Since I’ve been in a mindset of wanting to know more about heists, not that I’m planning one or anything but because of my recent reviews, I was fortunate to catch up with Tommy Reid, director and producer of $uperthief: Inside America’s Biggest Bank Score. I was fascinated by the documentary and the New Jersey native was kind enough to answer the questions I had about it. $uperthief centers around Phil Christopher, the mastermind behind the heist, and details the events surrounding and during it. If you haven’t checked out the documentary you should do so, and the answers I was given give great insight into it
Me: There seemed to be an emphasis on images from that time period, whether it was newspaper clippings, ADT advertisements, or photos of the crew overlapping a room, yet you didn’t use any re-enactments. Did you feel that it would be more effective to use those images as opposed to reenactments or was there another reason?
Tommy: Well, the big reason, Kareem, is that I’m gonna use all the re-enactments as a real life feature film, which I’m planning on directing and producing. We actually have a feature film script right now that was written by the very talented writers who wrote for NBC’s biggest television show called the Blacklist. So we do have a feature film and it was my thinking all along that if I’m gonna start doing all these elaborate reenactments why not make a movie. So to me I wanted to kind of use this as a research basis for honing my directing when I do the feature film. So that way I can be more articulate when I talk to the actors about what my vision is and exactly what happened with the burglary.
Me: When I was watching it I did feel that it could be turned into a feature-length film, so are your plans to make it a film just based on a true story or will it be a film based on Phil Christopher’s story.
Tommy: A little bit of both. I don’t go into all of Phil Christopher’s history but I do discuss how the whole heist went down from hearing about it to picking out the bank, and gathering the team that basically committed the biggest bank burglary in American history. And Phil Christopher is the centerpiece of the movie, he is the main character.
Me: It was shown in the documentary that one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that set Phil on the path of a career criminal was being diagnosed with rheumatic fever and that ended his involvement in sports. Yet he still remained competitive in nature. Did you ever get the sense when talking to him that even if he was never diagnosed with that fever he still would’ve turned to a life of crime?
Tommy: That was a big thing that I wanted to establish. To me I wanted to find out what is the motivation, what makes a criminal tick, how does their brain work and operate? And for me, knowing that he wasn’t able to play sports at a young age anymore because his father felt that he could be severely hurt for life, he would then focus on other things. That’s where he gained the materialistic aspect of himself and he started gaining the eyes of vanity, if you will. I wanted it to be very apparent that there was a fork in the road where he had the choice to be a normal kid, and then once his parents took that away from him, and he wasn’t able to do the things that normal kids do anymore, that’s when he had nothing else to do but to focus on the things that he shouldn’t be focusing on and that’s crime and materialistic stuff. So that was very apparent to me and I wanted to get that across … that if his parents allowed him to play sports, his dad especially, that I do think personally that he would not have gone down this path that he chose.
Me: The film didn’t get into his relationships with his parents after this decision was made. What role did they play in his life, if any, once that decision was made and he turned down this path.
Tommy: I think that he had one of those moms, like we all kind of do, who doesn’t want to believe the things her son is doing. “No, no, no, he’s not that type of person, he’s not gonna do that.” And covers it up..from the father. And so I think that Phil was very good at knowing that and being able to manipulate the system, his own parenting system, that he was brought up with. (And) knowing he could do certain things knowing that his mom was gonna cover them up. And learning that (fact at a) very young age where Phil was the first one to start robbing milkmen and hid the money underneath the deck of his house. And instead of telling the father about it the mother kind of covered it up and took the blame herself. So immediately that set the precedent of the tolerance level that his mom would give him knowing that he could commit certain crimes and get away with it.
Me: (In regards to the actual burglary) It was said that (President) Nixon was keeping funds in the bank that they wanted to rob, and that was debunked in this film and it was explained clearly why that would’ve been a horrible idea if that was the case. How did that rumor gain so much traction? Was it the country’s focus on Nixon during that time, and why would it still carry weight decades later?
Tommy: That’s a great question. And that was a big controversy that I wanted to attack as a filmmaker. I heard all about how they were trying to go after Nixon’s money, and that’s what they were really going for. And when I asked Phil that was never the case. They knew which bank did have — on Nixon’s bank. It was in San Clemente, not Laguna Niegel. And they knew this. And they knew if they were to go after that bank it would be like starting a war. They knew that was the one that you don’t touch. So whatever is in this one that’s the one they’re gonna hit. They just didn’t know they would find 30 million dollars in bearer bonds and all this excessive jewelry and stuff like that that’s untraceable.
Me: It was stated that arrogance played a role in some of the mistakes that were made such as leaving the tools in the car, just careless stuff. But the actual planning for the heist was meticulous. So do you think arrogance affected some of their actions afterwards in the sense of getting credit for the job? I know when it comes to serial killers, for example, they want to leave certain information around so they can get a form of credit for what was done.
Tommy: No, I think it’s much different. I think they relied on a certain team member to get rid of tools that they did use and it just wasn’t done correctly. It wasn’t done with the way that Phil would’ve done things had he been the one to be responsible for those extra items and everything. So I think that played a big part in how they got caught. (Spoilers removed) Had they done one of those two things (instead of relying on a drug addict to perform other tasks) they never would’ve gotten caught.
Me: Everyone around Phil either didn’t trust or like Charlie. Even Buddy, one of Phil’s friends. And I understand Phil’s reasoning that he wanted to have someone who he felt had his back on these jobs, even though the irony is obvious now. What was it that made Phil trust Charlie so much despite everything to the contrary?
Tommy: I think that because at a young age they built this friendship and he was there to protect Phil when he had the rheumatic fever. Charlie was the one pushing him around in wheelchairs around town, he was older than Phil. And introduced him to the crime world and that whole dark side of what became his life. But I think that at a very young age they had this bond and loyalty and…Phil was that guy where even if guy ran away from part of this (crime) they were trying to, commit he would still cut that guy into the deal so he wouldn’t rat him out later or whatever it was. He was that type of loyal guy. So I think Phil always had a loyalty to Charlie from a very young age and it just happened that later on in life he was pinched by him.
Me: Even I admire some of Phil’s loyalty even though I’m aware that it was misplaced. After interviewing him and researching his story, what would you say was the most important thing that you learned from his experience from interacting with him that could be imparted to others.
Tommy: I think Phil lived by this code that doesn’t exist. Meaning that “loyalty amongst thieves” and there is no loyalty among thieves. And he lived by a fake code, a lifestyle that never really amounted to anything but at the very end getting burnt by what he believed was his life long brother, you’re gonna have my back until the day I die. Well that’s not the case. And it was very easily (the case) that Charlie ratted him out to save his own butt in the very end. So honor amongst thieves was Phil’s code and…there was none. And at the very end crime doesn’t pay. And I wanted to get across to every viewer that crime does not pay, it does for a short amount of time, but at the very end you’re gonna get caught.
Me: Definitely. The fact that his career as a criminal was shorter than the time he spent in jail showed that it wasn’t worth it. On another note there was a reporter that kept going after him. I guess she was trying to make a statement about the system in general. Why did she keep singling him out? Was she just singling him out? I wasn’t too clear on that.
Tommy: Yeah, her name was Mary Jane Woge, she was a Cleveland reporter. And she wanted to, she almost considered herself to be justice. And when Phil got away on some charges she thought, well I’m gonna put him away myself. And she did everything in her (power) to make sure that Phil goes back to jail. And she did. She had a vendetta against Phil, and Phil just wanted to go on and live his life after he paid his time for the crimes that he did. She wanted to report about it. She wanted to know more and more, and Phil just didn’t want to talk. She took some kind of personal offense to that, and opened up cases that really put Phil away for life. That was Phil’s demise in that this woman, for whatever reason she had on her own because Phil didn’t want to talk about it, she took things upon herself to really try to bring him down forever.
Me: So she basically wanted a story one way or another
Tommy: Exactly, and if she wasn’t gonna get it from Phil she was gonna create it.
Me: It’s interesting that you showed that there’s a connection between ADT, for example, and improving their alarm systems and actual burglars. So burglars get better because the alarm systems get better and vice-versa. But there was also some respect that came from law enforcement after the job was done. How did this job change the procedures that law enforcement used if any?
Tommy: L.A. was the bank robbery capital but it was never the bank burglary capital. So what Phil and his crew did was they did something that was unseen at that time period in that location. So they had to look all across the country for the types of people who would do this type of crime. So I think what it did was it opened up the communications factors in different police departments and FBI units across the country to help solve a crime that was committed in one location but was outsourced to criminals from outside the area. Phil was way ahead of his time breaking in and burglarizing jewelry and banks. And I think that really helped the communication from different outlets to put together information to solve crimes.
Me: Everyone says they change when they go to jail, and it seems like (being in and out of jail) turns into a career in and of itself once they get caught up in that lifestyle. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Phil and probably because he spent so many years in prison. But it was interesting that you had quotes from his wife at the end saying that time stops for people who go to prison. Why were those questions posed to her and not him. Did you want to show more of his humanity in terms of how it was viewed by others?
Tommy: That’s exactly right…when you go to jail time does stop. And to have someone outside of Phil who is part of his family, a loved one, they can explain what they went through from his crime much better than the criminal himself because he doesn’t know what happens once he goes to jail. Life doesn’t move on for him, it stops. Where as everyone else who is part of your family, or close to you, they go on with their lives but without you. They can have a different perspective of how life goes on. So it was great but she did that on her own. She wanted to get those points across on her own.
Me: There’s a lot of information out there about the burglary, and some of it is completely wrong. I saw one story saying that Phil never entered the bank, and obviously that’s incorrect as the documentary shows. What was it about this story that you wanted to tell and brought you to this story the most?
Tommy: Not many people could get the first hand knowledge of the guys who were behind it, the masterminds. There are other stories out there that come from the Barber’s side of it. But the Barbers never went into the bank. They were the lookout people. So they might have their version of the story but they’re not part of how it went down, or how they could succeed in taking down a bank job like this. It was Phil. And you very rarely have one of the four people who actually committed the crime to be alive and tell the story. Two of them are already dead, James Dinsio, and Charlie Broeckel are dead. Amil (Dinsio) is put away for life and will never talk about it. And Phil Christopher who paid his time. So Phil was able to give me an exclusive interview and tell me exactly what happened. That was to me the compounding story to debunk everyone’s version of this story because I could hear it from the horse’s mouth.
Me: And it was very well done too.
Tommy: Thank you, I appreciate that.