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GAMBLING TIME Director's notes

November 10, 2017

PITCH

Gambling Time follows the events that lead to an infamous “fatal April” of 2005 in Fribourg, product of the transition by law that forced slot machines (by far the biggest money makers in legal gambling) out of pubs to concentrate in casinos.

 

Working around the law, small local slot machines producers Escor and Proms, keep their public venue’s licence by offering a new type of slot machines more related to the “skill” of its players than to actual chance. This proves a big miscalculation, for player like Rocco it is easier to empty a machine than crack a new video-game. 

 

This is an untold story, a close to the ground account, the tricks around corporate manoeuvres to hold easy money making schemes turned on its head. It is a vindication film: the oppressed subject of a system finds a way to liberation playing by the rules.

 

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DIRECTOR's NOTES

Gambling Time, allows for a deep imaginary structure that can handle a classic storyline towards a recovering sense of identity. It is a gem of a story to be delivered by finding ways into its protagonist’s depth and making it available in the surface. Its narrative and psychological dynamic addresses to a general audience and is relevant to current affairs and behaviour patterns in today’s world. 

 

The construction of the narrative system for Gambling Time is one of detailed composition. The syuzhet must provide for a dynamic of transformation, much like our protagonist, Rocco, goes through with his pathology. The audience will feel the same liberating effect as Rocco: to break out from the constrictive quality of dependency and transport fortune towards the bigger frame of life. 

 

I first met Rocco Cassone, the real life protagonist of the story, in Fribourg in 2011. A simple anecdote evolved into a rich and plural storyline that kept flowing through the playful vision and charisma of the protagonist. I kept seeing a film in it, and kindly asked Mr. Cassone to provide me with a written detailed account of the adventure. The result was a character flow (available upon request) so generous that it settled much of the elements that inspire the construction of the film’s scenario. 

 

The quick and sharp dialogue of streetwise characters seduced me. So was the protagonist’s matter of fact way of seeing life. I was stuck with it and kept reading into the film’s possibilities. An urban film with agile cuts, long character introduction takes, fast paced dynamics, flows into a classic road movie: strong acting performances, beautiful set ups, the scent of discovery, and a paced social dissection.

 

Gambling Time is inspired in true events that took place in Switzerland during spring of 2005, by way of the passing of the federal law (April 1st 2005) that enforced all slot machines to be concentrated exclusively in casinos. A number of the smaller producers, such as Fribourgeois Escor and Proms, had to find new ways of keeping the most important section of their market: small venues, bars, and restaurants. They developed “skill slot machines” addressed to talent and not only to luck, but still to a controlled probability of win. This proved a devastating initial misjudgement,1 yet it put Rocco on course to rid himself of his gambling dependency and become the protagonist of Gambling Time.

 

In Switzerland, the Canton of Fribourg has historically had the highest concentration of slot machines in the country: also called the “bandits manchots” (one-armed bandits). There were a lot of pathological cases around at the time of Rocco’s ordeal and what was called the “fatal April.”2  It was clear by 2005 that the only winners were the exploiters of such machines. However, the bereaved consequence of the law, compelled by players like Rocco, forced Escor to close down its public venue distribution, and Golden Games to become a bigger player, slicing the market in half with Proms (later to face a similar fate to Escor).

 

Gambling Time dwells into a Swiss social ambience we are not used to seeing  in film but that exists in more ways than we can imagine. The film concerns a generation that has spent the last decade trying to find a clear route to life but confronted to social prejudice, economical constriction, and an almost tragic cultural dispersion.

 

The gang of characters of Gambling Time are always on edge, always looking for the chance to make a buck, to find a way around things, but are pressed down by an addiction to game and delinquent habits.

 

This film is constituted in the heart of Switzerland. A heart that in 2017 is made of a demography marked by immigration. 1 in 4 of its 8 million inhabitants is a foreigner (22,6%) and over 15 % of its immigrants are Italians, making them the largest foreign minority.3 Switzerland has the second highest concentration of foreign born population in Europe (Luxembourg heads the percentages). Gambling Time is in many ways, as Rocco suggests, “the discovery of our country of adoption.” It is close to the gut: to wring truth out rather than prevail in historical standing references.

 

Looking into the themes of the story I want move beyond the changing relationship to fortune and into the telling of a moment in life. In his short story “The lottery of Babyloninto ” (1941 Revista Sur), Jorge Luis Borges imagines the social contract as a game in which every personal action branches out in infinitively divisible game of chance established in the raffle of a permanent lottery. In Borges’ game of chance, our fortunes and adversities mix in the mysterious execution of a fortuitous and determined destiny.

 

It is in fact what one does with what one is given that is at stake, always, in Gambling Time. Rocco’s pathology to game has in fact yielded an extraordinary skill: he knows video games and slot machines like no one. He understands its mechanism. And this is the key, for the new skill machines were designed as a combination of both a video game and a slot machine. When the opportunity arises, a seemingly fixed destiny ceases to be casual and becomes a matter of will: Rocco decides to live the adventure fully, ultimately accepting who he is and changing his perception of life. For the first time in his adult life he feels what it is to be a winner.

 

I have always loved films that are held by the protagonist’s charisma: they transport the audience into levels of intimacy and otherness only available through film. TV series have grown to make our relationship with a fictional persona even more available. Gambling Time holds this quality of intimacy in its center: and places Rocco’s pathology, and his relationship to it, in its core.

 

The principle of antagonism is as evasive as it is a system that keeps Gambling Time together. Eventually, to a domino effect, all elements and players in the film seem to be victims to a bigger than life and invisible antagonist. Pub owners making the cut by losers and ready to cut the power chord when someone is winning, Escor’s general manager’s strategy to keep winnings, murky deals that protect corporations over common people, are all close to the character’s journey. These are the stops that Rocco plays against and, like in playing a skill machine, overrides. For our antagonist relates to unchanging elements: hypocrisy, duplicity, abuse. That which exist beyond the time frame of our protagonist’s life.

 

Slot machines generate more than 2 / 3 of casino revenues. It is proven that what is proposed as a game of chance has nothing to do with chance at all. Slot machines function through a mechanism that can be fixed to levels of winning probability (usually extremely low) but presented as a game of chance. A pathology or dependency is usually developed as compensation response to insufficiency and a sense of failure. It is also linked to two devastating aspects of modern society: depression and solitude. Depression, by spinoff, is also considered the most common illness worldwide, with an estimated of over 300 million people currently suffering from it. Suicide is the second leading cause of death to 15-29-year-olds.4 

 

In Switzerland 74% of the population have at least gambled once and 47% have played during the last twelve months. In spite of the fact that the ratio of classified people with a pathological behaviour towards gambling and game seems quite small (1.2%), the problem persists in many other ways.5  Game addiction is, like any addiction, a path to the outskirts of society, downfall, and probable destruction of a person’s life. Addiction is not an isolated behaviour, it tends to generate recurrence into other areas such as drug abuse, consumerism, destructive relationships, and escalates into a feeling analogous to filling an insatiable void. 

 

Recent studies  have show that the problem is predominant in young adolescents players.6 Figures are not to be underestimated. What is at risk is a young person’s probability to fulfil his / her potential in life. Leading the percentages of youngsters exposed are sons of first generation immigrants with a low economic and social standing.7

 

The compulsive player needs to live the risk of loosing it all. Tangos, poetry, songs, have been written on betting. Families destroyed, fortunes consumed, generations lost. Yet in principle all of this does not lie in the concupiscence of evil or tragic interests in affairs but within the boundaries of our protagonist himself: Rocco is first, and last, his own antagonist by way of his pathological behaviour. And it is exactly this closed recurrence that provides for personal empowerment.

 

We live in an addictive social environment.8 The slot machines of Gambling Time are our smart phones today. Everybody carries a slot machine in their pockets to artificial reinforcements (such as “likes” in social platforms) to a behaviour pattern that hook a person to a device of quick rewards and social tokens.9 Out of this a mechanism is generated: the average person checks his / her smart phone 150 times, and touches it around 2,500 times, every day.10 Terms such as “digital detox” or “anxiety management” are tied to a sense of dependence and the spin of our thumb on a smartphone to reload. 

 

Rewards are a key element to any pathology. This is how most of our consumption markets and social platforms work. Tristan Harris, ex design ethicist for Google, explains the level of this everyday addiction and projects our smartphones as small slot machines in his article “How Technology Hijacks Peoples’ Minds.”11 “They (product designers) play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.”  Video-games and slot machines of 2005 are today in your phone. The link is immediate and universal.

 

Quoting a recent article from the BBC is realistically close to the main theme of Gambling Time:  “Being forgiving of your own failures can help too. Rather than blaming your own lack of self-control, acknowledge that many apps and social media platforms are designed to be addictive and to draw you back in when you’re not browsing – Facebook and Twitter, for example, send emails to users who haven’t logged on in a while. Ultimately, realising that these entrenched habits are hard to break – but not impossible – can be empowering.”12

 

The feeling of liberation at the heart of Gambling Time is a subtle one, and stretches the line of what is legal and what is not in induced addictive behaviour and manipulation. 

 

I would like to generate a pulsating image of addiction and put it in the open making it available and universal. Still not present in the actual treatment, the screenplay will provide a frame that directly links today’s phone dependency to Rocco’s slot machine addiction.

 

The social dissection of a country’s identity is a concern very close to my personal life. My father, Swiss, emigrated as a young boy with his family to the River Plate. Ever since I was born in Uruguay, and as I grew up in Argentina, despite an ocean of differences in between, I have been Swiss. The fatherland ever present at our home, in our friendships and in everyday life. My father used to explain concepts, such as having a good aim, or being extraordinarily resilient fighters, as being inherently Swiss. But it was a shared sense of civil responsibility the conquest of the nation’s soul. 

 

Having in my adult life settled in Switzerland and raising my own family here, I have the chance to confront the timeless values of the land into a changing reality: the face of a country looking to rediscover its identity in a globalised economic and changing social environment. I am at times struck by an institutionalised cultural slumber, subsiding to a fixed channel of procedures that is in many ways responsible for a loss of vibrance and creativity rather than embracing the fire of life.

 

One needs only to depart slightly from politics or social constrictions to admire the sheer beauty of the country’s timeless landscapes, the perfect predisposition of architectural traditions, the fascinating mixture of cultures and languages, the industrious agriculture, the working and laborious people that keep together an ancient and resonant historical ideal: precision and order through hard work.

 

The writing of this film is, as it has been already, a personal opportunity for me to research into the country’s heart through the eyes of its cinema. I want to understand how Swiss filmmakers have seen, photographed and shared their country with their audiences.

 

Gambling Time allows for an expansive and flourishing production. As a story its potential is immense and beyond the boundaries of a single instalment.

 

Having moved to Fribourg in September 2016, with the intention to write and produce Gambling Time, has proven fruitful in many ways. I have recently finished writing three short films under the banner title of Rogue, with intended production 2017. Rogue allows for three narrative stories to co-exist as a triptych. It will be shot in the city of Fribourg and countryside.

 

Everything that happens, truly happens in Gambling Time. When Rocco feels he’s winning, the world is winning with him. We’re all winning. And this feeling will be generated during the writing process and will play a vital role during production.

 

The film will start with our protagonist’s V.O. narration that immediately links to the audience, the story and our protagonist himself: it dwells, breathes, proposes, and generates humour. In the first ten minutes we get to know our protagonist in detail: we are seduced by him, we laugh with him, we suffer with him, we live through an entire revolution of his pathology, life concerns, love matters, family ties, and thoughts. This narration will also be present as he introduces the problem of dependency, the rest of the cast, and takes us all the way to the first plot point: beating the new machine. Rocco is telling us his story.

 

I do not however exclude, at this stage and as we move into the screenwriting process, the possibility for the V.O. to be absorbed and first person narration expressed through the images and the character’s relationship to the camera.

 

Once the film takes on a life as a road movie, the V.O. narration disappears, and our intimacy is pure and cinematic: we are living the instant with Rocco. The V.O. comes back towards the end of the film as closure and conclusion. Structurally changing from an urban drama to a road movie allows for the audience to live a transformative experience in their own skin. 

 

Gambling Time’s flowing inspiration trough ripples through Jacques Audiard’s intimacy in De battre mon coeur c’est arrêté, Guy Richie’s first film hits, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells or Snatch, Fabian Bielinsky’s masterful Nueve Reinas, Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino; Classics of liberation and lysergic delirium as Hopper’s Easy Rider, Terry Gillian’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And cult masters such as Jim Jarmush’s Stranger than Paradise, or Wim Wenders’ early Road movie trilogy. Yet to many respects we are writing a film unique and novel. In its heart, and beyond the lights and humour of its surface, it is a very intimate film. 

 

As in any road movie a capital element for Gambling Time is its music. The original sound score will carry much of the information that transcends the character’s intimacy and attach it to a bigger than life scale. During sections of the V.O. narration, as well as hip hop / street music clips, a female voice will take an irresistible role: a sort of chorus to personify Fortune. Much like the intensity and presence of urban music in a Spike Lee film. 

 

The principle of the wheel of fortune (Rota Fortunae) brings into relation any instant with the luminary and the capricious will of Fortune herself. Fortune in Gambling Time enjoys a more complex aspect because it is nested not in relationship to the forthcomings with the machines (chance) but in allowing Rocco to use his skill to win. Fortune is always there, present, lingering, tempting, adjusting the chances of life.

 

Although the music will not be written at this stage, the elements that will be contained in its composition need to be identified. During the writing process I will work into music inspiration and poetry: streetwise and magical: to the point of providing sections or verses, chorus lines or general stimuli that will become available during the stage of future music composition and element available for production.

 

The journey of the film takes us through the land, the beauty and real elements of its mountains and its countryside, nature and its perennial endurance: we are faced with a rural and almost unchanging environment. A quality that will be distilled to its essence. Nested in springtime Gambling Time’s road movie carries the breath of a changing season: a new perfume in the air, and life ready to renew its vows. 

 

Each particular place in the film will generate a specific structure in dynamics. Rocco’s work environment is plagued by repetition (screens, phones, walls covered in electronics, etc), and this works into the way I will want to write the scenes that happen in it. The Picà or Cugè is a place of constant gambling or playing, so all that happens or is said is inherently attached to something close to a bet, entice ambiguity, breed mistrust over sincerity. During the road movie part of the film the countless bistrots, bars, petrol stations, cabarets, game saloons, empty lots, bathroom corridors that hold the machines are places of transition: the action is fleeting. In opposition, the dialogue between Rocco and his travelling companion, Momo, in the car is homey and lasting. So are the moments they share out in nature, on the road sides, anywhere beyond the sphere of the slot machine’s presence. Rocco and Linda’s apartment is the only place we actually see Rocco on his own: inside his empty realm. The corporate offices at Escor are boxed in neon and contradiction. The structuring of the geographical elements plays a vital role in the writing of the film.

 

The mechanism of the slot machines will be inherent to the dynamics of the entire film: rolling, betting, pulsating, provoking, teasing, accepting, taking away, all concentrated on a single button and the hit of Rocco’s thumb. It all comes trickling down to this: hit it at the exact right time: ace it or loose.

 

Gambling Time is a film that awakens humour, drama, reality, confrontation, rawness, ability and dexterity, game and fortune, adrenaline and emotion. It is a story of liberation from oppression. But in its essence it is the story of a young man finally accepting who he is and getting to know himself. It is my intention to make nothing less than a story brimming with life.

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