Set Visit: Runner Runner: Part 1: Puerto Rico and the Sexy Thrill of Online Gambling

There are certain places in the world that police and locals alike just don’t go. Certain neighborhoods, like Baldwin Village as portrayed in TRAINING DAY, where it is simply not an option to venture because you’re not a part of the community and will thereby very possibly get your shit f***cked up in a big way.

That’s the sort of place I found myself one hot and humid Friday morning back in June. More specifically, the “place” I'm referring to is La Perla, a neighborhood in Puerto Rico literally down the hill from Old San Juan and sandwiched between two imposing Spanish forts. Now before you get any ideas about how bold I am, I wasn’t just wandering around for the sheer hell of it – I was on the set of RUNNER RUNNER, Fox’s upcoming “sexy thriller set in the world of online gambling” starring Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Ben Affleck, and Justin Timberlake that was already thirty-seven days in on forty-six day shoot.

La Perla means “The Pearl,” and just a few decades ago it was known to be a major open air drug market. Things have cooled down a bit, but the area is definitely still not considered safe. If something happens to you there, the simple fact is that you’re on your own. The local guides and reporters who were accompanying our group of twenty-five or so journalists had never been in there. Local law enforcement stayed away. There’s a single street that winds its way through the neighborhood, a rooster crowed every ten minutes, cats slunk between fence slats, and locals walked through the behind-the-scenes workings of the film set on their way to or from their homes. And then there were the walls of the buildings all through La Perla, covered with graffiti of every style and every color. The entire area was a modern art exhibit, and a gorgeous one at that.

But RUNNER RUNNER doesn’t take place in Puerto Rico. In fact, as Unit Publicist Greg Berreliant told us, the movie is “100% shot in Puerto Rico, [but takes place] 100% in Costa Rica.” Even scenes in the film’s story that take place in Princeton, a location which could not be more different from Puerto Rico in nigh-on every way imaginable, were shot using locations discovered in Old San Juan. But you may be wondering – Princeton? Online gambling? Costa Rica? The dangerous and graffiti-filled neighborhood of La Perla? Justin Timberlake’s pretty face? What’s going on here? And just what are Fox and director Brad Furman (THE TAKE, THE LINCOLN LAWYER) trying to pull?

To know about RUNNER RUNNER you have to know about the world of online gambling, so for those of you who are out of the loop (as I was) here are some of the basic, gritty details:

~ Online gambling comes in two forms: that which is regulated by the Federal Government, and that which is not. The latter rakes in over $35 billion a year from bases in locales like South America, the Caribbean, and Dubai. It is, to quote Mr. Berreliant again, “gambling on jet fuel.”
~ Gambling in general, and poker in particular, has skyrocketed in terms of popularity over the last few years. The World Series of Poker regularly finds itself with higher ratings than even some NHL games.
~ Offshore online gambling bears its main danger in the fact that whomever is running the website on which you’re gambling can, at any point, pack it all up and take your money to fund their dream life of lounging on a tropical island. In fact, not only can this happen – it has happened. Which brings us to RUNNER RUNNER.

A basic set up for the “sultry sexy thriller” scene Fox is hoping to capture with the movie might run like this: Timberlake plays Richie, a guy who dropped out of an Ivy League school to go make it big in Chicago at a fictional firm called Rush Street Capital. 2008 hit, the Stock Market crashed, and Richie had to shuffle back to school with his tail between his legs. Older now and feeling out of both place and step with the general school population, Richie turns to online gambling to pay his tuition. When Richie loses everything to a man named Ivan Bloch, played by Ben Affleck, he investigates and discovers what is basically an algorithm that sets the point at which every player using this site will inevitably lose it all. With nothing left to lose, Richie manages to make his way down to Costa Rica and confront Bloch directly. At first he becomes Bloch’s protégé, but when he fully realizes the vicious and nasty world he has discovered he tries to escape with the help of the woman with whom he has fallen in love – Bloch’s past lover and now second in command Rachel (played by Gemma Arterton). A Federal Agent (played by Anthony Mackie) has been tracking Richie and Bloch all the while and, as Timberlake put it, “wild sexy sultry ensues.”

All of that backstory was Timberlake’s idea, by the way. But we’ll talk more about those sorts of behind the scenes machinations later on.  For now, let's get back to the set visit.

A question you may be asking, or at least one I was certainly asking myself throughout the set visit, is why shoot in Puerto Rico and not Costa Rica? Or why not set the story in Puerto Rico and eliminate the question altogether? Well for one, Costa Rica in particular is a bit of a hotbed for offshore online gambling. And for two, Costa Rica is a classic case of a location that is just not as conducive to filmmaking as one might wish. “I’m a big believer in ‘when there’s a will there’s a way,’” said Furman, “but from the studio perspective I think it just seems like a bigger leap than you could get a sort of bureaucratic move to make… [besides,] the sophistication, the crews, the tax break here [in Puerto Rico] is like 40%.” Now that isn’t to say Furman hasn’t done what he can to strive for authenticity – he convinced Fox to let him shoot for a week in Costa Rica, which was set to happen after filming in Puerto Rico wrapped and was, to his mind, “a big victory for this film.”

But that’s the sort of thing that the average movie goer isn’t really able to know going in, so it’s just as well that there are plenty of other victories for RUNNER RUNNER that Furman intends to be very noticeable even upon a first viewing. He mentioned that he “got really super excited about working with Justin because I really believe in him and I believe we’re going to show a side of Justin Timberlake as an actor that people haven’t seen.” And how’s that going to manifest? Well, Furman thinks that Timberlake is “delivering a performance that in my opinion is riveting, is grounded, [and] is raw.  He’s charismatic, he’s intelligent, he is actually in my mind the embodiment of a classic movie star, so as a result of that I felt really confident we could take this journey together” So that’s something intriguing to watch for. There’s also the fact that Furman is shooting RUNNER RUNNER on film, a design decision that definitly that stands out these days. When asked why, he explained “well for me it’s black and white. The opportunity to shoot and get the depth out of the film I don’t think you get in digital is a huge deal for me… Ireally wanted to create a classic aesthetic, and felt very very strongly in order to do that and create a piece hopefully that was timeless, film was a crucial piece of my decision in doing that. “

And then there’s the big victory regarding the R rating. Yes RUNNER RUNNER will be rated R, something that we all agreed would play a big part in allowing the movie to be as sexy and sultry and edgy as Fox intends. The ambitions brought by Furman, Timberlake, the folks at Fox, and all the cast and crew onto RUNNER RUNNER have already put it on a much higher plane than most other slick dramas of a similar style, and the rating is definitely going to play a large part in allowing the movie's potentially to be fully realized.  But for more on Timberlake's essential involvement in that decision, along with a description of the beautiful scenes and stills we saw and some expanded soundbytes touching on every aspect of the production, make sure to check out Part Two tomorrow!



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