Producer Mike Lobell talks to Screen about the making of Gambit.

The world premiere of Gambit at London’s venerable Empire Leicester Square on Wednesday (Nov 7) marks the end of a 14-year odyssey by producer Mike Lobell to bring his homage to the 1966 caper classic to the big screen.

Michael Hoffman directed Gambit, a revenge caper about a British art curator who enlists the support of a Texan rodeo queen to scam his boss. Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay and Stanley Tucci star. Momentum holds UK rights and CBS Films will distribute in the US in 2013.

Lobell, whose credits include Honeymoon In Vegas, It Could Happen To You, Striptease and The Freshman, produced with financier Crime Scene Pictures and talks to Jeremy Kay about rewrites, the joy of producing and a whole lot more. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s the late 1990s and you have your producing deal at Universal…

Mike Lobell: I was looking through Universal’s library and I saw Gambit. Nobody had heard of it. The first person I sent the movie to was Aaron Sorkin. I wanted him to read the script. Aaron saw [the original movie] and loved it and Universal was very excited. They 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. That was a blow.

What happened next?

ML: Universal asked me to meet three people: Andy Patterson, 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. 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.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen stage left

ML: Then I heard the Coens were looking for a rewrite in between movies. I sent them the original movie, they responded and Universal set them to write it and they wrote it.

The first draft came in around 2002-03 and the final draft was delivered in 2004. What was the script like?

ML: It hardly resembles the original. The entire set-up and plot are completely different although we kept the name of the film and the Harry Deane character [played originally as Harry Dean by Michael Caine.] It’s not a remake, although the script was inspired by the original movie. 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.


ML: In around 2004-05 Graham King was going to finance it and Jennifer Garner was attached but she moved on. Then Graham moved on. In around 2006 Marc Cuban’s 2929 was waiting in the wings and wanted to do it and Kate Hudson was interested. That didn’t happen. Then Alcon was in the mix to finance it. Richard LaGrevenese had worked with Alcon and wanted to do it with Gerard Butler. Then that didn’t work out.

What were you telling yourself?

ML: Almost everything that happened happened for a good reason. I don’t know how much time went by. 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. I met with Doug at the Polo Lounge [in Beverly Hills Hotel]. Doug said he liked it a lot and was involved in two other movies and if neither one went first he would do the movie and wanted to a little bit of work on the script. For various reasons it didn’t work out with Doug.

How did the movie’s financiers Crime Scene Pictures get involved?

ML: I was almost going to quit [the business]. I have a great life, but Gambit was in my system. It was almost a go movie. Then I got a call from CAA saying they wanted me to meet with Crime Scene and they wanted to finance the movie. Nobody had ever heard of them but I met with them. I had three other financiers on it before Crime Scene Pictures came along [in summer 2010]. They pre-sold it at the EFM through FilmNation Entertainment. They found a guy to put up the equity. 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.

How did you finally get Michael Hoffman to direct?

ML: The day after Doug Liman left I called Michael. I sent him the script. He didn’t get back to me for about 10 days and I called him and he said he wasn’t sure it was for him. I managed to coax him into doing it. Colin Firth was in, Michael met Cameron Diaz and from there it took off.

Hold on. Tell us about Firth because he’d been a believer for some time.

ML: Colin had always been interested in it. He was the first actor who wanted to do it. He was interested when I spoke to him about it in 2004-05.

Wow you finally had your cast. What other big names had been in the mix?

ML: Jennifer Aniston, Ben Kingsley, Anne Hathaway…

Gambit started production on May 5 2011 in London and also filmed in New Mexico. The shoot lasted approximately 60 days. How did it go?

ML: The production period of this movie was one of the great times of my career. There’s nothing like being on a movie set. I don’t care what you do for a living. That’s the greatest job. The real work is getting them made and marketed. The making of them is a privilege and when you get a taste for it is like a drug. But post-production was the toughest one I’ve ever experienced. There were long flights from Los Angeles to London and neither myself nor Michael [Hoffman] had final cut.

How has Gambit turned out?

ML: Despite the difficulties we wound up with a film that made us proud. The thing about Gambit is it’s an homage. The Coen Brothers wrote it and we made it in the style of the movies from the 60s like Pink Panther and Charade. It’s a mix of farce and sophistication. It’s a very special, quirky film. It’s not a Big Mac. I am so proud of this movie and I [cannot wait] for the world premiere in London. Michael and I are crazy about the Momentum people and how they’re treating the film. The collaboration has been great. We’re opening in the UK first because it’s an English movie.

What has all this taught you about the independent space?

ML: All of this as given me the most amazing education in the indie film business. My attorney at the time Jake Bloom told me that the thing about independent movies is nothing ever happens when it’s supposed to. For me it was like going back to film school. These past eight to nine years have seen the biggest change in the business. Studios don’t make these kind of movies [Gambit] any more because they fall into a range that not everybody in the universe from Uganda to Yucatan will go and see. So it’s opened up the business to a lot of money people who want to be in showbiz, so you get a lot of people who get producer credits on a movie.

But as you say, you’re proud of the movie. What’s next?

ML: I’m back with Andy Bergman, my old partner from back in the day, for the first time since Isn’t She Great [2000]. We’re doing an ensemble comedy called A Film By Alan Stuart Eisner with Robin Williams, Isla Fisher, Shirley MacLaine, Rob Reiner and Oliver Cooper from Project X. I’ve also got a love story called This Man This Woman based on a script by Frederic Raphael and I’m in talks with a major lead. 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.