SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Nestled between the historic city wall of Old San Juan and a rocky promontory into the Atlantic, La Perla is one of the more picturesque ghettos in the world.
Originally build up in the late 19th century as a place-of-exile for variably non-desirable aspects of San Juan society — cemeteries, housing for former slaves, refuges for the homeless and a slaughterhouse — La Perla developed a reputation for crime and danger, an image built partially on fact and partially on the neighborhood’s intended isolation from the main city. Today, asking San Juan natives about La Perla can get either graphic stories of violence, police apathy and DEA raids or else blank stares.
But, like I said, there’s beauty here and not just from the white-capped waves breaking on the shore, or even the Santa Maria Magdalena Cementery, in which the dead have a place of honor, a flower-studded outlook onto the ocean, and the living need only tip-toe through the eastern side of La Perla’s gates to pay tribute to their departed loved ones.
The houses, stacked one on top of the other, crawling up the hill as if hoping for egress themselves, are vibrantly colored, creating a mosaic of purples and yellows and hot pinks. The architecture is diverse as well, with traditional archways sharing space with vast walls of block glass, a remnant of ’80s style that leads me to pretend abodes were once the residences of towering criminals brought down by Crockett and Tubbs, never to return again. Rusted satellite dishes teeter atop the corrugated green roofs, but otherwise it could be almost any year in La Perla. Poverty is timeless.
Although there’s a strong law enforcement presence on the outside of the wall, I talk to denizens who say that the police mostly leave La Perla on its own, though those stories don’t jibe with stories that speak of recent attempts at a cultural renaissance in the neighborhood, which has also been an enclave for “artistic types” over the years.
It’s August of 2012 and, at this moment, La Perla is positively swarming with a different assortment of artistic types, specifically a Hollywood movie production. Directed by Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) and starring Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and Gemma Arterton, the online gambling thriller “Runner, Runner” has taken over.
If San Juan police don’t love spending time in La Perla, that doesn’t mean that “Runner, Runner” is a free-range production. Private security has the place on lock-down. It’s a steaming hot day and the only visible locals are of the type no bodyguard is prepared to keep out. No, I’m not referring to gangsters or pushers. They’re no where to be seen, if they exist at all. Instead, feral cats slink up and down the alleyways and equally scrawny hens and roosters peck at garbage and periodically crow with enough volume to probably penetrate the “Runner, Runner” soundtrack.
It’s not easy to explain “Runner, Runner” in a single sentence. Timberlake plays Richie, an older-than-normal college student who becomes involved in the world of online poker — “Rounders” scribes Brian Koppleman and David Levien wrote the script — and loses all of his money. He leaves the country in search of the man behind the site, Affleck’s Ivan Block, and gets sucked into Block’s charismatic and opulent world and becomes involved with Arterton’s Rebecca, who probably has secrets of her own. Along the way, plenty of brutal things happen, as Timberlake’s character has his eyes opened. As you do.
“How would I define it? Ummm… I would say that it’s a very sexy, stylized thriller about the underworld of gambling and online gambling. That’s not very succinct, but it gives you a feel. I’m rubbish at stuff like that,” laughs Arterton, speaking with a group of international reporters on the set.
“It’s a world in filmmaking that we haven’t seen. I’m not somebody who’s big into the world of gambling,” Furman explains. “To me, great stories or great characters, that’s what makes great movies. But the world of online gambling is a world we have not seen on film and I was very excited to bring that, amongst some new elements of the world that we’ll bring to this movie.”
You may have noticed that I wrote above that the main character has to leave the country to find the base for the online poker site that fleeced him. You may also be inclined to protest, “Ummm… Puerto Rico is part of the United States.”
Through the magic of movies, this very specific and unique neighborhood of San Juan is standing in for a wide variety of locations in Costa Rica.
“I’m a big believer that where there’s a will there’s a way, but from a studio perspective, it just seemed like a bigger leap than you can get a bureaucratic move to make,” Furman says of the decision not to shoot in Costa Rica.
The primary tipping points, as you might imagine, involved impressive tax rebates from Puerto Rico, as well as crews trained on an increasingly large number of major productions that have been lured by the aforementioned tax breaks.
Still, Furman insists he looked for a certain kind of authenticity in his locations.
“It all starts with what the ‘truth’ is and once I figure out what the truth is for a character, the truth is for a location, and I believe also locations should try to be and evoke being characters in a movie and the truth for me is Costa Rica,” he says. What is Costa Rica? So I did a ton of due diligence on Costa Rica and there was a balancing a bit of an issue between being landlocked and on the water and how to figure that out, which we did and made it realistic.”
Furman adds, “Unfortunately, but amazingly so, there’s an incredible spirit in Costa Rica, but it’s also incredibly impoverished, but yet at the same time, really beautiful and you have this class distinction that exists, like the really impoverished people, with the wealthy living right above. You’ll be in a ghetto and there’ll be this super-fancy hotel or houses built into the mountain right above it. So when I was looking at that, I had to figure out how to create that and the essence of that in Puerto Rico, because we were doubling.”
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While even San Juan residents may think of it only in a single way, La Perla is standing in for both the highs and lows of Costa Rica. There are scenes in threatening and poor environments, but later in the night we’ll see a part of the neighborhood only slightly redecorated but standing in flawlessly as a lively restaurant.
“La Perla and that neighborhood… You can’t build that set,” Timberlake reflects. “I was in an abandoned building the other day that we had to kick homeless people out of to shoot in and I was looking around at the mold on the walls and I was kind of like, ‘Alright, yeah, we are in it.'”
He adds, “I think it is always nice to be on location shooting somewhere because it just makes it…walking onto a sound stage and then getting into that world versus walking into a neighborhood like we were in today. You are sitting there looking at the ocean and you see an old fort behind you. You just feel like you are a part of that world and the world that Brad has really envisioned for this, I think he’s going to really blow a lot of people away.”
At the moment, as we watch, Timberlake and Arterton are walking down a yellow ocean-side boardwalk and it could be anywhere, while also not exactly looking like any place you’ve seen a thousand times before in movies. It’s unclear where they’re coming from, but Timberlake is in a utilitarian all-black ensemble and Arterton is in a form-fitting red dress that cries out for nightlife. They repeat the simple promenade and some cryptic dialogue many times. Many many times.
I can’t say how important the scene will be in the final film, but as the different takes pass, the sky goes from blue and mostly clear to dark and threatening and then the downpour begins.
It’s important to remember that August in Puerto Rico isn’t just summer. It’s also hurricane season and while this falls short of any sort of meaningful meteorological categorization, it’s dumping rain on the set at a rate that’s initially hard to process. Most of the crew escapes to different sheltered locations, leaving a pack of reporters and Gemma Arterton, still in costume, but now getting her feet soaked in flip-flops, huddled and waiting for either a cessation to the deluge or for our outcropping to slip into the sea.
“It’s been hard, because we’re shooting during hurricane season,” Arterton reflects later, finally able to chuckle. “I remember thinking that. I was like, ‘Why are they shooting now? It’s hurricane season!’ So we’ve had to deal with the elements quite a bit. I’m from England, I’m used to that. I’m like, ‘Let’s work through the rain. It’s fine. Just use umbrellas. It’s fine.’ That’s been tricky. But it’s cool. It’s a great island to be on and it’s nice to be in the sun. And also, it’s nice to be all sticky and hot. I think that’s the movie, is sticky and hot, especially the scenes that we’re shooting today. It’s good. It helps, that kind of claustrophobic, muggy feeling is very much the feel.”
[Timberlake seems a bit less enthused when we catch up with him later in the evening in the midst of another flash flood.
“Welcome to Puerto Rico,” he says, nodding at the weather. “All things considered, we are making the days. So, I guess, it is alright. But it is kind of a thing when you are into the scene and then 20 minutes go by where you are just standing under a tent like this looking at the rain.”]
After the rain finally quits… temporarily… Furman resumes his shooting and the repeated takes, which will come into play even more later at the restaurant set.
“I am the big advocate for not shooting that much,” Arterton tells us later, laughing. “Sometimes you can find nice stuff and sometimes when you overshoot — I say “overshoot,” but when you shoot a lot — it makes you not think about the scene so much, to a point where you become complacent, which sometimes can be really good, because you’re not thinking about how you want to deliver the line, it just comes out like that, because you’re tired of it.”
It’s clear, though, that part of why Furman is shooting in this particular location and in this particular way is because “Runner, Runner” means a lot to him, as it builds on the surprising success he had with “Lincoln Lawyer” and could lead to bigger things.
“This movie’s interesting, because it’s a balance. It’s the gritty, raw stuff, but it’s also the super-sophistical, intelligent, psychological complexity that Ivan Block, Ben’s character, has with Richie. So there’s a lot of different layers,” Furman says. “For me, I like to think this movie represents a time and demarcation of my life and my career. I don’t think I’m gonna make another movie like this, just like I’m not gonna wanna make another ‘Lincoln Lawyer,’ but Hollywood is about taking steps and making choices politically and creatively and balancing both to advance your career. If this movie succeeds and does well, and I think it has even way more commercial potential than ‘Lincoln Lawyer’ for a lot of reasons, then I can start making what I consider to ‘my’ movies, things that I’ve written and developed, things I’ve toiled on for years, book rights I have, stuff like that.”
“Runner, Runner” hits theaters on September 27.