The film, directed by Andrew Shea and backed by 7th Art is a blast to the past and a true gem of old Florida.
By Jacob Engels
The rise of gambling in Florida and the involvement of the Seminole Tribe in the states gambling efforts was an exciting time for Florida, with Chief James Billie remaining an effortless self-promoter.
Wrestling Alligators follows the rise of James Billie, who was instrumental in securing the right and laid the groundwork for the Seminole Tribe of Florida to take the gambling industry by storm.
Billed by the filmmakers as “the last great Indian Chief” and the man who brought the tribe from poverty to mega-wealth, the East Orlando Post got to chat with producer Udy Epstein about what it took to make the film and what he learned along the way.
Wrestling Alligators is quite possibly one of the most interesting and informative films on gambling and the modern day Seminoles ever made, filled with engrossing footage of Billie… a bonafide renaissance.
Expertly sourced with never before seen archival footage, you’d be upset if you missed it. It screens as part of the Florida category in this year’s Florida Film Festival on Saturday April 16th (TIX HERE) and Sunday April 17th (TIX HERE). Our question and answer is below.
Before we talk Wrestling Alligators, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in film-making.
I have been producing and distributing specialty documentaries for 22 years. Before that, I produced a picture after getting an MFA from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. 7th Art is a boutique type operation- small and focused. We only work on subjects we deem worthy.
Wrestling Alligators explores the rise of the Seminole Tribe and its infamous leader James Billie, what inspired you to do a film on the Seminole Tribe of Florida?
Trailer for Wrestling Alligators.
I did not know anything about James E. Bilie and when i was first told about him, it was hard to believe! He is inspiring, dramatic, colorful, down to earth… yet bigger than life. I discovered that it was all very real.
First our director, Andrew Shea, spent a few days talking to Chief Billie. Then we started researching, writing, consulting our 7th producer, James Eowan, and eventually formulated an approach. After getting the tribal council to officially authorize us to shoot the documentary- we started going down to Seminole country – exploring more and more on every trip.
The access, the archival footage that our researches have found, and of course Chief James E. Billie’s cooperation (which was amazing) indicated that the story is much bigger than originally perceived – so we kept shooting and shooting. Editing and shooting; researching and shooting. Four and a half years later… a project that was supposed to take about a third of that period – is finally done!
During the course of your research, what similarities in the rise of the gambling industry in say Las Vegas or Northern Michigan?
Clearly, Chairman Billie is single handedly responsible for the genesis of all tribal gaming in North America – it all started with downtown Hollywood, Florida in The Classic… the first Bingo Parlor which opened in 1979. Today almost half of all gaming revenue is generated in Native American casinos.
So Northern Michigan should thank him.
Still from Wrestling Alligators from one of the tribe’s early gambling efforts.
As to Vegas… not sure what the similarities to Las Vegas are, where it was clearly legal from the get go to initiate any kind of gaming, while the Seminoles had to fight for their right to do so every step of the way, (and as a matter of fact STILL DO).
Well…Chief tells us in detail in the film about Lansky and Cooper and their loan that helped the Seminoles (no one else would loan them money to open the first bingo parlor). If you have seen Warren Beatty’s “Bugsy” about the early days of Vegas, Bugsy Siegel fathomed something big that did not yet exist.
So did Lansky; that’s probably where the similarities start and end.
How hard was it to find all that archived news footage and promotional material?
Archival research is like treasure hunt; it took a while. We had great researchers from NY & Los Angeles, but we also did some research with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum, with Seminole Media that has many hundreds of hours of recordings of the tribe’s life. We further searched on the internet and found private materials with people that at one point or another were following Chief Billie and have taken stills, film footage, researched and gathered archives.
Some of the most precious stills were taken by Pete Gallagher (who also saved tens of thousands of stills from the trash when Chief Billie was ousted). Patsy West dedicated many years to meticulously privately archive Seminole History, dedicating a large portion of her house to professionally store tens of thousand of rare documents, stills and the like.
Chief Billie, playing in his band.
Leslie Gains, a filmmaker, shot film with Chief Billie and others at the tribe… only a fraction of it was ever published!
I am glad to say that both the stills that Gallagher saved and Leslie Gains footage, are now safely at the Museum being catalogued and preserved. In my view, Patsy West’s archive should also be recognized by a University in Florida or by the museum.
Your interview with State Senator Maria Sachs was very interesting – what drew you on to her in particular?
A few Senators were happy to talk to us. Senator Sachs was on the gaming committee and her district is right there in South Florida so we decided to start with her. She turned out to be an amazing interviewee, she also knew Billie and had interactions with him form her days working for the DA.
Let us know how we can continue to follow your work?
Our web site has lots of information about us. Not sure what the next project would be… for now we are continuing with marketing and distribution of specially docs. As a matter of fact, I think that there is a screening this year at the FFF of a short documentary, CHAU BEYOND THE LINES, which was in the festival last year (under a different name).
To make a long story short, 7th Art picked up the film and it was then fully finished over the past year and was nominated for an Oscar. It needs to be said that this Oscar Nominated short came out of Florida Film Festival; Matthew Curtis, the head of the festival has a sharp eye for films.
I am glad to be in Florida back again with Wrestling Alligators and Chau Beyond the Lines.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post. He is a seasoned political operative who has led numerous statewide political groups and has worked on several high-profile local, statewide, and national races. Jacob has been interviewed on national television & radio programs, with his work having been featured in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications nationwide. He can be reached at email@example.com