"Saint John of Las Vegas," the debut film of writer/director Hue Rhodes, stars Steve Buscemi as John, a former gambling addict who escapes his messy life in Las Vegas to live out his twilight years in New Mexico

as a non-descript auto insurance claims adjustor. But when John's boss (Peter Dinklage) sends him off with a humorless fraud investigator Virgil (Romany Malco) to investigate a suspicious claim from outside Las Vegas, John is sent spiraling in an eccentric world of addiction, nude militants and burning carnival folk. Starpulse recently sat with Rhodes, Buscemi and Malco and discussed the film, the difficulties in making it and their views on the line between comedy and drama.

Before starting his career as a director, Hue Rhodes spent nearly ten years in the corporate world. While gaining success in IT, Rhodes could never escape the allure of filmmaking. When he finally decided to break free of the chain tethering him to his office life, Rhodes entered NYU's Graduate Film School at 31. "I had this luxury of starting film school without knowing anything about movies at all," Rhodes explained, "I had no fine art background. I mean, I grew up in the multiplex, I had never heard of Fellini or anybody like that. So at 31, I got like "The Matrix," for 5 years I sat and watched all these amazing directors and all this stuff that I had no experience about and it was just an amazing survey."

After completing 2 short films, Rhodes began working on the "Saint John" script while still in school, "The way they talk about screenwriting [in film school] is extremely dogmatic. Not just three act structure, but on page 7 you have to have this and on page 20 you have to have this" Rhodes said. "Like, how are you going to get something transcendent that way?"

Looking past the rigid formulas of film school, Rhodes discovered other influences on what would eventually become "Saint John." During his tenure at NYU, the director discovered the work of mid-century Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, the auteur behind masterpieces like "Floating Weeds" and "Tokyo Story, which deeply affected how the fledgling director watched movies. "I was like 'I've never seen anything like this,'" he explained. "I've never seen the square to the plain, the clean singles, the 90 degree rotation, the time management, it was something different. It wasn't about racing through; it was about kind of a mediation. And I thought 'This is wonderful.'"

"Saint John" also takes heavy queues from the work of Dante Alighieri and "Dante's Inferno." Rhodes found his muse in Dante, but based on the advice of a friend who was a prominent Dante scholar to avoid adapting the story outright, he used the Epic Poem as more of a loose guide rather than a source material. "Dante was a great ride. It's not a road trip, but it is. It's a buddy [story], it's two guys."

He continued: "Dante commits the heresy in the 15th century of talking to sinners. Even the fact that sinners would have anything to say was heretical. So in this particular case, hopefully in that spirit, John meets these people, and they're not just freaks, I love that they could have just been freakish people but John stops with each one of them and finds out what's up with them in their own terms. None of these people change the day after he meets them. The militant nudists and the park ranger are back at it the next night. Nothing changes. But John has understood each one of them a little bit. That's the spirit of Dante, and I hope that's the spirit of the movie."

Addiction is also a major touching point in "Saint John." As John and Virgil come closer to Las Vegas, John feels increasingly drawn back to the tables. While Buscemi himself is not a gambler ("I just don't know how people can do that for days and days or throw that much money around… I'm pretty tight."), Rhodes had more personal experience to draw from while writing the script. "I think I have a disproportionate number of addict friends, I don't know what that says about me, but I certainly know what it's like to jones for something," the director said.

"I think that movie wise, gambling is a little bit more benign than drugs or alcohol because you can take drugs and drink yourself to death. You can take action as a gambling addict which will result in your demise, but unless you starve at the table, the action of gambling directly is not killing you. So, with respect to addiction, of the ones you could be dealing with, I think that allows for a little more levity."

When it came time to cast "Saint John" Rhodes hit a lucky streak, as the first time director managed to snag not only Steve Buscemi and Romany Malco but Sarah Silverman and Peter Dinklage as well. "I know when I'm lucky, and the cast was just strokes of luck."

Image © IndieVest Pictures

Buscemi's involvement came about by chance. The actor received a copy of the script after it was passed around like a game of Telephone. After meeting with Rhodes, Buscemi agreed to star as well as produce the film, unhampered by Rhodes untested abilities. "I guess what I like working about first time directors is just seeing in another person those discoveries that they're making or the excitement that they are experiencing. Sometimes it's terror," Buscemi laughed. "…With a first time director it's just being part of somebody's experience of the first time is special."

"The movie ought to be called 'Saint Steve of Las Vegas,'" the director joked. "It turned out to be probably one of the smartest things I've ever done because not only was he in every frame of the movie all the time, you know, he's got better things to do. The scene where they're fighting about 'it's raining, take me to a hotel,' we're in the middle of the desert shooting that, it's cold, desert nighttime is cold, and we've got these huge rain towers pouring water on him. It's freezing, and he's 50 years old. [He's] in the middle of the desert at 3 o'clock in the morning freezing his butt off for some first time director."

According to Buscemi, it was Rhodes' enthusiasm and the quality of the script that sealed his involvement with the film. "As an actor you want to play characters that are going through something, that have a struggle." Buscemi said. "There was something endearing about this guy who obviously had been through something horrible in Vegas and now was starting over and had convinced himself that he was not addicting to gambling anymore and had to buy, not one, but multiple lottery tickets a day even if it meant spending his last 5 bucks on them."

To cast the role of John's guide and partner Virgil, Rhodes looked to Romany Malco. "I knew Romany was pretty dark," the director said. "…He's got this way of being very nice and very sweet, and all of a sudden he'll say something really jarring and crude… and I thought that that would be great."

Malco, whose storied career includes being in "one hit wonder" rap group College Boyz and selling pills to aid "male sexual dysfunction" online, wasn't immediately convinced that he was right for the project: "I sat and met with Hue and Steve, and the first question I had for Hue [was]…"Why would you choose me to play this role? Because I don't see me at all in this role." And in so many words he explained… the difference between a clown and a buffoon. And the buffoon is kind of, his humor is at the other person's expense, and the clown is more so at his own expense. And in a nutshell I walked away with "Just because you make people laugh it doesn't necessarily make you a nice guy" I thought that was incredibly insightful of him to be able to identify that in me, because, yes, I am a dark bastard."

The role is a departure for Malco's usual brand of outlandish comedies, being the star of films like "Blades of Glory" and "The Love Guru," but the actor saw the script as a challenge and welcome change. "…The motto of my production company is story first, and I always choose the project based on story and challenge," he explained. "I like the idea of being forced into doing something that I haven't done or that I'm not comfortable doing, and the quality of the people involved in the project. So, this had all of those things."

Indeed, Buscemi's involvement was one of the deciding factors for him taking the role. "…You're a jackass if you don't take the opportunity to work with Steve, you're just a jackass" the actor said frankly. "The first opportunity I got, I was like 'I'm getting next to that man.' And afterward you walk away from it just a little more comfortable in your skin, because he kind of gives you license to do things based on the way that he carries himself."

On a short 28 day shooting schedule, the film was mired with difficulties. The actress originally cast for the role of Jill, John's eccentric girlfriend, had to drop out and leave the country for personal reasons, which left the production teetering on disaster. "We [had] nobody, like we [were] done" said Rhodes.

Fortunately, Romany Malco's manager also represents comedienne Sarah Silverman, and suggested the actress to the harried director. "I didn't know Sarah that much," said Rhodes, "I knew a little bit about her, but we talked on the phone, and she just seemed to have like A: a great take, and B: a great attitude…. I mean she has this persona and that's what people pay for... But we talked about it, and I think that what we ended up with was not that persona, which really is a credit to her."

Buscemi's assessment of the actress mirrors that of Rhodes. "I think her comedic persona, at least for me, I wouldn't think that she was the best person to play this part and it turned out she really was. She really impressed me with her choices and her acting and she was funny to boot, so what could be better?"

Trouble didn't end after the casting of Silverman. Soon after shooting began in New Mexico, the health of Romany Malco's father began fading, and the actor was forced to leave the set to take care of his ailing father in Trinidad. Malco elaborated: "… I was in this really remote place doing this film with these really, a really calm group of people, and Hue, he lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. So under no circumstances could you be on such a small film with such a tight schedule and have the director come to you and say 'I've been there. You need to go see your father.'"

"I didn't know how rewarding it would be to sit there and take care of my father in that way because he was a pretty inaccessible guy all my life," Malco continued, "But I felt as though I couldn't have been in a better place than Albuquerque, New Mexico for that transition in my life. It was nice. You saw a lot of sky, it was very still, and it just kind of allowed me to work and at the same time think and meditate and accept things."

Originally billed as a drama, "Saint John's" quirks immediately became clear, which was not lost on Romany Malco. "After like two weeks of rehearsal I was like 'Yo, ya'll gonna change that?'"

Rhodes always intended the film to point out the absurdities found in everyday life. By centering the film on the exploits of a former gambler trying to get by as an office drone, Rhodes saw himself taking shots at his former corporate lifestyle. "'I was at a company that had its own call center. So there were a thousand, thousand cubicles in this huge field. And down the long row of one of them, one of the cubicles stuck out like 6 inches. And I asked somebody 'What's up the cubicle at the end?' And they said 'Oh, that's management,'" chuckled the director. "And I thought, like, we're miracles. We crawled out the primordial soup for that. We walk, we talk, we sing, and we will kill each other for [those] 6 inches."

Both Buscemi and Malco had similar takes on the humor in the film. "Hollywood tries to draw a dividing line between comedy and drama, where in life, sometimes the drama is the funniest shit," said Malco. "I went to go see "Precious," right, and I felt so bad because I was in there laughing so damn hard, so friggin hard… There are instances where Mo'Nique is so dramatic, but at the same time so accurate, you identify with the character but see the absurdity in it at the same time. To me, that's pretty much the only way I could survive throughout my entire life, was to be able to identify how absurd things were even though they were having a huge emotional impact on me"

"I think that's just how life is," said Buscemi. "Life can be awful and humor is one of the ways that people cope. Addiction is another way that people cope. Unless you're doing a really stylized [comedy], I just feel like a lot of films are comedies, human comedies."

"Saint John of Las Vegas" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Jan. 29.

Story by Kris King

Starpulse contributing writer