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Death In The Desert: Josh Evans’ Take on The Ted Binion Story

Death-In-The-DesertJosh Evans isn’t your typical director. As the son of producer Robert Evans and actress Ali McGraw, with actor Steve McQueen serving as his stepfather for a time, Evans grew up watching his family work in all aspects of the film business, so the fact that he’s also an actor, writer, and producer isn’t surprising.

His first major acting role was in Oliver Stone’s 1989 feature, Born on the Fourth of July, where he played Tommy Kovic, brother of the main character, Ron Kovic played by Tom Cruise. Evans has since appeared in several films, including playing Bill Siddons in Stone’s The Doors (1991), as well as in his own films, such as 2000’s The Price of Air, which he also wrote, directed, and produced.

The move to writing, directing and producing led to his latest project, Death in the Desert, though this film has him only wearing the hats of director and producer.

Death in the Desert is loosely based on the book of the same name by author Cathy Scott, who wrote about the death of Lonnie Theodore “Ted” Binion, whose father, Lester Ben “Benny” Binion, owned Binion’s Horseshoe, a casino in downtown Las Vegas. Ted Binion, a larger-than-life character driven (or perhaps drawn to) excess, died under mysterious circumstances. His girlfriend, Sandra Murphy, and her lover, Rick Tabish, were charged and convicted of his 1998 murder, but were subsequently acquitted at re-trial.

Among other excessive behavior, Ted Binion buried thousands of dollars’ worth of silver in a vault underground; most of the recovered treasure went to his daughter. The burying of the silver in the desert is a big part of Evans’ film, which stars Michael Madsen as Ray Easler, an analogue of Ted Binion. Shayla Beesley plays his girlfriend, Kim Davis, and John Palladino plays Matt Duvall, Easler’s employee and eventually Kim’s lover. The film also stars Paz de la Huerta as Margo and Roxy Saint (Evans’ wife) as Cory, both friends of Kim.

The other start of the film is Vegas itself, which seems as in danger of death as anyone in the movie.

While Evans, 45, was attracted to Binion’s story, as he told The Nerd Element in a recent wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation (punctuated by Evans’ natural enthusiasm for film-making), he was more interested in the metamorphosis Las Vegas has been undergoing since Ted Binion’s death. He also discussed his creative process and what it’s like wearing so many different hats.

The Nerd Element: I noticed looking at your filmography that most of the movies you’ve directed, you also wrote, but you didn’t write Death in the Desert. What about the screenplay for attracted you?

Josh Evans: I had been a big fan of [the book] and I sort of developed the screenplay. I didn’t write it because I didn’t really think I could do as good a job on it as somebody else [who] would be able to [be] more objective. I wanted to have a more objective approach to the movie. I had never done that before, where I had directed something that someone else had written, where I had just worked on the story and not the details of the screenplay. I liked the story, and from the story, we got a script.

[T]he book was based on the investigation of the Binion case from a lady, Cathy Scott, who had written another book that I did do a screenplay on which she wrote about the Notorious B.I.G. [T]hat got caught in sort of an endless loop of rights and issues [and] we weren’t able to get that to take off, so I then said, “Let me look at some of your other books.”

TNE: When you’re writing your own screenplay that you know you’re going to direct, what are the sort of things that go into that creative process?

JE: You know, it’s weird; it’s almost as if there are two separate people within myself. There’s the writer, and there’s the director, and then there’s the producer. So it’s three people sometimes and if I don’t really listen—I try not to listen to those other two when I’m writing, especially the producer because it would be a mediocre script. If I start thinking, “I’ve only got…this place to shoot and this place to shoot and I know this actor is going to be able to do it, but this one’s not, I’m writing the script based on that. I feel like I won’t write as good of a script as if I just blank all that stuff out and just try to write a good script.

Then the producer’s got to come in and sometimes the producer is a little disrespectful to the writer. “Oh, you can just get rid of this and get rid of that,” and that’s another reason why I really wanted to work on somebody else’s script…. The writer’s so important—without a script, there’s really nothing.…You need a script and you need a budget, and you can’t have a budget without a script….It’s like laying bricks. You just have to lay the bricks down and it’s a very technical thing.

I mean, I’ve spent six years on a script before, five years, you know. You keep going back, you keep going back, you’re rewriting, and then making the movie is a totally different process, it’s a much more physical process.

TNE: I noticed, too, in your filmography that you do a lot of films about crime and corruption, and I’m just curious what about that topic interests you?

JE: Well, I never thought of that before! [T]here’s something cinematic about crime; the stakes are very high, there’s a lot of tension usually surrounding the crime and tension is compelling in a film. A film without tension is kind of flat.

I don’t really see myself as someone focusing on crime. [T]hat’s not what I spend most of my time on. Death in the Desert is not so much about crime as it is about the relationships of the characters.

TNE: One of the things I liked about the film is that it doesn’t go in the direction you think it’s going to go.

JE: When we got to Vegas to start preparation for the film, people had such strong opinions about what had occurred [in the Binion case]. Some people were just being very, very passionate one way or the other. [T]hat’s kind of why I wanted to make it a movie set in modern times so I could completely depart from having to take a stand on a crime that was affecting people and real families’ lives. I could just focus on the aspects of the narrative that I felt were compelling.

When you live a certain kind of a life and you are involved in a certain kind of lifestyle, things happen…. Vegas is a place where you get people that come from California [and] then you get this whole other contingency of people that come from the mountains; they come from Montana, sort of a Western aspect, and then in the middle you have real true-blood Las Vegas, which [in the film is] Ray [Easler, played by Michael Madsen] and something happens because Ray was Vegas.

It’s not just isolated to Vegas, either; wherever there’s a lot of wanting and excess, some kind of heat occurs, and sometimes, there’s tragedy…. You find yourself living that kind of life and out there burying silver in the middle of the desert, you don’t even realize how out there you are.

Old-fashioned yet modern imagery (photo courtesy of Osiris Entertainment)

TNE: How did you pick the screenwriter? Did you have more than one person work on it or was it someone you knew?

JE: He [playwright John Steppling] came to me through a mutual friend. I had just had a child, and I knew that I wanted to make this movie, but I didn’t want to be raising my baby and writing about strippers and drugs at the same time. So I felt like there’d be a great movie to make and I needed to find somebody who understood Las Vegas and understood what Las Vegas was and is, the mentality of Ray, and we had a mutual friend down here and that’s how we came together.

TNE: Why did you set the picture in more modern times?

JE: When I went to Vegas, we were all set in the Binion…. I looked around and where he was living, at his house, and the Vegas that they were talking about was not as interesting to me as this new, post-recession Vegas that is sort of coming up now, where all these people are living in gated communities and they’re trying to make a very residential upper-class but yet very contained sort of madness. They’re all driving from these gated communities down to the Strip to do their work, and then they drive back to their perfect place with their families, and it’s a totally different Vegas.

I also felt like I didn’t want to have to be stuck on certain accuracies. I wanted a little creative liberty to expound in the areas that I wanted to expound and also I was more interested in visually seeing the new Vegas than the old Vegas. So all that together led me to change the names and make it an interpretation of events, not a direct adaptation. I’m sure there’s many aspects of it that deviate from exactly what happened. That was the essence of what occurred with the characters, [but] the core was there.

I wanted to show there’s this feeling of a new Vegas; they’re rebuilding downtown, there’s these new communities, there’s this new modern Vegas that’s totally different. It’s a different place. I mean, the same people are there, but the way it looks and the way it feels have changed. I thought that was a great character in the story.

TNE: When it comes to casting the film, how involved are you with that as a producer?

JE: Oh, very, I mean, the minute we found Michael, I knew that the movie was going to work. I knew that Ray had to have kind of that—it’s a combination of a cowboy and also a—he’s a combination of urban and also the rural, bigger than life, which is what everyone was telling me that Ted Binion was. [T]his guy has to be bigger than life, to step into a room and everyone has to see a boy in a man’s body, a rascal, a real rascal to everybody. He never grew up.

I had had a previous working experience with Michael, and I knew he would…give it the fire. We were down there for six months before the movie got started just trying to find the right character who was going to play that role, and also the right location to be sure we were able to capture Vegas because they’re very strict in Vegas, they don’t just let you shoot anywhere.

Michael Madsen and Shayla Beesley of Death in the Desert (photo courtesy of Osiris Entertainment)

TNE: The voice-over narration was very engaging.

JE: That’s a lot to do with Michael. He said to me afterwards, “You know, I really think we need to have this guy talk.” Originally in the script, there was no narration. We worked on the narration afterwards, not to explain things more because the screenplay did a great job of explaining, but to feel the soul from the dead.

I don’t like to use the word “haunted,” but there’s a ghostly aspect to Las Vegas. You can feel the ghosts…. [W]e started working on those voiceovers together aside from what was in the script. I was very pleased with it.

Those kinds of movie where the movie doesn’t work and the voiceover is coming in to explain everything, that is really not what I wanted. I wanted something where he could be talking about one thing and you’re seeing something else all the time, like an additional layer.

TNE: I was trying to make a connection between what I was hearing and what was being shown on the screen.

JE: I don’t like to show and tell. [I]t’s hard not to because sometimes you really want to get something across so bad, but then you don’t realize until you step back a little [that] you’re already seeing that. You’re seeing it, so I wanted to make sure he was saying something else…. We’re seeing something that was emoting a feeling, and he was talking about a feeling that was connected to that feeling, but it wasn’t the same exact feeling.

Something [else] I found so intriguing about this movie—this is like the fantasy that everybody wants. They think, “If I get on a plane and go to Vegas,” this is a world that they think they’re going to experience, and this guy was living it. And at the end of the day, he was surrounded by so much pain, so much fear and materialism and he was a man who just wanted to have a good time—my guy, anyway. From what I’ve gotten from Ted [Binion], they weren’t bad people. None of them were bad people. One time, someone said to me, “If you get too close to the sun, you may get burned,” and that’s what happened. He just got burned.

TNE: One of the interesting parts of the movie is when Ray says he knows Matt [played by John Duvall] wants to sleep with his girlfriend, but he puts him in charge of burying the silver anyway.

JE: Exactly! That’s what people do, especially people who are abusing a lot of substances. They get a warped perception at times of what’s exciting and not exciting and it’s not valid. Which is what makes it an entertaining movie to watch, is that everyone’s so unbalanced and operating from a very carnal place. You can’t keep up that pace, as the story shows.

TNE: You were talking earlier about the differences between when you’re writing a script versus when you’re working as a producer or director. I was curious of all those hats that you wear, what’s the most challenging aspect of each job and what’s the most gratifying aspect?

JE: Of each job?

TNE: Each creative link, of being a writer, of being a director, of being a producer.

JE: The producer, you feel like there’s never a gratification. It’s always an end thing. It’s amazing, you meet the budget and you make the schedule, and then you have to make the post-production, you have to sell the movie. Maybe gratifying is talking to someone like you who enjoyed the film, that’s gratifying.

With the director, you get a little more gratification just looking through the—for me, it’s just looking through the camera, through the hole and seeing that shot, and seeing and knowing that everybody’s there and it’s lit up, that tension of knowing that it’s happening. Even though I didn’t write this [script], it doesn’t really matter because this thing, this concept in your head is now manifested physically in front of you, and that’s so exciting. That’s something that never changes. It’s a real rush.

TNE: What about as a screenwriter?

JE: As a writer, I’m pretty much writing all the time, every day. I’ve written a couple of novellas now… I wrote a new novella of this new movie I want to make. [It’s] a music movie called Goldstar, and I wrote it as a novella because I wanted to have a book so when I was done writing, it was done. With a script, when you finish it, it’s almost as if you’re done, but then… no one understands it anyway because very few people can really read a script. A script is very technical, so you don’t get a lot of satisfaction when you’re done with a script and showing it to people because you’re immediately asking them for something, whereas I got a lot of satisfaction when I finished this book.

[I]f I’m writing [a script] with somebody or for somebody and they read it and they get it, that’s tremendously satisfying, but the process of satisfaction in the writing really just comes to me every day. It’s a gift that keeps coming in a more, very primal way. It’s survival. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have that outlet. I’ve been writing I think since I was probably 12. I started just writing stuff down. Now it’s come in the form of screenwriting because [movies are] a language I understand better than other languages.

With a book, I can write down the thoughts. With a script, you have to show it. … I’m improving as a writer because a script is kind of what you don’t say a lot of the time, not what you do say. It’s a subtraction.

TNE: Who were your influences for your acting, your directing, especially for your writing?

JE: I started off as an actor when I was 16 years old. I never went to college; I went just to acting school. From 16 to about 22 years old, I studied acting and I was very fortunate to work with Oliver Stone on a couple of movies as an actor, and he always inspired me because I saw that he was able to take very ambitious subject matters and make them his own.

I like authorship. I feel like now in society, everything is so much by committee.… I like the imperfection of movies, the imperfection of ending. In fact, the imperfection of things, the awkwardness of stuff is something that I love…. You put 30 people in a room and everything is perfect, you know? It’s flawless. It’s good, but it’s not what I’m drawn to. I like the language of a movie, the structure of a movie, when a movie ends.

TNE: With a movie, you have to use a different kind of language to get the interior life across, whatever scene you’re thinking of, it’s more compact and it seems to be a little more difficult.

JE: I don’t know if it’s more difficult; I just think you have more tools. The movie is—and it sounds a little cliché, but it’s really true—a movie is a major collaboration, and without all the people that come together, from the actors to the writers to the music to the mixer to the color corrector to the editor to the producer to the transportation—I mean, if the transportation’s not doing a good job, you can’t even have a good day. Suddenly the whole thing is messed up. [E]very single aspect of a movie has to be respected. All the departments. It’s not more difficult; it’s just more collaborative. And you have to collaborate.

You’re really as good as your weakest link…. There’s creativity in every aspect; it’s just certain things are more glamorous creative, but it really is the same thing. You have to do the work, you have to sit down and that’s it.

TNE: How did your parents’ careers influence you, if at all?

JE: I was fortunate enough to see a lot of incredible creativity occurring around me, excitement and positivity. I got to smell and take that in. And when I’m doing it now, I have a place to compare it to in my mind.… It’s not even tangible, but it is tangible.… I can sense that there’s magic and I have a respect for that process.

TNE: Did they encourage you in your career?

JE: Oh, absolutely! My dad has been so encouraging and my mom, and they’ve both given me tremendous wisdom. It’s invaluable in completely different aspects. My mom…understands literature, she understands books, she understands storytelling, she understands set decorating and production design and all other aspects and my dad, he understands the screenplay process, what it is to have the production run and what it is to be a director, and what it is to have a good strong picture and stand up for what you believe in. [H]e imparted so much wisdom….. I used to watch him in the editing room since I was 11 years old…. I remember sitting and watching him mix a movie and then go into the theater and it didn’t sound good, and he’d say, “I gotta mix it down.”

I made a movie about Che Guevara [2005’s Che Guevara] and I was all excited to show it to him. [H]e came in and sat there and said, “The movie’s good, but all the bugs sound the same.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” and he said, “All the bugs sound the same. Were all the bugs the same in the jungle?” I went back to the sound guy and said, “What’s with the bugs?” He said, “Yeah, we only have these,” and I said, “We need more bugs.” [My dad] understands every aspect of a movie.

TNE: That’s incredible!

JE: Of course, that’s been extremely valuable to me. Just like Oliver Stone was very valuable to me. I didn’t get to see him as close as a family member, but I did get to see a man working and challenging himself to do something extremely ambitious that was exciting, too.

TNE: What got you interested in doing a picture about Che?

JE: Again, it’s funny, it’s always a picture, like with Death in the Desert, what got me interested was the cover of Cathy’s book. With Che Guevara, I was in Vancouver starting a pre-production on a movie that fell apart. I was sitting in my hotel room. It was raining and I was looking out the window and the movie I was working on was going nowhere, and a bus drove by that had a picture of Che. It was a John Lee Anderson book that was advertised and I said, “That is a great movie.” I tracked it down and they were making a movie out of it. I wanted the opportunity to write the screenplay—I wasn’t even going to direct it. I got hired to adapt John Lee Anderson’s book and it was a thousand pages, so my script was 500 pages. I just wrote the whole guy’s life out.

I kept writing and writing and writing. For many reasons, my script didn’t get made, but I knew the story so well that I realized I didn’t even need the script that I wrote; I’m going to write another script based on the same events without even using one of these pages…. I went and re-wrote the whole script myself.  And then we couldn’t find an actor, it was impossible to find an actor, no one could play him. I was in Spain and I met Eduardo [Noriega, who eventually got the role] and I also met my partner, Sergio, who had a lot of experience with war situations and he really understood war, for real, what a real war was, and that was the missing element. If I would’ve made the movie before, I wouldn’t even know what to do. I wouldn’t be able to make the movie without him. I didn’t know what a war was, and that was what the Che movie was about, about battle. It was a war movie.

Certain things are meant to be… I was really nowhere with the movie. I couldn’t get it made. There were years going by. I was becoming almost like a martyr because they were making this other [film about Che] and I didn’t care, I was going to make my movie that I had spent so much time with. I got to Spain and he [Noriega] was there and we met each other and I was so excited. It was almost like a sign from the universe that I was supposed to be doing this. There he was! I saw the guy and I said, “That’s Che!”

I went up to my room to get the new draft of the script and I was jumping up and down in excitement in the hall. There was an emergency exit and I hit my head on the emergency exit, on the door sill, and I got in the elevator and I look in the elevator and my entire head was cracked open like a coconut, I mean literally, it just cracked open. There was blood and I looked like Carrie. I got down to the lobby and I collapsed and he [Noriega] was holding my hand and I was looking up at him and I thought then, “This is crazy. I’m going to die here in this hotel,” but I’m looking at up at him [and] I said, “If I get through this, I know we’re gonna make the movie.”

It was a real tough movie and, well. it should have been because that’s what Che went through. It wasn’t a Hollywood experience. We actually were having our own Che experience in making the film. I’m very proud of that film.

TNE: I love that story. Thank you for sharing it. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

JE: I’m excited for folks to see the film, to watch it and experience it and think their own thoughts and obviously continue to follow whatever I do in the future if they liked it.

Death in the Desert is available on Video On Demand beginning February 16, 2016. Josh Evan’s novella, Goldstar, and a previous novella, When the Sun Fell onto the Earth, are available on iTunes and/or Amazon.com.

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