'Fast Game,' a film about con artists, itself shows winning style

April 21, 1994|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Sun Staff Writer

Pericles Lewnes thought it would be easy to film a documentary about card game con artists bilking people out of cash every day on the streets of New York. It wasn't.

"It became a monkey on my back," Mr. Lewnes, an Arnold filmmaker says in his movie, "Fast Game Fast Money: The Grifters of New York."

But Mr. Lewnes tamed that monkey and produced a film that was named Best in Show in the Rosebud Awards at the Biograph Theater in Washington on April 10. The film was one of five winners chosen from 22 entries.

"I was surprised," said Ed Bishop, 33, Mr. Lewnes' partner in Color Cast Productions. "When we enter, we usually get a lot of praise but don't win."

The film is a 30-minute look into the world of grifters who set up three-card monte and shell games on cardboard boxes on New York street corners, conning tourists and even city natives into placing bets that they simply can't win.

For 15 days last summer, Mr. Lewnes prowled Wall Street, Times Square and Broadway in search of these characters. He found three-card-monte dealers, who quickly shuffle the cards and then get the player to guess which card is red, and shell game operators who get unsuspecting mark to guess which shell the pea is under.

The games are illegal in New York and the dealers employ lookouts to warn them when police officers are coming. A signal from a lookout could end a game in seconds.

"That was the hardest part, actually finding these people," Mr. Lewnes said. "The games just kept eluding me. It became an obsession with me. I would find them and then the games would just be breaking up."

Because his subjects were not willing to have their tricks exposed, Mr. Lewnes disguised himself as a messenger and a homeless man. He hid his camera in a bag. "I never got caught," he said. "But one time while I was dressed as a homeless man, they got suspicious and chased me away. I was just hanging out watching them. I think they thought that I was going to rip the dealer off."

The editing process, done by Mr. Bishop, took about a week.

"It was a week of 23-hour days, when we were grouchy and fighting all the time and then saying we were sorry. Sort of like a marriage," Mr. Lewnes joked.

The pair has been working together for 10 years. Their other titles are "Elements," a short sample film that gives several scenes from a proposed movie about a hit man who wants to get out of the mob, and "Redneck Zombies," a parody of 1960s cult classic horror movies.

"Fast Game Fast Money" cost about $8,000 to make, Mr. Bishop said, and he and his partner won $250 and $1,000 worth of Kodak film.

"This is a group of individuals who are self-financed and used imaginative techniques to film an unusual story," Natasha Reatig, co-director of Rosebud, said about the award-winning film. "It really showed an independent mind."

"It was innovative, groundbreaking and resourceful," said Jeff Krulik, a contest judge who works for the Discovery Channel. "It was virtually unanimous among the judges."

Rosebud is a nonprofit group formed four years ago to encourage young filmmakers in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

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