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
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,
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,
MCN: Does Hoffman look
similar to the actual banker?
RK: Coincidentally, yes
MCN: So, we're not talking
here about James Bond in Monte Carlo?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.