“Leaving Las Vegas” is the Academy Award winning movie , starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, based on the novel by John O’Brien. The movie was directed by Hollywood outsider Mike Figgis, a man that loathes Backstory, ironically ended up directing a movie with the ultimate Backstory.

“I remember pitching ‘Hot Spots’ to four [studio] guys in monkey suits,” he says. “And someone asked, ‘What’s the backstory?’ Well, there was no backstory. The main character robbed banks. He was a bank robber, that’s what he did. But they couldn’t understand it without a ‘backstory,’ an elaborate explanation of how he got to where he got and why he got there.

And more and more, that’s what American movies are about: endless backstory, endless justification. If I’d wanted to make the backstory the movie, I would have!”
Interview with Mike Figgis: Director of “Leaving Las Vegas”:
Baltimore Sun 12-17-95

Shortly after learning his novel Leaving Las Vegas was going to be made into a movie, John O’Brien committed suicide by a gun shot to the head, he did not leave behind a suicide note.

The story Leaving Las Vegas is about a down on his luck writer, Ben Sanderson, in Los Angeles that is deep in the throes of alcoholism. Ben is enticed to move to Las Vegas by the city’s 24-hour easy access to alcohol. Ben will utilize this easy access to alcohol to its fullest, as he plans to literally drink himself to death. While in Las Vegas he meets a prostitute named Sera, and a very unconventional romance ensues. As if that story isn’t poignant enough, add to it John O’Brien’s real life battles with alcoholism and you’ll discover a new level of pathos.

Erin and John O'Brien

Erin and John O'Brien

Letter From Erin O’Brien to Nicolas Cage

I spoke with Erin O’Brien, John’s sister, about John’s life in relation to the novel he wrote and the subsequent movie. As anyone who has lost someone close from a sudden death, particularly suicide, will attest, the search for connectedness to the loved one is intense and ongoing. Erin expressed this desire in a letter she wrote to Nicholas Cage, the actor that played Ben Sanderson in the movie.

We heard you would begin filming Leaving Las Vegas this fall. I realize the film may be quite different from John’s novel, but I Can’t help feeling a deep personal attachment. Ben is a thinly veiled self portrait of John. My family and I are anticipating Hollywood’s interpretation of John’s novel with a strange, melancholy pride.

I was delighted to learn you would be playing the part of Ben. The character seems consistent with your work, which I have enjoyed for many years. I feel compelled to make connections with the fragments  he left behind. You are an unexpected and welcome participant in John’s aftermath.

Excerpt of a Letter From Erin O’Brien to Actor Nicolas Cage

Erin and her father have been quoted repeatedly in the press as saying: “Leaving Las Vegas was John’s suicide note.” The backstory of John’s life in relation to both the novel and movie Leaving Las Vegas is the ultimate version of Art imitating Life with the added permutation of Life imitating Art.

Erin O'Brien and John O'Brien Having a Beer

Erin O'Brien and John O'Brien (Author:Leaving Las Vegas) Having a Beer

Leaving Las Vegas: From Book to Movie

The movie follows the novel rather closely, particularly on the point that John was most concerned about, No Feel Good Happy Ending. However, there are some differences.

In the book Sera is the more primary character, while Ben is clearly the primary character in the movie. In the book, Ben doesn’t really appear until page 59, in a 189 page book. I say “really appear” because when I mentioned this to Erin, who has read the book ten times versus my single close  reading, she pointed to a passage on page 4 in the book where Sera sees a staggering drunk collapse directly in front of her. The next time Ben and Sera meet is page 139, where Sera reminds Ben: “You Know I saw you last week,” she says taking another exploratory step, “I saw you fall down on the sidewalk” They have a mere 50 pages together in the novel.

In the novel, John O’Brien occasionally gives Sera rather extravagant language. I doubt doppelganger or lugubrious are in common usage among the prostitutes in Las Vagas, perhaps John was prescient and knew Harvard educated Elisabeth Shue would end up playing Sera. However, when you read a character’s incongruous word usage it is a bit of a hard stop, as if you see the writer’s hand. When I mentioned this to Erin, she said those are her favorite parts of Leaving Las Vegas, because in those slips, she can see  her brothers presence most fully.

As a side note what is it about having an Ivy-League education that seems to drive female actors to play prostitutes in movies:

In addition to Elisabeth Shue Harvard 89′; Mira Sorvino Harvard 89′ Mighty Aphrodite; Jody Foster Yale 84′ Taxi Driver; Brooke Shields Princeton 87′ Pretty Baby.

Leaving Las Vegas: The Guidebook

There are parts of Leaving Las Vegas that read like an alcoholics guide to drinking in Los Angeles.

So his life is punctuated by legislative break points and red flags of custom. At six a.m. the hardcore bars are open and the stores can sell, though they sometimes choose to withhold, imposing their morality on some poor, sweating, shaking mess looking for his fix. Nine a.m. is considered a safe opening time for bars that don’t like to admit that people drink that early but can’t let the business slip completely away;bartenders in these places tend to pause disapprovingly for an imperceptible moment before handing over a drink.

The Next milestone is eleven-thirty. At eleven-thirty everyone is willing to admit that the drinking day has begun and proudly open their doors and pour their drinks. It’s smooth sailing until midnight, when, if they haven’t already, the more reputable bars bail out. Any place that stays open past midnight is probably good until two– actually one-forty-five– the most important time of all. Never let two o’clock happen unless there is more liquor in the house than you could possibly drink in four hours–no small quantity.

“Leaving Las Vegas” pages 64-65

As the above passage describes just how focused Ben is on maintaining continuous access to alcohol. That four hour gap, 2am-6am, is just too long for Ben, he needs a place with 24-hour easy access to alcohol. Hence his move to Las Vegas, and a room at the Whole Year Inn, which Ben reads as the Hole You’re In. That pun seems to hearken back to the family vacations that John took, and would joke with Erin about the exit for Bluff City Illinois en route to their grandparents house.

Leaving Las Vegas: True To Life

John O’Brien’s  alcoholism was so severe that he suffered from delirium tremens or DTs as they’re often referred to, which often includes hallucinations and severe tremors.

Erin O’Brien describes how John recounted one of his delirium tremens (DTs) episodes:

During the last moments before he surfaced from the live-action nightmare, everything stopped at once. Then an angelic female voice pierced the blackness, crystalline and sweet. ”We’ve lost you,” she lilted, “but we’ll get you back.”  John startled to a shaking, sweating consciousness, more terrified by the surreal voice than the oily devil breaking through the wall that had filled the screen of his mind just before it gave way to the singing woman.

In the novel Ben repeatedly refers to Sera as an angel, combined with his severely intoxicated state throughout most of the novel, one wonders whether Sera is corporal or simply a figment of Ben’s imagination. The fact that John had  hallucinations of  an angelic female voice, only bolsters this possibility.

Leaving Las Vegas: The Final Draft

The hands of Mike Figgis are all over the film Leaving Las Vegas, not only did he direct the film, he wrote the screenplay adaptation, plus he was responsible for the film’s musical score, all of which were crucial to the film’s success. Mike’s background is more on the music side, rather than film. The haunting, jazz laden soundtrack that runs throughout Leaving Las Vegas acts as the third main character in the film.

‘The music [in Leaving Las Vegas] is more theatrical. It’s much more present. It has a much more personal voice than film music is expected to have. Film music is expected to be polite, it’s meant to hit buttons on cue, to let you know that you should cry, or be frightened, and when your heart should beat faster, and it has a very limited functional value. It’s very sentimental. It’s never meant to crossover into the narrative, but I think it should.’

Excerpt of Mike Figgis in discussion with Christopher Null

You can sample some of the music in the trailer to Leaving Las Vegas. It’s unfortunate that the trailer pitches the movie, almost as romantic comedy, the movie is much more serious, definitely darker, but in a good way. The movie is the final polished draft of John O’Brien’s harsh and informed study of alcoholic despair.

Leaving Las Vegas is the first novel by John O’Brien and as such it should be judged more on the promise of the writer rather than merely the quality of the the finished work. There are passages in Leaving Las Vegas where the writer clearly shows his hand a bit too obviously, a common mistake among new writers. However, there are also passages that show the future promise of a talented writer, hence, John O’Brien’s suicide is loss to not only his friends and family but to the literary community at large.

You can follow Erin O’Brien’s writings on her blog:

The Erin O’Brien Owner’s Manual for Human Beings.

Steve Friess: Las Vegas Journalist

Steve Friess

From Long Island New York to Chicago to Beijing to Las Vegas

That has been Steve Friess’ route in life, more or less. Born and raised on Long Island New York, Steve moved to Chicago and matriculated at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. With a stopover in Rockford Illinois Steve came to Las Vegas in 1996, to cover county government for The Las Vegas Review-Journal. Then came Florida and Beijing, and finally back to Las Vegas in 2002. You can read more about Steve’s experience in China on his The China Chronicles . The following excerpt will explain why Steve prefers to eat the food at Ping Pang Pong rather than in Chinese Canteens in Beijing.

Next to my elbow fell a large, half-chewed bit of beef and bone ejected by the mouth of the Chinese dude sitting next to me. A moment later, the gal across from him would spit up some fishbones, dripping them right there onto the table surface next to some discarded bits of rice and chicken left behind by her seat’s previous occupant.

It is something of a Chinese custom to discard food refuse on the table, although in local restaurants it is done with a bit more discretion and is always removed before the next group inherits the table. This is, in fact, why the canteen food is repetitive to me despite the dozen or so dishes offered for any given lunch or dinner: I refuse to choose food with bones in it. As immersed as I want to be in the Chinese way of life, spitting all over the place is just one thing that goes too far. Steve Friess China Chronicles

Is Steve Friess the Model of the New Journalist?

Steve’s Journalism career has been shadowed by the rise of the internet, having graduated from Medill in 1994, when the internet was in its infancy. As already noted his career started out on a typical path, start at a small newspaper, and work your way up to a larger paper.

Then the the internet took off. The Internet has had a profound impact on society at large, and perhaps no part of society has been more affected than print media, and by extension, journalists. Newspapers and magazines, both large and small are shuting down or are on the verge of doing so. The question of how or under what circumstances jounalism will survive, is a hot topic at conferences around the world.

The following link is to video from a DLD conference in Munich Germany. A Panel Discusssion at Digital, Life, Design Munich Germany 2009 gives a great overview of new media models. Panelists include:Jeff Jarvis (Buzzmachine), Carolyn McCall (Guardian), Michael Arrington (TechCrunch), and Tyler Brule (Monocle) discuss the evolving world of online publication, debating whether or not print media can survive in this era of digital media.

Steve’s freelance career in Las Vegas points to a possible model for future journalists, or at least a transitional model. Steve writes for national publications, The New York Times and Newsweek. (click the links for the archives of Steve’s articles) he also has a column in “Las Vegas Weekly” a free alternative newspaper.  Then there are the internet components to his work, his  blog VegasHappensHere.com and his podcast The Strip.

When Old School Journalist Collides with Unschooled Blogger

In January 2007 Steve arranged for celebrity blogger Perez Hilton (Mario Lavandeira) to be on a Panel at the Palms Casino. An excerpt of Steve’s account from Las Vegas Weekly:

in January 2007 when I arranged the first public appearance in Las Vegas for uber-gossip blogger Perez Hilton, aka Mario Lavandeira. He appeared on a panel of celebrity journalists at the Palms that included the Review-Journal’s Norm Clarke, LuxeLife blogger Robin Leach andVegas magazine’s Kate Bennett. His overall demeanor was so condescending, so arrogant, so rude that it just made me sorry I was helping glorify him. Las Vegas Weekly May 29, 2008

Moving forward to April 2008, we have the impetus for the brouhaha between Steve and Perez:

In late April, I attended a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show featuring Cher and Tina Turner at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. The news out of that event, which I would go on to write for USA Today, was that Turner would be going back on tour starting this October.

Journalists take sources and attribution seriously, it’s really the coin of the realm. As Steve forcefully explains in the above mentioned Las Vegas Weekly piece and again in his blog, he feels that  Perez Hilton used the following line, without proper attribution to Steve: “The 68-year-old legend (Tina Turner) says that Sophia Loren told her to stop ‘lolling about her Swiss home and get back to work.’” Evidently Perez only responds to emails from LA Times writers, because he ignored Steve’s emails, but did  respond to Richard Abowitz’, a writer at the LA Times and a friend of Steve’s. If all this sounds like Inside Baseball, it is to some extent, but these things really matter to real journalists. Steve describes why it matters, in the same Las Vegas Weekly piece, thusly:

Why does any of this matter? Because Lavandeira’s audience is frighteningly, influentially large. And when I attempted to get other gossip websites to pick up the story, I learned that they were afraid of being blacklisted by Lavandeira. The mainstream media couldn’t be bothered much, because, as one editor wrote me, “it’s not a surprise that Perez Hilton operates with substandard journalistic principles.”

So here we have a Journalist that writes for the New York Times, and just last month wrote the cover story in Newsweek, being frustrated and stymied by a blogger with a laptop and url. Of course, Steve also has a blog and a blogspot url, go figure. However,  Perez Hilton’s blog gets huge traffic, per perezhilton.com, Perez Hilton averages 200 Million Impressions and 10.5 Million unique readers per month. With numbers like that , comes a great deal of power. Internet power that is comparable to Big Media, too bad David Halberstam is not around to update his classic “The Powers That Be”

Of course, Perez Hilton covers a small but avidly consumed part of the media world, entertainment, and celebrity gossip in particular. And, while Gambling is the core activity in the Vegas economy, entertainment is taking an ever increasing role, so much so, that was really the thrust of Steve”s recent piece in Newsweek: Rich Vegas, Poor Vegas. The piece describes how much the city’s business elite are pinning their hopes for recovery on Celine Dion’s return to Caesars Palace.

The Podcast: “The Strip

Miles Smith; Steve Friess; Meg Tilly

Miles Smith; Unidentified Person; Steve Friess; Meg Tilly

According to Steve, the origin of the show, “The Strip” was that he would do these long interviews with celebrities for his freelance work, and most of the material in the interview would not be used in the print stories. It seemed a shame, not to have an outlet for these recorded interviews. Thus, in 2006 “The Strip” was born, a two person affair with Steve and his co-host Miles Smith, who by day is an  executive producer for KVBC, the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas.

Miles has a sonorous, perhaps even mellifluous voice which is contrasted by Steve’s almost puppy-dog like cadence on the show. Miles is the show’s announcer, with a secondary role of keeping Steve on a short leash if he tries to wander too far afield. The fact that Miles and Steve have a genuine affection for one another underscores that all the barbs exchanged in the show are meant in good fun.

The shows generally runs over an hour in length, with the format of roughly fifteen minutes of kibitzing about Las Vegas news, then the interview segment, and then closing with The Top Secret Tourist Tip of The Week and The Las Vegas Trivia Question of the Week, the winner of which gets to pick gift from Miles and Steve’s prize bag.

“Dance For Me Monkey”

As previously mentioned, through his freelance career with major National Publications, Steve has incredible access to both celebrities and the Las Vegas power elite. Having access is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for having interesting and informative interviews, as witnessed by much of the drivel and pap that passes for celebrity coverage on television and in print. In fact, that many of the celebrities that Steve interviews are used to these fluff, sound bite driven short format interviews, he has to condition the interviewees that the road ahead is going to be different than what they are used to.

We do an audio program, and typically when a celebrity is doing any kind of electronic media, it is usually for a sound bite, and if it’s radio they figure it’s going to be some sort of morning drive time perky, happy thing, and so they feel they have to be “on”, so frequently I find I have to break-in my interview subjects for the show, I have to get them past the notion that they have to be “on” I’m not there to say “Dance for me Monkey” I’m there to ask them questions that I would like to know the answers to and might shed some light onto any number of things.

Steve does his homework for these interviews, including reading any biographies or memoirs written about or by the guests. Combining Steve’s interview skills, his research on his guests with the show’s longer format greatly increases the chance that an otherwise bland and uninteresting celebrity, might actually have an interesting interview. Steve is particularly heartened when program listeners write in that they enjoyed an interview with a guest that prior to the interview they had little interest in.

“You Have The Power”

In addition to the research Steve does, he brings his journalist’s sensibility to the interviews which includes the ability to ask  tough or awkward questions. If it is possible to see someone squirm in a non-visual medium like a podcast, then that was certainly the case when Steve asked one of the owners of  Tao Nightclub Rich Wolf the following:

I’m sure you’ve heard it, that the way that people look at those people that are willing to stand in those lines with their Ed Hardy shirts, the word “Douche Bags” is often thrown around. Do you get offended on behalf of your clientele?  April 4, 2011 Podcast

In talking about the above interview segment, and asking tough questions in general, Steve offered the following comment:

Sometimes you ask an uncomfortable question and you’re trying to find a way to make it less uncomfortable, when in fact as the interviewer, You Have The Power. You have to be Okay with the discomfort, the discomfort is part of the conversation.

Please don’t get the wrong impression about the style of interviews that Steve does, these are not Gotcha or Attack interviews, but the fact that Steve is not shy about asking a tough or uncomfortable question when required, is part of the reason the interviews are so interesting, and worth listening to. Alas, some interviews are mostly just light and perky, like the morning drive-time radio ones that Steve dislikes.

“I’m A Blonde Bombshell”

Steve Friess and Holly Madison

Steve Friess and Holly Madison

No, that’s not Steve describing himself, but rather, Holly Madison‘s response to Steve’s question: “What do you see as your profession?” Holly Madison is perhaps best known as a former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, yes there is a very large age difference between the two. Steve asks Holly:

Behind closed doors, what was your relationship with Hugh Hefner, were you really intimate with him?

And the answer: Well, I would never answer that…the audience can read into it whatever they want, and that’s why the show works. Holly doesn’t watch much television, she does read, she was reading “Harry Potter”, which seems about right, although she is reading it in French, something about wanting to raise her kids bilingual. Steve seemed impressed by this feat during the interview, I would have been impressed if she was reading Marcel Proust in French.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me About The Vdara Death Ray

The cast of the NPR show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” a humorous, in a NPR sort of way, News Quiz show came to Las Vegas. Steve, a big fan of the show, enjoys the show even more when they use his news stories. A recent example was Steve’s story for AOL News: “Las Vegas ‘Death Ray’ Singes Tourists”

Despite what Vdara’s bartenders, pool attendants and visitors mockingly call it, the problem is technically known as “solar convergence.” The sun’s heat is amplified as it reflects off the curved building    Steve Friess AOL News 9-28-10

Steve gets the chance to tell Peter Sagal in person about their use of his story in the following: Interview with Wait Wait Host Peter Sagal.

Sometimes Steve’s older stories come back to bite him. When the Newsweek reporter that Steve was working with on the “Rich Vegas, Poor Vegas” story tried to get tickets to Criss Angel’s show from its publicist, the publicist asked that the Newsweek reporter not see the show with Steve. Poor Criss Angel, a man imbued with seemingly unlimited magical powers, and yet he seems powerless to make those dreadful show reviews disappear.

From Holly Madison to Wayne Newton to Pete Rose to Steve Wynn to …

Steve and Miles have been recording The Strip Podcast since 2006, on a  weekly basis, and each show has an interview segment. Steve seems to have interviewed every famous or interesting person that has stepped off a plane at McCarran. Just a sampling of past interview guests:

(Perhaps Tom Lehrer (Not a Guest, Yet) could sing the following, a la The Elements Song)

Andy Williams, Louie Anderson, Peter Sagal from the NPR show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”, Brian Dewhurst, who was artistic coordinator for Mystere when it opened in 1993 and in 2000 began performing as a clown in the show, Choreographer Twyla Tharp, Rita Rudner, Don Rickles, child star Corey Feldman, Pete Rose, Tony Curtis, Stephen Hopcraft, executive chef at Seablue at MGM Grand, Tim Gunn, the mentor of TV’s Project Runway, Cloris Leachman, Jerry Lewis, Magician Rick Thomas, Poker Player Johnny Chan, George Wallace, Rick Moonen of RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay, Donny Osmond, Vinnie Favorito, Paul Rodriguez, Vince Neil, Tom Smothers, Gloria Estefan, Frank Gehry’, George Maloof, Franco Dragone, Wolfgang Puck, Jim Murren. The CEO of MGM Mirage, Doyle Brunson, Norm Clarke, Frank Caliendo, William S. Boyd, Lily Tomlin, Legendary Broadway producer-director Hal Prince, Joan Rivers, Poker Player Daniel Negreanu, Anthony Cools, Bob Saget, Charo, Kenny G, Andrew Dice Clay, Patti Lupone, Engelbert Humperdinck, Jon Voight, Carlos Santana, Dennis Miller, Jeff Foxworthy, Tom Colicchio, Shecky Greene, Dee Snider, Marie Osmond, Donald Trump, Terry Fator, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ruffin, Cheech Marin, Brian Wilson, Guy Laliberte, Tony Curtis, Jerry Springer, Bobby Slayton, Dominick Dunne, Mickey Hart, Carrot Top, Nathan Burton, David Spade, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Wanda Sykes, Jay Leno, James Caan…

And that list is incomplete.  The shows are all free and archived at stevefriess.com/podcast plus they are available at Zune and iTunes

I would like to thank Steve Friess for patiently allowing me to interview him not once, but twice for this profile.

Steve Friess with Mr. Las Vegas (Wayne Newton)

Steve Friess with Mr. Las Vegas (Wayne Newton)

P.S. Steve announced on the May 4, 2011 Podcast that he had been awarded a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, which begins September 2011 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. As part of the terms of the Fellowship, Steve is not allowed to work during its duration, and his blog and Podcast are considered work by the Fellowship. Hence, The Strip podcast will cease sometime in August 2011.

In Steve’s final column for Las Vegas Weekly he gives a nice recap of his life in Las Vegas and what he will miss about Las Vegas.

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