Setting the Scene

Las Vegas, as we all know, is a haven for illusion.

So it seems fitting that the new movie “Everybody’s Fine,” which opens in theaters Friday, includes several Las Vegas scenes — that were filmed in Connecticut.

Sharp-eyed local audiences will notice that Robert De Niro and Drew Barrymore, playing father and daughter, aren’t really in Las Vegas while they share a limo ride on the Strip or enjoy a glittering view from a swanky high-rise apartment.

But writer-director Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine,” “Nanny McPhee”) hopes moviegoers will be too caught up in the movie’s characters and story to notice that the only Las Vegas footage featured in “Everybody’s Fine” was shot by a second-unit crew — and without the stars.

Technology now makes it possible for De Niro and Barrymore to film a scene on an apartment set in front of a green-screen backdrop, which disappears in post-production, replaced by a Las Vegas view filmed on location by a separate, second-unit crew.

“Initially, when the film was budgeted,” so was location filming, the British-born Jones explains during a recent telephone interview.

By the time “Everybody’s Fine” went into production in early 2008, however, a budget that included location filming “was literally double” what the production eventually cost.

Film financing being what it is these days, Jones resigned himself to the Connecticut compromise.

“It’s just accepted as part of the world in which we work,” he says, a note of resignation in his softly accented voice. “You accept it as part of the industry.”

Besides, he reasons, “would I have rather not made the film at all?”

Technically, “Everybody’s Fine” already has been made.

It began as a 1991 Italian movie, directed by “Cinema Paradiso’s” Giuseppe Tornatore and starring late great Marcello Mastroianni.

The new remake casts De Niro in Mastroianni’s role: a family patriarch who’s disappointed when his grown children cancel out on a reunion — and decides to surprise each of them with a visit instead.

One son’s a New York-based artist. A Chicago-based daughter (played by Kate Beckinsale) works in advertising, while a musician son (Sam Rockwell) is on tour in Denver.

And his youngest daughter (Barrymore) works as a dancer — in Las Vegas.

“I was aware that, as the youngest daughter, she was vulnerable — and keen to get into the entertainment industry,” Jones notes. As such, she’d be “drawn to the bright lights” of the Strip.

“I’m very aware of places like Vegas and L.A. — full of young people who hope and believe opportunity’s going to present itself, but, sadly, sometimes doesn’t,” he says. “There’s a sadness related to Vegas.”

But Las Vegas’ trademark glitz and glamour atmosphere also contrast with her father’s old-school, blue-collar background.

“I wanted to present a world where De Niro’s character looked very much out of place,” Jones says. “As a backdrop, Las Vegas provided a very strong contrast to me.”

While preparing “Everybody’s Fine,” his U.S. feature debut, Jones actually traced the same cross-country route De Niro’s character follows in the movie.

Because the character has health problems, he’s restricted to traveling by train and bus — which isn’t a problem on the New York, Chicago and Denver portions of the journey.

But (don’t tell anyone!) Las Vegas hasn’t had Amtrak service since the Desert Wind last blew through town in May 1997.

Jones solved that problem by driving from Denver to Las Vegas, following a route that took him through Leadville and Grand Junction, Colo., Utah’s San Rafael Desert and Southern Nevada’s own Red Rock Canyon.

Vistas of those wide open spaces found their way into “Everybody’s Fine,” Jones says, noting that he thought “the landscape shots would help the film to breathe.”

And, thanks to those images (which he credits in part to cinematographer Henry Braham and art director Drew Bouton), “no one doubts the trip was made.”

Especially because “Everybody’s Fine” focuses as much on an emotional journey as a physical one.

Although “I don’t make films that are overtly commercial,” Jones acknowledges, “Everybody’s Fine” does explore a universal theme, he argues.

“Family is about as universal a theme as you could hope to encounter,” Jones says.

The movie’s theme of family connections (and missed connections) also resonates during its holiday-season release, he notes.

“Modern life is not what it should be,” according to Jones.

“We kind of congratulate ourselves” regarding technological advances, “but I worry what we’ve done,” he says. Instead of buying more time, we’ve exposed ourselves to 24-hour contact,” thereby “creating much more work and distraction.”

As for the ultimate distraction — Las Vegas — “I’ve been back since” completing “Everybody’s Fine,” he says, and with “more time to relax there,” Jones has been able to appreciate its “quite extraordinary” qualities.

It’s “a kind of heaven and hell all at the same time,” Jones says, “depending on your perspective.”

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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