by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Inspired by a real bank robbery that took place in Los Angeles in 1997, 211 reimagines one of the longest and bloodiest real-life events in police history. Officer Mike Chandler (Nicolas Cage) and a young civilian passenger find themselves under-prepared and outgunned when fate puts them squarely in the crosshairs of a daring heist executed by a fearless team of highly trained and heavily armed men.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with writer/director York Shackleton to talk about how the project came to be and York’s own creative process.
John Bucher: I know you grew up in Southern California. Were you aware of the robbery when it happened?
York Shackleton: Yeah, I was aware when it happened. Everybody was. You know what I was surprised by, though, is how many people were so moved by it. The LAPD museum down in Pasadena has an exhibit there that you can go in and look at, and it’s all the clothing that the guys were wearing and the vehicle that they were in — that very last white car that got shot up. That’s actually there at the museum, still exactly the way it was from when they took it from the crime scene.
There’s a huge cult following behind that whole story that speculates on these guys and what they were doing. I found that very interesting, that there was this big group that just is really drawn to that story.
John Bucher: That’s fascinating. Was the project something you had always wanted to do? How did things come together?
York Shackleton: For me and my team, we’ve gotten to the point now where we’re very analytical with how we’re choosing our films and how we’re making them, because we want to be very competitive in the market place and we want to make great films that people enjoy. We’re trying to bridge all of that.
We were looking for something to do that was very defined — one location, a heavy, dramatic story behind it, has the elements you need to translate onto the screen… I had remembered that (bank robbery) story, and I started going back and looking at it, and I was like, here’s your premise right here. In real life, the way that actually happened and went down, was a three-act structure. It broke down just like a film. We said hey, here’s something that I think we can build off of. Then it becomes, obviously, the liberties of the writer. We’re looking at it, we’re saying, here’s your premise, here’s your root of it all, this is gonna get it done. Now let’s start to build in stories that are relevant in society to them. You’re dealing with law enforcement having issues with civilians in all different capacities. You’ve got young kids in the school being bullies, and you have racism. So, we started to bring in those other elements that we felt were very current in today’s world and that would let us capture as broad of an audience as possible.
John Bucher: When you adapt something that happened in real life, I’m sure there were a lot of decisions you had to make as far as compressing space and time and characters. How do you go about making those decisions when you’re adapting something that really happened?
York Shackleton: You have to make the decisions early on. Are we really gonna go after making this the true story of the North Hollywood shoot out or are we just kind of loosely basing it on that and then taking liberties to make it our own story? Obviously, doing it that way, you can kind of do what you want. That’s the stronger decision in a situation like this where you’re gonna have a studio behind you.
All down the line, the whole process, there are a lot of people that are involved. It’s a whole team effort. Everybody has an opinion. Everyone’s saying we can pull this off, we can’t pull this off. Your job, really, is to continue to look at the progress as a whole and never start to get hung up in the small little instances during that stage so that any curve ball that’s thrown at you can make an educated compromise, rather than just a compromise because you don’t have any other choice.
You want to try to do as much of that as possible in pre-production. Anticipating what problems could arise. That’s something that you have to be very smart about as a young, independent film maker, because you don’t always have the resources and everything that some bigger guys have.
John Bucher: You wear a lot of hats. You write, you direct, you produce, you act, you do documentary work. A lot of our readers are writers themselves. Can you talk for a second about how, when you put on your writing hat, your story hat, how is that informed by the other things that you do and how is it different from the other things that you do?
York Shackleton: I’ve always been very focused on what I’m doing at the time. Acting was something that I was doing much earlier in my career, when I was just coming out of snowboarding. I had an agent for snowboarding and I had to do a lot of commercials and stuff like that. That was something that I very quickly realized that was not for me; that I really wanted to be behind the camera.
I immediately started focusing on writing and directing. As an independent filmmaker, a young filmmaker with really not a lot of money, you have to wear a lot of hats. You have to be able to produce your own film and make sure that you’re making your days. You have to know all the jobs that everyone’s doing and you have to be able to do every one of those jobs better than all of those people that are doing them so that you can pick up a lot of pieces, otherwise, you don’t make a day, you don’t get it in the can, you run out of money. And you don’t have a finished film. That’s something that you’ve got to be really aware of as a starting-out filmmaker to get it done.
You’ve got to be really smart about what you’re doing. For me, I look at writing and directing as two completely different aspects of the process. You write it and you’re really writing something to be read by people. To convey an idea to them, to convey an emotion and a feeling to them through a piece of paper. You want them to be able to get through that in 80 minutes and read that whole thing in one go and come out of it going, “Yeah, this will translate onto the screen.”
Then, your job as a director, you come in and it’s totally different. You’re gonna come in and look at that screenplay and you’re gonna break it down technically to see how you’re gonna get that onto the screen. There’s a lot of changes and stuff that get made through that process. I think, as a writer, your job is to sit there and say, how do I get this story across on the page so that they can’t put it down and they get it quick, they feel the emotion of what it’s all gonna be and they’re left with this feeling inside that’s very similar to what they would feel when they leave the theater.
John Bucher: You’ve accomplished something that most filmmakers long for — getting one of your stories to the screen with big name talent cast in the film. Can you give any advice for people who are trying to do just that?
York Shackleton: I think if you put the time in on the work, if you put the work in on the screenplay and it’s there on the page, I’ve found that actors want to work. They want to do good work and there’s not always a lot of really good work out there for them. So, if you put the time in and you develop something, you educate yourself and you develop something that you know an actor’s gonna want to do, then that screenplay speaks for itself. And you’d be surprised at how quickly the whole industry will rally behind you when there’s good material because they all want to see it get made and they all want to be in a good movie and they all want to believe in the dream and believe in your vision.
211 plays in theaters and on VOD beginning June 8.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.