In an industry that caters to youth and is thought to be rampant with ageism, there is some encouraging news coming out of the Tribeca Film Festival tonight. It is the premiere of The Last Poker Game, starring Martin Landau as an aging physician who moves into a nursing home with his ailing wife and strikes up an improbable new friendship with a gambler and womanizer (Paul Sorvino). Landau is 88, and Sorvino is 78, and while it is encouraging that they are still getting leading roles in films, there is a different reason why The Last Poker Game just might have the most interesting backstory of any movie at this festival.
Its writer-director Howard Weiner is a renowned neurologist whose day job is working on cures for MS and Alzheimer’s disease but whose latest passion at age 72 is making his directing debut with this film. I caught it at a screening Landau invited me to at WME a couple of months ago, and it is not only a touching, funny, quite raunchy (especially in its depiction of senior sex) dramedy, it is exceptionally well made. But when I heard its novice helmer was a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, founder of the Partners MS Center and co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston among other things, I thought that maybe the making of this film would be just as compelling a story as the movie itself.
So recently I got on the phone with Weiner, and later Landau too, to find out how — in this business that tends to throw many of its veteran artists aside — Howard Weiner managed to a get a movie made about being old that has gone on to a plum Tribeca debut. It turns out Weiner does have some sort of show business connection as his son Ron Weiner is an Emmy-winning writer on such shows as Silicon Valley and 30 Rock and that Weiner had made a documentary called What Is Life? five years ago. But in terms of narrative moviemaking, he was as green as a first-year film student. It was a chance meeting with an Emerson College film teacher that got the ball rolling. “I told him I had written a script and wanted to direct a narrative film, and his words actually were, ‘Yes, and I want to do brain surgery,'” Weiner recalled. “So I said, ‘Read my script,’ and he said ‘OK, I’ll read it, but I won’t read all of it if it’s no good. I’m not your mother.’ I got a call from him about three weeks later. He said, ‘Howard, this is a really great story. It’s a great script.'”
The teacher gave him some notes, and Weiner continued polishing his screenplay. His son sensed he was serious and had him come to Los Angeles and film a little bit of it. His son knew some young producers, so Weiner hired them, got some local actors and shot some scenes over a weekend. Weiner said it was the first time he was ever on a movie set, and he felt immediately comfortable with it. It turns out he also is friends with the actor Bob Balaban, who helped him organize a table read of the entire script in New York. One of the guys there was Yaron Zilberman, writer and director of the Philip Seymour Hoffman-Christopher Walken film A Late Quartet. He loved it and helped set Weiner up with line producers who had a young production company. They created the budget of about $1.5 million, and that led to raising the money. Much of the money for the five-week shoot came from friends of his in the medical world who previously raised money for research. He turned to them but warned they had to be able to lose the investment, but they put it in anyway. He also put some of his own cash in as well. Eventually the script got to Landau and Sorvino, who loved it. He met with them and hit if off even if it was a little frightening for him at first.
Landau told me he got the script and it clicked for him. “The thing I liked about it and, I think, Paul liked about it was the fact that it’s a doctor’s point of view of a retirement home as opposed to a Hollywood idea, and it had a lot of interesting stuff in it. And then I heard it was going to be made by a 70-year-old first-time director.” Landau said this wasn’t the first time he has rolled the dice on a new director. He played a man afflicted with Alzheimer’s in 2008’s Lovely, Still opposite Ellen Burstyn. That film, like this one, was about getting older, but when he asked the age of the writer-director, he was surprised to hear he was only 22, the exact opposite of this situation. “I’m adventurous, and probably a little insane,” said Landau about why he signed on to these films.
“We had a great experience and shot for about 5 1/2 in the Boston area in a retirement home. Paul feels too that it is one of the best films he’s ever done, and he makes a lot of movies,” said Landau who noted the pair had never worked together before but that when Sorvino’s daughter Mira won her Oscar for Mighty Aprhrodite in 1996, it was Landau — the previous year’s Supporting Actor winner for Ed Wood — who presented it to her. Landau liked all the story twists involved in The Last Poker Game, which include a subplot of a worker at the home looking for her biological parents as well as some highly sexual scenes involving his character that are quite unexpected in a movie like this. “This picture has some wonderful bumps in it and some wonderful stuff in it. I mean, it was fun to do, and I’ve been around the block a couple of times with good directors and bad directors and God knows who,” said the three-time Oscar nominee who got those nominations for work with Francis Coppola, Woody Allen and Tim Burton. I would venture to say that, working now with Dr. Howard Weiner, he has delivered one of his all-time best performances.
“In truth, I don’t think I have been directed very strongly by anyone in, like, 30 years. I come into this stuff and I figure, ‘Hey, if they don’t like what I’m doing, they’ll tell me, and if they don’t tell me, I just do it. I hit the mark, say the words and get the hell out of there,” he laughed. “Howard Weiner is a good guy, and I sensed that immediately. I didn’t feel we were going to have any trouble, and we didn’t. And that’s kind of wonderful.”
Weiner is a remarkable man at any age. He did take a couple of months off from his work for the directing part of it, and in between he fit it in with his other work in medicine and the big projects he has. “In a way, the film was sort of like another project,” he said. “We have a project where we’re trying to develop a nasal vaccine for Alzheimer’s, and we have a project with Google studying multiple sclerosis. So this was just another one of those projects, although it was exciting and different,” he added with wry understatement. “I do have a real passion, and I guess I’m not afraid. Some of that not being afraid comes from some of the other things I do, so what’s the worst that could have happened? The film didn’t come out well? You know what I’m saying?”
He will be finding out reaction now at Tribeca where the producers who include Eddie Rubin, Marshall Johnson and Peter Pastorelli are hoping to land a distribution deal. But he already has an idea for his next film, which sounds like a Fellini-esque movie taking place in a subway station. A lot of it happens in the mind of the lead actor who will be playing, you guessed it, a neurosurgeon. He describes it as an adult Inside Out. Weiner always has been interested in film; he even wrote a novel but just loved medicine a little more. “So this was sort of a dream of mine and an area [to explore]. I think it’s a story that isn’t usually told. In medicine we do things against long odds. So making this film was a little bit against long odds. I liked that excitement. It was something I wanted to do. I’m 72. When we started I was 70. I said, ‘Just try it’. So I’m thankful how it came out. I have another idea for a film, but I haven’t given up my day job,” he said.
Here is a scene from The Last Poker Game: