Own Thyself

From Watsonville to Hollywood, the tale of Maurice Chauvet is filled with gutsy moves and even bigger gambles

He may have come from the rural farmlands of Watsonville, but these days writer Maurice Chauvet is getting his hand dirty in fertile Hollywood soil. But, like any dirt you plant seeds into, creative or otherwise, sometimes you just have to wait—and wait and wait and wait—for something to sprout. For Chauvet, it’s suddenly harvest time. The fruit of his labor? Penning Owning Mahowny, the edgy independent film that hits Nickelodeon Theatres this week. Headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman,
the film siphons the energy from Gary Ross’ compelling 1987 novel “Stung,” and plays off the real-life tale of Dan Mahowny, a suit-and-tie corporate drone who socks it to flashy Las Vegas and goes on for a few rounds of mental boxing when he tries to take on both the casino and the bank he works for.  The result finds $10.2 million of siphoned bank funds and Mahowny watching as millions more are funneled through the gambling networks. Startling enough, sure. Even more of a jaw-dropper is Mahowny’s persona. Like Wonder Bread before him, there’s really no wonder to him at all. More startling is that Mahowny was never really into gambling for material wealth—he lived for the thrill of the bet and it never occurred to him to save any of his winnings. When the project came Chauvet’s way—basically, a producer saw one of Chauvet’s plays when Ross’ book had just been optioned—he took a gamble.

“New writers work cheap, so I think [the filmmakers of Owning Mahowny] said, ‘let’s take a risk on this writer,’” Chauvet recalls. “They saw my ability to translate the material and I think I respected the material.”

Interestingly enough, Owning Mahowny , directed by Richard Kwietniowski, debuts in the very theater Chauvet frequented—besides the Nick, he parked it in the Del Mar, the Rio Theatre and the Sash Mill Theater where Rocky Horror Picture Show often played. After graduating Watsonville High School in 1983, Chauvet went on to study film in San Diego. Afterward, when dabbling in the nether regions of Los Angeles chic proved too frothy and mostly fruitless, he “split for a while,” went to New Orleans, then to Europe—Madrid and England. “I was the basic euro bum,” he now laughs. “It wasn’t a very glam existence though if I wanted to be writer I knew I had to make it so I ran into some theatre people in London and started writing plays and working with a theater company there.”

Meanwhile, Owning Mahowny stays true to Ross’ novel. It not only delves into the events, it goes into the psychology and the psychosis of gambling and tosses in the inner workings of both the banks and the casinos. In a nice move, both director and writer seem to be on the same page, as it were—Owning Mahowny works because it tells an extraordinary story in an unextraordinary way. Minnie Driver and John Hurt co-star. Good Times caught up with former county resident, Chauvet. Here’s his take on Owning Mahowny (***):


Good Times: This film is clever and innovative. Basically, this man holds hands with his gambling demons and socks it to the bank and casino, swindling them out of millions. What did you think of the book, “Stung” (1987) on which this was based?

Maurice Chauvet:  Well, they handed me the book when I got the job and said,  “This is the material, we need a movie out of this. That was the starting point.  Gary Ross wrote this amazing really exhaustive book (“Stung”) and every detail and every bit of this guy’s life is in it. In turning that in the film, a lot of what had to happen was that it needed some compression. But I thought his book was terrific. It’s a true story but reads like a very weird thriller, actually, it’s strange thriller. The guy that is the protagonist is trying to remain invisible in both worlds—he exists in both in the gambling and banking realms.
GT: Mahowny basically lives for the thrill of gambling, to him it’s not about money.

MC: It’s about the act of gambling, even the swindle. It’s all about how he is going to get back there (the casino) one more time. All he thinks in his head is, ‘If I can only get even, all this will be over. But we realize he has a bigger problem than that.
GT: What was so appealing about this theme to you?

MC: Everybody, to one degree or another, is addicted to something— taking something too far. I felt like even though this is a character that is a rotten guy because of the nature of how he does things—he is sort of the work-harder-do-better sort of character, which works well in bank—but if you stay later and work harder in a casino, you are going to lose money. His work ethic is his undoing in the casino, but I found this nobility about him—somebody who took something to the limit. Even though it’s gambling and crime, he took it as far as he could run with it.  More and more things fall down around him.


GT: How much of a gambler are you?

MC:  Not at all. I went to Vegas though. I thought it would interesting to do what he did—get out of work, get on a plane, go to the casino, and then go back. I was exhausted. I could never do that … the book was an amazing resource on everything you want to know about gambling. If you read that book and see the movie, basically you know that if you sit down on at the tables in Vegas, you have to realize that money is already theirs.


GT: What’s the 411 on Philip Seymour Hoffman? Did you know, writing this, that he would star?

MC: I’m a big fan of all of his work. He was great in The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Actually, he was very good in Scent of a Woman, which I think was one of his first movies. And the P.T, Anderson movies— he was amazing in Magnolia.  There really isn’t a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance that is phony. His work ethnic and the way he approached his work here puts him in the same caliber as De Niro and Pacino. He works that hard and it show in his performances. He has an unflinching honesty.


GT: What do you think of his performance here?

MC: It’s a very interior role. He does very little. He sits there and does nothing and he tells the whole story through his eyes moving back and forth. He found a way to tell a story with very little and gave us a lot. Maybe it’s an emptiness inside of him that’s compelling.


GT: What do you enjoy most about writing?

MC: This film was difficult. I mean, you don’t want to make a travesty of this guy’s life. At the same time, you have a responsibility to these guys who hired. You have to relate to the audience and it’s a matter of walking the balance and being as authentic as possible to the truth of this guy’s story. If you look at [director] Richard Kwietniowski’s film, they walk a very strange line between comedy and tragedy.  At the same time it was fun. It was such wealth of material. As far as writing, I love writing dialogue—just free association of writing dialogue. Ninety percent of it ends up cut. But that is the fun part—the free association. The hard part is structure. Screeenplays are all about structuring the story. How you structure the event that adds up to a film. When you do that right, you actually can see there is a moment here and you go, ‘oh that works.’ Writing dialogue is the easy and the fun part.  When I finish one script,  I want to get in to another.
GT:  What are you working on now?

MC: I’m doing something for 20th Century Fox and Paramount.  The Bride Wore Black—not the Jean Moreau film; and an all CGI version of Mighty Mouse.

GT:  What’s been the biggest gamble in your life?

MC: Trying to become a screenwriter.  Yeah … I grew up in this farm town—Watsonville—and I am going to go to Hollywood and make a movie That’s ridiculous! In a way, I related to that character in the movie.  I spent a lot of time writing and working before anything clicked and I have the same attitude for writing as he did— yeah, I’m going to do this until I say I can’t.
GT: You like to write for different genres, don’t you?

MC: Yes. And never in a million years would I have thought of being the screenwriter for an all CGI Mighty Mouse. It’s kind of like … you never want to repeat things. If I finish one thing … if I finish a comedy, I try to do a dramatic piece next, or if I do a romantic thing, then it’s onto something with solid acting. I try not to fall into a rut; writing something where you are going, ‘I have done this before.’  There’s no sense of discovery in that.

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