Sure, you can replicate a casino on a Hollywood soundstage. But there’s something about being in a casino on the Strip in Las Vegas that you just can’t fake.
“For us, it is the scope,” says Louis Milito, co-executive producer of “CSI.” “There is no way on a television budget — as generous as it is — that we could create the floor of a casino unless is it was our standing daily set.”
Fortunately, for television shows and movies like “CSI,” “Las Vegas,” “The Sopranos,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Lucky You” and the rest of the steady stream of productions that haverecently rolled into Vegas, the casinos on the Strip ably host production.
That said, the casinos owned by corporate giants MGM Mirage and Harrah’s — and the bulk of the casinos on the Strip fall under the aegis of one of these two companies — don’t open their doors to everyone.
“We have very high brand standards, so we will not say yes to everything just to get exposure,” says Ken Langdon, director of public relations for Caesars Palace (owned by Harrah’s).
In fact, most of the casinos on the Strip require script approval, and if you expect to shoot scenes involving dead bodies, drugs or prostitutes on their property, good luck. You might get a yes from one of the handful of privately owned casinos, but you’ll most likely be turned down by the more image-conscious ones that are part of the corporate chains.
While they can be picky, and there is a paperwork-intensive approval process required by the corporate-owned casinos that will take anywhere from two weeks to six weeks on average, the plus side is that the casinos don’t ask for much in return in the way of monetary compensation. The casinos simply want to be reimbursed for operational expenses such as security and maintenance staff but don’t generally charge location fees, according to Nancy Haecker, a veteran Las Vegas location manager whose credits include “Lucky You.”
As for scheduling, casinos will oftentimes slot production during the off hours of casino operations, which tend to be the wee hours of the morning on weekdays, Langdon says. But even at odd hours, a casino can get noisy — the cast and crew of “Las Vegas,” the pilot of which was shot at Mandalay Bay, can attest to that.
“As great as it was shooting in Las Vegas, it was very difficult because of all the slot machine sounds, the bells, the whistles, the screaming,” “Las Vegas” executive producer Gary Scott Thompson says. “We ended up having to loop a lot of lines and dub people in the pilot.”
Then there are the crowds that gather. “We’d be setting shots and starting to shoot, and people would walk right through the shot, or they’d see Jimmy Caan and go, ‘It’s Jimmy Caan!’ ” Thompson relates with a laugh.
After shooting the pilot, Thompson, who originally assumed “Las Vegas” would be shot entirely on location in Las Vegas if it got picked up, realized the disruptions on the Strip were too many to accommodate the production demands of a weekly series. Now, while “Las Vegas” visits casinos on the Strip occasionally, the bulk of the show is shot on a standing casino set in Culver City, Calif.
According to Milito, “CSI” hasn’t run into major problems with noise or crowds, although the cast and crew have had to abandon an agreed-upon location within a casino for a second or third location within a property numerous times.
“Things change 80% of the time. You show up and say, ‘We scouted here. We want to shoot here,’ and they say, ‘No, you can’t do that anymore. We have a high roller in that area, so you’ve got to do something else,’ ” Milito says, adding, “You’ve just got to roll with it.”
That’s the right attitude, Haecker says, stressing that any crew shooting in one of the Strip’s casinos has to be flexible and keep in mind that the casino’s customers come first. “You can’t get in between a slot machine and someone dropping a quarter in that slot machine,” Haecker says. “That’s the bottom line.”