The Australian auteur brings one of London's most notorious robberies to the big screen
In 1971, a group of professional bank robbers pulled off one of the biggest heists in London's history. Tunneling up from the bottom of a garment story, the crooks broke into a stash of safety deposit boxes that held some might big secrets. The pilfered items implicated the Royal family, proving their participation in some quite dubious endeavors. While the story was big news for three straight days, a D-Notice was issued and a blanket was thrown over the media. The case was never solved. To this day, files from this crime still carry an embargo. The events that transpired have remained a mystery for years.
Director Roger Donaldson has decided to shed some light on this twenty-year-old case with his upcoming film The Bank Job. The true-life capper stars Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows in what some have called a highly charged heist thriller that tautly interweaves high-level corruption, murder and sexual scandal in 1970s England. Donaldson let's us in on what really transpired over those three lost days.
I recently met up with Roger to get his take on this decades old mystery. The following is my conversation with Mr. Donaldson:
How closely does this hue to the original case?
Roger Donaldson: I put a lot of effort into researching it. Just for my own pleasure, really. The more I got into it, the more I made sense of it. Though, I don't really know all of the facts. I didn't even have any photographs to look at.
So, a lot of that information is really lost to time?
Roger Donaldson: Yeah, I think so. It is true that Princess Margaret was a scallywag that liked to hang out with people from the wrong side of the tracks. Michael X was a real character.
He is someone I'd never heard of before. Not until I saw this film.
Roger Donaldson: Michael X was a real force in the black movement of London. The Notting Hill riots, and all that. He was part of that stuff. He was held responsible for the murder of Gale Bensen. That is true.
That picture he has in the safety deposit box. How closely does that relate to what actually happened?
Roger Donaldson: I have no idea. I was more interested in being suggestive rather than specific with all that stuff. Michael X is someone we don't hear a lot about nowadays, but he was sort of big at the time. He was impressed with Malcolm X, really. He saw himself as a European version, that's why he called himself Michael X. He had come to London as an immigrant, and he got involved in the Notting Hill area of London. That part of black London interacted with the white part of London. It is probably still a lot like that today. England is a lot different than it is here. They have a class system. One of the things the higher class has always enjoyed doing is hobnobbing with the lower class. At a social level, they all think it is a hell of a lot of fun. But in truth, they don't want anything to do with one another. So, it is okay to go out and screw some black guy or some dude from the East End. But if you came home and said that you wanted to marry him, you would be ostracized. His girl, Gale Bensen, was the daughter of a politician. He was well-known politician at the time, too. She was hanging out with these guys. She was hanging out friends of Michael X. They all got out of London together and went back to Trinidad. Gale went with them. They stayed at his compound there, and she was murdered there as it is shown in the movie. That stuff is all true.
Now, what attracted you to this story? Why did you want to bring this big secret to the big screen?
Roger Donaldson: I think I was just entertained by the script. It was a heist. It had a good sense of humor. It wasn't something that I knew of beforehand. It came to me as a script. It existed, and had been around for a long time. It was sent to me, and I thought, "God, I would love to do this." That is how it came together.
Did you actually shoot this on Baker Street?
Roger Donaldson: Some of it was shot on Baker Street. It is a very famous street. Mostly from Sherlock Holmes. The guy that overheard the ham radio conversation also lived on a famous street. Whimple Street. I think that features in Sherlock Holmes as well. I don't know why those streets are so prominent in English literature. Who knows? It is right down by the train station. Madame Tussaud's is right up the road there. Maybe because it is in central London. It has a real history.
Who are the main characters based on? How much of that is real, and how much of that just came from the screenwriters' imaginations?
Roger Donaldson: I think there were ten bank robbers. I actually got to meet one of them. We found him. And he looked just like Jason Statham at seventy. Uncanny. So, while Jason was cast for no reason other than the fact that he is just a great actor from the East End, the real life character was like meeting Jason at seventy. How I met him was a long and involved story. This is something that you don't need to pick apart. You can pretty much pick anything apart. I don't believe there has ever been a movie made where, if it is based on a true story, that it is all real. The truth is virtually impossible to remake, because it is only made from someone's point of view. There were things in the movie that were real. The key points. We recreated the bank. I recreated the photographs from the scene. I recreated the boutique. That hadn't changed since the day they went through there. I went to the national archives. I found that some of these files had a seventy-seven year embargo on them. The closer I got to it, the more I saw how difficult it was to get hard facts. I just wanted to get the feel of how it was. That was my main concern.
With you doing this much research, did you put any sort of documentary together for the DVD?
Roger Donaldson: No, I haven't. I should. There is so much good stuff. Even with just the newspaper articles. I met a friend of Michael X that knew Gale Bensen. He was a fascinating character. He is a filmmaker now. Hearing someone tell you his version of what he remembers, the black guys hanging out with the white girls, is interesting. Though, his telling me this stuff doesn't make it fact. I believe this guy knew the key players. It is just too hard to get key facts. Even trying to track down a cop. I found one of the higher up cops in the whole investigation. And he was telling me stories about how there were a couple of guys found dead. And there was this assumption that they were connected to the robbery somehow. But I could never get the facts on who they were or how they were connected to the robbery. You can brush by stuff, and its stuff you can use. Or, you have to say, "No." You usually have to take the big facts of the story. That is what people want to see. There was a bank robbery. It was the biggest bank robbery in London's history. We actually found another guy that was involved with the bank heist, but he wanted no part of this. He didn't want to dredge up the past. He had made a new life for himself. I found out that when you are dealing with these sorts of people, they are not the most reliable people. There were major meltdowns in the police department at the time. A ton of officers were being thrown off the force because of corruption. The entire Scotland Yard was thrown out of the police force. There were a lot of things happening at this time that make it difficult to do much more than pick out the big facts. I was trying to find news footage from the BBC. They weren't there. They had gone. They should have been there. There was stuff from before that day, and stuff the following day. Is there a reason why it's not there? It could be that they really did remove the stuff. Or they fucked up the film from that day. Or someone took it as a souvenir.
When you cast Jason Statham in a movie like this, do you feel you need to have that scene where he is kicking ass and taking names?
Roger Donaldson: Well, you are making entertainment. The people want these guys to do something at the end. He's Jason Statham. You don't expect to see him walk away and say, "Well, bye-bye! Better luck next time." You, as an audience member, would be very disappointed, I think. On the one hand, I still wanted to keep some of the humor. I didn't want the Jason Statham that we have seen in Crank, or The Transporter movies. He is playing a more realistic, real-life character in this movie. And hopefully he is playing into that more sort of down to earth character that the movie is based on.
The Bank Job Opens March 7th, 2008.