16Sep2013

Place your bets on how well we hustled the US

They’d come up with ways to outrun a racehorse on foot, shoot a hole through a silver dollar, or throw walnuts over impossibly tall buildings. We quickly found out that some of the most famous stories were either tall tales or downright impossible.

Every book about Thompson states that he was able to throw a hotel room key across a room straight into the keyhole. We thought this would make a great bet in the show, until we tried it. We failed miserably.

We met Thompson’s son, Tommy Thomas, a former card cheat-turned-preacher, who said the tale was complete nonsense. What really happened was that Titanic once threw a key into the pigeonholes behind a hotel reception desk.

Over the years the pigeonhole became a tiny keyhole. That’s how legends are made. Spending time visiting the US prior to filming was crucial; there’s only so much setting up you can do over the phone.

Many of the bets relied on knowing specifics: the height of a building that we wanted to throw a playing card over, or the timing of a rickety hotel elevator that Alex was planning to outrun on the stairs.

It was money well spent. We were able to work to a tight filming schedule when we returned with the full crew. Of course, that didn’t mean that all the bets went exactly as planned. Some went horribly wrong for Alex, as you can see in the finished shows.

The recce also helped us find the most important element for any bet. A hustler would call them the sucker, mark or victim. I believe in the television business that ‘contributor’ is the preferred term. Some key contributors were found and set up in advance, others just happened to be in the right place at the right time on the day of filming.

The great thing about Americans is that gambling is in their blood; you can find someone who’ll take a wager in any bar or roadside diner. Try doing that in Britain and see how far you get.

Although the roadtrip is the backbone of the series, we didn’t want it to look like a rough-and-ready travelogue. We took inspiration from the famous hustlers, who drove the flashiest cars, wore the sharpest suits and were always slick and charming.

This was reflected in every element of the production, from Alex’s clothes to the cars he drove and the shooting style. We wanted it to have a movie feel, like The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven, only with less money. So we made sure that as much of the budget as possible ended up on screen.

The drive for this came as much from Icon Films and executive producer Matt Cole as myself. Instead of being told to keep the shooting costs down, I was actively encouraged to shoot on high-end cameras and find a talented director of photography.

We ended up using a Red Epic and a Red Scarlet, which allowed us to shoot stunning slow-motion action and beautifully crisp night-time driving on the Las Vegas strip.

It was also really important that Alex’s personality came across on screen. He’s a funny and charming chap, something that didn’t come across enough when he was part of the Real Hustle ensemble. Hustling America is not just about the roadtrip or the bets; it’s about how Alex interacts with the people he meets along the way.

It wasn’t long before the whole crew had caught the hustling bug. Brendan McGinty, our DoP, won himself free drinks in five different states by betting the bar staff he could tell them where they’d got their shoes and when. The answer (invariably met by a groan): “On your feet, right now.”

If the camera work ever dries up, he’s scored himself a second career.

 

 

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