Frankie G
Eugene Levy
Christopher Guest
Dennie Gordon & ...Dawn Taubin
Steve James
Lisa Cholodenko

Gary Dretzka
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Ray Pride
..Patricia Vidal





April 29, 2003

Owning Mahowny tells the more-or-less true story of a mild-mannered Canadian bank manager, who, in order to support an out-of-control gambling habit, authorizes $10.2 million in unsecured loans for his personal use.

Dan Mahowny, as portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, bears little resemblance to the recent crop of corporate crooks we've all come to know and loathe. The ill-gotten gains from his creative accounting weren't being used to buy mansions, yachts and sports cars. Mostly, the money was poured directly into the economy of
Atlantic City and Las Vegas, as well as the pockets of a local bookie. 

By almost any definition, Mahowny is a loser. But, why should we care?

Because, as he often does, Hoffman turns the character into someone we all can imagine ourselves being. If not the degenerate gambler in Owning Mahowny, then another person caught up by forces he unleashed but no longer can control. Hubris was never part of Mahowny's equation and, if nothing else, that simple fact set him apart from 90 percent of his criminal peers in the go-go '80s.

London-based director Richard Kwietniowski has turned Maurice Chauvet's no-frills screenplay - itself from a book by Gary Ross -- into a fascinating study of benign depravity. Truth is, the $10 million Mahowny stole was a mere drop in the bucket of corporate fraud that continues to overflow in the
United States and, yes, even Canada. His gawky girlfriend -- cleverly played by a barely recognizable Minnie Driver -- is the movie's most pitiable victim, and even she manages to survive the ordeal more or less intact.  

It's been five years since Kwietniowski burst onto the scene with Love and Death on Long Island. The festival favorite, which starred John Hurt and Jason Priestly, tells the story of a stuffy British novelist, who, after a brief encounter in a movie theater, develops a crush on a young American actor. Giles De'Ath's obsession takes him to the actor's home of Chesterton,
Long Island, where he's the proverbial fish out of water.

Our interview with the 46-year-old Kwietniowski took place last week in a
Beverly Hills hotel.

MOVIE CITY NEWS: In his last picture, Love Liza, Philip Seymour Hoffman played a website designer who becomes addicted to gasoline fumes. Indeed, it's the rare film in which he's allowed to portray someone who's even remotely comfortable in his own body. Hoffman looks as if he stepped from Love Liza directly into Owning Mahowny.

RICHARD KWIETNIOWSKI: The idea was to tell the story of the world's least likely high-roller ... the world's least likely pure addict. If this lovable chump was susceptible to such an all-consuming addiction -- which would drive him to rob his own bank - then, it could happen to any of us.

MCN: What specifically attracted you to Hoffman.

RK: There's a kind of Everyman quality to him. When I fixed on him for the lead, I ran his name past several of my friends, and they thought he'd be perfect.  Even if they didn't know his name, they knew who he was. Even in "pervy" parts, his performances touched them.

MCN: The only time I remember him playing someone who's somewhat together was in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

RK: Even so, the women I spoke with felt his presence to be rather magnetic. Because he isn't conventionally good-looking, he doesn't normally play leading men. I thought I might have a bit of a fight on my hands with the people financing the picture, but they thought he'd be an excellent choice, as well.

MCN: Does Hoffman look similar to the actual banker?

RK: Coincidentally, yes he does.

MCN: So, we're not talking here about James Bond in
Monte Carlo?

RK: I didn't want to have him stroll into the casino looking like John Cusack, either. Philip had to be absolutely convincing and persuasive as a very committed and successful assistant bank manager. That was the key.

He would be wearing a cheap suit, and he'd be sweating and breathing heavily as he gambled. When he's shown walking into the casino as a high-roller -- flanked by the security guards and casino executives -- it had to be a completely ridiculous and incongruous sight.

MCN: You met with Brian Molony, who actually served time for the crime?

RK: I had a private meeting with him, just once, before we started shooting. I suppose that I wanted to get his blessing, and I did, but I also wanted to make sure that some of the details of the banking operation were accurate.

There was a lot of guesswork in the script, and I wanted to be sure we weren't getting anything wrong.

MCN: Did you learn what drove his addiction?

RK: There's a point, after Mahowny loses his money in the final craps game, when he stands back and watches himself gambling. Molony said, "Now, where did that come from?"  I really couldn't remember, but he said it mirrored the way he felt. So, that was reassuring.

MCN: Was craps Molony's game?

RK: Oh, he was into a little bit of everything. He told me that he didn't like craps particularly, because whoever was throwing the dice became the center of attention, and that's not what he wanted to be. He didn't want to be watched.

MCN: The intricacies of casino gambling don't always make for great drama.

RK: That was tricky. It was important for me not to show the result of a dice roll or a turn of the cards. It was the intensity of the game that was important, so we compromised by playing blackjack, as well as craps.

MCN: If Philip was Everyman, the places in which he chose to gamble could have been Everycasino.

RK: We wanted to make the casino look very down at the heels. I hoped it would remind viewers of an aquarium, and Mahowny would look as if he was swimming around in it.

When he was winning, we wanted to have the excitement build throughout the casino. Gambling is all about repetition and the speed of the action - slot players don't even have to pull the lever anymore. It's faster to push a button.

MCN: Judging from his body language alone, it would be difficult to tell if he was winning or losing. The only thing that motivated him was the action itself.

RK: Molony would play blackjack as if we was playing slots. He'd take over the whole table and play all the hands at once.

The speed astonished the dealers. He was like a computer.

MCN: But he wasn't all that successful.

RK: Molony wasn't really interested in money and what it can buy. He was interested in accumulating infinite amounts of money, so that he could keep playing. That was his sustenance. The more money he made, the more he could lose.

MCN: Was Minnie at all reluctant to play a character who's gawky, and isn't given the benefit of a last-minute Hollywood makeover?

RK: She was all for it. She insisted on looking completely unremarkable, which is difficult for her because she's tall, distinctive and good-looking.

Minnie and Philip are completely different shapes, but compatible. As the movie progressed, we wanted for her to come out from the background.

MCN: Kind of tough to keep someone who looks like Minnie Driver hidden for long.

RK: The producers kept asking me when they'd see close-ups of Minnie. That's what they wanted. I waited until the scene in the bowling alley, when Belinda suddenly realized how far gone Mahowny really was. I was pleased to hear people say, "That was Minnie Driver? I didn't recognize her."

Belinda's attractive ... how could she not be? But, Minnie has her walk in an awkward way, and she's naive and not very worldly.

MCN: But, she's not stupid, or blind. Why did they stay together?

RK: She's in love with him. That he has a girlfriend like that tells us there's something below the surface that makes him attractive.

I like to think she's proud of the fact he knows about all this manly stuff, and that he's so self-assured at work. She sees it as his wild side.

MCN: Mohowny didn't seem to enjoy the glitz and glamour of the casino experience. Aside from some barbeque ribs, he didn't really take advantage of his high-roller status. Why didn't he do the true-blue thing and stay in
Canada to do his gambling?

RK: I didn't want to set it up to be this Canadian vs. U.S. thing - good vs. evil -- but I felt it was significant that to indulge himself, he had to cross the border. That's how he went from his conscious life to his unconscious life.

MCN: Besides this movie, what have you been doing for the last five years?

RK: Several things just didn't quite get made. I used that time to sharpen my scriptwriting, because the development process mostly involved working on my own scripts or rewriting somebody else's. I think I'm better at it now than I've ever been.

I'd never met Philip or Minnie before they'd seen my script. They weren't waking up in the morning with a burning desire to work with me. It depends on what they see on the page.

MCN: They could have watched Love and Death on Long Island?

RK: Well, yes. It's like having money in the bank.

Email Gary Dretzka

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