August 18, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Martin Scorsese is making the Las Vegas Mob story Casino, but who knew that the director was such a cagey gambler?

According to makeup and effects people who helped rig some of Casino‘s startling gory ”gags” (that’s what filmmakers call shots involving fakery), Scorsese has a few extra cards to play when the film goes before the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board this fall. He’s contractually obligated to deliver a R picture, but should the board cry NC-17, no problem. The Oscar-nominated director of GoodFellas is ready to drop some of his most outrageous Casino shots because he never intended to put them in the finished film anyway.

It’s a game directors play but don’t talk much about, offering up sicko sacrifices to Hollywood’s unofficial board of censors. The idea: Shock the MPAA in round one so that later trims will appear to make the difference. A Casino case in point: Enforcer Nicky (Joe Pesci) puts a hood’s head in a vise and, as described in a script draft, ”spins the vise handle until suddenly the [man’s] head explodes, splattering the room with blood and brains.”

”That was fun to shoot, but it was an exercise,” says makeup wizard Howard Berger of Kurtzman Nicotero Berger, the firm that landed the exploding-head concession partly on the strength of earlier work done for Quentin Tarantino. ”Scorsese wanted to shoot it so there was blood spraying out of the eyeball, and then the whole eyeball would pop out. He said, ‘It’s ridiculous but I have to put it in so I can cut it and keep what I really need.”’

Berger says that Tarantino shoots extra gore for the same reason. ”On Pulp Fiction, we went through all the effects in advance,” says Greg Nico tero. ”Quentin told us, ‘Just so you guys know, nothing personal, but probably nothing you build for me is really going to be in the movie.”’ Among the casualties: several life-size exploding heads created for the scene in which Vince (John Travolta) accidentally blows off a man’s noggin. In the finished movie, which is still gory, all the viewer sees is blood spattering a car’s interior. Of all the standout Pulp Fiction gags, say the makeup team, only a prosthesis that allowed a syringe to protrude from Uma Thurman’s chest made the final cut. Isn’t that a bloody big waste of everyone’s time? ”Quentin always worried we’d feel that way,” says Nicotero. ”But we understand. It’s part of a negotiation process.”

Neither Scorsese nor Tarantino would comment on their ratings stratagems. But the head-clamp sequence, says Scorsese’s publicist, may well fall out of Casino before it gets to the MPAA. (Nicotero says there are plenty of other ”deeply disturbing” effects in the movie, one of which required a realistic dummy of Pesci.) And while Tarantino’s rep, Bumble Ward, admits she’s ”heard tell” of the unused Pulp work, she stresses that Tarantino maintains ”an incredibly good relationship with the MPAA. He’s good about getting on with them and knowing what they want.”

If you ask MPAA president and CEO Jack Valenti, reports of directors using bloodred herrings are ”the same old canards” he’s been ”hearing for years,” yet he acknowledges that ”more and more pictures are getting NC-17’s in the first round because of violence.” So doesn’t the resulting flood of resubmissions lead to horse trading? Absolutely not, says Valenti. ”The ratings board doesn’t make a decision based on what’s taken out. They rate what’s left in,” he says. ”We will not point to specific frames or shots. We’re not in the business of telling directors what to put in their films.” That the board leaves to the studios, which are loath to accept the limited profit an NC-17 rating virtually guarantees. But to Valenti, box office is Hollywood’s problem. After all, it’s not like the ratings board has anyone’s head in a vise.

Additional reporting by Richard Natale

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