When filmmaker David Palmer set out to make a documentary called Stripped: Greg Friedler's Naked Las Vegas, he was not a fan of Las Vegas. In fact, he set out to expose the place.
"I did go to Vegas with a preconceived notion," Palmer says. "I thought I was going to make a film that would probably not be very positive about the place."
In 2007, Palmer signed on to document a Vegas-centric art-book project by Greg Friedler, who had photographed everyday citizens, clothed and unclothed, for his previous books Naked New York, Naked London and Naked LA. Stripped, which goes on sale on DVD and premieres on Showtime March 18, will be screened at the Onyx Theatre at midnight on March 24 and 31.
It all started, as do so many things, naked or not, on Craigslist. Browsing the site one night, Palmer bumped into Friedler's ad seeking a filmmaker to follow his latest project in Las Vegas.
"When I agreed to take on the project, I was at the point in my life when I was not enchanted by Las Vegas," says Palmer, who has made music videos for the likes of Mary J. Blige and others. "I had the Vegas experience in my 20s and early 30s, bachelor parties and Hangover weekends. I remember driving there that first time in April, alone in my car, with all my gear, and just asking myself 'What am I doing? Why am I doing this?' Now I can see a parallel of how people go to Vegas seeking something, but not knowing what."
In August 2007, without confirmed subjects or even a shooting location, Friedler and Palmer began a 30-day search for Las Vegans who would be willing to bare body — and maybe soul.
Friedler's project got a big boost from the First Friday arts festival in August. "The 40 or 50 people people we met there ran off and started talking about it, and that's when we started getting invited to people's houses, nudist parties and birthday parties, the Renaissance Fair scene ..."
At first, Palmer operated at a remove from the artist and his subjects, a fly on the wall, observing Friedler doing his thing.
And after the month-long book shoot, Palmer took a year off from the film, nearly abandoning it. "It didn't feel complete," he says. "Something was missing — I didn't know what the third act was."
When a pre-release copy of the completed book arrived in August 2008, and Palmer saw the portraits of the 75 subjects who made the editor's cut, he knew he had found his third act.
"I thought, I've gotta go find these people. We're gonna show this book to the people in the book. So we're meeting them a second time, going deeper into their worlds a year later. I'd seen them naked already, so there was that trust factor. It was as if I had been their shrink for 10 years."
A single year in Vegas was like 10 years in his own life in Santa Monica, Palmer found. "These people had been married, divorced, disappeared, kicked out of their houses …"
"You cannot not respect and see the beauty in those photos and those people," Palmer says of the UNLV professor who lost her boyfriend to the war in Iraq, the homeless gentleman, the unusually gendered couple. "The people who had the least had the most in a lot of ways, in this film. They had happiness, love, peace."
Palmer's camera also discovered the grotesque beauty of a mostly unseen and certainly uncelebrated Las Vegas. Treating the unique city as a character, the director/cinematographer purposely avoided any the traditional stock B-roll beauty shots of neon dazzle. He focused instead on the Double Down and its denizens, the ruined façade of the Moulin Rouge, an old Downtown theater, strip malls and motels.
"Vegas is a lot more than the Wynn and the Bellagio, that's for sure," Palmer says today. "The massive dichotomy is so staggering that you can go a block or two behind the apparent opulence and wealth of the Strip and see these blown-out motels and apartment buildings.
"That's why I called it Stripped — obviously it's a double entendre or triple, even, about stripping people of their clothes, stripping the Strip, stripping Las Vegas.
"There's nowhere else on the planet that's like it," he says. "It's such a struggle to live there, I think. Your mayor [Oscar Goodman] put it well in the film, when he says, 'You have to know your moral compass.' And there's that social worker who says, 'You will find yourself, you will find your weakness — Vegas will find it.'"