Love Ranch   

by director Taylor Hackford

The far western states of the U.S. have always been incubators for social change. Since people who settled in these desolate states were not bound by the social mores of the communities they’d left behind, they were free to experiment with new, sometimes radical social and political concepts that would have been taboo in their previous lives. Brigham Young’s Mormon tribes in Utah, Big Bill Haywood’s Wobblies in Idaho and Colorado, and Upton Sinclair’s Socialists in California, were all able to actualize their dreams in the West—dreams that would have been “impossible dreams” anywhere else.

In 1971, Joe and Sally Conforte actualized their own impossible “American Dream” in Northern Nevada—They convinced the tiny electorate of Storey County to break with 200 years of Puritan Morality by voting to legalize Prostitution. Their Mustang Ranch immediately became world famous as the first legal brothel in the United States.  Operating out of a nest of doublewide trailers on the banks of the Truckee River, Joe and Sally struck it rich... how could they not... they were selling the hottest possible commodity—Sex!

This proverbial American success story was not what interested me—I had no desire to make a feature film about "The Best Little Whore House In Sparks, Nevada". What intrigued me was how The Confortes handled their newfound legitimacy—they’d challenged America’s rigid morality and won, but could they handle success and turn their illicit monopoly into a new "Comstock Lode"? Joe and Sally had operated illegal brothels in Northern Nevada long before they managed to get prostitution legalized.  They were cynical professionals who knew how to survive—selling flesh to get what they wanted. The same could be said of Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena, the heavyweight champion of South America, who had come to America in the 1970s, the decade of the legendary Heavyweights, and fought the best of the best:  Joe Fraiser and Mohammad Ali.  He had prospered in another flesh business, the fight game, but by the mid '70s his time had past, and he was on a downhill slide.

The confluence of these three cynical professionals at the Mustang Ranch in 1976 created the flash point for a truly dramatic American morality tale. Their union was freely acknowledged to be collaboration for mutual exploitation. Joe Conforte had always dreamed of being a "big wheel" in the professional fight game. Now, flush with cash from "The Ranch," he decided to actualize that dream by promoting a World Heavyweight Championship Fight on his home turf of Reno, Nevada. Bonavena had fought the world’s greatest boxer, Mohammad Ali, eighteen months before and made an extremely good showing of himself... gamely battling Ali into the fourteenth round before being stopped by the Champion. It was known that Ali enjoyed verbally jousting with the jovial Argentine, and after the match, intimated that he wouldn’t be opposed to a rematch if the right venue and purse could be found.  Conforte heard these stories, and took advantage of Bonavena’s love for gambling and women when he paid off the boxer’s debts to a Vegas casino in return for him signing a contract "to train" at The Ranch for a rematch with Ali.  Since Conforte had a criminal record, he had no chance of getting a Promoter’s License from the Nevada State Boxing Commission, but this didn’t stop Joe—he just had his wife Sally become Bonavena’s Manager and Promoter.  The rest is history: Bonavena and Sally became romantically involved; Joe became alarmed that they would cut him out of his share of the business; On the evening of May 22, 1976, Bonavena was gunned down at the Mustang Ranch; Local law enforcement authorities who were heavily indebted to Conforte ruled Bonavena's death, self-defense; Ultimately one of Joe's employees served a few months in a local prison for the crime. Those are the facts.

In 2007, I got a call from two old friends, journalist, Mark Jacobson, and boxing promoter, Lou DiBella, who had become intrigued with this story 30 years later and had begun to develop a screenplay around these events. They wanted to know if I might be interested in joining them in developing this project as a vehicle for my wife, Helen Mirren. I had researched the Conforte-Bonavena story in 1976 when I was a journalist, so they immediately had me hooked, but I’d suggested various roles to Helen over the years without success—she’s extremely selective about the parts she plays. Therefore, when she showed genuine interest in this morality tale, I immediately partnered with Jacobson and DiBella and started working on the script with Mark.

My films have always been about working class characters—struggling to survive in a hostile world 'against all odds.' Clearly, the three characters in this tale fit my working class criteria, but they certainly weren’t struggling to survive economically—they’d all succeeded wildly in their respective professions.  Mark came up with a different approach—we should look for what they had failed at—what they secretly yearned for, regardless of how deeply buried—and of course, the answer became obvious:  they had no emotional life.  It’s doubtful that any one of these protagonists had even a scintilla of romantic illusion left in them when they met, yet an explosion of passion and jealously had occurred.   This became the question to explore in Love Ranch: Can three cynical professionals, inured to the possibility of romance, actually experience an emotional rebirth?... or more simply: Can one find true love in an establishment that dispassionately sells sex?

I invited three brilliant actors to collaborate with us in exploring this premise:  Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci and Sergio Peris Mencheta, and they all revealed levels of intimacy within their characters that go far beyond anything we put on the page. We were also blessed with an incredible supporting cast: Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, Bai Ling, Elise Neal, Bryan Cranston, Rick Gomez, M.C. Gainey, Gil Birminghan, Emily Rios, Melora Walters, Raoul Trujillo, Bo Brown, Wendell Pierce, Harve Presnell, Niki Crawford and Leslie Jordan, who all delivered revelatory performances as characters that live and work in a totally unique world.

I have equally salutary compliments for all my technical collaborators:  Production Designer Bruno Rubeo, DP Kieran McGuigan, Set Decorator Maria Nay, Costume Designer Melissa Bruning, Fight/Stunt Coordinators Gary Davis and Jimmy Nickerson, Editor Paul Hirsch, Executive Music Producer Joel Sill and Composer Chris Bacon. The period look, aural and visual style of this film was conceived in close collaboration with them all.

Finally, I have to express my deep gratitude to my producing partners. This film had a very long and rather difficult gestation. These close collaborators refused to give up and consistently delivered invaluable support which allowed us finally to reach the finish line: Writer/Executive Producer Mark Jacobson, Producer Lou Dibella, Producer Marty Katz and Co-Producer/Post Production Supervisor Lisa Dennis.

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