York Shackleton on Directing the Ultimate Shootout for Nicolas Cage to Rage Against in ‘211’

Nic Cage

We chat with the filmmaker about finding inspiration within a real-life North Hollywood gunfight and how he adapted that terrifying history for pop culture consumption.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Yeah, that old chestnut. The “Based on a True Story” cinematic narrative has been dragged in front of audiences time and time again. The tagline has lost a bit of its impact, and yet, real-life continues to amaze and prove impossible for filmmakers to deny. Sometimes, an event has to live in a director’s brain for decades before they dare give it a crack. When they do, reworking history becomes an essential component for transforming the tale into a palatable exploit for audiences.

York Shackleton was amazed when he turned on the television in 1997 to witness a group of armored, machine-gun blasting thugs blazing a path through the LAPD after robbing the North Hollywood Bank of America. The scene was straight out of a movie but packed the intensity of genuine danger. Who were these men? Where did they get their firepower? Why did they get strapped in the first place?

These are the questions that fuel 211, the latest Nicolas Cage action film to erupt on VOD. Shackleton made his bones in documentary film, and he was determined to find the absurd reality beating behind the North Hollywood Shootout. He sought to flesh out the criminals encased in body armor, but also the cops who battled firepower with more firepower.

I had a quick chat with York over the phone. We discuss the challenges of adapting a genuine gun battle for cinema, and how he tackled it as an analytical thought experiment more than an imitation of previous cinematic action sequences. Of course, we also discuss the might of Nic Cage and the fury that he brings to every role.

Here is our conversation in full:

My understanding is that 211 was inspired by the 1997 North Hollywood shoot-out. The battle of Los Angeles.

Yeah, roughly. When we were originally thinking about the next film we were gonna do, we were looking for an action movie that we could really do for a price and was very confined. So as I was looking around for real life stories and stuff like that, I knew about that and I came across it again. As I started researching it, I just realized what a unique situation that was, and how the real-life situation had a three act structure built into what these guys did. So, it was something that was able to translate onto the screen very well. We roughly used that as a root idea of a bank robbery that surrounds one location. With some police that are going in, and ultimately are taken advantage of in the very beginning, and then have to get control of the situation.

Obviously, you do quite a bit of adapting. It’s not a retelling of that incident. It’s a unique story.

Yeah, definitely. These days I think most stories have been told. So, in order to stay contemporary, you have to really evolve these stories, and you have to, I think, speculate on what the audience wants to see and continue to progress the art form itself.

How did you go about choosing the backstory for these criminals?

These were some of the things you take liberties with as a writer. When I first started researching the original story, it began to become clear who these guys really were. There’s actually a huge following. There’s a big cult that follows that whole story. If you go down to the LAPD museum down in Pasadena, they have an exhibit there that actually has the clothing, the weaponry, the vehicles that were all involved in this situation. The actual stuff is there in the museum.

Once I started researching and seeing who these guys were, and seeing their infatuation with the military and military equipment and stuff like that, that’s where we then started to say, well let’s add a little bit more to these guys for background, and maybe they were actually had some military training, and maybe there was even some underlying story of why they were really doing this.

So that’s where, as writers and filmmakers, we begin to obviously take liberties and create more of a unique original story than going off of the real life situation.

So you were obviously inspired by the reality of this event, but when you are conceiving the film, are you chasing a genre or a filmmaker?

What do you mean, stylistically?

Yeah, stylistically, or a general cinematic inspiration behind 211?

For me as a filmmaker, I look at every single movie individually. I’m not really looking at genre. I’m more looking at how can I make this story the best, tell this story the best way I possibly can and convey that to the audience the best way I can. It’s more of an analytical thought process that I go through, which is making decisions based on speculation of what I want the end goal to be. So, in a lot of ways, there’s even elements of what we call reverse engineering where we’ll sit down and say, okay this is the goal that we want to accomplish with this project. This is the response we want from the film. And then we try to, because of our experience, create the stepping-stones backwards to get us to that point. So, there’s an enormous amount of that that goes into the original conceptualizing of these films.

Then obviously when you’re doing them at a studio level like this, it’s more than just me involved. There’s a lot of people, it’s a big team effort. Everyone’s got input. Everyone’s got say. Everyone from the filmmakers all the way down to the marketing team, because they’re the ones that have to ultimately get it out. You’re working with a big team of people and everyone’s got input all the way down the line.

It’s not just Nic Cage’s show. There is an impressive ensemble of people filling out the various corners of the story.

Yeah. That was a choice that I had made originally when I was writing it. I said we want to have a really well rounded film that feels much bigger than really what it originally was and what we’re making it for. These are creative decisions that I’ll make as a writer, knowing that I’m gonna be the director as well, to try to maximize production value. To try to give the audience someone that they can relate to in the movie. If you’ve got a big theater full of people, not everyone’s gonna relate to just one person. If you can give everyone in the audience someone that they can relate to, and they can follow that story through their eyes, it tends to, I think, make the whole experience much more enjoyable for everybody watching.

Yeah. Sure, but then you do have Nicolas Cage. He is such a titan of emotion. Can you talk a little bit about his involvement in the film and what your conversation with him was in selling him the character?

Yeah. We talked about internal performance. Nicolas Cage, you can’t obviously compare him to the rest of the people that are in the film. He’s definitely by far the most experienced actor. He brought an enormous amount of professionalism to the set. I was very, very pleased to work with him. He was very open to finding things to work with that were not outside the box, that were actually very inside the box. We started using internal struggles and dilemmas that he had either been through or I had been through or someone around us had been through, and we could discuss and we could derive those down to really the root emotion of it all. Then that’s where we would come at each scene from. That’s why in the film you’ll see that he’s giving a very real, very heartfelt performance, and that’s where we were able to get to between the two of us behind the scenes, to get to that place.

Now the ride-along character…when I was watching the movie, I was trying to figure out, why am I following this kid who’s being bullied in the bathroom? How you position this poor kid into this hostile environment is rather intriguing. Where did he come from?

That was more of what we were talking about before, about trying to find someone that everyone can relate to. And obviously we’re living in a time where the younger generation is really driving a lot of markets and a lot of marketplaces. So, I wanted to have someone in the film that the younger generation could relate to, and could see the film through their eyes. Also, I felt like I try to find as many socially relevant scenarios to try to build into the films as possible.

I’m not one to put my opinion in the film, whether I think it’s cool or not cool. Bullying is something that’s very relevant. Police brutality against different nationalities and all these different things, you’re seeing an enormous amount of it online. I tried to stay very current with the film to make it very contemporary. And I felt those are situations that are happening, and I found a very organic way to implant them into the film that actually works within that whole confines of what the story is. That’s what I try to create as a filmmaker.

To that point, the way the public sees the police right now, did you have any concerns about portraying cops in a certain way?

Yeah. I think as a filmmaker, I think that we have to show situations for what they are, and not put opinions in. So, I’m always very cautious about that. I started out my career doing documentary films, and I had done some pretty explosive subjects like prostitution in Tijuana, and so I learned very, very quickly that if I start to put my opinion in here of what I personally think, you’re just going to immediately alienate an enormous amount of audience that would really enjoy learning about this subject, and have their own opinion of this. So, over the years I’ve always been very aware of that.

I stick to the story and I stick to the root of the character and where he’s going in that story. So, I can just show it for what it is and just show them interacting. And I don’t have to be graphic and have them be very aggressive to sell them to the audience. Maybe they do have some racism going on, but I don’t have to be very graphic and really hit the nail on the head. I’d rather show the human side of everything because there’s a lot of duality to everybody, you know.

There are certain lines of dialogue from the police officers that do jump out, but you don’t necessarily focus on it.

Yeah. I had a lot of LAPD consultants and other consultants on the film, and I worked with them on all of that because I wanted to know, well what’s your locker room talk. How are you guys interacting with each other? And that was the overall consensus of, a lot of that dialogue really just came from them. I was like, “Look, let’s riff. Let’s hear you guys just play with each other.” And I was deriving a lot of that dialogue just strictly from those sessions. A lot of that came directly from LAPD police officers and how they interact with each other. Which is very much like a lot of people in any other situations similar to that, where you’re a group of people working together. It’s almost like a team. I’m sure you hear a lot of that in sports teams and newsrooms and all different types of places.

Now, when the action does eventually pop off, it consumes the movie. How did you go about staging those specific sequences? Inspiration-wise, but also just the practicality of it.

I had to look at them like it was a character itself because you really had to arc the action through the film, because once you start it, it doesn’t stop. It goes for a pretty long period of time. My fear would have been to start becoming redundant with things and losing the audience because they’re just becoming very repetitious. Before we even began shooting, as I was writing the screenplay, I was already aware of the firefight being its own, in a sense, character so that you could give it its own arc. So it breathes when you need it. It climaxes when you need it. It’s got that heartbeat where you’re taking the audience up and down and back up more and back down more. So, I was able to plan as much of that as I possibly could into the sequencing of all of that.

And visually, what were you looking to achieve?

Before we shot the film, we had a few months of pre-production. I was out there working with our cinematographer, Alex [Krumov]. We were watching films and we very quickly realized we wanted to go for a very realistic true-life look. We wanted it to have a very documentary style, so everything that we were gonna do was not gonna be pushed or contrived in any sense. We shot the film very technical in a sense of multiple cameras capturing a lot of the stuff simultaneously so that, for performance I think that works very well, where if you can get both sides of the scenes, and you can get even medium advanced singles all at the same time, then that’s gonna give you some really great opportunities for cutting one take. So if an actor gives you a really great performance in one, or they just give you one that’s very unique and you don’t have the other side of it, shooting this way allows you to play and experiment on set while you’re doing it. So, you begin to start capturing a lot of extra stuff that you wouldn’t normally get by shooting just one camera and one setup at a time.

So, do you see yourself as a documentarian first? Even when tackling a fictional narrative?

I love telling stories, and I’ve always said to myself that I never wanted to get hung up in the genre as people say and just make one style of film. I really just love telling all stories, and I think that any story that comes to me that I feel like I can tell, I want to tell it. I really enjoy dramatic film. I’ve done a lot of dramatic films, but I think that we have to be very conscious of what the marketplace is asking for. The consumer is who we’re making these for. We don’t make them for ourselves. I have to really stay current with what I think the audience wants to see, what types of movies. So, I bring a lot of that, as well, as a filmmaker as far as conceptualizing stuff that I believe is gonna be hitting today’s world.

Red Dots

211 is now available on Digital HD and On Demand.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.