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Tribeca ’08: Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland and Spencer Vrooman on “This is Not a Robbery”

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05022008_thisisnotarobbery1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

When Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland and Spencer Vrooman had to come up with a title for their first documentary, “This is Not a Robbery,” they looked to the René Magritte surrealist painting “This is Not a Pipe” for inspiration. While there was very little that was artistic about the robberies attempted by the film’s subject, J.L. “Red” Rountree — who merely went into a bank and handed a teller an envelope with the word “robbery” scribbled on it — there was something positively surreal about the fact that Rountree was 86 years old when he decided to first rob a bank. Rountree died in 2004 after starting out with great success in the oil business and ending in prison, though not before a series of incredible twists and turns of fate led the octogenarian to turn to a life of crime. Jansen, Kurland and Vrooman recently sat down to reflect on Rountree’s legacy, how they got cozy with law enforcement and how they’re getting away with things of their own at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

How did “This is Not a Robbery” come about?

Adam Kurland: Basically, we came across the story in the L.A. Times obituary section and I was just fascinated by this guy’s life. There were so many questions left unanswered by this story that I just wanted to know what happened. Lucas, Spencer and I have all known each other since we were really young. Lucas [and I] were both living in New York and we decided we were going to do a doc on this guy and plan the whole trip, got everything together and met up with Spencer in Los Angeles.

Because you’ve known each other for so long, did you guys find out anything new about each other while working so closely together on a film?

Lucas Jansen: If you basically live off somebody else’s nose for three and a half years of your life, even if you’ve known them since you were a little kid, you find out more about people. I think anything you want to know about Adam or Spencer or me, you could ask any of the three of us and you’re pretty much covered.

AK: But the truth is that the three and a half years making it were also huge periods of time where we changed drastically. It was a long process, a difficult process and an amazing process, but I would say the people who started making this movie are not who we are now necessarily.

Spencer Vrooman: It’s like going from “Saved by the Bell” to “Saved by the Bell: The College Years.”

I’m assuming that you’d never been to Central Texas before, where there are such great natural characters, as you discover in the film — what was that experience like?

SV: We’re very much big city boys, as painful as it is to admit it, but when we went down, people took us in, were completely generous all along our travels, even people we weren’t used to being friendly to us, like police officers and the wardens of jails. Everyone was so accommodating…there’s a broad interest in this story that I think led people to want to help us because they wanted to learn more about [it].

05022008_thisisnotarobbery2.jpgWhile the story of an elderly bank robber is quite funny on the surface, was there anyone who you talked to who didn’t have a sense of humor about Red or the crimes he committed? You mentioned that Red’s family didn’t want to talk much following one of the screenings.

SV: We really hit very few obstacles. The thing about [Red’s] family, they just didn’t know Red, so they weren’t appropriate for the film for that reason. Any estrangement had taken place earlier in Red’s life and was unrelated to the robberies. As far as anyone else, probably the worst reaction to Red Rountree was the bank teller who developed the phobia of elderly people. And even with her, we shared a lot of the information we’d found out about Red’s past history and I think she may have taken steps towards reconciling [her fears and memories of being robbed] after discussing it with us. Part of the fun thing is Red lived two lives — one as a law-abiding citizen and one as an elderly criminal — [and] we have been able to show people who only knew one side of Red the other side, and I think they come to understand it better. That’s been a huge part of the process for us.

One of the most clever conceits of the film is the timeline, which shows how Red went from a man who made a fortune in the oil business to someone who decided to rob banks, but not necessarily in that order. How did you come up with the chronology?

AK: It was in post-production when we realized that we were going to go back and forth. We all love Akira Kurosawa and “Rashomon,” which used that back and forth. It was obviously an unconventional style of filmmaking where you were going back to a point that happened before. Coming into the post-production, we knew we had to find some similar way to that to tell the story.

SV: Once we had the time wall [a series of interludes throughout the film that mark the time in Red’s life by using framed pictures of Red], we were good.

AK: We went through a couple different transitions that went from the past to the future, from the future to the past, and we eventually came up with the idea of this wall in a room that could’ve been the audience’s room or Red’s room or any room, really — time flies on it as if someone is trying to put these back in order.

The film also has bits of the audio interview Jim Lewis conducted for an article in GQ. While that must’ve been a bit of a holy grail to have his actual voice for the film, how much did you want to rely on it versus finding your own story?

LJ: Process-wise, we found all of the other elements of the story came to us before those tapes, actually. We finished our shooting process before Jim Lewis offered the tapes to us — they were an after-the-fact revelation. We’d already got the chance to fall in love with all of our secondary characters and had to fight to find ways to tell the story with the secondary characters before we even got the tapes with Red. We went through a slow uncovering process of getting into those tapes and falling in love with our lead character in a whole new way that we could then retell.

So now that the film has premiered, what has the festival experience been like for you guys?

LJ: it’s been a thrill and we’ve only had limited screenings for other people. We’ve kept a tight lid on it and to be able to open it and show it to so many people and get the response that we’ve gotten has been incredible.

SV: I think when we jumped into the project back in 2005, our attitude was kind of like, hey, Red Rountree at 86 with no previous criminal experience started robbing banks, well, then fuck it, at 23, with no previous cinematic experience, we can probably make a documentary film about it. And now we’ve got that feeling like we’re on the way out of the bank with our envelope… which probably means at any second, we’re going to get caught and locked up for the rest of our lives, so we’re just enjoying this short high now while we have it.

[Photos: “This is Not a Robbery,” Andrew Lauren Productions, 2008]

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