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October 18, 2017

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Q+A: Penn Jillette prepares to shoot crowd-funded film ‘Director’s Cut’ in March



Jim Rees, Penn Jillette, Teller and Dan Walsh at the opening of Hash House a Go Go on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, at the Rio.

Penn Jillette

Pitching for Penn Jillette — WARNING: Adult language

It took just six weeks for Rio headliner magician Penn Jillette to raise $1.2 million with 4,700 crowd-funding supporters, and now his film “Director’s Cut” about crowd-funding will begin shooting next month. In the film, Penn plays “a really bad guy” who gets onto a movie set by taking part in a crowd-funding venture.

I talked with Penn backstage at the Rio after watching him and sidekick Teller perform new illusions in their long-running show that’s been renewed through 2019. He describes “Director’s Cut” as a scary intellectual movie, and the YouTube trailer he made explains it all.

Penn also recruited friends Florence Henderson, Carrot Top, Dee Snider, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna, Joan Rivers and Ron Jeremy to make YouTube pitch videos to raise funds. Warning: Joan uses some pretty offensive adult language!

You actually raised money for the production of a crowd-funding horror movie by crowd-funding itself?

That’s the plot of it. The bad guy gets onto the movie set via crowd-funding. So I had this script that was kind of three-quarters done. It had ideas I really love with me as the bad guy. Really nice plot stuff, and I was really happy with it. But there was this big hole of how our bad guy gets on to the film set, and then crowd-funding came on. Director Adam Rifkin and I went back and added the crowd-funding part to the script, which made it all make sense.

To some people, I think crowd-funding is a nightmare. It opens you up personally to people who just want to help you out with your show. To me, that’s really good. I’ve heard a lot of other celebrities complain about it being their worst nightmare, but we meet people after our shows, so I wasn’t afraid. Turns out people who like our show I’m apt to like them. It’s remarkable, but there are a number of people in show business who don’t feel that way.

Are you narrowing down your choice for the leading lady?

Yes, we are. The script is out to a couple of very interested name actresses. We’ll probably go through four or five until we get the right one with the right availability.

We’re hoping to start in March, but that depends on when we sign the right actress. I think since a lot of it happens in police stations, we’ll probably shoot mostly in L.A. where those sets are all there. However, that depends on who the leading lady is and where she wants to be. I want to do some exteriors right here in Las Vegas.

How long did it take, and how much did you crowd fund?

$1.2 million in six weeks. We’re going to put back in about $175,000 into giving people rewards for the money they put up. So $175,000 worth of parties, T-shirts, posters, and the two of us will appear for that reward.

A lot of these crowd-funding things don’t take that seriously. My feeling is we’re not a charity, they’re not giving us money for charity, they’re giving us money because it’s fun. So far everybody we’ve interacted with has said they’ve gotten a lot more than they expected. Everything that we promised for each reward they’re going to get.

With nearly 5,000 people investing, they don’t expect to make money even if it’s a hit. They do expect the parties, though, and the rewards that go with it. We can put the profit into the second movie, and also if the movie is coming along well and looks like we’ll do well, we will give better parties; better perks for all the people. I would like to think if everyone is having a great time, if we do another movie, maybe they’ll want to do it again.

It’s a really fascinating exercise. I don’t think there are many filmmakers who want to open themselves up that much to the people who see their movies. I found it a blast! A real blast to talk to people who really want to see the script. We’re giving them the script, we’re giving them all the information on the casting; we’re just really laying it all out for them.

From my point-of-view, when I was 20 and a huge fan of George Romero, if there had been a situation where I could spend a $1,000 to go on the set of one of his movies to watch him work, I would have done that in a moment. You get to be an extra on the movie, you get to hang out on the set. There’re some people who will be in the editing room with Adam.

Our crowd-funders will learn a lot about filmmaking from this. I don’t know what will eventually happen with crowd-funding because it’s so new. It’s only been around about three years.

In a sense, it’s like finding angel investors for Broadway shows.

Precisely! It’s just putting it down to a level where more people can do it. You know, you put $150,000 in, and you get to have a party with the stars. Now it’s you put $1,000 in, and you get to be on the set.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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