SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - Nestled between the historic city wall of Old San Juan and a rocky promontory into the Atlantic, La Perla is one of the more picturesque ghettos in the world.
Originally build up in the late 19th century as a place-of-exile for variably non-desirable aspects of San Juan society -- cemeteries, housing for former slaves, refuges for the homeless and a slaughterhouse -- La Perla developed a reputation for crime and danger, an image built partially on fact and partially on the neighborhood's intended isolation from the main city. Today, asking San Juan natives about La Perla can get either graphic stories of violence, police apathy and DEA raids or else blank stares.
But, like I said, there's beauty here and not just from the white-capped waves breaking on the shore, or even the Santa Maria Magdalena Cementery, in which the dead have a place of honor, a flower-studded outlook onto the ocean, and the living need only tip-toe through the eastern side of La Perla's gates to pay tribute to their departed loved ones.
The houses, stacked one on top of the other, crawling up the hill as if hoping for egress themselves, are vibrantly colored, creating a mosaic of purples and yellows and hot pinks. The architecture is diverse as well, with traditional archways sharing space with vast walls of block glass, a remnant of '80s style that leads me to pretend abodes were once the residences of towering criminals brought down by Crockett and Tubbs, never to return again. Rusted satellite dishes teeter atop the corrugated green roofs, but otherwise it could be almost any year in La Perla. Poverty is timeless.
Although there's a strong law enforcement presence on the outside of the wall, I talk to denizens who say that the police mostly leave La Perla on its own, though those stories don't jibe with stories that speak of recent attempts at a cultural renaissance in the neighborhood, which has also been an enclave for "artistic types" over the years.
It's August of 2012 and, at this moment, La Perla is positively swarming with a different assortment of artistic types, specifically a Hollywood movie production. Directed by Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") and starring Justin Timberlake
, Ben Affleck and Gemma Arterton
, the online gambling thriller "Runner, Runner" has taken over.
If San Juan police don't love spending time in La Perla, that doesn't mean that "Runner, Runner" is a free-range production. Private security has the place on lock-down. It's a steaming hot day and the only visible locals are of the type no bodyguard is prepared to keep out. No, I'm not referring to gangsters or pushers. They're no where to be seen, if they exist at all. Instead, feral cats slink up and down the alleyways and equally scrawny hens and roosters peck at garbage and periodically crow with enough volume to probably penetrate the "Runner, Runner" soundtrack.
It's not easy to explain "Runner, Runner" in a single sentence. Timberlake plays Richie, an older-than-normal college student who becomes involved in the world of online poker -- "Rounders" scribes Brian Koppleman and David Levien wrote the script -- and loses all of his money. He leaves the country in search of the man behind the site, Affleck's Ivan Block, and gets sucked into Block's charismatic and opulent world and becomes involved with Arterton's Rebecca, who probably has secrets of her own. Along the way, plenty of brutal things happen, as Timberlake's character has his eyes opened. As you do.
"How would I define it? Ummm... I would say that it's a very sexy, stylized thriller about the underworld of gambling and online gambling. That's not very succinct, but it gives you a feel. I'm rubbish at stuff like that," laughs Arterton, speaking with a group of international reporters on the set.
"It's a world in filmmaking that we haven't seen. I'm not somebody who's big into the world of gambling," Furman explains. "To me, great stories or great characters, that's what makes great movies. But the world of online gambling is a world we have not seen on film and I was very excited to bring that, amongst some new elements of the world that we'll bring to this movie."
You may have noticed that I wrote above that the main character has to leave the country to find the base for the online poker site that fleeced him. You may also be inclined to protest, "Ummm... Puerto Rico is part of the United States."
Through the magic of movies, this very specific and unique neighborhood of San Juan is standing in for a wide variety of locations in Costa Rica.
"I'm a big believer that where there's a will there's a way, but from a studio perspective, it just seemed like a bigger leap than you can get a bureaucratic move to make," Furman says of the decision not to shoot in Costa Rica.
The primary tipping points, as you might imagine, involved impressive tax rebates from Puerto Rico, as well as crews trained on an increasingly large number of major productions that have been lured by the aforementioned tax breaks.
Still, Furman insists he looked for a certain kind of authenticity in his locations.
"It all starts with what the 'truth' is and once I figure out what the truth is for a character, the truth is for a location, and I believe also locations should try to be and evoke being characters in a movie and the truth for me is Costa Rica," he says. What is Costa Rica? So I did a ton of due diligence on Costa Rica and there was a balancing a bit of an issue between being landlocked and on the water and how to figure that out, which we did and made it realistic."
Furman adds, "Unfortunately, but amazingly so, there's an incredible spirit in Costa Rica, but it's also incredibly impoverished, but yet at the same time, really beautiful and you have this class distinction that exists, like the really impoverished people, with the wealthy living right above. You'll be in a ghetto and there'll be this super-fancy hotel or houses built into the mountain right above it. So when I was looking at that, I had to figure out how to create that and the essence of that in Puerto Rico, because we were doubling."
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