In 1971, a group of thieves broke into the safe deposit boxes at Lloyds Bank on Baker Street in London and stole more than 500,000 British pounds in cash and jewelry. Four of the thieves were caught, but the rest disappeared with the loot. The audacious heist -- and the accompanying scandal involving murder, corruption, blackmail and royal-family sex photos -- immediately captured the fascination of Great Britain. But three days later, all news coverage stopped because of a government gag order. It's obviously a perfect setup for a movie, but how do you create a script when there's so little information out there -- and so many of the major players are still on the lam?
Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments," "Flushed Away," "Across the Universe") found a way. They did their best to fill in the blanks, using secondhand accounts, media coverage -- what there was of it -- and transcripts of the thieves' walkie-talkie conversations to put together a script based as closely as possible on fact.
The result is "The Bank Job," directed by Roger Donaldson ("No Way Out," "Thirteen Days," "The Word's Fastest Indian") and starring Jason Statham ("The Italian Job," "Crank," "Transporter"). In this article, we'll sort fact from fiction, explain how the heist was planned and executed, and outline the challenges the production faced in shooting and re-creating the look of the '70s.
Here's the backstory, as cobbled together by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The thieves were a bunch of small-time hoods that had been put up to the bank robbery by a beautiful acquaintance. The masterminds of the plot, however, were actually agents in MI5, the British counterintelligence service. They wanted to get their hands on a safe deposit box owned by a Trinidadian gangster named Michael X -- because it contained candid sex photos of a member of the royal family.
The heist became known as the "Walkie-Talkie Robbery" because the burglars communicated via two-way radio, and a ham-radio operator caught their conversations on tape as the crime was in progress. He called the police, but they couldn't pinpoint the location -- and there were 750 banks in the search radius. So the thieves fled with their booty, and the crime was discovered at the open of business the next morning.
Naturally, the robbery was front-page news, but all coverage suddenly stopped after three days. Apparently, a "D Notice" -- a cease-and-desist order from a high level in the government -- had been issued on the story. "There was no freedom of information act in Britain," notes La Frenais. "Everything that was in the paper just disappeared."
Nine years ago, producer Lawrence Bender brought the story to Clement and La Frenais and introduced them to a journalist named George McIndoe, who knew some of the robbers. Intrigued, they dug deeper and began piecing together facts and evidence.
The writers had a lot of blanks to fill in for their screenplay. They knew that Michael X had, at one point, been jailed for murder and released. "He walked without a trial or anything. It may be because he had these photographs," says La Frenais. The film hints that the scandalous photos were of Princess Margaret, the queen's sister.
"Princess Margaret … definitely did hobnob with some very dubious individuals. She was a party girl," director Roger Donaldson says. But the truth about the photos can't be corroborated because all documents pertaining to Michael X are sealed until 2054.
Clement and La Frenais knew that more than 100 of the safe deposit box owners hadn't stepped forward to identify themselves, so they guessed that many of them were probably shady characters -- including a pornographer and a brothel madam who may have had pictorial evidence of prominent clients. They incorporated these characters in the plot alongside others they invented. Martine, the woman who set up the crime (played by Saffron Burrows) became the catalyst for the heist.
"George [McIndoe] talked about a beautiful call girl from the East End," La Frenais says. The writers made her the link between the thieves and MI5.
"We knew there was a woman involved; it was in the papers," adds Clement. "We thought it made sense that she was the one who recruited them."
The original script had a fairly humorous tone, but Clement says it "got darker and darker as it progressed. It was clear that these guys were out of their depth." Producers Charles Roven and Steve Chasman got hold of it and sent it to Donaldson. The Australian director jumped at the chance to make a period heist movie in London but requested less comedy. "He wanted to make it a thriller in the vein of 'No Way Out,'" Chasman says.
When director Roger Donaldson took the reins on "The Bank Job," he delved into his own research, visiting newspaper archives and tracking down informants. He talked to policemen, the ham-radio operator and a man who knew Michael X and one of the MI5 operatives. A private investigator found one of the bank robbers, he says, "and after hearing the real story, it was more spine-chilling than what we had put together. I could never fit it all into the movie."
"When we started digging around in London, people thought we were making a movie about police corruption -- nobody wanted to talk about it," he says. He was equally intrigued by the media blackout on the case: "It has so much relevance to today's world and the way the media can manipulate things. Who knows what really goes on?"
During the casting process, Donaldson paid close attention to class differences and contrasts between characters to avoid complicating an already complex story. "I was determined to find actors who you would not get confused about who they were," he says. "They had to fit into the roles that they had, and since each level of British society has a very distinctive accent, I was very determined to get people whose accents were the real thing."
In real life, there were probably about 10 in the crew of bank robbers, but the film shrinks their numbers. Jason Statham's character, Terry Leather, is an amalgamation of characters -- but when one of the actual thieves visited the set, there was a striking resemblance. Donaldson immediately noticed similarities in their personalities: "He was like Jason at 70."
"People thought my dad had come to set," laughs Statham, who won't reveal the visitor's true identity. In his conversations with the man, who served two years in prison for the heist, he admits to getting "a slow drip of information."
The elderly visitor's tales also fascinated producer Steve Chasman. "He told me he robbed four more banks … they'd spray-painted 'Let Sherlock Holmes solve this!' on the inside of the vault."
The filmmakers briefly considered shooting "The Bank Job" in Melbourne, Australia, but eventually decided to return to the scene of the crime. London did, however, pose quite a few challenges. "[It's] a very noisy, difficult city to film in," says director Roger Donaldson. "The city itself is so tight and the roads are so narrow, even getting across the city is a two-hour exercise ... You just do the best you can."
The production couldn't shoot inside the actual Lloyds Bank, but they did use the thieves' lookout across the street. "The tops of the buildings are still the same -- with a little digital help," says Donaldson. Lights and other contemporary additions were removed in post-production.
The crew re-created the bank at various studios and locations around London. But Donaldson says the heist sequences were nothing compared to filming at Paddington train station, to which the production brought in a '70s-era locomotive.
"Convincing [officials] to allow us to shoot there was a big deal," he says. "So we had a lot of pressure on us to do things very quickly and be organized and make it happen. There was no light, there so there were a lot of technical issues. We weren't even sure we were going to pull it off."
Weather was a constant issue. "We shot the film in the middle of winter, so it can get pretty gloomy in London," notes Donaldson. "It gave the movie that gray, London look, which was appropriate."
The filmmakers did want the settings, cars, wardrobe, hair and makeup to be authentic to the period, but a light touch was applied to the overall '70s look -- in other words, no "Austin Powers" outlandishness.
"We wanted to make it feel contemporary," explains producer Charles Roven. "If you look at the way people are dressed, it's understated. It's true to the period, but you could go out in it today."
The production also faced logistical and financial obstacles, but the film was finished on schedule and on budget for "a modest eight figures," says Roven.
What will happen now that "The Bank Job" is refocusing attention on a hushed-up 37-year-old story? "We made the film under the radar, but now that the film is coming out, both the royal family and the [government] are put in an interesting place, whether they want to talk about it or not," says producer Charles Roven, but he's not alone in the belief that the movie will get tongues wagging -- and hopefully, rear ends in theater seats.
"People love stories about criminals," observes star Jason Statham. "I would never take those chances myself, so I wonder what makes these people tick, how their brains work."
"I think there's a certain amount of vicarious pleasure that we get from watching other people do things that we wouldn't dare do ourselves," Donaldson says. "I think heist movies work because there's a sustained tension to them. There's the planning part of it, the robbery itself, when there's even more tension, and then you have the aftermath. It's intriguing."
And, unlike contemporary capers like "The Italian Job" or the "Ocean's" trilogy, the period element of "The Bank Job" makes it especially appealing, says writer Ian La Frenais. "It seems so old-fashioned, those days of tunneling through and robbing a bank. No one would think about doing that today. You'd just get yourself a BlackBerry and a Rottweiler and become a drug dealer."
To learn more about "The Bank Job" and other movies, take a look at the links on the next page.
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- Roger Donaldson, Jason Statham, Charles Roven, Steve Casman, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais interviewed Jan. 22, 2008