Ocean’s Eleven: About the production
“This is the kind of film technically that people like Steven Spielberg and David Fincher and John McTiernan do with both hands tied behind their back,” Steven Soderbergh says with a laugh. “Not me. It was a struggle for me. Half way through this film I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.”
Las Vegas, with its famous Strip lined with luxurious hotels and casinos, became the largest set for the film. “One of the things that scared me when I read the script was the amount of time that we would have to be shooting on the floor of the casino,” Soderbergh reveals. “I’ve had friends who had worked on films there and knew that that normally the hotels only want film companies to shoot between midnight and 6:00 a.m. during the week. I was pretty anxious about that aspect. As it turned out, the cooperation that was extended to us by the casinos, particularly the Bellagio, was unlimited.”
This largesse of cooperation can be explained in two words: Jerry Weintraub.
“Jerry was the element that Steven and I didn’t know about,” George Clooney says. “We knew he was a producer and also that he had orchestrated all those big music concerts. But we had no idea what a wonderful producer he is. He has this great element of showmanship, which Steven and I don’t really have. Jerry got us literally millions of dollars worth of production value in Las Vegas alone ‘ simply by knowing the right people. And by the fact that they all had such respect for him.”
“Literally,” adds Soderbergh, “it wouldn’t have happened without Jerry. We would have been just another movie trying to gain access. He did an amazing job of pitching the story and pitching us as a group that wasn’t going to do them a disservice, either literally by making a mess of their casino or by making a movie that would reflect badly on them.”
Of all the luxury hotels on the strip, the one chosen for the major portion of the film was the Bellagio, where the company spent nearly five weeks filming interiors and exteriors. The cast also called the hotel’s exclusive private villas home for the duration of their stay in Las Vegas.
“The reason we selected the Bellagio,” says Weintraub, “is that it’s the prettiest hotel in Las Vegas. It’s also the most luxurious and the most important hotel in town. In addition, at the time I made our deal, it was owned by Steve Wynn, who is a very dear friend of mine. I had shot movies in his Mirage Hotel before so he had a sense of what I would be doing and he trusted me with the reputation of his hotel. Even though we were going to rob it! As it happens, before we even began to film there, he had sold the hotel to Kirk Kerkorian, who also happens to be an old friend of mine, so our plans went forward.”
But the negotiations regarding the extensive filming throughout the Bellagio presented more challenges to Weintraub and Company. “When we first laid out our plans for filming at the hotel, they kept saying ‘No, you can’t do that,” and ‘No, and no and no,” Weintraub recalls. “Then John Hardy and Susan Ekins, our executive producers, did a walk through with Bobby Baldwin, who is the President and CEO of Mirage Resorts and Terry Lanni, who is Chairman of the Board and CEO of MGM/Mirage. Susan and John showed them what Steven wanted to do and Bobby Baldwin gave us the go-ahead.
“You have to understand that we completely disrupted their operation,” Weintraub continues. “We closed their valet parking and porte cochere for three or four days, which meant their clients, including the high rollers, had to check into the hotel through the concrete self-parking garage. They let us turn off their fountains and the dancing waters in the lake. We closed down the conservatory and botanical gardens, we closed down the reception area with its famous Dale Chihuly glass sculpture, and we even took over the high-roller gaming room at one point.”
“It was amazing,” recalls Soderbergh. “We had no time restrictions. We would close down an entire section of the Bellagio’s casino floor during the day so that we could film. They even choreographed their dancing fountains to a special piece of music for the film. In exchange of course, the movie is like a two-hour commercial for Las Vegas and the hotel.”
Says production designer Phil Messina, “I don’t know the exact footage, but I looked at the floor plan and I’d say that during the time we filmed in the Bellagio, 25-30% of the casino floor was given to us at any one time. That’s unprecedented. We never heard no, and that’s directly attributable to the hotel’s regard for Jerry. We were even allowed to alter places in the hotel that did not necessarily receive any benefit. Le Cirque let us put up a façade that totally covered their restaurant. Our crew came in at midnight right after they closed and completely walled over the restaurant. We filmed a scene there first thing in the morning and the entire wall had been struck by 4:00 p.m. when they re-opened.”