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CineVegas '05 Interview ('Lost Vegas' Director Tim Onosko)

by Erik Childress

Tim Onosko says his new documentary is more Studs Terkel than it is Ken Burns while others have described it as a "real-life Broadway Danny Rose." Up until 1987, Onosko was a journalist and a contributing editor to the likes of several magazines including Omni, Video and Creative Computing. The PBS television series, The New Tech Times, also had Tim as a field producer and on-air presenter. After years of work with The Walt Disney Company and a conceptual designer for both Disneyland Paris and Universal's Island of Adventure, he was notably involved in Uni's Motion Picture Technology Office with new media, digital cinema, the Internet and other technology issues since the mid-1990s. Tim has now become a filmmaker himself tracing the path of the classic Las Vegas lounge acts from the 1950s well into the 70s.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?

TIM: I've always wanted to make movies and I've taken a very circuitous route. This is my first film, and I'm 58 years old and embarking on a new career, my third. Isn't that funny?

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?

I worked in LA and lived in Wisconsin. I literally commuted for over a dozen years. After 9/11, it became too difficult. I also decided I needed a career change, and that if I was ever going to make it film, it was now. My film is a documentary and does not have a script, per se. But it does have writing. The outline and text of the film was written after dinner in Las Vegas the night before we began shooting, and the same outline has sustained the project all the way through to the end. It was how we decided to tell the story, and the we did it.

How did you get Ricky Jay involved in your project?

I met Ricky many years ago, long before he became an actor, through Jim Steinmeyer, a former Chicagoan who is the leading designer of state effects and illusions. Jim and Ricky worked together on a number of projects, including Ricky's TV show and his playing card stage show, "52 Assistants." Another friend of mine asked Ricky to narrate a series of television commercials he was shooting, based, I think, on Rocky's narration in "Magnolia." I loved what he leant to that film, too, and I suspected he would have some affection for our subjects. He did and graciously agreed to narrate for us. Ricky's a cool guy, a great character actor, and he's a pleasure to work with.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other movies or documentaries about Vegas in preparation?

No. I just jumped into the project with both feet and began making the film. I probably should have looked at what was out there.

Name the three directors working today that you most admire.

Alas, my idols have gone to movie heaven: Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and the writer Paddy Chayefsky. Also, Sturges, Hawks, the writer George Axelrod, Ford, Kurosawa, Ozu. I am a bit of a classicist.

I admire Al Maysles, who is still making film at the age of 73. Meeting him inspired me to make my own film. Al didn't touch a camera until he was in his 40s -- he was a psychology prof. And he just recently stopped shooting film to move to digital, which has opened opportunities for him. He's a great guy and very funny, too.

When you were shooting the film, did you have CineVegas (or any other film festivals in general) in mind?

No, in fact I did not think about submitting it to CineVegas, but it has grown in importance so quickly that I wanted to be there with, what I think is an appropriate film, given the time and place. But I hope people see this as something more than a Las Vegas film, as well. It's a great show business story, and funny and emotional, too.

Have you seen any independent films recently on the festival circuit, in theaters or on video that influenced you? Or anything that you would just like to give a shout-out to that audiences should be seeing (or given a chance to see?)

I love independent films because I believe they are the future of film. With digital production, the number of independent productions will rise dramatically. With affordable HD cameras, one can now compete directly with studio fare, with minimal overhead.

What's the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?

The importance of staying with the project, even though it may be extraordinarily difficult. We had many challenges on the film and I did not think I was going to finish it on many occasions.

What documentaries have you seen that rank at the top of the class and help represent what's important about the medium either as educational or entertainment.

Winged Migration. Gates of Heaven. The Maysles' films. All of Fred Weisman's films, but especially "Titticut Follies." Oh, I almost forgot. I REALLY love "The Power of Nightmares," Adam Curtis' new film.

The label of "documentary" has come under scrutiny in recent years with filmmakers like Michael Moore being accused of making op-ed pieces instead of the traditional definition. Do you feel its unfair to criticize a documentary for having a point-of-view rather than just being an objective reporter?

No, some people want to use it as a soap box, and that's fine. I don't. I'm not a reporter, either, though. I made this movie to be entertaining, first and foremost. I wanted to tell a story to rope you in.

Who do you feel was the best of the old school Vegas entertainers?

I never saw any of those entertainers, because I really never spent much time in Las Vegas before this film. I did, however, see Keely Smith perform at the old Desert Inn about ten years ago, She did what was essentially the Louis Prima act (with Sam Butera doing the Louis parts), and that was pretty cool. Had that "old Vegas" feel.

Is there anyone working Vegas today that you feel recalls the old days of Vegas and retains that sort of class or spirit?

I don't know, because I kind of visit a different Vegas, the one that existed in the era my film is about, the 1950s and 60s. I imagine the place as being in black-and-white, you know?

What do you think about the various lounge acts working some of the high-end hotels these days? Do any of them stand out?

No. I think that many people go to Vegas only to discover that, figuratively, it isn't there anymore. I've long joked that someone should build a new "theme" hotel, where the theme would be Las Vegas.

Do today's Vegas visitors really get into the lounge acts or do they just see them as passing glances and an opportunity to have another drink before going on to the next table or hotel?

I think the lounge era is history. Anything vaguely resembling a lounge today is a faint glimpse of what they were.

At what point will you be able to say, "Yes! I've made it!"

I've never been able to say that in my life. That, to me, would signal complacency.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says "a film by..." Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?

No. I've only made one movie. I give my wife and co-producer the fist credit in the film. My credit is "written and directed by." I also edited the film and am now mixing the final soundtrack. I have grown to love the hands-on part, even though I never expected to do any of it. Making movies is fun. Hard work, but fun.

Our before-the-title credit is "A Presentation of Documentary Office, LLC," our production company. But anyone can give themselves whatever credit they'd like to.


Lost Vegas: The Lounge Era (written and directed by Tim Onosko and produced by Onosko & Beth Abrohams) - will have its premiere at the 2005 CineVegas Film Festival on Wednesday, June 15 at 4:00 PM.

Visit the Lost Vegas Website and watch the TRAILER

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originally posted: 05/22/05 05:32:10
last updated: 05/22/05 07:22:18
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