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‘It was absolutely the gun violence’: Netflix series finds trouble filming in LV

Updated November 27, 2023 - 4:50 pm

Jason Bourne thwarted an assassination attempt at Aria, but the gunfire caused a panic on the casino floor.

The year before, Paul Blart dodged bullets in Wynn Las Vegas during an art heist gone bad.

But don’t expect to see Chad McKnight and his band of special-ops misfits shooting up any name-brand casinos when the Las Vegas-based action comedy “Obliterated” debuts Thursday on Netflix.

What’s changed since those first two examples?

Pretty much everything.

‘At the last second, it falls apart’

“There were a variety of hotels that we had conversations with where it looked like, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to be shooting at this place,’ ” Jon Hurwitz says. “And then, like, at the last second, it falls apart, and you never hear from them again.”

Hurwitz created “Obliterated” with Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald, all of whom have been friends since their teenage years in New Jersey. Hurwitz and Schlossberg wrote the “Harold & Kumar” trilogy and Heald penned the “Hot Tub Time Machine” movies before they joined forces to create the “Karate Kid” follow-up “Cobra Kai.”

“Obliterated” focuses on a nuclear threat to Las Vegas that’s thwarted early on, only for our heroes to realize — while they’re celebrating by blowing the rest of their operational budget on a party suite, booze and a veritable buffet of drugs — that the five-kiloton nuke they recovered was fake, the real bomb is set to go off in just seven hours, and they haven’t even begun to feel the full effects of everything they’ve ingested.

There’s so much in that sentence that could give casino executives pause, and that doesn’t even account for the show’s eye-opening amount of full-frontal nudity and a scene that required both an intimacy coordinator and an animal trainer.

But those issues weren’t the most problematic when it came to finding locations to film the eight-episode series, Heald says. “It was absolutely the gun violence. … They certainly just didn’t want us running through these hotels with guns.”

A perfect storm

We’d never ask you to watch “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” but take another look at “Jason Bourne” sometime.

The Aria scenes are unsettling after Oct. 1, 2017, in ways they weren’t when the movie was released the summer before. Lights from police cars and ambulances bathe the hotel. Some guests duck and flee the casino floor. Others shelter in place with the arrival of a heavily armed tactical unit. Everything about those moments hits differently now.

It’s completely understandable, then, that local casinos would want to distance themselves from gun violence — even on TV.

A little more than four years after the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed by a live round on the New Mexico set of the movie “Rust.” The aftermath prompted something of a reckoning on the use of guns on film sets.

Consider both tragedies, and it’s a perfect storm for hesitance.

“Seeking approval to film on location with content that involves special effects, pyrotechnics and firearms is more complex than a story without these elements because of logistics and safety requirements,” Danette Tull, production and communications manager for the Nevada Film Office, said in a statement. “Due to the aftermath of 1 October, there is a heightened sensitivity versus years prior.”

Safety first

The “Obliterated” team approached filming here for roughly a month last fall with more sensitivity than you might expect for a series whose production notes include the following: “The camel wrangler made fake cocaine and added Cheeto powder that could safely be put on the camel’s face.”

“We never had any operable weapons on set,” Heald says. “We added all the muzzle flashes, bangs and all that in postproduction.”

For a scene in which sniper Angela Gomez rides Slotzilla while shooting at a bad guy, actress Paola Lázaro didn’t have a gun — she held a green object that was digitally replaced with one.

During the climactic scenes involving Gomez and an enemy sniper that were filmed on the Rio rooftops, Heald says the production made sure guns were never pointed at the streets below or visible to hotel guests or bystanders who might think there was an active shooter.

That part of the series was written to take place at the top of The Strat, but executives there “got cold feet,” Heald says. Despite the precautions, he says, they couldn’t get permission to use the Rio name in the rewritten scenes. Instead, all that action takes place atop a purple, Rio-shaped hotel known as The Citadel.

Local casinos don’t seem to have hard and fast rules about scenes with guns. Plenty of factors, ranging from the script’s subject matter to how busy a resort is at a given time, go into decisions about whether to allow filming. An MGM Resorts spokesperson declined to comment on its policies, and officials from Caesars Entertainment and The Strat didn’t respond to requests.

“We were prepared for people just to say no. And we were grateful that they understood that this is fiction, that this is a big fun series with a big bombastic conclusion,” Heald says. “And if that meant that we had to digitally remove the name ‘Rio,’ we were happy to do that.”

Getting their money’s worth

Authenticity, though, was key for the most part — down to the Mat Franco van that’s used for surveillance in the first episode.

The “Obliterated” team didn’t want to make up phony-sounding shows, so they borrowed the van from the “America’s Got Talent” winner, whom they’d become friendly with through his “Karate Kid” fandom.

They also knew they couldn’t afford to shoot the entire series here when New Mexico beckoned with its generous film tax credits and similar-enough-looking backgrounds, so they made sure to get their money’s worth.

“We knew that we wanted to cover as much ground as possible,” Hurwitz says, “and give a lot of different flavors of the city.”

“Obliterated” filmed at Caesars Palace, Drai’s at The Cromwell, the Flamingo, the Plaza and the Four Queens. For the latter, interior scenes were shot in the Route 66 Casino in Albuquerque, but the hotel’s Beef Wellington earned special praise in the script.

“Hugo’s Cellar is one of our favorite restaurants in the world. We love it,” says Hurwitz, who’s been coming here with Heald and Schlossberg for 20 years. “The table-side salad is a salad that we crave, and that Wellington is one of our favorites.”

The team’s party suite and a penthouse belonging to the show’s villainous Russian arms dealer were built in Albuquerque, but a 19-foot by 60-foot LED video wall that played footage of the Las Vegas skyline was positioned to help with the illusion.

“It was crucial to us that when we were in Albuquerque, it still felt like you were in Vegas,” Hurwitz says.

Money was flying everywhere

Two scenes, though, simply wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.

For a high-speed chase involving a party bus and 17 precision drivers, the southbound lanes of Las Vegas Boulevard were shut down long before Formula One made that sort of thing commonplace.

A tense scene involving an explosion kicking up concrete and a large amount of (fake) money blowing around at the intersection of Flamingo Road and the Strip didn’t have the luxury of closed streets, though.

“Every time we would have money sort of flying through the air, which we did on and off for three days straight … cars were stopping in the street, people were jumping out trying to grab the money, routinely, without fail, every single take,” Hurwitz says. “I have a feeling that there were probably a number of people bringing counterfeit money into casinos in the days that followed and finding out the hard way that it was not real.”

More filming could be on the way

“The hard way” also could describe some of how “Obliterated” was filmed here.

“With ‘Cobra Kai,’ if we wanted to do a tournament with those characters in Vegas, I feel like the world would be our oyster, because it’s more of a family show and safer,” Schlossberg says. “We’re thankful for what we got, but hopefully someday we can go shoot in those places.”

Regardless of the challenges, the trio stresses they have nothing but love for the city and hope to come back for more.

“Even though it’s not the easiest to shoot there,” Schlossberg adds, “because we’ve been through it, you feel like you’d be better at it the next time.

“And so we’re thinking of different stories and shows and movies that could be set in Las Vegas, so that maybe some of these locations that we can’t get, maybe we’ll be able to get them in some future production.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on X.

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