How much time did you spend shooting in Las Vegas?
We were there two or three times. I love working in Vegas. I’ve done a lot of stories there. I did a story on strippers and showgirls; I did a story about Marquee that will be in the September issue of GQ.
What do you find interesting about Las Vegas?
It’s so interesting photographically, and also just as—I think what it says about our culture. In a way it’s a little bit similar to what I love about The Queen of Versailles, and also I did a story about Dubai and the crash in Dubai and loved that, too. It’s kind of over the top, but in a way that really reveals kind of who we are. In my documentary work and my photography, I’m often looking at the extremes that reveal the mainstream. When I talk about Las Vegas, I’m really talking about the Strip. That’s the part that I’m really responding to. Although, I’ve done stories in the crash about foreclosure and specifically foreclosure cities in California, places in the Inland Empire that have really high rates of foreclosure, and I know that Las Vegas has had similar hard times, and I think that underscores the kind of fantasy that is the Strip.
What do you think it is about Las Vegas that made David Siegel so unwilling to let go of his property here?
I think it’s more complicated than the money, and I included in the film the whole part about David’s parents and how important Vegas was for them. I think they were offered the key to the city in Vegas, and they loved coming to Vegas. They were big gamblers, and they were not rich. They spent and lost a lot of money in Vegas. I think because of that and his connection to his childhood and his parents, the building in Las Vegas took on an emotional quality for David. It was something he thought his parents would be really proud of, and was his legacy. My understanding was the Westgate lights were the brightest that had ever been made in Vegas, and according to Jackie, they passed an ordinance that you could not have a light as bright after the Westgate sign was built. And that sign was grandfathered in.
How long were you working on the project before the economy collapsed and things changed for the Siegels?
Actually, I met Jackie in 2007, but we didn’t start filming until early 2009. So it was after the crash when we started, but at that point they were billionaires building the biggest house in America, and I never dreamed that they would be affected by the crash. I thought they were the ones that were insulated from it. And it wasn’t until the middle of 2010 that I realized how bad things were, how much was at stake, and how the pressures that David’s time-share business was feeling from the crash were going to affect their personal life. And basically in the middle of 2010, the bankers told him to put Versailles on the market, and at the same time also asked them to auction off a number of non-time share properties. And it was on that trip that David said that he had never taken anything off the table and had put everything he had into the business, and had personally signed for everything. So that was when the story changed.
Was there a level of excitement for you seeing this story become something more interesting and complex than you originally anticipated, even as it’s a terrible situation for the Siegels?
I don’t know if I would call it excitement, because I think in the moment I’m really just trying to catch it, not to miss what’s going on. I definitely felt that a big turn was happening. I think what happened at that point for me is I realized that this wasn’t a story about one family, and it wasn’t a story about rich people, but their story was really an allegory about the overreaching of America, and was much more universal than I had realized, or it became much more universal. And it became kind of an epic story, an epic kind of symbol of what we had been through. So I think that made the story more meaningful to me.
With David’s lawsuit and the attention it’s gotten in the press, do you worry about that coverage eclipsing the movie itself?
I think as a filmmaker, I would prefer people focus only on the film. But I think as a documentarian, there is this natural kind of behind the story that people want, and everybody wants to know, “Where are they now? What’s the update?” All of those kinds of questions. I think that in a way that’s the beauty of documentary, is that people do have those questions. And I’m also just incredibly grateful that people care about this story.