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Interview: Greg Francis Deals Out “POKER NIGHT”

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As a writer, one of the things I adore most about horror is the amount of imagination that can be found in genre storytelling. Sure, I’ll admit that for every one truly compelling tale, we’ll likely get about twenty copycats riding its coattails, but even in those situations, the filmmakers are sometimes inspired to do great things beyond their confines.  And from there, horror breeds new storytellers and more voices to bring us more films that will keep us leaving the light on at night.

And it’s the art of storytelling that powers a film like POKER NIGHT, the low-budget  thriller from filmmaker Greg Francis. In the film, which is now on VOD from XLrator Media, a rookie cop is kidnapped by an eccentric psychopath and must turn to his memories from a story-filled poker night to escape captivity as well as save the woman he loves. Unpredictable, intense and really fun, POKER NIGHT was one of December’s best horror surprises for this writer, who caught up with director Francis shortly after FANGO’s NYC screening of the film…

FANGORIA: The crowd at our NYC screening really loved the movie. Have you been surprised about how people have been reacting to it so far?

GREG FRANCIS: Back when I was ready to shoot POKER NIGHT, I had raised about a million bucks to shoot it and I was trying to get a little more. A part of my pitch would always be, “I don’t know if you’re going to like this. If you read the script, you’d probably hate it. But I think some of your kids are going to like it, and even if they don’t, there are a group of people out there who are going to like it and they’re big enough to make our money back.”

That was about ten years ago and that’s how I feel today. People who hate it don’t like the structure, or aren’t really paying attention. Or it may not be their cup of tea since laughing at a pedophile is a weird feeling. [laughs]

FANG: How exactly did the cast of POKER NIGHT come together?

FRANCIS: I didn’t know any of them and I had no connections with any of them. My producer Corey [Large] has a casting director he likes to use, Chadwick Struck, and he was great. Chadwick started making offers and went after the cop characters first. Some people picked on the movie by saying, “Oh, well Jeter always changes into them [during their stories],” but that was always the conceit since that meant I could get some really good older guys for a week. I couldn’t afford them for 2 weeks, but I could afford them for a week.

Ten years ago, when I first wrote POKER NIGHT, I remember I wanted old school TV detectives like James Garner and Peter Falk, and then fast forward to now, I was just going after names; I went after every character actor. I chased Luis Guzman and I chased him hard because I really wanted that guy. It was hard to get that first name aboard because people didn’t really know what the project was.

The first name we got aboard the project, initially, was Delroy Lindo, and once he came aboard, everyone else came together pretty fast. I think we had been making offers for a month and a half, and once we got Delroy, everyone came aboard within two weeks. The funny thing was Delroy kept wanting me to rewrite his part, and I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of the actors because they were afraid that if they liked me, they’d cut their rate. So until the deals were done, I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of them, and Delroy had thought he was going to be in the flashbacks, playing himself as a young man, and was telling me about his wigmaker.

I had to tell him, “Delroy, you’re just going to be at the table telling your stories.” And so he says, “Really?! I would have never agreed to make this movie if I’m just sitting at the table!” So I told him I’d see what I could do and started writing him into the flashbacks, and truthfully, that helped a lot. I started making them more involved in the flashbacks and I knew I could squeeze them into an extra day. But Delroy ended up not working out, and so they reached out to Giancarlo [Esposito], which was a huge win for us because he was just coming off of BREAKING BAD.

But it wasn’t like we were specifically looking for TV actors. We were looking at everybody from Sam Elliott to Sam Shepherd, and I was looking for any great character actor because those are the guys that I love to see. And then [Ron] Perlman came along and, as I’m sure he told you, I originally wanted him for a different part, which Titus [Welliver] played. In the script, Calabrese was supposed to be a younger guy against the four older cops and the rookie, and in my mind was more of a Mark Ruffalo/John Cusack-type of guy.

So I was looking for younger guys and I heard that Perlman wanted to play that guy, and I was like, “No! That’s wrong!” And Corey, to his credit, said, “Do you really want to tell Ron Perlman ‘no’?” So Perlman really wanted to do Calabrese, and we fought about it, but it was probably the smartest thing I could have done. Perlman just kills it, and he’s such an amazing guy.

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FANG: Corey also performs in the film; how did he come aboard the project as producer?

FRANCIS: Originally, when I raised money for the film, I had Samuel L. Jackson and Hayden Christensen attached. This was right after STAR WARS had finished and Icon [Productions] was going to back the film, but I wasn’t directing at that point; just producing, obviously with my script. And this was around 2006, and a month before we were about to go, they both got offered JUMPER and pulled out. So I was like, “Oh, forget it,” and started directing Proactiv commercials after that because I had spent 2 years getting it to that point and it all went to hell.

From that point on, it was optioned about four other times to different people. Corey was one of those guys who kept popping up now and then, and then finally, in 2013, he calls and says, “We’re going to make your movie this year.” And Corey really gave us a lot of time to make the film, which was the old-school model of doing it since distribution doesn’t really support things that way anymore. He really believed in the movie from the beginning, though, and I’m incredibly thankful.

FANG: How did the project gestate? Has the core concept always been the same since it’s inception?

FRANCIS: Well, as soon as I got out of film school, I knew I wanted to make movies. I was married really young and had kids, so I immediately went to the Discovery Channel and started doing crime shows. So I had a great run with that for almost 12 years, and I’m doing that still. But a lot of my friends in L.A. weren’t work, and I was constantly working, so I didn’t begrudge that. But around 2004, I said to myself, “If I’m going to make a movie, I need to do it.”

I got the idea for POKER NIGHT because I had been interviewing cops and doing recreations when I was around Jeter’s age, and after the shoots, I would sometimes go out with these cops and the crew and they’d go, “Alright, well, let me tell you what really happened with that case.” So my situation was much like Jeter, and I even remember having nightmares around that time, looking at crime scenes photos and all of those things. But then, it became like a morbid curiosity, and soon enough, I was criss-crossing the country to talk to the top homicide guys.

I also like the idea of the older generation and younger generation teaching each other things, because I think that’s how I was taught. So I got about 40 pages through and I finally got the script out of the basement and into the poker room… and then it sat there for about four months. So I kept thinking, “How am I going to tell these stories organically? I wish I had an outline.” So I knew he had to evolve from story to story too, but the style also changed with it.

And as some critics are willing to point out, I like to confuse people a little bit. Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO is one of my favorite films of all time, and I like being able to play around with the narrative whenever I can. Later in 2014, I realized I could raise money for this project, and then the rewrites came in to the point where we were still rewriting on set.

POKER NIGHT is also now available for pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray here. You can also check out our interview with POKER NIGHT star Michael Eklund in our upcoming January issue, FANGORIA #339!

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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