(Photo: Dmitrriy Konstantinov)
Have That Human Urge?  The Need To Feel?  Get On The List -- For Lust, Intrigue, Sex and Titillation -- But Beware, For "Deception" Is Around The Corner

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

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April 17, 2008

Sex -- a three-letter word -- short, sweet, simple -- and in America the source of endless fascination, discussion and prurient interest. 
Just lately for instance, if you merely glanced at U.S. news headlines you would have noticed that Eliot Spitzer resigned last month as the governor of New York State after it was revealed that he allegedly was "client-9" (in an redacted court complaint) and a solicitor of a prostitute and engaged in sex via a VIP sex club-prostitution/escort service called the Emperors Club (pictured below). 

As long as human beings have populated the world, sex and scandal have intertwined, whether involving the anonymous (Ashley Alexandra Dupre), the famous (Princess Margaret), or the high-powered (Bill Clinton), to name but a few over the recent generations. 

Now a new film called "Deception", which opens in the U.S. and Canada on April 25, takes the veneer off sex clubs and the curiosity, voyeurism and American fascination surrounding them and fuses the venue into what is a larger story about an affluent Wall Street lawyer (Hugh Jackman) and an isolated, closeted workaholic accountant (Ewan MacGregor) whose paths cross, with a woman named S (Michelle Williams) who is very much part of the proceedings that Mr. MacGregor's Jonathan finds himself embroiled in.

"Deception", which is directed by Swiss filmmaker Marcel Langenegger and released by Twentieth Century Fox, explores its title to great effect, with numerous twists and turns.  And where else should one set a film like this than in New York City, the largest city, and the second highest population in the world?  After all, New York City is a place where sexual energy runs very high.  If you have ever lived there and gone on to live in another American city and then returned to New York, you can feel the tension and energy right away upon re-entry.  Whether one spends Thursday nights (long known as the new Friday) in the Big Apple's meatpacking district on the far lower West side, or on the upper west side in bars, clubs or lounges, or in speakeasies and watering holes on the upper east side of Manhattan, not to mention the varying venues of Brooklyn's boldness and allure as a borough, New York City is a magnet for sexual tension and much more.

Marcel Langenegger (in forest green jacket) on the set of his feature film directing debut, "Deception", with Ewan MacGregor, at right.  (Photo: Jonathan Wenk/20th Century Fox)

On a recent afternoon Mr. Langenegger has been on the telephone from Los Angeles to talk about "Deception", and while sex is a theme in his film, it does not come close to formulating the bulk of what his film is about.  Still, as he reveals, most interviewers want to talk to him about that particular subject: Sex.  And that List.  (The director said that several interviewers had even asked him to help find them men from the List.)  "The List", as it is featured in "Deception", is a starting off point for sex, sin, scandal and disastrous consequences, and is a sex club frequented by Wyatt (Mr. Jackman), marked by the four magic code words, "are you free tonight?", the private password that gets the well-to-do and most powerful and affluent men of New York City -- the Masters of the Universe that author Tom Wolfe wrote about in his satirical 1980's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities -- into a paradise of women who are waiting for them in the club.

Or, as Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson would rap, In Da Club.

The only difference however, between Mr. Jackson's rapped verses and Mr. Langenegger's film is that the men who visit The List are into having sex (if not into making love), and "Deception" shows some of the steamier exploits of the rendezvous between the sexes.  In an increasingly hyper-speed technological world fueled by an Internet age, and a country in which many work almost around the clock with sixteen or seventeen hour-days, or have two jobs, many single Americans (and more than a few married ones) barely have time to breathe, let alone precious minutes for intimate physical contact, something that every human being needs at one point or another in their lives. 

So where do they go for a release amidst the pressures of the corporate or blue-collar worlds? 

The List.

And The List coincidentally, is a pseudonym name of an actual sex club (with venues in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and New York City) owned by a man that Marcel Langenegger spoke to while doing research for "Deception", the film which also features Maggie Q, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Charlotte Rampling.  The director, without too much prompting in some instances, will talk more about the details of the real List sex club a little later. 

For now, much of the conversation is specifically about the film, including its Big Apple setting.  (To cut production costs "Deception" was originally going to be shot in Toronto, as a double for New York City, something done by many Hollywood film production companies, since the costs of shooting in New York are much higher.  Mr. Langenegger instead changed his mind, and after Hugh Jackman got on board the film as a producer and the money for the film grew, New York City had to be the place where the film was shot.  After all, native New Yorker Mark Bomback wrote the screenplay, the events of which were set there.  According to the director, Mr. Bomback had learned about a specific private sex club operating legally on Wall Street, a club which still exists to this very day.

"When you're in New York, and you're alone in New York, you're really lonely . . . it's the largest city in the United States.  That you can be so lonely in such a huge city which is so dense, only a couple of miles wide and so many people living there, and yet you can be completely isolated.  That is something I felt that's very interesting," said Mr. Langenegger, who with "Deception" makes his feature-film directing debut.  Stylistically, the director captures this isolation in a vertical maze of windows in buildings marking New York City's skyline, still standing as famously as ever despite the traumatic events of nearly seven years ago.  The windows make a prisoner of Jonathan, whom like many employed in America, has little connection to anything except work. 

The next time the saying "you are your job" is bandied about, spare a thought for Mr. MacGregor's Jonathan, or someone you know (or yourself for that matter.)  Jonathan is an accountant who looks at the books of some of New York's most elite financial houses and corporations, and he isn't everybody's favorite visitor by a long stretch.  Jonathan is a forgotten corporate nomad who toils in almost extreme isolation and is exactly whom Elton John had in mind in his 1970's song "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" when he sang the words, "Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers/Turn around and say good morning to the night/For unless they see the sky/But they can't and that is why/They know not if it's dark outside or light". 

"He almost becomes a building himself.  His body's just like another building amongst the skyline," says the Swiss director Langenegger of the static existence of Jonathan, a man like a rat crawling on a rapidly-rotating wheel.  Except Jonathan is not crawling, he's yearning for something more than even himself, something that his soul can feed into and be nourished by.  Something other than a paycheck and a job well done.

Enter Wyatt, who happens to be at one of the companies -- a law firm -- of which Jonathan is scrutinizing the books.  Wyatt, as played by Mr. Jackman, is whom Mr. Langenegger describes as a "charming, seductive, alluring figure" that Jonathan falls for, because he represents everything that Jonathan isn't -- a free spirit, hedonist, confident and magnetic.  Wyatt is clean-cut and energetic, and soon he shows Jonathan a world at night, one populated by women, intimacies and wild parties, a night side more exciting than the one he has ever known in his whole life.

Kristen ó Elliot Spitzerís Prostitute Photo
A screen shot of the website (currently inoperable) of the high-priced prostitution ring which former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer did business with.  He allegedly had sex with "Kristen" also known as Ashley Alexandra Dupre, a 22-year-old prostitute and aspiring singer living in New York City.  Mr. Spitzer resigned from office last month, on March 13.

The Real The List

"You get a phone and you get a number and you call and a woman is looking to sleep with you for sex," said Mr. Langenegger of what he learned while researching the real The List.  "It does exist," he continued, citing the chauvinism of it all.  The men who come to The List "all belong to the same kind of social level, they're all Wall Street people, executives, sort of mid-level, high-level executives, well-paid career people who have very, very little time on their hands," said the director, who had previously directed award-winning commercials for various organizations, and counts himself as a big Alfred Hitchcock fan.  "As you know, especially in trading and stockbroking, you know, the Asian markets are open in the middle of the night and the European markets open also somewhere . . . leaving (workers) very little time to have social interaction (outside of work) with others," said Mr. Langenegger, who queried his questioner about his birth origin before talking about America's social networking between the sexes.  "The dating process in America is just this complicated thing, you know, you have to go out for a couple of dates and then you have to woo, you have to follow.  So they kind of bypass it all because when you're on The List they (the women) just call and you go for dinner, and you probably go have sex that night," the "Deception" director said.

To repeat an earlier refrain, The List is not a prostitution ring, or an escort service, nor is it like Plato's Retreat, the swinging sex paradise that thrived in New York City in the 1970's as well as in Miami.  The List is a discreet, upscale, elite, and in some cities elitist sex club (Los Angeles and San Francisco are more looks-oriented when it comes to choosing the men who will have sex with the waiting women at The List, whereas the New York City location is much more about the money and the status of the men.)  Unlike some of the activity at the Retreat or at bathhouses, there is safety-first and just as in "Deception", everything at the real List is anonymous and the rules are, no rough-stuff or dangerous activity.  Everybody knows what everybody is there for, and there are no illusions or forced incentives. 

People who are admitted after paying a sum of money do not feel pressure, the director would later opine, to participate in any sexual intercourse if they don't feel comfortable doing so.  And there seems to be little issue about women being endangered in any way when it comes to this particular kind of sex club, which again, operates completely legally.  "The list (at The List club) is pre-screened, the women feel safe because whoever's on the list is a guy with some income and manners and so forth," said Mr. Langenegger, although some couldn't be wrong for thinking when reading that last quote that a few of the wealthier men of the world naturally have their uncouth and more dangerous sides, too.  Consider Mr. Spitzer, the former Gotham governor who made a living at crusading against Wall Street whom one escort (by the name of "Kristen" later revealed to be Ashley Alexandra Dupre, a woman who had her picture plastered all over the world in photos videos and right here in this feature story, see below) apparently revealed via one of the Emperors Club VIP managers that the former governor "asked (Ms. Dupre) to do things, like (she) might not think were safe . . . ".

It should be clear though, that the conduct the former governor was accused of, transporting a woman across state lines (from New York to Washington, D.C.) for the purposes of sexual intercourse, occurred as part of a prostitution ring, the very kind of ring that the ex-governor successfully prosecuted and busted up on at least two occasions while attorney general of New York State. 

Ashley Alexandra Dupre, in a 2006 My Space photo obtained by the Associated Press and other news outlets.  Ms. Dupre, the woman who had allegedly been transported across state lines by former New York governor Eliot Spitzer for the purposes of sexual relations -- a violation of the Mann Act -- which almost never gets prosecuted.  Usually the woman is punished, and not the man, as is the case in nearly all illicit sex activity.

The List is not, according to the director, a house of ill-repute.

Of the four U.S. cities, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, where one man the director spoke to operates The List (the club may not necessarily known by that specific name, as a trip to your local neighborhood Internet search engine will reveal) comprise a total of some 15,000 members, 5,000 of which are in Los Angeles alone.  The List, according to Mr. Langenegger, has its hurdles that must be cleared before one as they say, is in like Flynn.  "You submit photos and then you get approved or not to attend one event, which is kind of an introduction to the other people.  It's kind of a low-level event.  Then if you get past that you get an invitation to another event, where you meet people from The List.

"The guy that I met in L.A. operates three Lists, he said there are three levels of list.  One is kind of entry level where you somehow join and you are basically a club which is more open-minded and a little bit more free and geared toward sex.  The second level is more private, where you only get invited with a phone call (as in "Deception") or event or for some kind of getting together or special party or special sort of group setting.  And then from then on . . . you really like pick and choose (the women).  And then the third level -- which is completely anonymous and secretive -- is for celebrities there, who are known and well-known.  And there they have, you know, really high security.  They have security on the premises," Mr. Langenegger said.  "Upon entry you're frisked.  You cannot have a cell phone there to make photos of people.  It's completely sort of protected because it has known people," said the "Deception" director.  Generally the women and the people who run the List club make the choices about which man they will meet and eventually have sex with.

The director mentions the Republican politician who had attempted to run for the vacant U.S. senate seat in Illinois in 2004, the seat that would eventually be won that year and currently held by Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama.  Jack Ryan -- no relation of course, to the character of Tom Clancy's books or the films "The Hunt For Red October", "Patriot Games" or "Clear And Present Danger" -- had to end his campaign after allegations surfaced that he had frequented sex clubs in the late 1990's with his then-wife actress Jeri Ryan (of television shows "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Boston Public") and compelled, if not forced her, to go to those clubs.  After going once, Ms. Ryan declined to go any more.  According to a CNN report, the former Ms. Ryan had alleged in unsealed court documents at the time that "her ex-husband took her to sex clubs and asked her to engage in sexual activity in front of other patrons." 

Mr. Langenegger then tells a true tale of a married couple who he learned had went to a sex club like the List, but with another person.  Both were basically cheating on each other but ended up at the same sex club at the same time, each with different people in tow. 

"That's pretty crazy, you know.  Because both thought that the other one wouldn't want to do this.  They both had desired to do this on their own and ended up at the same gathering," said the director. 

One would be remiss not to acknowledge the destructive aspect of this and other behaviors where sex is concerned, and also to reiterate that in the sexist, male-dominated world we live in, the woman is always the one who is punished much more vigorously than the man -- if the man is punished at all -- for his part in an illegal sex arrangement. 

Lest there be any blurring of the lines however, it is worth reminding that the real List clubs, like the one featured in "Deception", are a legitimate and private enterprise.

Hot under the collar here in America, ho-hum there elsewhere

Inevitably a question is asked about the way the U.S. looks at sex versus the way other countries or continents do, which leads to some of the conclusions widely held among people both inside and outside America.  "America has weird relationship to sex, you know?  I mean, it's puritanical in so many ways.   And yet -- I mean there's the porn industry right here in L.A., you know what I mean?  There's something so twisted about it.  In the same way there's a twist -- you know in a movie you cannot show a woman breast feeding.  It's stuff that will get you the wrong rating.  But you can a guy with a chainsaw chopping the other guy's hands off or something like that.  It is really twisted in many ways.  But I agree . . . that America -- my point of view that Europeans have a healthier and much less complicated relationship to anything sexual," said Mr. Langenegger.

Michelle Williams as S, and Ewan MacGregor as Jonathan in "Deception", directed by Marcel Langenegger.  (Photo: Jonathan Wenk/20th Century Fox)

The Cast of "Deception" and Near-Calamity

Everybody has another side to them -- that much is hardly a revelation -- and in the film "Deception", this is unsurprisingly also true.  Mr. Langenegger talks about casting the three main actors.  Mr. Jackman, the Australian thespian who had been in sexually-charged fare like "Swordfish", science-fiction romances like "The Fountain" and gilt-edged thrillers like "The Prestige", becomes a likable and calculating charismatic presence in "Deception", which as suggested earlier, delivers on its promise.  The film was originally titled "The Tourist" and then "The List", before becoming its present more spicy title, or as some might opine, the title of a romance-thriller novel that you would typically expect to see on the shelves at a duty-free shop. 

Mr. MacGregor was a casting choice made more interesting by the range and dimension of characters he has played.  He inhabited androgyny, playing it to the hilt as David Bowie's 1970's incarnation Ziggy Stardust in Todd Haynes's film "Velvet Goldmine", while displaying a far more volatile and sexually aggressive, even misogynistic side as the title character in the film "Young Adam", which was NC-17-rated by the Motion Picture Association of America for its explicit sadistic moments and strong sexual content.  Michelle Williams, whose former boyfriend, the late Heath Ledger appeared with her in the Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain", had been heretofore playing pristine characters, occasionally troubled, but otherwise chastened.  In "Deception" she makes a 180-degree turn, as S, a character Mr. Langenegger described as "typical femme-fatale", who captures Jonathan's weary, work-wracked eye. 

"I feel very fortunate, you know, to have the chance and the possibility to do this, especially with a cast like this.  It was an amazing experience," Mr. Langenegger said of working with the cast and crew.  The challenge was to get the film ready in five or six weeks, so the window to begin filming was very narrow because Mr. Jackman was set to replace Russell Crowe in the film "Australia", directed by Baz Luhrmann.  "Plus, we needed a whole rewrite of the story," Mr. Langenegger said.  There were pitfalls however, as they are on almost every motion picture set anywhere in the world.  With the news of Mr. Jackman's imminent departure to join countryman Mr. Luhrmann's film, the "Deception" project "would basically have been dead", because Mr. Jackman was committed to film "wolverine" after that, which meant that Mr. Langenegger's film may not have seen the light of day for "maybe three years or four years".  The director said he had previously lost a project for a television commercial based on the same kind of issues and delays which looked to doom "Deception".

In fact, Twentieth Century Fox actually dropped its commitment to the film at one stage.  It was then that Mr. Jackman decided to come on board as a producer and suggested shooting "Deception" independently.  (He had also asked Mr. Langenegger to shoot all of Mr. Jackman's scenes within a one month time period in order to maintain the schedule that would allow the Tony Award-winning actor to head to Australia to film with Mr. Luhrmann.)  The film's third act in particular needed a rewrite and with the time pressure everyone was under the gun.  The film's writer, Mr. Bomback, was no longer interested in working any further on adjusting the script that he had written, as he reportedly wanted more money, which in the end couldn't be given to him.  "There were days when pages of the script got faxed to the set," Mr. Langenegger confessed at one point.  And shooting the film in Manhattan had its challenges.  "It's so complicated.  You lose so much time on its own just by being in Manhattan," the director said, mentioning that parking permits had to be obtained at last minute, that a post-9/11 New York, with a government building nearby, meant that Mr. Langenegger and his crew weren't permitted to park in certain proximity to such buildings because of fears by government officials from those buildings that the camera trucks for the film contained bombs in them.

"But then in the end we kind of made it work and it came in on time and on budget," the director said.

Still, Mr. Langenegger had to fight to get a brief scene involving veteran British actress Charlotte Rampling (who for years has lived in France and has been in numerous French films) into "Deception".  He said that he wanted to show "girl power", in his words, and not to reflect a male chauvinism that would be inherent if in the Wall Street sex club scenes Mr. MacGregor's Jonathan character had only 20-year-old women to choose from.  And when the producers of "Deception" thought the idea of inserting an older woman like Ms. Rampling was ridiculous and unrealistic (they had obviously not read news stories appearing online on Reuters in January and February about 60 and 70-year-old women who were traveling to other countries to have sex with men in their 20's -- also see the film "Heading South", which features Ms. Rampling), the producers' demands only made the director more resilient.  "I required one of the women has to be older.  This is a Wall Street, an elite Wall Street group.  One of them (at the club) has to be in her 60's, (an executive woman) of the company, you know, the cover of Forbes magazine, or something like that.  And if she is in a group, then the whole thing gets legitimized.  And if she is in the group and 60 years old . . . then I think it's something modern and becomes even feminist to a certain degree -- for the same reason that a man in her position would do." 

Mr. Langenegger said he also had to fight to preserve Michelle Williams' place for the role of S in the film.  According to the director, the "Deception" producers felt that, "'well, she's too fragile, and we can't have this icy-cold hard core woman.'  I really fought for those two roles like crazy.  I had to give them a lot of compromises in a lot of ways," the first-time feature film director revealed.  He especially sung the praises of Ms. Rampling during a quiet moment in the film.  "It was the loneliest look I'd ever seen," he said of an instant where her character gives a look to Mr. MacGregor's character.  Ms. Rampling has played characters that have a vibrant sexuality often percolating just beneath the surface, in a look or other non-verbal communication.  Fans of her work will have noted this in such films as "Swimming Pool", as well as films from several years prior.

The director then took the opportunity to examine a double standard which he noted existed in many places, but more clearly so in the United States.

"Here in America, if you see a movie with Michael Douglas or Sean Connery having a 25-year-old girlfriend in the movie, nobody even questions it.  'Yes, of course, it's Sean Connery, he's a rich guy and money is attractive, power is sexy,' (never mind) that sometimes he doesn't even look good.  And I don't feel it manages to work other way round especially in this day and age.  It's a little thing in the film, but I thought it was important enough to make this from a slightly chauvinistic concept, giving it a little bit of a feminist touch and giving it a little bit of a girl power.  Which to me is very important to have in the movie.  This is also why . . . I changed the (New York cop) character to a black female detective," he said, citing that there "were only one or two female detectives in Manhattan.  There's no black female detective," Mr. Langenegger said, adding that the detective character, played by Lisa Gay Hamilton (of such films as "The Truth About Charlie", "Beloved" and "True Crime"), is also in her own isolated world in the New York Police Department, an isolation she shares but in different ways, with Mr. MacGregor's Jonathan.

Lists, lust, discretion and danger are all on display in Marcel Langenegger's film "Deception", which opens on April 25 in the U.S. and Canada.

"Deception" stars Hugh Jackman, Ewan MacGregor, Michelle Williams, Maggie Q, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Charlotte Rampling.  A review of the film will appear here on The Popcorn Reel on April 25.

Director Marcel Langenegger sets up a camera shot on the set of "Deception".  (Photo: Jonathan Wenk/20th Century Fox)

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