“My dad was a great man. All you got was the fucked-up son.”
– Ray Easler (inspired by Ted Binion, as played by Michael Madsen) to Kim Davis (inspired by Sandy Murphy, as played by Shayla Beesley) in Death in the Desert.
Not the words of a man with a hallmark heart. Rather, they’re the words of a man whose heart has gone underground, never again to see daylight.
This man is—was—Lonnie “Ted” Binion. And he was, by most accounts, a pitiable disaster of a man.
Combine painful self-loathing with pharmacological excess, black-sheep status, powerful enemies, unsavory associates, being tossed out of your own business on your cocaine-addled ass, a duplicitous employee screwing your strip-club sweetheart, a buried cache of silver and, finally, a chemically polluted corpse discovered on a mansion floor, and you’ve got … death in the desert. Sixteen years ago in real life. Coming up in reel life.
“Beautiful women are responsible for an incredible amount of mayhem in this fucking world, man. Men can turn into suckers when they’re in love with someone like that,” says Michael Madsen, who stars as Ray Easler, fictional doppelgänger of Teddy B., in the as-yet-unreleased Death in the Desert, a meditation on love—and life—gone sideways, with tragic repercussions.
As a work adapted from another medium, the independently produced film doesn’t even carry the standard “based-on” clarifier. Instead, it opts for the more oblique “inspired by”—specifically by Las Vegas journalist Cathy Scott’s 2000 book of the same title, chronicling the notorious late-’90s chapter of Nevada history you can simply call L’Affair Binion. The one that gifted a national audience of voyeurs with a sex-popsicle named Sandy Murphy and an avaricious stud named Rick Tabish. And a murder trial with convictions. And a retrial with overturned convictions. And eventual acquittals. And a mystery that won’t die—in the public imagination, if not legally—about how a man died.
Now it’s a camouflaged, big-screen refresher—without the murder trials, the convictions, the acquittals, the mystery and the Nancy Grace insistence that The Slutty Girlfriend and Her Greedy Lover Did It.
What’s left is a cautionary tale exclusively about a romance that began somewhat south of heavenly and spiraled into a scandalous hell, but segues to the final credits before even a word of the legal/media madness ever hits the news pages.
“Some of this is fiction,” says Josh Evans, director of Death in the Desert, part-time actor (notably as Tom Cruise’s brother in Born on the Fourth of July and John Lithgow’s psychotic helper in Ricochet), and owner of an impressive Hollywood pedigree as the son of actress Ali (Love Story) MacGraw and producer Robert (The Godfather) Evans.
“My movie, while it’s about the generalities of these people, it’s not about the details. What is absolute is the interaction of the relationship.”
Filmed almost entirely in and around Las Vegas in February with a largely local crew, Death in the Desert currently idles in that shadow-land between moviemaker and moviegoer. Evans is seeking out film festivals for exposure to lasso a distributor, with the Sundance, Telluride, Berlin and Tokyo competitions on his wish list. History offers encouragement, since numerous films rose from obscurity to acclaim via festivals, including Hoop Dreams, The Blair Witch Project, Reservoir Dogs and Sex, Lies and Videotape. Then again, others—which of course you’ve never heard of—never made it past the festival screening parties.
“I really want to show this film internationally, give people a glimpse of life in Las Vegas,” Evans says. “I’m looking for a wide release, because I think people are interested in this story outside of just L.A. and New York. The exact strategy of the release will evolve over the next couple of months, but no matter what, we will have the film in theaters by summer 2015.”
Acknowledging Hollywood’s creative leeway, Scott says she’s content with a film that plays off of the Binion circus as an unspoken point of reference, without addressing it as a matter of record. “It’s not the book in totality,” says Scott, author of one of numerous books published about the seedy but sensational saga, with hers then reissued as a “revised and expanded” edition in 2012, covering the retrial and acquittals. “Editorial license is always taken with a film, which I’m fine with. It was an interesting love triangle; producers want love triangles, and that’s common for movies to key in on.”
Shouldering the star load of Death in the Desert is a veteran character actor with one of those I-know-that-face-but-what’s-his-name? careers—one of those faces you sometimes confuse with other character-actor faces but can’t fail to be struck by when his imposing figure strides on screen.
Close your eyes and just imagine what a sad, slowly disintegrating life—that of the dazed, drug-sloshed casino scion—would sound like, and it would be the voice of Madsen. The man’s husky growl sounds like his larynx was scraped raw, marinated in gin and roasted on a spit over an open flame. That voice is a potent artistic weapon (for confirmation, check out Madsen’s work in Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Brasco and Kill Bill), bringing rough-hewn richness to characters on the side streets of life, of which Binion’s was an ugly dead end.
No one’s claiming Madsen looks or sounds remotely like Ted Binion in this film. He just looks and sounds like Ted Binion’s life.
“There are things that happen that are twisted and convoluted, and so many people talk about it that it becomes impossible to ever get to the bottom of it,” Madsen says in that smoky purr.
“I think this is one of those things.”
“Go ahead, shoot me in the face. You’ll be doing me a favor.”
– Ray, high on coke, to a shaken, shotgun-toting Kim after he had just smacked her.
Let’s back it up a bit, into the historical record: Lonnie Theodore Binion, son of late casino magnate Benny Binion and manager of Binion’s Horseshoe, is discovered dead on September 17, 1998, in his estate on Palomino Lane, near Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard. He was 54 years old. Empty pill bottles litter the scene, and the deceased is a known drug abuser. Toxicology reports and an autopsy reveal a lethal cocktail of Xanax, heroin and Valium in his system. One day earlier, Binion had obtained a dozen pieces of tar heroin from a street dealer and finagled a Xanax prescription from his neighbor, a doctor. Initially, the death is treated as a probable suicide—bolstered by the theory that Binion was depressed over losing his gaming license earlier that year due to previous drug-trafficking charges and links to gangster “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein—but in 1999 it’s reclassified as a homicide.
In June 1999, Sandy Murphy, Binion’s live-in gal pal 27 years his junior who said she sold lingerie at Vegas strip clubs when they met—and who refutes media descriptions of her as a topless dancer—is arrested for murder. Also cuffed is the lover Murphy took on the side, Montana contractor Rick Tabish, who was employed by Binion. Authorities allege they drugged Binion into unconsciousness, then strangled him. They also face burglary and larceny charges stating they tried to pilfer Binion’s silver fortune that was bizarrely buried in a vault—built by Tabish at Binion’s request—in the Pahrump desert floor.
In May 2000, Murphy and Tabish are convicted of murder. Four months later, Murphy is sentenced to 22 years to life in prison; Tabish gets 25 years to life. Case closed … not.
In July 2003, the Nevada Supreme Court overturns the convictions, ruling that original trial Judge Joseph Bonaventure erred by not separating the counts against each defendant and by not giving proper limiting instructions to the jury. Granted a new trial that commenced in October 2004, Murphy and Tabish are each acquitted of murder charges, but still convicted of the other lesser offenses. Murphy is sentenced to time already served and is released. Tabish, who was convicted of the kidnapping, beating and extortion of another man unrelated to Binion, returns to prison. He is paroled in May 2010.
(At last report, Scott says, Murphy is married with two children and co-owns Coast Gallery, an upscale art gallery in Laguna Beach. Tabish launched his own company, Basin Industrial Services, in Missoula, Montana. He was also arrested for DUI in Idaho in 2012.)
Scott on the trials: “I went into the first trial thinking a murder had occurred and walked out knowing that one did not—knowing it. I sat at both trials, gavel to gavel, and I was the only reporter in town who believed it. The evidence just wasn’t there, and there was such manipulation. At times it was just a head-shaker. It was a travesty.”
Scott on Binion: “He died a very sad, pitiful guy. His life was spiraling. He went on a [drug] binge—no one forced it on him—and he overdosed and killed himself. Some people think it’s a mystery, but there was no crime there. You can’t keep some people from themselves, and you couldn’t keep Ted from himself.”
Scott on Tabish: “An opportunist. A very simple guy. I want to call him the villain, the least sympathetic character.”
Scott on Murphy: “Really sweet-natured. You’d like her. Sweet, sweet girl. She’s a daddy’s girl, one of those women who baby-talks a man. She was a caregiver to Ted, but she got caught up in something that was bigger than herself, bigger than she could have imagined.”
“Sometimes I think Ray’s a guy out of a bad movie, a dime novel. Sometimes I don’t want him to touch me.”
– Kim to a friend.
Overworked TV scribes owe a debt to L’Affair Binion for providing inspiration to shows from longtime staple CSI to short-lived flop The Defenders, and true-crime installments such as A&E’s American Justice, HLN’s On the Case and network news magazines 48 Hours and Dateline NBC, among others. Most notably to date, the 2008 Lifetime TV movie Sex and Lies in Sin City was based on the book Murder in Sin City by veteran Las Vegas reporter/columnist Jeff German. Matthew Modine and Mena Suvari starred as the undisguised Binion and Murphy.
But it was Scott’s book that hooked Evans. “Just the cover alone made me want to be in the fantasy of this world,” says Evans, who tapped playwright/screenwriter John Steppling (52 Pick-Up) to pen the script, and began pre-production in Vegas in August 2013.
Evans avoided contact with the Binion family, including Ted’s sister, Becky Binion-Behnen, who doggedly lobbied for a homicide investigation when the official line on her brother’s death still favored suicide. However, Death in the Desert does reference the family’s suspicion and dislike of Kim, the Murphy-inspired character. Fictionalizing the story to focus on more universal emotional and relationship questions not only freed Evans from adherence to pesky details, but also from the hassle (and expense) of re-creating ’90s Vegas on film.
“I didn’t want any of what other people had to say to cloud my vision of the dynamics of the love triangle, on which I was basing so much of the movie,” Evans says. “I also didn’t speak with Rick or Sandy. Even though the story is fictitious, I tried to be fair and positive to all the main characters, because the focus of the story was not a judgment on any of them, but more of a study on what can happen in an extremely materialistic environment. Fun to watch, but not to live.”
While Evans chose a willing ignorance, Madsen preferred precisely the opposite—and found frustration when he arrived in town to wriggle into the skin of real Ted as channeled through make-believe Ray.
“Most of the people I ran into along the way, even the staff in the hotels and restaurants, and valets, were surprised and confused and even fearful when they heard we were telling this story,” Madsen recalls. “I didn’t see many who thought it was a good idea or thought kindly about Ted and the Binions. I wish more people had come forward to speak to me and been more accessible.”
Adds Scott: “There’s an establishment here, and a real protection over Vegas.”
“I need this. I don’t wanna need it, but I do.”
– Ray to Kim, attempting to justify his Oxycontin habit.
Casting filled out around Madsen, notably 26-year-old sunshine-blond Shayla Beesley (Sex and the U.S.A.), who negotiates a delicate balance between sweet and sexy, between naïveté and knowingness. Her Kim struggles to find her comfort zone with a mercurial lover who showers her with great generosity, then controls her right down to the shade of lipstick he prefer she wear (definitely not cherry-red). Emotionally insecure, she fishes for assurances of love. Contrary to Murphy’s insistence that she wasn’t a stripper, Beesley’s Kim is, requiring brief nudity, as well as the actress dropping to her knees to simulate servicing Ray behind the club.
Hired to portray Tabish-inspired Matt Duvall, John Palladino brings rugged vapidity and subtle sleaziness to a role with little meat on the bones, functioning mainly as a plot catalyst in snug jeans, leering on cue at Beesley. In supporting roles, Evans brought onboard exotic Paz de la Huerta (Boardwalk Empire, The Cider House Rules) as Kim’s confidante, Margo; and Evans’ wife, punk-rock-goth singer/actress Roxy Saint (Zombie Strippers), who performs a song in the film.
Meanwhile, Madsen worked to uncover what made Ray/Ted tick. “You have to grab hold of one thing when you’re building your performance, and I grabbed hold of the girl,” says Madsen, sounding like he doesn’t buy into Kim/Sandy as a hot naïf innocently engulfed by circumstances, as she is largely presented. Instead, he inserts intriguing contradictions into how this Rorschach-style drama is viewed by those creating it.
“The enormity of sexuality is a huge card in that deck,” Madsen says. “[Ray/Ted] was probably nuts to fuck her. Maybe he loved her. Maybe she loved him. But in the dark of the night, it was more of a physical yearning for him to have a young woman with her arms wrapped around him. It made him feel like a man, like his world would be all right. He probably didn’t catch on that there was something dark going on. And she realized he was a fucking loser, but she didn’t know how to get out of it, but she wasn’t going to walk away with nothing.”
Locals will be able to play Name That Locale watching this flick. Scenes were shot all around the neon town—with the notable exception of the Strip, by and large. Downtown is prominently featured, as is Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club on Industrial Road, with additional footage filmed at Downtown Grand. Segments at Binion’s ranch were lensed in North Las Vegas, and Mesquite was the backdrop for desert scenes. Camera pans capture Fremont Street, El Cortez and the Stratosphere.
And a mansion at TPC at Summerlin doubled for the real deal on Palomino Lane, the latter of which has never been occupied since Binion’s death, and which Madsen dropped in on to soak up some atmosphere. “The wallpaper in the kitchen was obviously picked out by a woman, and the drapes and what was left in the master bedroom was clearly done by a woman. I could feel [Murphy’s] presence—she was a nester,” Madsen says.
“But it also had a strange kind of coldness. And the fact that he was down in the basement—what the fuck were you doing down there, man? Here’s this guy with this big fucking crib, and it’s like he was hiding from his life. He must have been fucked up and depressed about a lot of things.”
“I’m a lonely son of a bitch. I got big empty holes in me I can’t get rid of.”
– Ray to Kim.
Death in the Desert, despite its protagonist’s wealth, rides the downbeat vibe of a back-alley, underbelly Vegas. What emerges is a muted, thoughtful study of disillusionment, dashed dreams and fatal appetites via a relationship that takes root amid the mechanical sensuality of a Downtown strip joint.
Anyone glued to the conviction that Murphy is a murderer won’t find endorsement in the climactic scene in which, shocked and frantic, Kim discovers the body of her older lover. “I teared up when I saw it filmed,” Scott recalls of Beesley’s performance. “She reached real deep to do it.”
Only the final line of dialogue—spoken by a passerby—alludes to the runaway train the Binion saga would become, hurtling into the national headlines.
Lurking over it all is Madsen, his clumpy hair a rat’s nest when not smushed under a Stetson, squinting in the low light of a strip club, snorting coke in cars, pissing in empty lots—a big, doughy, dissolute soul circling the drain, heart shredded by drugs and decay …
Never to see daylight again.