Operating with meticulous planning, and employing subject matter expertise to obtain their desired goal, is one of the most enticing aspects of both the story line and production for action movies. That dedicated precision is one of the most captivating aspects of the new crime drama, ‘Den of Thieves,’ which STX Entertainment is releasing tomorrow in theaters.
The thriller marks the feature film directorial and producing debuts of Christian Gudegast. The filmmaker, who also co-wrote the script for ‘Den of Thieves‘ with Paul Scheuring, originally began crafting the idea for a robbery story that’s set at the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles in 2002. His determination to achieve his ultimate goal of shooting the screenplay, and releasing the finalized movie as a theatrical feature, over the past decade-and-a-half is just as noteworthy as his diverse characters’ stake in pulling off, or thwarting, the burglary.
‘Den of Thieves’ focuses on an elite crew of bank robbers, who plot to pull off the ultimate heist, and the hard-working gang unit of the L.A. Sheriff’s department that’s determinedly working to bring the burglars to justice. The robbers, who are collectively referred to as the Outlaws, are led by the always-in-control Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber). The gang operates with military precision and meticulous planning, which its members acquired from military special ops service and prison stints. The leader is joined by disciplined family man, Enson Levoux (50 Cent), and Bosco Ostroman (Evan Jones), a battle-hardened veteran and gifted thief. The Outlaws recruit a new driver, Donnie Wilson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), an ex-con bartender who may be out of his league.
However, in order to pull off the ultimate heist, the Outlaws will have to outmaneuver the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department, which is known as the Regulators. The unit operates in unconventional ways that often blur the lines between criminal and police behavior, in order to bring down the most elusive and dangerous offenders. The Regulators are led by “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler), a career detective who’s seemingly unencumbered by a moral compass. His career choices and priorities destroy what remains of his family life. But he’ll stop at nothing to put an end to Merriman’s crime spree, which has been taunting the authorities for years, due to his increasingly ambitious unsolved robberies.
After a simple operation to commandeer an armored truck turns into a brutal firefight, the Outlaws become the primary target of the Regulators. Rattled by the robbery gone sideways, Merriman sets his sights on the ultimate heist: infiltrating the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve to steal $30 million of unfit U.S. currency that’s being taken out of circulation before it can be shredded and destroyed. If they can pull of the heist, the Outlaws will steal money that nobody is looking for. Their extensively researched and detailed plan is set into motion. The Outlaws are forced to track down the Regulators, and anticipate their next move, before the gang can pull off the unprecedented feat of stealing from the Federal Reserve.
Gudegast generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing producing ‘Den of Thieves’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how writing the screenplay, and having the production schedule become delayed several times, helped prepare him to make his feature film directorial debut. He also shared that after he initially met with the main actors who appeared in the action drama, including Butler and 50 Cent, how they easily understood, and connected with, their characters.
ShockYa (SY): Along with Paul Scheuring, you co-wrote the script for the new crime film, ‘Den of Thieves.’ What was your inspiration in penning the screenplay for the action thriller together?
Christian Gudegast (CG): Well, there were two parallel tracks that led to putting the story together. The first one was that years ago, I saw a photograph of a money tub from the Federal Reserve Bank in the Los Angeles Times. It was this plexiglass tub that was on wheels, and it was about three-and-a-half feet high, and three feet wide. Inside of it was $30 million in cash, in $100 bills. It was such a visually fascinating picture, and I thought, wow. So I did some research into the Federal Reserve, and it’s a fascinating world. It’s the bank where banks put their money.
I also went there and visited it. It’s a visually fascinating world, and takes your breath away when you go down five stories beneath street level. There’s a football-sized floor, and all of the glass is bullet-proof plexiglass, so you can see into everything, for security purposes.
Then you pass through all of these rooms, and all of these rooms have counting machines that count various dominations of bills. Inside the rooms there are also shredding machines. When the counting machines count the money, they decide if a bill is unfit and old. If a bill is deemed to be too old, it’s put into a new compartment. At the end of the day, they shred that money.
When you’re in that space, you’re in a concealed world that’s working 24/7/365. It’s an incredible world to see, but of course, we couldn’t photograph it, and had to commit it to memory.
So there was that, and at the same time, I also wanted to make a film about the world in South Los Angeles, which is the gang capital of the city. It’s where all the different crime groups are represented. I know a lot of people in that world, and grew up in that world. So I set this story surrounding the Fed in this world, to ground it in reality. That’s how the whole story came together.
SY: In addition to penning the screenplay, you also made your feature film directorial debut on ‘Den of Thieves.’ What was your experience of helming the movie? How did penning the script influence your directorial style?
CG: Well, I went to the UCLA Film School to direct, not write. To graduate, you had to write a script. I wrote a script with a writing partner, and we sold it to Oliver Stone before we graduated. So that changed my career trajectory at the time, and I just became a screenwriter. I was doing well, and making a lot of money, but I never intended to be a writer.
The first time we went into pre-production for this film was in 2008. After that, we then went into pre-production for it about six more times. For various reasons, it never got done before, but we finally got it done now. So I’ve been in director purgatory since 2008. But it was a blessing in disguise, because I was very prepared when we did start filming.
I’ve been a still photographer my entire life, so I documented the actual locations and the gangsters and cops in still photographs before we began shooting. That way, I was able to show everyone who was involved in the movie the actual world, and the lens and angles we were going to use. I was also able to show the characters, and what they dress and look like, including the tattoos they have, as well as the cars they drive. So I basically had the entire film extremely mapped out before we shot even one frame of film.
SY: The drama features a diverse group of performers, including Gerard Butler, 50 Cent, Pablo Schreiber and O’Shea Jackson Jr. What was the process like of finding the cast? Once the actors were cast, were you able to have any rehearsal time with them?
CG: Gerry was the first person who signed on to star in the movie. He read the script, and then asked to meet with me. He was just transfixed by the story and character of “Big” Nick. Then, during several meetings and dinners, we went over everything, and I realized he was the guy. He was very confident in my ability to direct the movie, because I showed him the entire world.
I also took him into the world his character is from, and we did a bunch of ride alongs with cops. I also introduced him to the real people his character is based on. So we did years of prep. When we then shot the film, he was so in character.
Then 50 (Cent) came along, and he always wanted to be involved in the movie. There’s always hesitation in the film world to have people from the music business come in. But then I met with him, and realized that he had the exact vibes of his character, Enson. (50 Cent’s) from the streets, and so is his character. So his authority and energy was perfect for the role.
We wanted to surround them with other actors who are tough, and have a certain presence. John Papsidera was our casting director, and he did an unbelievable job.
We then all met in Atlanta, where we primarily shot the film, for two months during pre-production. We had the whole cast there, and divided the actors into two groups-the criminals and cops. We kept them separate, to keep their rivalry, and did tons of boot camp and training. The cops (in the film) hung out with (real) cops, and did undercover training. At the same time, the criminals (in the film), who were all ex-military, did military training, and hung out with (real) gangsters. So by the time we shot the film, everyone was completely in it. Spending that time together was invaluable, and the performances show it.
SY: While the story is set in Los Angeles, ‘Den of Thieves’ was shot on location in Atlanta, like you just mentioned. What was your experience of filming the drama in Georgia? What was the process of making the scenes, especially the exteriors, seem as though they’re really in L.A.?
CG: Shooting in Atlanta wasn’t a decision; it was a mandate, on behalf of the producers and studio. It’s a reality, unfortunately, that’s it’s cheaper to shoot in another state. California hasn’t figured it out (how to offer financial incentives to filmmakers) yet, which is shocking to me. We were able to shoot in L.A. for a week, so we could shoot the exterior (scenes), which was an enormous help.
Down in Atlanta, we found all of our locations ourselves, because the film is very specific to the locations. We knew where everything was set in the real world, and we tried to reproduce that. The producers and I drove around Atlanta for six months, and hand-picked every location ourselves.
Most people who have seen the film have no idea that it was shot in Atlanta; people in L.A. think it was shot entirely in L.A. But Atlanta looks nothing like L.A., so it was very challenging. Everything in Atlanta is brick, and it’s basically a city in a forest. But after driving every inch of the city for six months, we were able to find locations that look just like L.A.
SY: In addition to crafting the emotional arcs for the characters, what was the process of also working with the cast on creating the stunts and the physicalities for the characters?
CG: Like I mentioned, I had the guys working on the film for two months before we officially started shooting. The criminal team, including Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and 50 Cent, would go to the gun range every single day, around 6 in the morning. They would train with former Special Forces Operators at the range, which was about an hour outside of Atlanta.
We would set up the scenes with cars, and would block it basically the way it was going to be shot. They would practice, and do all of their own stunts. We did it over and over again, and it was very hard and disciplined work. The actors learned all of the military tactics, and what it all meant. They also learned how to load and reload. That was the first half of the day.
During the second half of the day, they would do weight training, and also learned how to do Ju jit su. I wanted the actors’ bodies to reflect the way their characters look as former Special Forces Operators.
Then every night, we would all eat together. The criminal crew and the police crews would stay separated as groups,just like they would in reality. The actors who were playing the criminals were only allowed to drink water, because their characters are in AA, and are ex-military.
I would then go to the dinner with all of the cops. Of course, they’re all hard-charging mad men, so they’d all be drinking beer. So the two dinners had a whole different energy, but it was purposeful.
That’s how it went for the two months in Atlanta before we started filming. By the time we started shooting, everyone was absolutely good to go. They had rehearsed each scene 100 times. Their bodies were in perfect physical condition for their roles. It made all the difference in the movie.