Where did the idea for Lucky come from?
I got an e-mail from a woman in New York who had been doing research on this. At the time, a lot of people were pitching me a lot of different ideas and nothing was quite sticking. And this seemed immediately to be exactly the right thing for me. I guess in retrospect it felt like it was a good companion piece to 'Spellbound' which is a movie about kids who work really hard towards some kind of obscure goal. Lucky for me is the opposite. It's about people who don't workhard at all towards this kind of massive goal. So I thought you could get two sides of the American dream like that.
How did you find the people, and what was your criteria for picking them?
Casting is, in some ways, the hardest part and it comes first. If you get it right, you can do tons of other things wrong and your movie still stands a chance of working. But if you get the casting wrong, you can do everything else right, and your movie is still going to stink. Casting is like falling in love. You think you know what you want and you think you can describe it, but you really don't know until it walks through the door. So I would just read a ton of stories about people who had won, and then I tried to focus on trying to get those people. We discovered in making Lucky that trying to get lottery winners to be in a movie is incredibly difficult. For most of them, after they win, a lot of hardship follows from being in the public eye. So they just wanna disappear. So we kept at it for years, actually, years longer than we thought we would try to find the right mix of stories.
Are there any common threads that bond lottery winners?
I think one of the interesting things about the lottery is people have the perception that the lottery's generally played by people who are poor and people who aren't educated, so they don't understand the odds. And the truth of it is that the lottery is the most popular form of paid entertainment in the country. So it's impossible to really understand them as having sort of similar experience until the minute they win. And then their experience starts to get very similar.
One of the things we discovered is that the biggest shift with winning the lottery is actually not really financial. The money ends up being a secondary thing, and people end up in a much more fundamental way robbed of core things that shape their identity. So if you think about what makes you who you are, it's your relationships with your family, it's who your friends are, it's the neighborhood you live in, it's the job you work, it's what your ambitions are, what your struggles are. And in one day, without doing any work at all, all of that is changed. You don't have any experience to try to figure out how to deal with those incredible changes. It's just thrust upon you, and almost without fail, you as a lottery player haven't contemplated what might happen. So the common media narrative that people want to believe that like a good-hearted person who wins, that their life won't really change. And inevitably that quickly changes.
Having made the film, do you believe in luck?
I came to a new appreciation for the role of luck in everybody's life. How many people seem like they end up with fabulous wealth and so much of it has to do with pure luck, whether people want to acknowledge it or not. What's most important about the lottery ends up not being whatever the actual economics of it are, but the fact that it gives someone a means to dream. I think people can argue it both ways in terms of people who play the lottery. Because on the one hand, it makes a lot of sense when someone says to me, you play for the fantasy value of it. But for people who say, I buy a lottery ticket, and for those several days I get to dream of what my life might be like and there's no way in reality I'm gonna get there, but there's something so pleasurable about the dream of it that I can appreciate. I can also appreciate when people who spend a tremendous amount of money on the lottery, it actually would help if they didn't do that, if they instead tried to be more sound about how they dealt with their finances.
" ... I think with lottery winners, they think they're getting one story of their futures, of their lives when they win, and very quickly they learn that actually someone's written a completely different story for them."
The five took five years to complete. How did it evolve?
Like any movie project, you're constantly writing and editing and adjusting. I think filmmaking is figuring out how much of your original conception you want to insist on hanging onto and how much you want to let go of, and see where the world takes you. Because if you hang onto the initial concept too much and the world is presenting you all sorts of other stuff, then you're an idiot for not having followed the better stuff. But the flip can also be true. If you just let go and give in to whatever's presented to you, you can end up with a giant mess. Which is a long way of saying, it's hard to remember exactly what my initial conception is because it just changed so much. But I do remember that I thought somehow it would be a movie about God. The people who won the lottery would have to immediately confront these bigger metaphysical questions about their role in the universe and whether they could accept that this completely random thing
had so utterly changed who they are.
The film suggests that the lottery can tell us a lot about America. Can you expand on that?
I think most people think the American dream is the dream where there's a level playing field and if you work hard you can achieve anything. And that it's all predicated on your own hard work and that what happens to you is completely your own responsibility, ultimately. That's one myth of America. The other myth that I think has just as much currency to it, but people don't like to cop to, is this idea that it's the land of the lucky. And that you can strike it rich without having to work hard for it. And I think that's something that we actually take pride in, even if we don't like to talk about it. And these things seem like they're in conflict. You know, you feel like it can't be both a place where it's all about the luck of the draw, but at the same time it's all about hard work. And I feel like these two myths in our culture jockey for what's in control.
We live in a culture where we keep hearing that it's all about picking yourself up by your bootstraps, which to me feels like a pretty naïve way to think about the world. I just think that there's good luck and bad luck, and people with resources have the ability to grapple with that better than people without resources. But it seems like there's a healthy way to acknowledge both the role of work and luck in America.
And I think with lottery winners, they think they're getting one story of their futures, of their lives when they win, and very quickly they learn that actually someone's written a completely different story for them and they have to try to fight to figure out what parts of the fantasy story they can bring over into the actual story as it's playing out.
Summer Series 2010
Tell us what you think about HBO GO. Sign up now to participate in the HBO GO Advisory Panel to share your opinions and for a chance to be entered into HBO sweepstakes and contests.