Wayne Kramer identifies with the karmically challenged hero of his sleek new movie, "The Cooler." Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) has bad luck so contagious, a Las Vegas casino employs him to cool down high rollers.
Kramer -- who is hoarse as luck would have it, in an interview -- more than relates.
"My family has a legacy of terrible luck," the Johannesburg native said. "It's like a black cloud hovers over us."
His grandmother, a compulsive gambler, squandered her money and a couple of husbands. His father lost several businesses, the family home and his eyesight, due to retinal pigmentosa. Kramer's mother uses an oxygen tank, due to a SARS-like illness; his 40-year-old brother had rectal cancer; an uncle had his fortune stolen out of a safe; and Kramer almost lost his life to malaria while in the South African army.
In an interview from his Los Angeles home, he described how he survived the anti-Semitism at boot camp, only to be shipped off to Angola to shoot a training video.
"They didn't bother to give us malaria pills," Kramer said. While on leave for the High Holidays two months later, he experienced severe chills and was rushed to the hospital.
"I was told that the strain I had would either kill me or that I'd completely recover, with no recurrences," he said. Of course, he got it twice.
No wonder he was drawn to sad sack Lootz when his friend, Frank Hannah, e-mailed him the "Cooler" idea around 1999.
"The Cooler" tells of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), a former compulsive gambler forced to work in a casino to pay off his debts. Because his bad luck rubs off, he's invaluable as a "cooler," a professional jinx who turns winners into losers. But his luck changes when he develops an unexpected relationship with a cocktail waitress (Maria Bello), placing their love -- and their lives -- in jeopardy.
"I immediately knew I had to co-write and direct it, because this guy was me," Kramer said. "I was going to make a movie about the world's biggest loser and exorcise several generations of rotten luck from my psychic aura."
Kramer, 38, has often courted disaster. As a teenage film buff, he collected videotapes of American classics films such as "A Clockwork Orange," banned due to violence, political or sexual content. But a classmate ratted on him, and the vice squad banged on his door one day when he was 17. "It was like a drug raid," he said.
Although the charges were dropped, Kramer again found himself in trouble when he suffered a malaria relapse just before moving to the United States in 1986. He refused to postpone his trip, however.
"I hated South Africa because of apartheid and because of the artistic repression," he said. "Ever since I saw my first American films when I was small, it had been my dream to live and work in America."
Eventually, Kramer moved into a series of dumpy apartments in Orange County, where he bused tables and resurfaced bathtubs while trying to hustle screenplays. "I survived on $500 a month," he said. When he tried to direct a low-budget feature in 1990, much of the film came back out of focus.
Five years later, his luck began changing when he became a teaching assistant at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, where he met his future wife, teacher Jodi Kabrins. One of his screenplays made the semifinals of the 1995 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting contest, and his short film, "Crossing Over," premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 1996. But his career progress was slow. "My bad luck was holding steady," he said.
Thus he was riveted when Hannah started regaling him with stories about Vegas "coolers" in the late 1990s.
"Frank described nights playing craps on a roll, when suddenly someone would show up at the table and the air pressure in the room would change," Kramer said. "The whole mood would change, and he would start to lose."
"I realized that I could've been employed as a cooler," he said in an essay. "Maybe my whole family could've gotten on the payroll."
The authors decided to set their gritty fable in the seedy remnants of old Vegas, "which is sort of Felliniesque in its characters," Kramer said. The protagonists include "older cocktail waitresses with big bouffants" and a retro Jewish casino owner, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), modeled after brutal Vegas moguls such as Meyer Lansky.
For Kramer, getting to direct his first feature proved brutal. "No one wanted to know from me," he said. He braved rejection until hooking up with producers Sean and Bryan Furst (see sidebar) in 2001: "Wayne was more than ready to make this movie," Sean Furst said. "He came to us with more than 1,000 storyboards he had drawn, a detailed outline of what the film was going to look like frame by frame."
Yet, even after top actors signed on, Kramer remained nervous. He knew he would have only 21 days to shoot the film, including explicit sex scenes and ultraviolent sequences, on a budget of just $3 million. And he had that penchant for bad luck: "I felt if things could go wrong in a big way, this would be the time," he said.
But when "The Cooler" received rave reviews at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Kramer was suddenly hot.
"My phone started ringing off the hook and I'm now booked two years in advance," he said.
His projects include directing his original screenplay, "Running Scared," for Lions Gate, and his noir thriller, "The Sleeping Detective," for Paramount.
Kramer, nevertheless, remains phobic about his history of bad luck.
"I've already suggested to 'The Cooler's' distributors that they hire some armed guards to protect the negative," he said.
"The Cooler" opens Nov. 26 in Los Angeles.