren’t used to being asked that much… When that did happen, all these poker players were excited to talk about that. They were hungry to talk about poker from this more thoughtful perspective… About their lives in general…and how poker is perceived in society, and the growth of poker. So a lot of these interviews, where people would say, “I’ll give you ten minutes. I’ll give you fifteen minutes.” We had a 90-minute interview with Howard Lederer…a three-hour interview with Annie Duke… Eventually, word got out in the poker community about us… We would get some people [saying], “We heard from Daniel Negreanu that this was a good interview so we wanted to do it.”
JT: When you were doing research and conducting interviews, what did you see, hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
DT: I think what surprised me the most is…how risk-averse our society is at the moment. A lot of that might have to do with obviously the current economic situation in the country… The movie tries to talk about this, in the sense that sometimes it takes twenty failures to get to one success. Gambling is certainly one sort of risk. I’m not proposing someone put up their house to go make bets. But when you restrict people from taking risks in general, I think you begin to not move forward…as person or as a community or a society. We need to take risks. That’s how we move ahead… “I’m going to take six months off and go write a book.” That’s a risk. “I’m going to ask this woman out on a date.” That’s a risk… A lot of people think society should protect people from taking all risk, whether that’s gambling or anything else… Being inside the world…makes you confront a lot of those thoughts, and makes you realize that’s a lot of people’s perception of the world… In terms of the world of poker…how a number of these guys are trying to diversify…trying to do things with their brand as players, most of it within the world of poker, but not exclusively. But how they’re trying to make their career out of it… I was definitely surprised to see how many people are trying to make their career related to the game poker in some way, shape, or form… You have this whole community of people making money around the world of poker. I don’t think I realized how big the economy of poker was, until I got in the making of the film.
JT: With documentarians there’s always a discussion of “finding the film” and being open to where your subject takes you. How did All In: The Poker Movie evolve as you were filming it?
DT: We started like any other documentarians, “Let’s find a character and follow that character.” But the thought was very quickly…that if you watch ESPN or the other networks…they kind of already do that. You get to know the players a little bit as characters. Our thought was, “No one’s going to go to a movie theater to see what they can watch on TV.” So we [came] up with this thesis of, “How did poker have this renaissance?…” In each of these stories, there was a lot more to it than [we] knew… In poker, there’s this thing called the “Hole Cam” under the table. That’s what revolutionized poker for TV… So who invented that? This guy named Henry Orenstein. We find out he’s a toymaker. He invented the Transformers… We go to meet him. It turns out, he’s a Holocaust survivor, who’s written a book called “I Shall Live” about escaping Nazi-occupied Poland and [coming] to America… That’s something you’re not expecting… It’s incredibly interesting… That is a prime example of how you’re letting the movie find itself… These stories are coming to you and you’re making these decisions… We had a version of the movie with ten minutes of his Holocaust story in there. Because I just thought it was so compelling… You hear these stories that you just don’t think are going to be part of it, but they are. We learned that the people that ran PartyPoker, which was the biggest and most important site in the online poker boom in it’s initial rise, we found out the two owners of that company…within two years of starting that, they both made it to the Fortune 500 list. So that information became part of it. You come across information, or you come across good ideas. You come across people using poker or the subject to express ideas that you want to get out to the public, even though it might not be directly related to poker. But it is on a thematic level. But those come to you when you’re making the movie. Then it’s a tough choice of what you keep and what you [take] out.
JT: Your composer on All In: The Poker Movie was the incredibly talented Peitor Angell. How did you come to work with Peitor, and what was working with him like?
DT: Peitor Angell was great… I produced another movie that I’m extremely proud of called Making the Boys. The director of that movie was Crayton Robey. He was friends with Peitor [who] did a lot of the music for that movie. The experience was a positive one. So we hired him again… He was very receptive… He listened to ideas and had ideas… My feeling is that a director says, “This is what I’m thinking.” Sometimes that can mean, “Let’s listen to some specific music.” Sometimes that can mean, “This is what it means to me emotionally. This is what I’m seeing when I think about these scenes. This is how I see the movie overall.” Then you hope somebody comes back, in this case the composer, and brings you things that are what you wanted, and based upon what you’re saying your tastes are or what you want for this, they say, “How about these ideas?” That’s what you’re hoping when you’re putting your crew together for any movie, especially for a documentary, where every position is a key creative decision.
JT: For both great, longtime fans of playing and watching poker, as well as folks who may be unfamiliar with the game, why should these audiences seek out All In: The Poker Movie?
DT: For poker players who’ve played over the past ten years, whether they played the game before, or they just came to the game, I think that this movie is really their story… All these guys remember the first time they watched Rounders, the first time they saw the Hole Cam. Then getting into poker and saying “I’m going to go try and play online.” Then, like with the Chris Moneymaker story, “I’m going to go try and enter a tournament. I went further in a tournament then I thought I could.” Then beyond that, just seeing all these little cultural bits about poker that maybe they will be aware of, or in many cases…weren’t aware of… They walk away knowing more… Hopefully the movie gets them to think about poker in some different ways that they haven’t thought about. Or be a journey that’s familiar, but maybe told in a way that they haven’t heard before, or with some information maybe they haven’t heard. All that said…any movie we make is for moviegoers. Because maybe we make the movie about poker, but poker people don’t show up because they’re too busy playing poker… The movie is just an engaging movie. Whatever anybody’s criticisms might be about the movie, and there have luckily been not too many, “boring” has not been one of them. Even the few reviews that use the movie, really just to attack poker and gambling…they say, “But the Moneymaker story’s really inspiring. They way they unfold the history of poker is really engaging and fast-paced.” At the very least, it’s an entertaining movie.
Filed under: LiC Interview