by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In 2004, George Nolfi adapted his spec screenplay Honor Among Thieves into the sequel to Ocean’s Eleven — Ocean’s Twelve. He went on to write and direct projects such as The Adjustment Bureau. His latest project, The Banker in inspired by true events and centers on revolutionary businessmen Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), who devise an audacious and risky plan to take on the racist establishment of the 1960s by helping other African Americans pursue the American dream. Along with Garrett’s wife Eunice (Nia Long), they train a working-class white man, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), to pose as the rich and privileged face of their burgeoning real estate and banking empire – while Garrett and Morris pose as a janitor and a chauffeur. Their success ultimately draws the attention of the federal government, which threatens everything the four have built.
In addition to Nolfi, the film was written by notable African American writers including Niceole Levy, David Lewis Smith, and Stan Younger from a story by Smith, Younger and Brad Caleb Kane. The film was recently cited by the City Council in Philadelphia as a “powerful counter narrative” to the numerous films featuring African Americans that have been disproportionally focused on slavery, persistence, and mere survival and a “vital film for Black men and teens.”
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher spoke with director George Nolfi about his helming of the project and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.
John Bucher: I’ve actually followed your career for some time. Oceans 12, which you wrote, is one of my favorite films.
George Nolfi: Thank you. Yeah, I’ve noticed in recent years it seems like Oceans 12 is rising in popularity. We did something pretty radical, Steven (Soderbergh) and I, and especially for a studio movie. The protagonist of that movie is not the protagonist of the first movie. The protagonist is Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s pretty, pretty far out there. I think some people were scratching their heads going, “Ah, what is this?” But Steven and I actually did an interview recently where it was just all about that.
John Bucher: Let’s talk about The Banker. I love films that take place in Los Angeles. One of the first things that really struck me about the film is that somehow you were able to craft a story for us that takes place in Los Angeles but feels really different than any other LA-based story that I’ve seen before. How did you do that?
George Nolfi: Well, thank you, and thank you for noticing that. I think it starts with the story and the approach to the story, and then goes into things like production design. First of all, the story is rooted very closely in truth. It’s based on eight hours of interviews that we had with Bernard Garrett narrating his own life, and a bunch of other documentary evidence including the US Senate record, and documents from the county recorder’s office and things like that.
I wanted to tell a story that tracks the truth of what happened in this guy’s life, but then also layer over the top of it, using the tools of Hollywood per se, something that had almost a mythological heist movie type feel, more fable-like. I think that there’s not a lot of movies that do that. Everything flows from that.
You’re, I hope, feeling at the beginning of this movie, for the first twenty something minutes, this is a really straight realistic story. Then in the middle, as this fanciful idea — which is based 100% on what they really did — of Eliza Doolittle-ing or My Fair Lady-ing a white guy to become their front, the tone shifts there intentionally to something that can be fun and humorous. While there’s some humor introduced before, in the Sam Jackson character, the humor really takes off in that middle section. Then you move to Texas, primarily.
In the Los Angeles section, you have something which I wanted to feel like, okay, I could just be standing back there in the 50s, and watching this guy go and try to deal with buying real estate in a kind of city that was not as racist as the Deep South, but was still racist. Then in the second half of the part that’s in LA, you have this much more fanciful take. I think that’s really the start, or that’s really the underlying premise that gives you the different look.
Then it was, even though we’re going to be in a fanciful section of the movie, I want the costumes and the locations and so forth to be really accurate. So while we couldn’t, for example, find a building that exactly matched the art deco architecture that we needed for the inside of the Banker building in Atlanta, where we shot most of the movie, we found something that was period appropriate, that was roughly scaled in the same way, that would have felt like, okay, that’s the tallest building in Los Angeles from the early 60s. Then it was very important to try and get as many locations as we could in Los Angeles, even down to the prison that they actually served time in. We shot right outside that.
John Bucher: I really liked something you said there about this being a fable. I think I really got a sense of that in the way that you directed the film. While we look at fables today and say, “Oh. There’s the tortoise and there’s a hare, so be like the tortoise, and don’t be like the hare,” the original audiences for fables actually recognized those stories as being more about a tortoise and a hare that both live inside of me, and I’ve got to let the tortoise have his day, and not just always give the hare his.
With the two lead characters in this story, we have two different psychological perspectives, two different ways of approaching the world. I wonder if you could talk about how you worked with Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson to craft out these two different psychological perspectives and approaches to the human psyche.
George Nolfi: Well, it starts with the research. When you listen to somebody talk for eight hours, you get a real sense not only of their facts of their life, at least as they tell it, but also their emotionality, their ability, their drive, how they approach problems and so forth.
I really felt like from that interview, which I wanted to stick as closely to as possible, as opposed to trying to get information about him that might be through the prism of people who knew him thirty years ago, this is the guy talking in his own words. I really felt like he was something like the character that was represented on screen.
Initially, he approached the problem of racism with a notion that if he kept his head down, and he used his smarts, and I mean kept his head down in a way that might be offensive, like, “Oh, I’m just going to ignore the fact that there’s racism out there.” He shouldn’t have to do that, but he made that choice. “I’m just going to be invisible and maybe I can beat it just with my tortoise-like approach.” I think, by the end, he realizes that his strategy of just ignoring racism can only take you so far. Fundamentally where he goes in buying white banks in Texas is, as Joe’s character says, revolutionary.
With Joe’s character, we had a lot less material, but we had what Bernard said about him. You see the words, but you also hear the joy he has when he’s talking about Joe. “Oh, he’s having a cigar, and having a drink in his hand. Joe knew everybody,” and so on and so forth. Then we had photos and the fact that the guy owned two of the most popular clubs in LA. He was the sole owner of one and the co-owner of another.
That’s really where the characters were constructed from. Then in terms of working with the actors, the movie came about because our producer, Joel Viertel, who’s also our editor, and I do most of my projects with as a producer, he pitched the story to Anthony Mackie and to me at the same time while we were making The Adjustment Bureau.
Anthony and I were both amazed at the story. I felt like, even though I hadn’t done all the research about what kind of a person he was, I felt like, “Well, Anthony is a diverse actor, and he’d be great for this.” Anthony wanted to do it as well.
Then as I read into the character and researched him, this was years later, I thought, “It’s interesting, because Anthony is a larger than life person. He’s the life of the party. He’s very fun. He’s very big. More like Sam.” But in The Adjustment Bureau, he had to play all that internally. He had to crush all that down because he’s effectively an angel, and he’s forced to not show that. I thought, “You know what? It’d be really interesting to see him hold all that in.”
So that’s where that came from. Then Joe’s character, when I got involved in revising the script, I felt like there’s really one actor who can embody all these things just by stepping into the frame, and he’s so much more. I just think he crushed that role. It needed not only the Sam Jackson that you know and love, who owns a word in the English language effectively. But more than that. Because Sam’s a real actor. He comes from theater.
John Bucher: This is a film that’s really timely right now for our world and our culture. You crafted a story that, even though it takes place in the past, feels very translated for us for this moment. What is your hope of what audiences might walk away with after seeing this film?
George Nolfi: Well, I think we’re in a period where our politics are very divisive. I don’t just mean in America. I mean worldwide. Many nations are in this cycle. I hope it’s a cycle that passes. Obviously there’s an ebb and flow to politics, and you can take certain policies too far. The notion that we look for our differences before we look for what makes us the same is ultimately dangerous to the prosperous and democratic world that we have created, and sure it is very imperfect, but is a heck of a lot better than it was in 1913, World War I, World War II.
Stepping one level down from that and being more specific to the problem of race in America, the average white family has twelve times the wealth of the average black family. So much of our problems that are race related problems, I think, flow from that economic disparity.
I think a lot of people don’t know about the history of “redlining.” They don’t know about the fact that the single most important thing for the vast, vast majority of Americans building up generational wealth, wealth you pass down to your kids, is owning a home. That’s the biggest source of people’s wealth. I guess I would say those are the two things that I hope to have people take away and think about in a big sense.
The Banker is available on Apple TV+ beginning March 20.
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 the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.