This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 29 August 2014
American filmmaker Josh Evans’ new movie Death in the Desert is a classic. I was privileged to get an exclusive preview of this brand new film. The prolonged panoramic and panning landscape shots burn into your mind with the light and the dark and the shadows. The cast and the characters they play are captivating as is the dark and addictive story.
The film is based on the true crime book by Cathy Scott Death in the Desert: The True Story of Money, Murder and Mystery in Sin City about the death of Ted Binion (Ray Easler in the film). I was originally introduced to Josh Evans through Cathy Scott, a fellow writer, and interviewed him last year about his novella Gold Star. It was a pleasure to speak with him again, this time about his latest film.
“I was immediately drawn to the Death in the Desert story because Cathy Scott sent it to me and I know she’s a hard-nosed, down-to-the-facts writer. And since legitimacy is what’s important in true stories – although in this case it was bit of a hybrid – a carnal story works so great in cinema, a story about greed, lust and lost souls trying to make their dreams come true in a town as seductive but as vapid as Vegas. It was immediately a story I wanted to tackle,” Josh told me.
Death in the Desert Trailer
Ray Easler is a legendary casino owner and a cocaine and heroin addict who falls-in-love or falls-to-abuse Kim Davis, a stripper. He steals Kim away from her working life and her flatmate and enmeshes with her in a dysfunctional relationship, which turns into a love triangle when Kim meets Matt Duvall, the man Ray hires to bury $20 million of his fortune deep in the Nevada desert.
Death in the Desert opens with a sparkling, red shoe spinning that also appears at the end of the film. I remember every Christmas watching The Wizard of Oz as a child and as a former heroin addict, I’ve so often thought ‘stop the world I want to get off.’ The unanswerable question of how Ray Easler died becomes less important as you see how he lived.
Like Michael Madsen, who plays Ray Easler, told me, “The whole thing will forever be in conjecture. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to really conclusively understand what happened. There’s more than one answer. Everybody played a part in what happened to him, so I don’t think there is a conclusive answer.”
And he’s right; when you live life in that way, death can come from many angles. “I think Ted was a product and a victim of Vegas. You have to have thick hide to make it there, to live and breathe there. The very nature of its existence is based on the hypothesis of gambling. It’s a gamble to be there. To use a silly metaphor, it’s all about the throw of the dice. For anybody who’s there, at the end of the day, you better hope you throw snake eyes.”
Filming finished in Las Vegas earlier this year, having shot during the month of February and into early March. Josh had been in Las Vegas since last August, preparing to film and getting to know the real Las Vegas. “Shooting was definitely an adventure,” he told me. “Some locations fell through at the last minute, which always poses a challenge. But we were fortunate to find even better locations to replace them. The Grand Hotel and the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club were both last minute and now looking back, I can’t imagine the film without them.”
It was important for Josh to show an authentic side to the city – “one that hasn’t always been shown in other Vegas movies I’ve seen,” Josh told me, elaborating that Las Vegas is a definite character in the story. “The city of Vegas has so many aspects to it – there are relatively newly constructed suburbs, which I never knew about, and also downtown, which is on the rise and has an interesting metropolitan energy about it. In the desert, you would never expect such a diverse, artistic place. Besides all of that, there is this overwhelming sense of nature. It’s as if Vegas is sitting in the middle of a crater, surrounded on all sides by mountains. When you combine these facets, it makes for an incredible setting to tell a story like this one. In a way, Vegas reminds me of what Los Angeles used to be – a place out in the middle of the desert where you can do whatever you want and no one will ever know about it.”
I’m somewhat (under-exaggeration) of a fan of Michael Madsen with my favourite role of his being ‘Mr Blonde’ in Reservoir Dogs, one of my favourite films. I asked Michael what attracted him to the role of Ray Easler. He told me that he always responds to playing a character who actually lived, a story about something that actually happened. “I can only compare it to Donny Brasco, because I played Sonny Black and I wanted to tell his story. I felt the same about Ted Binion and was happy to play someone where the story’s based on actual events.” Michael describes Ray Easler’s personality as “self-destructive” and he is certainly that. Michael explained that he is “curious sometimes about the reasons why people are so destructive.” He said, “Through the process of making the picture, I eventually came to conclusions about Ted’s reasons for self-destruction. I think it was a loneliness in not being able to measure up to the enormity of his father and realising he was always going to be compared to his dad, Benny.”
Perhaps that ‘not good enough’ feeling is what drives Ray to abuse and ridicule Kim (played by Shayla Beesley), making her feel the same. As someone who has also been in the sex trade and experienced partner violence, not leaving those damaging relationships has oftentimes been due to a feeling that I didn’t deserve better, which maybe Kim fostered too. Ray despises the men who ogled Kim when she was dancing, conveniently forgetting that he himself was once one of them. When Kim gets too close, he pulls away. His low self-worth won’t let him belong anywhere that would accept him.
Only the Lonely is the perfect track for the film. Originally a song by The Motels, the cover version for the movie was produced and arranged by Chris Goss and Roxy Saint and performed by Roxy. As Josh says, “It captures the emotion of the film.”
Only the Lonely Song Clip with Stills
So what’s next on the cards for Michael? Something completely different as Monty Python would tell you. “Right now I’m doing a comedy for Ben Stiller for Comedy Central. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to leap to after doing a Vegas film. I’m going to Brazil to get my footprints in the concrete with Jacqueline Bisset. And I just finished a film in Istanbul about the occult. Las Vegas will put a person in a trance. I got really caught up in it. I didn’t want to leave. It’s a very strange cortex. I was out at the Red Rock Hotel and every morning I’d see Vegas out in the distance. It’s almost like it shouldn’t be there. But everybody in Vegas has always been friendly to me. I used to go there before they blew up the Sands, before they made major changes. I’ve always been treated well. There’s no place like it on earth.”
And what’s next for the as yet unreleased film Death in the Desert? Josh Evans explained that, “This movie, because it’s an independent film, was made with very little if not no interference. It was a complete collaboration with the DP (director of photography), editor and writer, and for the most part we were left alone. The price of that is now it’s time to shop the film and find the best way to get this movie out to the public. I’m very excited to share it with people, because while it’s not fun to live these lives that the movie is about, it is exciting to watch them acted out. To me, the movie is like a round-trip ticket to Vegas. You really get the experience — the lust, greed and bright lights.”
I expect Death in the Desert will be in cinemas in the UK soon as well as the US and globally, and I know it will be a story that stays with many of the millions of people who will see it.
Can you tell me about your current project No Human Involved?
In 2009 my friend and colleague Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of the Desiree Alliance) sent me an email about the death of Marcia Powell in Perryville Prison outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Marcia had been serving a 27 month sentence for solicitation of prostitution and corrections officers had left her out in the sun in a metal cage in searing heat until she collapsed. Soon after, in hospital her life was ended when the Director of Arizona Department of Corrections removed her from life support.
After reading about what happened, Marcia’s story was always with me.
Later in 2010 at the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in Harlem, NYC, I began to develop the idea of investigating Marcia’s case as a potential documentary film. Many of my peers at Maysles—who were people with a lot of community organizing knowledge already—were quite astounded by the sentence she was serving and what had happened to her. I knew then that documenting what had happened to Marcia Powell could be a vital step in educating the general public about the real harms caused to people in the sex trade by the prison industrial complex.
It was a departure for me to embark on this documentary for a wide range of reasons. In 2010 I didn’t know anyone in Phoenix, I wasn’t acquainted with the organizing there and I didn’t know Marcia personally either. My previous work had always been with folks I had known for years. But my film mentor Carol Leigh encouraged me to try this new step and connected me to several key activists in Phoenix, most importantly with Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch. In March of 2011, I visited Peggy and several other the local activists to ask if they thought the film should be made and if my approach appealed to them. I knew from being involved in grassroots organizing that so often “outside experts” suck the energy out of community to “tell a news story” or make a film and this was something I wanted to avoid doing. Everything fell into place during that first journey, we all were on the same page. People were also beginning to reflect on how Marcia’s death had set a series of events in motion and wanted to talk about that in the context of a documentary.
What do you hope this project will achieve?
I want people to understand that what happened to Marcia can happen again. The film is not about an isolated, shocking incident (even though the case is horrific), rather it explores an example that exposes the system. As a member of Phoenix Food Not Bombs said at Marcia’s memorial service in 2009, “this has happened before, it will happen again, it happens to men, women and transgender people.” There is a mistaken belief amongst concerned people out there that somehow going to prison can “turn someone’s life around” and help people “escape” prostitution or drug use. So, the first part of the message of NO HUMAN INVOLVED is that prison is not safe, you don’t get comprehensive services there, you are dehumanized. If you are a woman who doesn’t conform to a very narrow set of gender norms set out in prison, you are at greater risk, or if you are trans, or queer, or if you have a mental health issue. The second part is that a web of terrible laws and policies—ranging from statutes to prevent walking and sleeping in public space and surviving through sex work—are sending people to prison for very long periods of time under mandatory sentencing. And to spell out the point, I think there are many, many people in the general public who want women like Marcia to “be helped” but they don’t yet understand the real functioning of the law, how policing happens, what happens to you in the court room and the system that classifies you once you are inside a prison. NO HUMAN INVOLVED unpacks all of this step by step so that audiences can think differently about what needs to change. The film is also raises awareness about the sheer numbers of people being arrested under the current criminalization of the sex trade in Arizona and the sheer numbers of people being placed in jails and prisons for doing what they need to live.
Can you share about the research you’ve undertaken to get this off the ground?
When I first started developing the film idea in 2010 and early 2011, I read a lot of online materials and reports about Marcia’s death. Since then the ACLU Arizona has published some very important documents about the experiences of prisoners that also form background information for the film. Over time NO HUMAN INVOLVED has evolved into very much a community project. Even though I have experience in doing research, finding accurate information relating to incarceration has been a learning curve and I am in awe of what folks in Phoenix can do. A colleague in Arizona has shown me how to request extremely detailed information from Arizona Department of Corrections and my good friend Monica Jones not only explained how the courts function in Arizona but encouraged me to find recordings and video tapes of Marcia’s court appearances. Kini Seawright (of the Seawright Prison Justice Project), has helped me seek out connections in the activist community to find people who personally knew Marcia. Kini keeps me putting my heart into the film. I’ve spoken to scores of people to record background interviews, including some with amazing women who were in Perryville with Marcia who have shared about who she was and how she was treated. I’ve met and interviewed people from the corrections system and a local filmmaker gave me truly vital original footage of Charles Ryan (the director of the Department of Corrections) speaking about the case at a memorial for Marcia organized by activists in 2009. In order to document how the community has responded in the years since Marcia’s death, I’ve attended (and filmed) church services, memorials, meetings at local women’s groups, rallies, actions, I’ve filmed (with permission) in the court and spoken to law enforcement. I’ve seen (and documented) the emergence of SWOP Phoenix as a presence to challenge the policing practices that put Marcia on that path to Perryville Prison.
What stage is the project at currently?
I am working with a very dedicated editor in the NYC area on the second cut of the film. Once we have enough funding, we will refine it, and create the DVD to begin the film’s distribution. As with most films these days NO HUMAN INVOLVED has been a labor of love (ie unfunded) but there are certain things such as mastering the DVD that I need to have done professionally in order to get Marcia’s story the attention it deserves.
Are you looking for people to be involved?
If folks are on social media they should follow/like the NO HUMAN INVOLVED project on Facebook and Twitter or send me an email to get updates as the film is completed and released. Currently I am hosting the first online fundraiser I have ever done to support one of my own creative projects to raise what we need for the absolutely essential things that a really polished documentary needs. Donations are tax deductible and every cent will be going back to support the film.
In the future as we plan actions and connect to campaigns related to the film, there will be many other things for people to engage with so please find a way to get in touch. I am also always happy to share what I have learned with others in the community so if a reader wants support in developing a rights based project related to the theme of NO HUMAN INVOLVED then I am happy to do as much as I can to share information, skills and connections.
Who is the target audience and what message do you want them to take away with them?
With this film I am taking a step out to interface with people who may know a little about the impact of incarceration but who have not yet had a chance to connect the dots about anti-prostitution policies, policing, the prison industrial complex and people in the community who also happen to be engaged (or profiled as engaging) in sex work. And even though as rights based activists we have collectively made enormous strides in explaining all of this, I am sure that there is a very large number of people out there who want to do the right thing by the communities of people mentioned in the film (sex workers, people with mental health issues, people with experiences of incarceration) but need more information. The film is a rights project engaging with the audience to explain that prisons are not a solution and that human rights, not “rescue” by the police, are what work best. The phrase “no human involved” indicates that the powers that be are not interested in investigating violence committed against certain groups of people because their lives are considered unimportant. The documentary NO HUMAN INVOLVED reaffirms Marcia’s humanity and is an investigation of its own kind. Finally, the phrase “free Marcia Powell” (first used by Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch) is repeated throughout the film and will anchor social media strategies in a call for liberation of Marcia’s spirit and all those who are still incarcerated.
What are your plans for the future?
Once NO HUMAN INVOLVED is completed, I will turn my activist attention to ensuring the film leads to the change that we intend. But I am also beginning to work on another project with Monica and some other people in Phoenix.
Where can people find out more about your project?
Recommended websites/further reading:
I highly recommend checking out Peggy Plews writing at Arizona Prison Watch.
The book Women’s Resistance Behind Bars by Victoria Law illustrates how women in prisons seek justice and is essential reading. Victoria is also an advisor to NO HUMAN INVOLVED. Victoria and colleagues at Truthout also provide an instructive commentary on documentary and journalist portrayals of prisoners at a 2014 panel discussion at the Left Forum in NYC. They describe what works and what undermines activism and recommend some excellent films to view as well.
For very honest and insightful information from some one who has worked within the Department of Corrections at a senior level, I recommend the various writings of Carl Toersbijns.
To support the final phase of producing the documentary NO HUMAN INVOLVED click here to donate to the Indiegogo campaign.
Ruth Jacobs meets artist and survivor of prostitution, Michelle Morgan, to discuss her paintings and her influences.