Street Talk: Film on Big Deal-Maker Seeks Distribution Deal

Posted February 19, 2010 at 4:15pm

Jack Abramoff was made for Hollywood. But so far the film about his downfall has yet to ink a distribution deal.

[IMGCAP(1)]K Street denizens, especially those who worked with Abramoff or those who followed his auspicious rise and then watched him end up in prison, are getting antsy to see how director George Hickenlooper weaves it all together in “Casino Jack,” which stars Kevin Spacey in the title role.

“We are negotiating with a couple of different distributors right now,” Hickenlooper assures. “We are looking at the best way to position the film in the fall, especially for reward consideration for Kevin Spacey’s performance, which is really off the charts. The best of his career.”

Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack” — not to be confused with the forthcoming documentary titled “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” — chronicles with artistic license the lobbying, the murders and the intrigue involving Abramoff and some of his associates.

“Our film ended up being a kind of fable about Washington,” Hickenlooper says.

Hickenlooper, who sat down a handful of times with Abramoff at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md., says the movie will be out later this year with a Washington premiere likely in the fall. Members of Abramoff’s family and selected lobbyists who consulted with Hickenlooper on the story line already have seen it.

“It’s really an unusual film, very fresh and original,” Hickenlooper says. “It’s very funny. Lobbying can be a very dry subject, but Jack’s story is so gothic … it was so colorful, it’s reflected in the movie.”

Gothic, or the stuff of Greek tragedy perhaps.

Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig whose pre-K Street background did not include any stints on Capitol Hill but did include producing the movie “Red Scorpion,” made a highly publicized career for himself with a long roster of clients including many American Indian tribes. An Orthodox Jew who kept kosher and founded the private Eshkol Academy, Abramoff and his greed led him to shady business dealings with other lobbyists and mafia-connected figures. Abramoff was convicted of fraud stemming from a SunCruz Casinos business deal.

In addition to Spacey, the movie stars Kelly Preston as Jack Abramoff’s wife, Pam; Barry Pepper as Michael Scanlon, the one-time Abramoff colleague; Jeffrey R. Smith as Grover Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform; Matt Gordon as Bill Jarrell, a former top aide to then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas); John David Whalen as Kevin Ring, a member of Abramoff’s team at Greenberg Traurig; and Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan, Abramoff’s business partner in SunCruz Casinos.

“Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan is probably as well-cast a character in a movie as you’ll ever see in your life,” says Ivan Adler, a lobbying headhunter at the McCormick Group, who attended George Washington University at the same time as Kidan. “I think this movie’s going to be awesome. Any time you can combine K Street with Hollywood Boulevard, you’ve got a hit in Washington. I think there are a lot of people that are waiting to see this movie.”

Hickenlooper understands the lobbying business probably as well as anyone from Hollywood could. He says he enjoyed “great access” to Abramoff in prison. And the director, as well as several of the film’s actors, met with many former Abramoff associates that included David Safavian and Jarrell.

“Washington wouldn’t function without lobbying, but there’s always a danger of crossing that line,” Hickenlooper says.

The filmmaker also understands politics — he’s the cousin of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who is now running for governor of Colorado.

It’s clear that Abramoff’s beguiling ways, the traits that made him a pro in the influence business, charmed Hickenlooper.

“Jack has a very colorful personality, very funny,” Hickenlooper says. “He’d make a great stand-up comedian. Kevin [Spacey] and I went into the prison knowing that Jack had nothing to lose by talking to us — trying to influence our take on the story. But we discovered there are two sides of the story.”

Abramoff has been vilified by the media and the Justice Department, Hickenlooper says. “But I feel in a way, politically, he was kind of thrown under the bus by the Republicans because he was drawing too much attention to K Street. Too over the top. Too flamboyant.”

As part of a Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation into Abramoff’s lobbying work, thousands of e-mail messages between the former lobbyist and his clients and colleagues became public, one in which Abramoff referred to his American Indian clients as troglodytes, prompting racist accusations against him. (Apparently, Abramoff also used the term troglodytes to refer to his children.)

Hickenlooper says Abramoff is no racist. “Obviously he broke the law, but the way he was demonized in the press, as a racist, that was all horse shit,” he says. “The reality is he also saved a lot of these tribes tens of millions of dollars. He played both sides — ethically not a great thing to do. He was charging high fees but saving them lots of money.”