It took producer Mike Lobell more than a decade to get Gambit into production, traversing a range of potential backers, film-makers and stars before aligning the Coen brothers, Michael Hoffman, Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz. He tells Jeremy Kay why it has been an ‘amazing education’

“This is my first movie outside the studio system,” says Mike Lobell of Gambit. It is more of an eruption than a statement as he settles into a booth at Los Angeles’ Polo Lounge. Like the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel restaurant, Lobell is a Hollywood fixture with a storied career. He has produced Marlon Brando in The Freshman, Nicolas Cage in Honeymoon In Vegas and Demi Moore in Striptease. But he had never done anything like Gambit.

Lobell reckons his mission to pay homage to Ronald Neame’s 1966 caper classic has taken 14 years of his life. The original film starred Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine and Herbert Lom. The new version, which the producer says is more “inspired by” than a remake, boasts Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman.

Firth was the first member of the cast to express interest in the story of a British art curator who enlists the support of a Texan rodeo queen to scam his boss, and the Oscar-winning actor’s curiosity never flagged. “He was interested when I spoke to him about it in 2004-05,” Lobell explains.

However, it would be another six or seven years until the start of production and, to get there, Lobell would steer a tortuous orbit of potential backers and film-makers that left him exhausted and ready to quit the business.

To begin at the beginning: it is the late 1990s, a couple of years after Striptease has grossed more than $100m worldwide. Lobell has a production deal with Universal and is trawling through the vaults. “I was looking through their library and I saw Gambit,” says Lobell, who recalls attending the picture’s premiere many moons ago. “Nobody had heard of it.”

Maybe, Lobell thought, he could take the storyline and turn it into something fresh. “The first person I sent the movie to was Aaron Sorkin… [Universal] made a deal with Aaron [but] when he came in for the first meeting he said he couldn’t commit because he was working on the pilot to The West Wing. So that was the end of him and he never wrote a word.”

Studio executives engineered a meeting between Lobell and the UK film-makers Andy Paterson, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Anand Tucker. “They were great guys and loved the idea of doing something with Gambit so we made a deal with them,” says Lobell. “When we got the script it was a bit of a shock because they set the movie in Japan. The script wasn’t what I had in mind.”

Then came the first breakthrough. “I heard the Coen brothers were looking for a rewrite in between movies. I sent them the original movie, they responded and Universal set them to write it.

“The first draft came in around 2003-04,” Lobell says with a grin. “It hardly resembled the original. The entire set-up and plot are completely different though we kept the name of the film and the Harry Deane character [played originally by Caine].

“I think I liked the script more than Universal. For one reason or another, they decided they didn’t want to make it. Alexander Payne was involved, briefly. Robert Altman, briefly. Because of my relationships at the studio [Lobell is friends with president Ron Meyer and Universal’s Jimmy Horowitz and Jon Gibson], they did something they rarely do ― they let me take it away and set it up myself.”

Armed with a screenplay, Lobell scurried around town, cutting deals and picking himself back up when things fell through. Around the time the Coens delivered their final draft in 2004, he was in talks with Graham King to finance the picture with Jennifer Garner attached. “Then Graham moved on.” Two years later he was negotiating with Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment. This time, Kate Hudson was going to be the female lead.

“That didn’t happen.” Then Alcon was on board with Richard LaGravenese to direct Gerard Butler. “That didn’t work out.”

While all this was playing out, the indefatigable producer had made Isn’t She Great in 2000 with longtime collaborator Andrew Bergman, and Tears Of The Sun in 2003, starring Bruce Willis and directed by Antoine Fuqua. But Gambit had got its hooks into him.

“I guess it was a year or two where we coasted along. I got a call from Roeg Sutherland at CAA telling me that Doug Liman was interested. This thing would not die.” Liman liked the script but his busy schedule precluded him from playing any further part.

Lobell’s eyes widen in exasperation. At one point or other he had also courted Jennifer Aniston, Ben Kingsley and Anne Hathaway. Now he had nobody.

“I was almost going to quit,” he says. “I have a great life, but Gambit was in my system. Then I got a call from CAA saying they wanted me to meet with Crime Scene Pictures and they wanted to finance the movie. Nobody had ever heard of them but I met with them.”

It was summer 2010. Film-maker Adam Ripp and former CAA agent Rob Paris had just launched the US-based production and finance company and were hungry for content. Crime Scene jumped on to fully finance the picture and produce with Lobell, who says: “When you’ve been around the world with a script and three other financiers, eight other directors, four to five different casts and a guy comes along who says he has the money and these guys are going to get producing credits, you move on it.” They hired FilmNation to pre-sell international territories and Glen Basner and his team kicked off sales with aplomb at Berlin’s EFM in February 2011.

The Gambit pay-off

The day after Liman exited, Lobell called Michael Hoffman, who had been touring the awards circuit with The Last Station. The director eventually signed on. Firth was in, they added Cameron Diaz, Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay and they were off to the races. Gambit shot in London and New Mexico in summer 2011. “The production period of this movie was one of the great times of my career,” says Lobell. “There is nothing like being on a movie set. It’s a privilege and when you get a taste for it, it’s like a drug. But post-production was the toughest one I’ve ever experienced. There were long flights from Los Angeles to London.”

CBS Films acquired US distribution rights in March 2011 and will distribute sometime in 2013. But first comes the UK release through Momentum Pictures on November 21. The film had its world premiere at London’s Empire Leicester Square on November 7.

“All of this has given me the most amazing education in the indie film business,” Lobell says. The eager student has lined up three new projects.

“I am back with Andy Bergman, my old partner from back in the day, for the first time since Isn’t She Great. We’re doing an ensemble comedy called A Film By Alan Stuart Eisner with Robin Williams, Isla Fisher and Shirley MacLaine. I’ve got a love story called This Man, This Woman from a script by Frederic Raphael and I have Airtight from a script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais that Castle Rock’s Martin Shafer and Liz Glotzer will produce with me.”

Mike Lobell

  • 1977: forms Michael Lobell Productions.
  • 1978: produces his first film, Dreamer, for 20th Century Fox.
  • 1981: produces the first film Andrew Bergman writes and directs, So Fine starring Ryan O’Neal.
  • 1987-88: gets a commitment from Marlon Brando to star in Bergman’s 1990 release, The Freshman.
  • 1990s: produces, among other titles, Honeymoon In Vegas, It Could Happen To You and Striptease.
  • 2000s: produces Tears Of The Sun in 2003 and Gambit, which shot in 2011.