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Director George Hickenlooper shows the warts of Abramoff in 'Casino Jack'

Charles Ealy

Trying to sort through the ups and downs and the ins and outs of Jack Abramoff's life can be daunting. The longtime Republican lobbyist, wheeler-dealer and pal of former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay was involved in so many Washington-related insider schemes that the story of his life easily could become a three-part series, just like one of Abramoff's favorite movies, "The Godfather."

That was the big problem for the late director, George Hickenlooper, whose "Casino Jack" is being released in Austin today. He died of an overdose in Colorado the weekend after talking with the American-Statesman for the "Casino Jack" premiere at the Austin Film Festival in October.

Faced with reams of documents, Hickenlooper said, he simply decided to take the approach of Howard Hawks, director of such Hollywood classics as "Rio Bravo," "Bringing Up Baby" and the original "Scarface."

"Hawks thought that you didn't have to know everything that's going on as long as you're emotionally involved," Hickenlooper said. So Hickenlooper tried to come up with a narrative that would entertain and hook audiences, even though they know before entering the theater that the main character will be convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy and will head to federal prison.

It also helped to have a well-regarded actor, Kevin Spacey, playing the lead role.

Both Hickenlooper and Spacey visited Abramoff in federal prison to prepare for making "Casino Jack."

"Kevin and Jack got along really well," Hickenlooper said. "Jack was hilarious, charming and an amazing impersonator. And he loved watching Spacey doing impressions as well."

Hickenlooper incorporated Abramoff's impersonations of Michael Corleone from "The Godfather" into the movie. And it's clear that Abramoff, who was released from prison Dec. 3 after serving five years and 10 months, saw himself as something of a Hollywood insider, an equal to those trying to tell his story. (With his brother Robert, he wrote and produced the 1989 Dolph Lundgren spy tale "Red Scorpion.")

When Hickenlooper visited Abramoff in prison, he was not allowed to carry in pen and paper. But Hickenlooper said he needed to take notes so that he could remember the details of the conversations.

This led to a rather inventive situation. Hickenlooper would smuggle a felt tip pen into the prison by hiding it in his socks. Then he would head for the bathroom at various intervals in the interviews and scribble notes on toilet paper, then stuff them in his shoes.

"I went for six-hour visits sometimes," Hickenlooper said. "And he would regale me with his fantasies," which included telling off Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was instrumental in a 2006 inquiry into Abramoff's questionable lobbying.

"The biggest bonus in making the movie was to get to talk to Jack directly," Hickenlooper said.

The once high-flying Abramoff, however, wasn't all charm. "He really ticked off the prison staff and was always complaining about how the food wasn't kosher." But Hickenlooper adds that the prison was "stark and kind of repellent," so Abramoff had trouble adjusting to a life without his usual luxuries.

Abramoff has seen the movie, and he's not pleased with some aspects of it, Hickenlooper said. "We told him that we were going to make an anti-vanilla movie and show the warts and all. But he objects to two main elements in his portrayal. He thinks the profanity is exaggerated, and he's worried that movie may provide fodder to people who are anti-Semitic."

Hickenlooper came to Texas to show his movie at the Austin Film Festival in October.

The day after the screening, he flew to Colorado to help his cousin, John Hickenlooper, who was running for governor.

He never learned that his cousin would eventually win the election. He died in a hotel room the weekend after leaving Austin.

In November, the Colorado medical examiner reported that the 47-year-old director died of an accidental overdose of a prescription painkiller that was taken with alcohol.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931