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CineVegas '05 Interview ('As We Knew It' Director Lynn Zook)

by Erik Childress

The "As We Knew It" Pitch - The Story of Classic Las Vegas is the story of the men and women who transformed a small railroad town into the Entertainment Capital of the World. Without them, the Las Vegas of today would not be the metropolis of the 21st Century.

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?

LYNN: Sitting in the movie theatre after watching "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969,(for the record, I was 12) I turned to my friends and said, "That's what I want to do when I grow up"[br]
"Rob trains?" they replied.
"No, make movies" I said.
I don't know what it was about that movie but it was one of those life altering moments. From that moment on, I wanted to eat and breath film and I made my friends do the same. Luckily, they didn't complain too much. Nothing beats a dark, air conditioned movie theatre on a summer day in Las Vegas when the temperature is over 105 degrees in the shade.

How did you get started in filmmaking?

LYNN: There wasn't much to do in Las Vegas when I was growing up. We had a television station, Channel 5 (K-TTU???), that ran old movies day and night. Old Bogart and Cagney movies, Bette Davis, Howard Hawkes, Raoul Walsh, Alan Dwan movies. Great movies and that was the only way to see them. So I got interested in movies from Hollywood's Golden Age. I would stay home "sick" if a really good one was going to be on.

The opening of the original MGM Grand Hotel (now Bally's) was a movie lover's paradise. Not only was the hotel themed after great MGM classics but there was a movie theatre downstairs that played MGM studio prints. Every week the bill would change. You got a cartoon, a newsreel, a printed program and a cocktail waitress came around to your seat to take your drink order. It was heaven. I made my friends go to the movies with me every weekend for most of my teen years.

I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful high school teacher who encouraged us to follow our hearts in our career choices. I knew I wanted to be a film maker but this was in the era before film schools were popular so there weren't many choices. I was accepted to Temple back East and to USC. That winter the East Coast was hit by one of the worst storms in years. Being a western girl, I decided that perhaps I should go where the weather was a little more to my liking so I went to SC.

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

LYNN: Our project began as a historical legacy project. The men and women who built Las Vegas are getting on in years and they are passing away and taking their history with them. Having grown up there, I am amazed at the changes the town has gone through in just the last 15 years so I wanted to know what the real old timers thought. It became very important to us to get as many of them on tape as possible talking about their way of life because their Las Vegas has all but vanished from the scene. We have interviewed over 130 native born and long time residents to date and scanned over 3,000 images. Everyone from the famous to the not even famous.

They have been a part of the 20th Century's history from the Depression to World War 2 to the Post War era but the myth is that people didn't actually live in Las Vegas during that time so their contributions aren't realized. In addition, they have been witness to parts of history that very few people have as they either watched it being built or worked on the construction of the Dam and then there is the above ground atomic testing that was a part of their daily lives during most of the 1950s.

From this rich archive we hope to make a series of first person narrative documentaries on the various aspects of Las Vegas history: The Story of Classic Las Vegas, The Women Who Built Las Vegas, Appearing Nitely (a look at the evolving entertainment of the town), Lost Vegas ( a look at the visionaries, the Neon and the Architecture). Lord knows, we have the material for all of them.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?

LYNN: Being a movie lover, I am always watching movies both great and not so great. (I love a good guilty pleasure as much as the next person) I love the classics including silents! But I've been fortunate enough to grow up loving the first Golden Age of Hollywood (and this was during those pre-video rental days when the only exposure to those films were late night television broadcasts, film societies and art houses) and experienced first hand the Second Golden Age during the 1970s. My second home was movie theatres for about 25 years. Now with cable, satellite, pay per view and Netflix it's even easier to see movies. So, I've had lots of exposure to movies.

In making a two-part, four-hour documentary are you worried that audiences in this attention-deficient time might not be along for the full ride? Did you have television in mind for the project?

We think people will stay for the full ride because the men and women that are telling the story are so interesting. These are folks who knew Howard Hughes, knew Ben Siegel, watched atomic bomb blasts from their front yards, built Hoover Dam, did their part during the War. It's a story of Las Vegas that hasn't really been explored.

In many ways, their story is the story of mid-century America. Las Vegas got its start in 1905 so the town is barely 100 years old. Look at how far it has come from the tent lined Fremont Street of 1905 to the Fremont Street Experience of today. That's a great deal of change, of growth, a tremendous amount of history that occured in a relatively short period of time. Other major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London, etc are all much older than Las Vegas but today, Las Vegas ranks among them. It took those cities a very long time to become international datelines. Las Vegas basically accomplished that in less than 50 years. In addition, there are a lot of myths that need to be put to rest.

Name the three directors working today that you most admire.

LYNN: Marty Scorsese, Ric Burns and Clint Eastwood are the first three that come to mind. Making lists is always difficult because I tend to have eclectic tastes in movies and music. But I always carry with me (and especially on this project) the works of Kevin Brownlow and Richard Schickel.

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?

LYNN: Hands down for truly both educational and entertainment, the top of the pyramid, in my opinion, is Kevin Brownlow's "Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film". The debt we as filmmakers and film goers owe him, David Gill and David Shepard is staggering. Their series along with Richard Schickel's "The Men Who Made the Movies" preserved the early history of American Filmmaking. Without them, the stories of those famous and not so famous (I sense a major influence here) would be lost to history.

Also in that upper part of the pyramid, I would put Ric Burns. His documentary series "New York" is a testiment not only to his love of that city but to the history of that city. I came upon by accident on it's first PBS run and he had me from the first hour. I think including his doc on the Twin Towers, the whole series runs something like 14 hours but I watch whenever its rerun because he did what all good documentary filmmakers should do: make you care about people (and/or a place) you didn't know you cared about.

I should add Rick McKay's "Broadway, the Golden Age" to that list. He spent five years interviewing the legends of post war Broadway and it is a fascinating look at a time and place that has passed from history but can be experienced by all thanks to his hard work.

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?

LYNN: Documentaries have evolved over the years from the traditional Robert Flaherty pieces to the CBS documentaries of the 1950s and 1960s that sought to just report the facts and let the viewers draw their own conclusions. Documentaries change with the times but the good ones keep that objectivity as their basis. You add the number of documentaries being made to fill the hours of cable television and pop culture influences and you realize that documentaries have to evolve to survive. My rule of thumb for a good documentary: "Did I learn things I didn't know? Did it make me care about something I didn't know I did? The documentaries that accomplish both of those are the ones I remember and want to own for my library.

What are you looking forward to most during your CineVegas experience?

LYNN: This is our first festival so I don't know everything to expect. I just hope the audience enjoys the film. On a personal note, I am looking forward to meeting some of the other filmmakers.

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

LYNN: Being a hometown girl, I very much wanted to be a part of this year's CineVegas Festival because of the Centennial aspect. Our film always seemed like a good fit due to the celebration of history. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

What's been your favorite part of the ride?

LYNN: This whole experience has been a ride. Getting to know these men and women (and the town was so small at one time, they all seem to know one another. Everyone knows someone with a great story) has been a real treat. It's like getting to sit down with your grandparents and listen for an hour or two about your history. I'm at an age when that's become important and I am proud to be able to help preserve that history for the next generation. It breaks my heart each time we lose an interviewee. We've lost six interviewees in the two years. But we have them on tape, so in a way, they are still with us.

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

LYNN: That not everyone cares about history.

Do you feel Vegas has been done a disservice with the legend that Bugsy Siegel and the mob were the ones who built this town?

LYNN: Most definitely. As Emmett Sullivan says about Ben Siegel, "He brought the Hollywood crowd" but there was a town here long before Bugsy drove up the old LA Highway. From what we've been told, the one thing the movie "Bugsy" got right was how dusty it was, everything else was changed to fit the story the movie wanted to tell.

As for Bugsy and the mob, that's two of the myths that we explore in our work in progress. There's a tendancy with many shows to lump all casino owners into "the mob" and that's not the case. Also, there's a BIG difference between the old bookmakers who turned Las Vegas into a gambler's paradise after WW2 and the Mob era of the 1970s.

How about the films about Vegas? (Casino, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Leaving Las Vegas, Showgirls, etc...) Have you ever seen one with a positive depiction about the city? Which films do you believe reflect accurately upon the spirit of the city and its history? Any of them that you hate?

LYNN: I know a number of people who call "Showgirls" a guilty pleasure. We've interviewed a number of actual dancers and showgirls from back in the day so that probably colors my opinion about "Showgirls". "Casino" probably comes closest to capturing the spirit of Las Vegas during the Rosenthal/Spilotro era, though many viewers seem to think that Frank Rosenthal was the hero and I don't get that at all. There were heroes during that time, but they weren't Lefty or the Ant.

"One From the Heart", the Francis Ford Coppola movie, is in my Las Vegas collection because it more than any other at least accurately captures the love affair with neon that the city had during the Post War era.

I don't think they've made a film yet that accurately depicts the historical significance of the town. There are small films like "Desert Rose" that touch on historical issues such as the atomic testing but they are pretty few and far between.

Have you ever seen the Ryan O'Neal film, Fever Pitch from 1985, where he plays the sports reporter doing an expose on Las Vegas gambling and ends up getting addicted himself? Are we right in saying its one of the best bad movies ever made?

LYNN: I missed that one, sorry.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake any Vegas film in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?

LYNN: I wouldn't want to remake "One From the Heart" but I would like to make a movie using the set pieces from that film. Also, I would love to be involved in a film about the early days of the old LA Highway when it was the El Rancho Vegas and the Last Frontier Hotel. Maybe a movie that focuses on the true story behind Tommy Hull choosing to build the El Rancho Vegas where he did instead of the myth.

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

LYNN: I don't know if I've "made" it but next Wednesday afternoon when the film screens will be one of those "waiting all my life to happen" moments that I never realized would mean so much. I've been happy being a film editor. The producing and directing of this project is a whole new game for me. I just want to do right by the men and women who shared their lives with us.

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?

LYNN: Yeah, it says A Film by Lynn M. Zook. I wasn't real keen on the idea but my crew was very vocal about it and insisted that that title card be up there. According to them, it's my passion and my will that keeps this train on the track and they insisted that be acknowledged.

This film is only possible because of my crew, my support staff and because of the men and women who sat down with us and shared their lives with us. I didn't accomplish this by myself nor do I want anyone to think I did that. This project is a collaborative effort and I wanted to be sure that everyone got acknowledged.


As We Knew It: The Story Of Classic Las Vegas (directed by Lynn Zook) - premiered at the 2005 CineVegas Film Festival.

Visit the As We Knew It Website and watch the TRAILER

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originally posted: 06/29/05 10:20:04
last updated: 06/29/05 10:26:26
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