Through the Lens - Ryan Firpo

Through the Lens - Ryan Firpo

Friday, 18 July 2014

A day on set with Alex 'Kanu7' Millar.

Watch Alex 'Kanu7' Millar's short film here.

Poker has always had a strange relationship with film. From bizarrely skewed depictions of cash games filled with glamorous Russian millionaires and dangerous heists (see: just about every James Bond movie ever) to cliché-laden, overly-cheesy cinema flops (again, pretty much every poker movie other than Rounders), it's no wonder that poker is often treated with suspicion or even outright hostility by the general public. Portrayals of poker in film tend to fall into one or more of three categories: inaccurate, embarrassingly hammed-up, or just downright unrealistic.

Perhaps even more significant, though, is the lack of media and film attention given to online players within the poker community. While live tournament winners are shoved into a spotlight of showgirls, camera flashes and confetti, online winners live out their victories comparatively quietly; particular high stakes online pros might win or lose millions in a day, yet for some you wouldn't even know their real name, let alone what they looked like.

In an attempt to get to know the people behind the screen, PokerStars have commissioned a number of short films to be made about their Team Online sponsored pros. A good handful of the films are already completed and available to watch online, including a peek into the life of video game enthusiast Randy 'nanonoko' Lew, who plays 24 tables at a time and has made millions despite only being in his twenties. Another looks at former child chess prodigy Isaac Haxton, who met his wife through poker and emigrated to Malta in order to be able to keep playing online.

The director of these videos is none other than Two Plus Two regular Ryan Firpo. Best known for Bet Raise Fold, his own feature-length documentary on the story of online poker, Ryan is the go-to filmmaker for all things poker – so naturally, when I was invited to watch the filming of Alex 'Kanu7' Millar's short film, I jumped at the chance.

TTL July 3

Kanu7: The Movie

I arrive on the second day of filming, which is taking place in Alex's Bristol flat. The aim of the day is to get some good footage of Alex doing what he does best: playing high stakes cash online. However, following your normal workday routine is a whole different kettle of fish when you have a camera crew in your house.

Was Alex trepidatious about the filming? “Yeah, I was,” he admits. “It's weird, because I've seen all the other films and I really liked them all. They were all really interesting. But I was nervous, because I didn't want to just make the same thing. I felt like I needed to do something else that's different – I was thinking, 'Will my story be enough?' I didn't want to be boring!”

It's understandable that Alex is anxious. Nine months ago, he was a well-known name among online circles, but not particularly extending beyond that. Then, he made the choice to step on to the shoulders of a giant. He was signed by PokerStars to become one of the sponsored pros making up Team PokerStars Online. Since then, his world has included a flurry of interviews, magazine covers, and even awards (Alex won 'Best Online Cash Player' and 'Player of the Year' at the British Poker Awards). Now, he is having a short film made about him. Frankly, it's enough to make anyone feel a bit apprehensive.

“I was quite stressed about the video, actually, and I never get stressed about anything! My girlfriend is completing her final PhD experiments at the moment, and a lot of my poker friends are away. I was worried nobody would want to be in the video, and Ryan and the guys would turn up and it'd just be me sitting alone in my living room!” Alex laughs ruefully.
Looking at the crew at work, Alex needn't have worried. Ryan has been working with Mike (the camera man) and Greg (the 'sound guy') for years, and the three of them move around the flat with a practiced synchronicity. They each know what is expected of them, and anticipate the others' questions before they are even voiced.

Ryan himself is softly-spoken but efficient. It is clear that he is used to being the quiet prompter from behind the camera rather than the one speaking in front of it, but when talking about his work he quickly becomes animated.

So how did Ryan get into making poker movies in the first place?
“Well, I think you find a lot of people who are actually working in the poker industry are actually failed poker professionals,” says Ryan, causing a laugh to ripple around the room. [Blasphemy – Ed]. “I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I never thought I'd be a poker pro... having said that, in my early twenties I was playing a lot of poker, and I just really liked the idea of being free and not having a job. It was really helpful for me to have time to write scripts, without having to go somewhere or answer to somebody. At the time, around 2004, because I was a filmmaker I had a Mac, and there weren't any online poker sites for Mac at the time. So I was mostly driving around the 12 or so card rooms in my area and playing a lot of live poker.”

What started out as a pastime led to him quickly becoming immersed in the 'scene'. “I was having a great time, and I found it really interesting to interact with all these people from different situations and economic backgrounds. You meet a lot of eccentric, weirdo characters, which as a filmmaker I found particularly interesting. So I became pretty entrenched in this card room world. It was fun, and I thought it was cool, this idea of living on the outsides of society. I loved it, but I never thought that poker would be my career – I just thought that any money I made there I could then channel into filmmaking.”

TTL July 2

Online Discoveries

“When I did finally discover online poker, I discovered the community. I found Two Plus Two forums, and people were posting about their winning months. I remember someone posted about a $900k winning month, and then they went and bought a Bentley. I was just like, oh my god, I can't believe it! At that time if I went to the casino and won $400, I'd be on top of the world, thinking I'm a big stud. Then there were these guys who were even younger than I was, making almost a million dollars a month! I was blown away. Back then, I had no idea there were people like Alex.”

This discovery presented an exciting opportunity for Ryan, who soon realised the potential of situation. “Afterwards, I had a second thought – these young guys were like the greatest untapped resource in independent film financing! They were rich, with no idea what to do with their money; they were my age and I was sure they loved movies, because young people love movies. But I didn't know how to get into the community and get them to invest in my movies.”

“I wanted to become friends with them, so I started to try and establish a reputation on Two Plus Two. I was either flamed, or pretty much ignored,” Ryan chuckles. “But then I found Krantz [Jay Rosenkrantz, Ryan's eventual co-producer in Bet Raise Fold]. He was a creative writing major, and like me was into filmmaking and poker, so we struck up an online friendship. That massively helped with my initial goal – getting poker players to invest in my movies. So that's how we made Bet Raise Fold.”

By the time the documentary had enough financing to go ahead, however, the poker industry was already in decline. “We could have been filming in 2004-5, when everyone was really having fun with their money, and it seemed like a party that would never end,” Ryan says meditatively. “Even by 2011, people were a lot more responsible. The industry had matured, and a lot more people were starting to realise that it wasn't going to last forever. In that way, the low points were easier to illustrate than the highs – the free living and fun times that we saw between 2003 and 2008.”

Life on Film

Filming for Bet Raise Fold was in full-swing when what is now a notorious day in poker history changed everything. “We were in the middle when Black Friday hit,” remembers Ryan. “We were actually planning to add two more characters, and were in the process of interviewing other people. We really wanted to find a small stakes grinder with dreams of being an online pro, and maybe they had a job and they just weren't there yet... someone that we could track their journey into becoming a full time online pro. So we were just in the process of adding a whole new element to the story when Black Friday hit, and then we realised we couldn't go with anybody new.”

“It was a turning point. In the first few days I wasn't sure if that would be it – like, were we still going to be able to make this movie? I didn't know. Everyone was really confused as to what this meant. We all thought people would get their money back immediately, and had no idea about all the drama yet to come with Full Tilt.”

After the news broke, the crew met up with one of the film's main characters, Danielle 'dmoongirl' Andersen, in order to get her take on what had happened. What followed was a truly poignant scene. Filmed sitting at her blank computer, Danielle talks about Black Friday, eventually starting to break down as she assesses the career that she worked so hard for may now be over.

Is it tough to carry on filming when someone is in distress? “Yeah, it was difficult,” says Ryan. There's a balance of wanting to get good film for the movie, but also feeling bad for the subject. I could see her start to cry, and she's a person – you want to say, 'Oh, it's okay, we don't have to talk about that,' but at the same time, for the sake of the movie, you want to get that raw emotion."

Thankfully, there's no occasion for Alex to be in tears in today's filming. On the contrary, the atmosphere around the flat is good-natured and jovial. I ask Ryan about whether it's difficult to film with people who 'freeze' in front of a camera. “Oh yeah, like Alex,” he replies mischievously. “What a nightmare.” This is met with guffaws from around the room and a cheerful “Fuck off!” from Alex.

They decide to film a shot of Alex's slow-moving Rumba (a small robotic hoover that you can set down and watch as it vacuums your house for you), as a nod to a lifestyle that doesn't have much time for cleaning. “Oh yeah, we decided to focus a shot on the Rumba after initially talking to Alex,” laughs Ryan. “He basically told us that, like a lot of poker players at his level, he's pretty hopeless at life. We thought the Rumba would be a good way to illustrate that.” Other atmosphere-setting shots focus on some kitsch ornaments in the kitchen (“I let my girlfriend decorate,” confesses Alex), and the row of poker awards gleaming on the mantelpiece.

Overall, the day is a pretty relaxed affair, with various different aspects of Alex's life getting their time in front of a camera. Is Alex looking forward to seeing the video? “It depends what makes the final cut!” he jokes. “Yesterday they interviewed me about my earlier life, which felt a bit weird to talk about. Generally, I had a really nice childhood; my Mum was really into architecture, and managed to build a much bigger and nicer house than we would ever have been able to afford otherwise. But there were some bad bits. As I mentioned in the interview, my parents got divorced when I was 13. So I was talking about that a little bit, but was conscious that I shouldn't slag them off as I knew they'd be watching it!” More laughter.

As Alex speaks, Ryan and his crew are putting the last painstaking touches to some shots of the flat. Would Ryan say he's a perfectionist? He smiles. “I think I'm a perfectionist in my mind, but that doesn't mean I ever achieve perfection.”

Tags: Alex Millar, Kanu7, Ryan Firpo, movies, PokerStars