Focus (2015): Will Smith and Margot Robbie Trained by World-Renowned Expert Apollo Robbins

To showcase the audience the finest details of Nicky and his team’s thievery, every move was planned carefully.“It’s hard to photograph pickpocketing,” Requa contends. “The skills that pickpockets have developed over centuries have been specifically designed so that you don’t see what they’re doing.”

In order to capture the acts on camera, the filmmakers  employed specific angles or slowed down the movements: We also opened up the space in the scene so you can see what’s happening, where ordinarily you wouldn’t; they would be completely hidden.”

To prep the actors, the filmmakers brought in world-renowned expert Apollo Robbins, known as The Gentleman Thief, to conceive and choreograph original sleight-of-hand maneuvers and to teach Smith, Robbie and the other cast members the tricks of the confidence trade.

“As we were researching this world,” Requa remembers, “his name kept coming up as an extraordinary magician and con-artist.” “In addition to teaching us how certain tricks are accomplished, Apollo really gave us all insight into what it is to live in a world where you don’t trust people,” Ficarra adds.

“I’ve spent my life studying deception and human behavior in a rather untraditional way–stealing from people,” Robbins acknowledges.  “Rather than diverting their eyes, you must occupy their minds.  Their attention is controlled by their dreams, desires and fears.  People often see what they want to believe rather than what is really there.  So, if you can control their focus, you control their reality.”

Robbins helped to prepare Smith for his role as Nicky:  “I spent about four or five days with Will in Las Vegas,” Robbins says.  “He first wanted to step inside the mind of a con man and see how they see the world.  How they think, process and influence.  I took this opportunity to bring in some people to sit down and meet with him, people whose experiences parallel the world Will’s character is in, so he could ask them questions directly.”

“It was interesting working with Apollo,” Smith attests.  “Apollo is more of a psychologist than anything.  Most of our time together was spent discussing people, the brain, and the human ability to pay attention.  I was surprised at how little focus we actually put on stealing in the creation of this master-thief character.”

Robbins and his wife, Ava Do, co-founded Whizmob Inc, a company that utilizes the expertise of former con-artists, thieves and hackers to study human behavior.  They have collaborated with neuroscientists and researchers to study the blind spots in the human brain.  “Since we can’t truly focus on more than one thing at a time, our brain creates shortcuts to be more efficient,” he says.  “Unfortunately, these shortcuts sometimes automate our decision process while giving us the illusion we are multitasking.  It’s like toddlers playing soccer; the kids eagerly chase after the soccer ball until a new one comes rolling by, then another, then another. They get so caught up chasing each new ball they never stop to ask who is putting the balls on the field.  Will’s character exploits this type of vulnerability.”

He taught the actors the various skills they would need to pull off each trick, including the lift, which is stealing something out of a pocket, and a touch, which can be used in a lift.  In order to describe each individual’s role in the scheme, he likens the crew to a sports team.

“As in sports, there are different positions in laying out a con—the steer, the stick, the shade, the wire.  There are some who have mastered all those positions and can play ‘single-o,’ they’re called Cannons.  That’s Nicky,” he explains.  “Sometimes Cannons meet on the road to form a sort of MVP dream team, called “whiz mobs.”  As in the movie, whiz mobs will generally meet in a town a couple weeks before a large sporting event.  They will combine their talents, such as pick pocketing, card hustling and hacking, to nail unwitting tourists before they even know the game has begun.”