'Bank' thriller's roots in real-life '71 London heist

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"Bank" beginnings: In recent years Hollywood's taken the thrills out of thrillers and turned them into slasher movies, but the traditional thriller genre is still alive and well in England.

A case in point is Roger Donaldson's critically acclaimed "The Bank Job," starring Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows, opening Friday via Lionsgate. With its 81% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com's Tomatometer, "Bank" arrives as one of the year's very best reviewed wide releases. Written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, "Bank" is produced by Steven Chasman and Charles Roven.

The R rated heist movie is inspired by the real-life 1971 robbery of a Lloyds Bank branch in London's Baker Street in which a gang of thieves tunneled beneath several buildings to enter the bank's vault. Their plans went awry when a ham radio operator accidentally intercepted walkie-talkie conversations between the thieves and a lookout on a nearby rooftop and notified the police.

Apparently, the thieves wound up with more than just jewelry and money because the vault reportedly also contained compromising photographs of a member of the Royal Family that government agents were desperate to recover. Soon after the real-life robbery the story disappeared from the headlines as the result of a government issued "D Notice" that put an end to what would have been highly embarrassing news coverage.

"Bank" is the sort of movie Hollywood doesn't make any longer, but the idea of doing it immediately resonated with Roger Donaldson, whose 1987 film "No Way Out," starring Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Will Patton and Sean Young, is one of my favorite thrillers. Among Donaldson's many other films over the years are "Cocktail" with Tom Cruise, the remake of "The Getaway" with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, "Dante's Peak" with Pierce Brosnan and "The World's Fastest Indian" with Anthony Hopkins.

The project came to Donaldson through producer Chuck Roven, who, he told me, "I had worked with years ago (as the director and Roven's co-producer of the 1990 comedy 'Cadillac Man' starring Robin Williams, Fran Dresher and Tim Robbins) and have remained friends with (and whose former assistant, Marliese, Donaldson married). Chuck and I have been friends for a long time. We had a good time making 'Cadillac Man' together and we were always talking about trying to do something together again. We had a few attempts that didn't get off the ground, but finally he sent me this script that when I read it my reaction was, 'God, I love this.' My first question was, 'Is this true? And is it going to shoot in London?'

"Chuck's reaction was, 'Well, hang on, hang on. Don't get too excited because we've still got to pull the rights together and get the money together -- all of those issues -- to make it.' Anyway, my passion for it just sort of grew and grew and grew to the point where I literally took off to London, myself, on my own dime to research it and try to get a little closer to the truth and look for locations and talk about casting and things like that."

That was in the summer of 2006. "It happened fairly quickly," Donaldson said. "We started shooting it just as winter was coming on around October. I really only had one sort of proviso about doing it and that was that I wanted to do the postproduction in Australia, where I come from originally and where my dad was quite ill and was not expected to last much longer. So I wanted to be around him. They agreed that I could do the postproduction in Melbourne so off I went to work. We shot through the winter (in London), which gave it a look, but also the lack of light in London in the middle of winter is a bit of a problem, as well.

"I also was keen to shoot the picture digitally, which I did do with the Arriflex D-20. I had shot one commercial before digitally, but this was the first feature film that I'd done digitally. I used to be a photographer so I've become sort of involved in digital still photography and I'm very aware of the advances that have been happening in photography through the digital world and I've always tried to be one step ahead of what everybody else was up to. I remember years ago I was, I think, the second feature film (director) to do a digital edit on a film. So I was just keen to get to know the technology because whether you like it or not it is the future. It's where it's going to be."

Filmmakers I've talked to recently about shooting digitally seem divided -- with some eager to work that way and others determined to continue shooting on film. "I think if you're a good DP right now you can do, maybe, a better job on film than you can digitally," Donaldson observed. "But I think that future is going to be very short-lived. The technology changes daily and, I think, what's going to really change things fast is as the equipment becomes more and more manageable and you can do stuff with cameras that you can just put into places that you could never get a film camera into. I think right now the appeal to the cameraman is that film has a more predictable range. It takes the highlights and the shadows maybe a bit better than the digital world does. But now all of these films are being outputted through a DI (digital intermediary) to a digital world anyway.

"This said, I used to be a cameraman, too, so I'm well aware of trying to make it look right, as well. The upside of (shooting digitally is) that you see with a beautiful clear image what you're shooting. You see if shots are out of focus or if (there are other problems). You can be a little more aggressive and adventurous about how you're shooting it because you have a sort of confidence (that) when you see it you've got it. So that in itself is liberating. And then the other thing is that the tapes or the hard drives or however you're recording it will run a lot longer so you're not always sort of going off the boil with the actors where you're going to reload the camera and put more film in."

On top of that, he added, "there's also just the fragility of film. I've had horror stories in my history of filmmaking where I've lost film through disasters where the negative has been damaged. In fact, on 'The World's Fastest Indian' I had an episode that without the digital world I would have had to throw the film away, I think. We were able to fix some damage (and) the fix was perfect. You couldn't see what we'd done and yet if it had been (back) in the good old days of film I think you would have been throwing the movie away."

Coming back to the making of "Bank" and the roots of its story, Donaldson explained, "In 1971 there was an enormously ambitious and crazy scheme to rob this bank that they pulled off. One of the things they had was a two-way radio communication between a lookout, who was looking down from the exterior of the bank to make sure that nobody was showing up, and the robbers who had burrowed in from underneath the bank from a shop a couple of doors away, who were in the vault robbing the bank. These radio communications were intercepted by a ham radio operator who just happened to be up at midnight in his bed scanning the radio waves for anything of interest and heard some dialogue that he recognized as sounding interesting and then listened to this communication between the robbers and the lookout.

"He had a time convincing the police that, in fact, there was something going on. And, anyway, finally the police did turn up. Then it was clear that there was a bank being robbed somewhere in London. But the ham radio operator was (saying that) somewhere within a radius of 10 miles where I am now is where this bank will be. You know, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of banks in that area. So the police set out trying to go bank to bank to bank trying to find out which one it was. And, in fact, they actually went into the bank that was being robbed, but when they went down into the basement where the vaults were, from the exterior of the vaults nothing appeared to be wrong."

What worked in the thieves' favor, he said, was that "there was a time lock on the door. They couldn't open the vault until work began on Monday so they weren't able to get into the vaults to confirm that everything (was OK but) everything on the outside looked OK so away they went. By this stage, the robbers hot-footed it out of the bank. They left a lot of stuff behind in terms of their equipment. And they got away."

Were they ever caught? "Well, the reality is that (with) movies you usually have to shrink the story and twist things a little to fit entertainment and a movie script," he replied. "The real story, I think, was a lot more complicated than my film shows it to be. I think there were more people involved. Some of them were actually caught and finished up in jail and some of them got away."

Of course, in the age of cell phones today they might never have been caught since their conversations wouldn't have been overheard by that ham radio operator. "One of the things about doing a period film is that you just realize how much communications have changed," he noted. "For instance, if you're using cell phones now it's very easy to (determine) where a cell phone is being broadcast from (but on the other hand) you wouldn't be on a frequency that would be intercepted by a ham radio operator. It's a story that could only have happened then."

As for the film he's made, Donaldson said, it's "more of a thriller than an action movie. It's a movie that's sort of rooted in the class structure of London (in the early '70s with) the beginnings of black consciousness in London. A character called Michael X (was) a real person, who was ultimately convicted and hanged for murdering the daughter of a politician, who had been involved with these Black Power people. Around this time there had been the Notting Hill riots that were a very strong turning point in black riots in London. So it's set against that background. It's also set against the background of (British) aristocrats, who liked to sort of be part of this exciting new (Black Power) culture that had come into London from the East Indies."

Looking back at production, he noted, "It was very challenging because London has (changed so much). I go there probably every year. I have a son who lives in London. I'm sort of shocked once you start looking at how quickly it's changing. Everywhere there are cranes and new buildings and construction. The whole city seems to be a construction site. It's a very difficult city to get around in and work in without all these problems. So it was a real challenge to find period buildings and be able to find locations that you could work on without being completely blasted out by the building site next door. I give a lot of credit to a great location manager (Giles Edleston) and a fantastic production designer.

"Gavin Bocquet was the production designer, whose credits range from the "Star Wars" movies (Episodes I, II and III) to movies of this scale. He's a really talented guy who has an enormous amount of energy and really sort of threw himself at the problem of making it look really, really authentic. And the same with our costume designer (Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose credits include Roland Emmerich's '10,000 B.C.,' opening today via Warner Bros.)."

Reflecting on making period movies, Donaldson pointed out, "Often they fall into the trap of finding the most provocative clothes of the period and then everything gets dressed up so that you go, 'Well, it looks period, but it doesn't look real because everybody's looking too fashionable.' In reality, I think what happens in any period is people (are) wearing clothes over an extended period (and) haircuts and all of those things. Everybody's not just wearing the latest styles. The look is very important, I think, to making a convincing period movie. But once that's said, you're trying to make a movie that's relevant to now not then in a way so there's nothing period about how it's made or the look that you're hopefully trying to give it."

Asked how he works while directing, he replied, "It just depends upon what the nature of the thing is. If it's a complicated scene that requires special effects or complicated visual effects then you want to storyboard it out so you're not building and trying to create stuff that's not going to make the movie. On the other hand, I have this theory that in terms of getting the actors' commitment to how they do their role you want to keep your options open as long as you can. So I don't turn up on the set with everything sort of set in stone. I like to literally clear the set out and rehearse with the actors and work out how the scene plays best with the actors' input as well as my own theories about how it should be.

"I almost invariably find that the actors have a lot to contribute and if you give them the sort of freedom to have input then they feel more committed to the role anyway and do a better job. It's sort of a two-way street. You get something and then ultimately you're the director and you step in and you coerce and manipulate and encourage and cajole so you're ultimately getting what you hope you want it to be."

As for the biggest challenge he faced during production, Donaldson recalled, it was "some big stuff that we had at Pinewood, where we had built a big set, but a very limited set, as well, because of our being an independent movie without unlimited funds. My ambition was to make it look like a movie that didn't make any excuses for how it looked and I think that's what I feel like I made (and) people like Gavin Bocquet helped me in that way. But it was middle of winter. Snow was coming and going and just trying to get through how much work there was to do in a very limited period of time was very demanding. The sun would come up and just sort of peek over the horizon and two hours later it felt like it was setting again. There were some real challenges trying to get a day's work done on these exteriors. But they came out looking very convincing."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 16, 1990's column: "For months insiders have had 'Kindergarten Cop,' 'The Godfather Part III' and 'Three Men and a Little Lady' on their lists of likely holiday season blockbusters. Those lists expanded to include one lower-profile film after 20th Century Fox's sneak previews last Saturday of 'Home Alone.'

"'Home,' a family appeal comedy written and produced by John Hughes, opens today at approximately 1,200 theaters and adds another 400 screens Dec. 14. Directed by Chris Columbus, it stars Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

"How did moviegoers react to 'Home' when it was sneaked Saturday at 1,019 screens? 'We used three different research sources to make sure the information we got back was accurate,' 20th Century Fox domestic distribution and marketing president Tom Sherak told me Tuesday. 'The theaters were somewhere between 80% and 85% capacity. Families and young kids came to the 6 o'clock show and teens and families came to the 8 o'clock show.

"'It played incredible. The definite recommend amongst teens was 82% and amongst parents was 75%, which is excellent. The excellent rating was 61%, which is incredible. The very good was 29%. The total (in the top two boxes) was 90%.'

"Such results should certainly augur well for the film. 'You love to think great things,' observed Sherak. 'The picture's been set up and has to go out to begin a holiday season that has a lot of very strong product in it. Hopefully, this picture will have the momentum going into that holiday period so it can compete well with the other movies being opened...'

"'Once we get it out there it has to take on his own momentum. We think it will. Many pictures have proven this before us -- once it gets going, if it works it works. It doesn't matter what else comes out. If it's going to work, it's going to work.'"

Update: Sherak was absolutely right about "Home Alone." It worked brilliantly and had great momentum, opening Nov. 16, 1990 to $17.1 million at 1,202 theaters ($14,211 per theater). It went on to do $285.8 million domestically and was the year's top grossing film. It also spawned two sequels -- 1992's "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," which grossed a hefty $173.6 million domestically; and 1997's "Home Alone 3,"which fizzled with just $30.9 million.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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