Luck Will Out

In his new documentary film Lucky, director Jeffrey Blitz explores what happens when lightning strikes -- in the form of a winning lottery ticket. The film, a fascinating exploration of the effects of sudden wealth, raises questions about American society, our relationship to money, and how we define our identities in the modern world.

Blitz was nominated for an Academy Award for his 2002 documentary Spellbound and won an Emmy last year for directing an episode of The Office. He also directed the 2007 feature film Rocket Science. Blitz spoke to the Prospect about his film, the lottery, and the nature of luck. Lucky will be shown on HBO in July.

You've said that Lucky is in some ways a companion piece to Spellbound -- Spellbound was about kids trying to reach the American dream through almost maniacally hard work; this film is about people who got rich by doing nothing. So is there something almost un-American about the lottery?

Actually, I think there are these two American ideas in conflict here. On the one hand, we like to think that it's deeply American to "pick yourself up by your bootstraps." A kind of extension of the Protestant work ethic. But there's another deeply rooted American myth at work, too: that this is a place of luck. A country where "dreams come true" and fame or fortune can appear by the grace of God.

These ideas are in conflict, I think, but we manage to hold them at the same time. We all talk about work as being the basis for all good things, but I think we secretly believe it otherwise.

Did the people you interviewed come to a different understanding of wealth itself and whether it's desirable for everyone?

Here again, the lottery brings out all sorts of contradictory thinking. Most of the winners profiled in Lucky came to the realization pretty fast that after their basic needs were taken care of, that all that money brought lots of unexpected and unwelcome things. But -- go figure -- none of them would have given up the money or, if they could rewind time, not played. One winner whom we ended up cutting from the film told us that even though it brought all sorts of strangeness to him, that he still played and hoped to win again even though he wasn't sure why.

One thing we discovered was that the actual money was, for most of these people, not the real end. Most of them wanted that most American of wishes: to reinvent themselves freed from the constraints of what they had been born into or made for themselves.

For those people who come out of this experience reasonably happy, how do they accomplish it?

I think it's a universal experience for lottery winners to feel like they get more than they bargained for: that everyone around them starts to see the money before the person; that it thrusts all sorts of new dynamics into friendships and family that they have no time to learn and adjust to. The ones who come out happy -- and there are people out there who do -- are generally people who started with a very stable life and some experience with saving money and are good at figuring out the boundaries of what this new money can and can't do.

But I have to say, even there, it's hard to maintain that over many years if the jackpot is really huge.

You have one subject who had his siblings put a hit out on him (unsuccessful, I should note). Were there any other depths of human depravity this subject exposed that surprised you?

That was a winner named Buddy who, indeed, had his siblings try to kill him. Once was through a hit man. Buddy also told us that the bolts were taken out of his car and that he was given arsenic twice. And while this gives the movie some really wretched moments, I tried hard to not make a film that just fed into an audience's built-in sense of resentment toward people who had won money they didn't deserve.

That felt too easy and also would have allowed a viewer to miss out on what I felt were the more interesting results: that normal people -- people whose siblings don't own a bottle of arsenic -- end up confronting a gigantic loss of self. That was true of all our winners, across all spectrums, and it's certainly not something that anyone thinks about when they play.

The biggest threat doesn't come from a jealous brother but from suddenly having to confront the loss of all ambition, of struggle and limitation and collective action. For most of these people, their lives as they knew them just ended, and it didn't take a hit man to do that.

A Marxist might say that shows we've all internalized our oppression -- once we're not toiling for The Man, we don't know who we are anymore.

I don't mean it in specifically economic terms, actually. It's not just "toiling for The Man" that defines us but everything tangible and limited in how we live: our desires and ambitions that are defined by our neighborhood, by our friends, our own inner sense of the trajectory of our lives. You can stop working, and many of these things remain basically unchanged.

As one winner in the movie explains, before she won she didn't realize how many conversations with her friends involved money. People needing to pay car insurance, wanting to send their kid to college, and worries about that. All of a sudden, she doesn't have those concerns at all anymore but to continue her friendships she has to "pretend" she has those concerns. We also talk to her friends who have been left behind and see how they wrestle with their own jealousy.

Did making the film change how you thought about the role of happenstance in the important things that have happened in your own life?

I think the way my idea of luck changed wasn't personal but cultural. I came to feel that social policy based on a diminished sense of luck in the world was actually very likely to be cruel. People who deny that luck plays a massive role in how we all live -- people who insist that everyone must be responsible for themselves, willy-nilly -- are people who ignore the aspect of luck that they've been graced by.

Whether that's the luck of being born to rich parents or being born white or male or American or being born healthy or into the care of parents who have the resources to deal with illness, all of it is luck.

I think people like to frown on people who play the lottery. It's easy to see them as deluded. It's easy to imagine them as uneducated. But I think there's another way to see it -- that they are people who are more aware of the role of luck, good and bad, in their lives.

Which brings me to this question. You live in Los Angeles, a moral black hole full of vacuous people (kidding!) who have become rich and/or famous mostly because of luck. Do they know that, or is everyone convinced that it was their glittering talent that got them where they are?

In my experience, few people really acknowledge their luck. I think it is part of the human condition that you can never get too much. Nobody thinks they deserve less than they get.

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