Bank Job: Roger Donaldson’s Heist Thriller, Starring Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows (Making of)

Inspired by the infamous 1971 robbery that took place at the Lloyds Bank in Marylebone London, THE BANK JOB, starring Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows, is a highly-charged heist thriller that tautly interweaves corruption, murder and sexual scandal in 1970s England.

In 1971, Britain was experiencing a hangover. Following the indulgences of Swinging-era London and the decline of Flower Power, Londoners were unceremoniously faced with a series of labor conflicts under Edward Heaths Conservative Government and escalating violence in Northern Ireland. It seemed only logical that the transition into the Me Decade, as Thomas Wolfe put it, would be marked by a group of enterprising bank robbers involved in Britain’s biggest robbery ever.

This is a fascinating period in history and an even more fascinating crime, says director Roger Donaldson. The fact that it all actually happened only makes it more intriguing.

Dubbed the Walkie-Talkie Robbery by newspapers, the crime was discovered by an amateur radio ham, Robert Rowlands, who alerted Scotland Yard after overhearing a robbery in progress somewhere within a 10-mile radius of Central London. Seven hundred and fifty banks in the inner London area were checked that weekend, but there were no signs of forced entry anywhere. It was only when Lloyds Bank, on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, opened for business on Monday that hundreds of safety deposit boxes in the main vault were found to have been looted.

The robbery left countless questions unanswered. After only four days of reportage by newspapers, the story disappeared entirely, the result of an alleged D Notice issued by the government. Only four men were convicted in connection with the crime and much of the loot was never recovered. Of the stolen property that the police did manage to retrieve, most was never reclaimed a testament to just how many incriminating secrets are buried in the vaults of banks.

In the years since, the Walkie-Talkie Robbery has lived on as a contemporary urban legend. Says producer Steven Chasman, Often, in London, when I’m in a taxi or speaking to someone who was around at the time, they remember the Walkie-Talkie Robbery and what happened. They knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone who was involved.

The story went off the front pages very quickly, says THE BANK JOBS co-screenwriter Dick Clement. It was there for a couple of days and then nothing. Obviously, we had no idea about any of the hidden agenda thats in the movie, because so many aspects of it have never come to light before.

I’ve liked that this is an old-fashioned robbery, adds co-screenwriter Ian La Frenais. Instead of people breaking in using computers to hack into security systems, there are picks and shovels, digging under the ground, blasting through the bank and tearing those boxes apart with crowbars.

When director Roger Donaldson was sent the script of THE BANK JOB by producer Charles Roven, he was immediately interested in the storys real-life basis. I was attracted to the fact that its inspired by real people and real events, says the Australian-born director. I enjoy taking a look at what makes society tick.

Donaldsons interest in the political and cultural details of the period resulted in an in-depth research period. I love the research. Thats one of the things I really do embroil myself in, he admits. I finished up going to the newspapers of the time, to the national archives, digging up facts that have not seen the light of day since they happened in 1971.

Producer Charles Roven, who produced Donaldsons 1990 film, CADILLAC MAN, believes Donaldson is the ideal director for the project. Hes done thrillers like NO WAY OUT, character pieces like THE WORLDS FASTEST INDIAN, and action movies like THE RECRUIT, and this is the kind of movie that allows you to blend all those techniques. Its very suspenseful. Its got a tremendous amount of real-life comedy and the characters are really interesting. Theres a part of us in all of them.

For the lead role of Terry Leather, the used car dealer-turned-bank-robber, Donaldson turned to Jason Statham, the British star known for the hits THE TRANSPORTER and CRANK. Jasons like a British Steve McQueen, says Donaldson. Theres a really great, brooding sort of quality about him. He does a lot with a little, and hes very charismatic. Hes not like anyone else that I know of on screen.

The part of Terry really shows Jasons great range as an actor, adds Roven. It allows him to do it all, from being the tough guy to struggling with romantic conflict. Hes also incredibly likable. He has such a great persona on screen that the audience automatically gravitates to him.

Complicating Terrys life is an alluring old friend, Martine, who embroils him in both the bank job and a difficult romantic triangle. Like Martine, actress Saffron Burrows is a former model who left the world of fashion to pursue a new career. Martine Love is, in a sense, like me in many ways, says Burrows. She and Terry have this history together, which I like in the way that its quite undefined and the writers havent chosen to nail down entirely what their history is.

Saffron is beautiful and a great actress as well, declares Roger Donaldson. She has this wonderful combination of great looks, depth, and effortless poise.

Rising stage and screen star Stephen Campbell Moore is Kevin, Terrys best friend and an aspiring photographer. Hes part of Terry’s gang and basically, when Terry asks him to come along on this job, he does what Terry says, explains the actor. Kevin has always been in love with Martine. He thinks that he and Martine have a thing still, but the truth is that it was one drunken night many years ago and she has moved on.

Porn Star Daniel Mays

Dave Shilling, the likeable, part-time porno star, is played by Daniel Mays. Dave is basically one of Terry Leathers crew, says Mays. Hes also a stand-in for movie stars on film sets, and he thinks hes quite fashionable, a boy about town, but he gets in way over his head.


The villain of THE BANK JOB is Lew Vogel, played by David Suchet, a distinguished character actor who became an international television favorite as Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Explains Suchet, Vogel is a very unsavory type. Hes a typical East End London boy who grew up into the vice racket while also running the pornography industry in Soho. Not a very nice man at all. He can be charming, but absolutely ruthless.

Michael X becomes the inciting figure in THE BANK JOBs plot when he threatens to start a high-level scandal by exposing incriminating evidence stored in his safety deposit box on Baker Street. Explains Roven, MI5 and MI6 decided to set up a bank job so they could go ahead and steal this evidence and prosecute this guy. That was the reason for the whole set up.

Aside from Michael X, screenwriters La Frenais and Clement had to piece together disparate bits of research in order to create the cast of characters. We had to invent them, based on the fact that there were so many guys involved, working in so many different businesses, explains La Frenais. No one in Terrys crew was an experienced professional criminal. They were pretty small-time players.

We were told that Terry was involved in the slightly dodgy used car trade, adds Clement. And we found out that Kevin these are not their real names was a photographer, a sort of would-be David Bailey, but not quite in that league. And clearly there was a woman involved, because all the police reports say they heard a female voice down there. So we invented Martine. Vogel was based on a real character who ran a sort of porn empire.

Though it is prohibitively expensive for film productions to shoot in London, Chasman and Roven decided it was necessary for reasons of authenticity. Whats fascinating is that the geography hasnt changed at all, reports Roven. You can still go to Baker Street, right this minute, and you can see exactly where the shop is where they tunneled in from. Nothings changed in 35 years.

Return to England

Donaldson was also interested in making a film in England again, his first since THE BOUNTY in 1984. My dad was born here, my son lives in London, so I was keen to make a film here, he explains. One of the great things about shooting in England is that there is a fantastic depth of really good, talented actors and so casting is always a great pleasure. For me, the movie is all about whos in it.

The production covered an extraordinary amount of ground during the ten-week shoot. The locations ranged from luxurious Bayswater apartments to East End workshops, from the Royal Courts of Justice to Chathams Historic Naval Dockyard. Scenes on the London Underground were filmed at the decommissioned Aldwych station and, for two memorable days, the production took over Platform One at Londons bustling Paddington Station, complete with a 1971 locomotive and carriages, the first time ever that a film company had brought a train into the station.

The high number of locations posed a challenge to production designer Gavin Bocquet. Finding those little areas of London that more or less can be shot as 1970s, without much work being done, was very difficult, he says. But we did an awful lot of research into that period. We had some very good BBC news footage, especially of the bank robbery itself.

Many sequences, such as the one depicting the actual bank break-in, were assembled using vastly different locations. According to Bocquet, We ended up with an exterior street set at Pinewood and three stage sets at Ealing which include the tunnel and the basement of Le Sac. Then another location, which was the bank vault, was built in the old Bethnal Green Town Hall. But the way Roger shot it, everyone will think that it was done in one location.

According to costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, a great deal of research went into the period look of the film, involving her staff, the hair and make-up team and the art department. You could see from the clothes in the newsreels that what people think of as the Seventies isnt really Seventies the period is still stuck a little bit in the Sixties in terms of the general public. So, with that in mind, I kept that as an overall feeling for the film. With each individual character, I tried to find a famous personality of the period to give them their look.

Hair and make-up designer Kirstin Chalmers had to recreate a wide range of period hairstyles. A lot of the actors who were cast had very modern hair and its a completely different style, a completely different length. So a lot of the actors had to have wigs and facial hair that they wouldnt normally have sideburns, moustaches. Its all in the cut. If you get the silhouette and shape right, it pulls you straight into the period.

Shooting in HD

THE BANK JOB was filmed with the latest high-definition digital cameras, the Arriflex D-20, which presented some interesting challenges for the production team. As Kirstin Chalmers points out, HD is so much sharper than film, so make-up is more obvious, wig lace shows up more even hair looks more super-real.

For Donaldson, the new technology had its advantages. Its my first movie in HD and, of course, HD is the future. It gives you a unique opportunity at the time of shooting where you can see exactly what you are doing. Its not easy to work with, but to see what youre doing, as you can with digital photography, is a real advantage.

The depth of field is much longer and things come into focus much more quickly, so you have to be careful with your mid-ground and far-ground finishes, says production designer Bocquet. We work in a world of illusion, so usually we work things theatrically, but obviously as soon as things start to get finer in detail, you have to be careful.

For the actors, HD presents a different set of challenges. I do like the speed with which we can work, thats terrific, says Burrows. But the fact that its merciless is not something I like as an actor. The human eye focuses on something and leaves the outer edges slightly out of focus, whereas HD is quite clinically clear.

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