'Stealing Vegas' will bring university national exposure, official predicts
May 10, 2012
by Carol Cling
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Learn by doing.
That may be the ideal way to impart skills and knowledge, but when it comes to making movies, it's easier said than done.
After all, "Hollywood doesn't show up at a job fair and say, 'Here it is,' " observes Francisco Menendez , who is chairman of the film department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "That's the challenge in academia - how do you build that bridge over to the industry?"
But Menendez, along with UNLV colleagues and students, managed to build that bridge - by making a movie - with a little help from legendary movie maverick Roger Corman.
That movie, the heist thriller "Stealing Las Vegas," screens at 7 tonight at the Suncoast as the closing attraction at the six-day Vegas Film Fest.
"It's our one shot at letting the city see it - as it should be seen," Menendez says.
From there, "Stealing Las Vegas" will head to a few more film festivals, followed by a DVD release later this year.
Filmed on a whirlwind 18-day schedule two years ago at a variety of Glitter City locations, "Stealing Las Vegas" focuses on lowly casino employees determined to even the odds when their ruthless boss plans massive layoffs and cancellations of pensions and insurance - all so he can offer a $20 million jackpot to revive the casino.
Veteran actor Eric Roberts plays Alex Stratholme , the greedy owner of the fictional Olympus casino.
And Las Vegan Antonio Fargas (forever known as the ultracool Huggy Bear on TV's "Starsky & Hutch") co-stars as Mo, a supervisor (and cage-fighting promoter) the actor describes as "Mr. In-Between," one of "those edgy kinds of characters" where "you don't know if he's a hero, the good guy or the bad guy. He's an interesting guy."
UNLV faculty members Michael Tylo (TV's "The Bold and the Beautiful") and Nat Bynum (TV's "Crash") join Ethan Landry, Annabella Casanova, Eloy Mendez and Kristen Terry, among others, in the cast.
Menendez and his co-writer and producer, Warren D. Cobb - who directs UNLV's film department production operations - cast the movie in Los Angeles.
But almost everything else about "Stealing Las Vegas" is as Vegasy as the title. Including the movie's origins - at the now-defunct CineVegas film festival.
Menendez met Corman at CineVegas, which screened Menendez's 2008 movie "Primo."
Corman saw "Primo," and called Menendez, telling him, " 'I'd like you direct a movie for me,' " Menendez recalls. "Which is exactly the kind of call you want from Roger Corman," an independent producer renowned for fostering promising filmmakers. (The many graduates of the "Corman Film School" include such Oscar-winning directors as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard.)
"We did the work and he saw the value," Cobb adds.
In response to Corman's interest, Menendez and Cobb came up with "a working-class 'Ocean's Eleven' " caper, then started writing - and rewriting.
"We were charged with (writing) a heist film," Menendez says, noting the script delivers "the fun, with the twists and turns a heist film should have."
With a completed screenplay, UNLV students prepped the movie in a preproduction class - without a guarantee that "Stealing Las Vegas" would ever be made.
"We did gamble before we shot," Menendez says. "We informed students at the beginning, 'We have no idea if the film is going to go.' "
But hey, it's Vegas, and what would life be without a little gambling here and there?
Their bet paid off when, by the end of the preproduction class, Corman had agreed to come aboard as executive producer, financing the production - for less than $200,000, under an "ultralow-budget" Screen Actors Guild agreement, according to Cobb.
"But to us, that is huge," Menendez points out.
Even so, "in the real world, there's no reason why this could have worked," he says.
But with Corman and UNLV as production partners, "Stealing Las Vegas" went into production, with 70 to 90 UNLV students working on the movie.
UNLV also served as a location, its hallways standing in for those at the movie's fictional Olympus casino. (Cobb's experience working at the late, great Stardust came in handy when searching for convincing casino locations, he notes.)
But several real live casinos also turn up in "Stealing Vegas," including the Golden Nugget, the Las Vegas Hilton (now known as LVH) and the Plaza.
Giving students direct insight into the filmmaking process proved an inspiration for many of the professionals involved.
"The thing that made it unique was, I got to have interns working with me," notes veteran costume designer Diana Eden, who mentored five students on the project.
As a result, "they really got to see how a real film is made," she says. "It's not just fun, 'let's do a student film on the weekend.' "
Fargas describes the "Stealing Las Vegas" shoot as "almost guerrilla filmmaking. Having to deliver in a short amount of time, you're learning something on the fly."
And, ultimately, that's the lesson of "Stealing Las Vegas," which will give UNLV "national and international exposure," Menendez says. After all, he points out, "it says 'UNLV' on the poster." (And for 10 years, UNLV will get half the movie's net profits - assuming there are any.)
"We all have to relearn," says Menendez, who learned filmmaking the old-fashioned way - on film - during his own college years.
With the advent of digital production and projection, however, "film is dead," he acknowledges. "But film, as an idea, has never been more alive."