In 1972, a Cleveland, Ohio man by the name of Phil Christopher broke into 501 safety deposit boxes at the United California Bank in Laguna Nigel, Calif. He robbed nearly $30 million worth of material in what became the biggest bank heist in United States history. More than 40 years later, he gives his firsthand account in the new documentary, “Superthief: Inside America’s Biggest Bank Score,” which is now available to watch on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.
On Jan. 6, the Chico Movie Examiner conducted an over-the-phone interview with the documentary’s director, Tommy Reid, who is also the brother of actress Tara Reid. He discussed how he went about making the film; getting Phil to tell his story in front of a camera; and the history of crime in Cleveland.
Reid would also like people to know that he served as producer for another documentary that just became available Tuesday, Jan. 7, on VOD. It’s called “I Know That Voice,” and it documents the biggest names in the voice-over industry.
Check out the full interview about “Superthief” below.
David Wangberg: I saw in another interview that you heard about Phil Christopher while you were on the set of “Kill the Irishman.” I was wondering if you could take me to that day when you found out. Was it brought up in a random conversation, or was it brought up because of that tiny relationship that Phil and Danny Greene had?
Tommy Reid: Basically, I learned about that when I was on the “Kill the Irishman” set, and [Rick Porrello] was talking about a new book that he was writing, and I thought it was interesting. I said, “OK. When you have it all done and ready, let me know, and I’ll take a look at it.” And I let it digest for a little bit, because the book is very factual, and I knew that there has to be a lot more work that goes into making a documentary about it. That is kind of the first time that I heard from the author about this subject, but I knew that it was out there previously through some other people.
DW: I also saw that you directed a documentary about Danny Greene, before being a producer on “Kill the Irishman.” Would you consider “Superthief” to be the second part in this trilogy of infamous people from Ohio?
TR: Yeah, I mean, I’m fascinated with national crime history, and Cleveland just has a lot of it. [laughs]
This would definitely be a segue into another piece of Cleveland’s crime history. It doesn’t really go into the mafia, but it does kind of detail a lot of aspects of those that are involved in the mafia.
DW: Do you already have a third one in mind?
TR: I do not. [laughs]
DW: With “Superthief,” you were able to get Phil to go in front of the camera. If he wasn’t around, or he didn’t want to go in front of the camera, would you have still gone through with this documentary?
TR: Probably not. I think that’s what separated making this documentary. Although there are stories that go over this bank heist, as well as ways to tell it in third person, a lot of people that are telling the story about it were not involved in the crime – they were not a part of it. That, to me, didn’t really give it the authenticity that I really needed to go out there and make this documentary. When Phil told me he’d give me the exclusive interview and go over how they found out about it [and] how it all went down, that’s what really motivated me to make sure that I could deliver the right content to the audience member.
DW: With a lot of the technology out right now, in terms of security devices and other kind of things, do you think a heist like this could be pulled off today?
TR: Well, anything is possible. You would think not, but then again, there are ways. You know, if the electricity goes out, then what happens? So, I would think that there could be ways to make this happen – these types of crimes. Given today’s technology would just make it that much more difficult, but people are still going to try. That’s the reality of it. It’s like telling a hacker they can’t go do something; they’re still going to try to find a way to make something happen. I think that, in a burglar’s mind, there are new ways to try to make these jobs happen, but I think it’s very difficult today, and I would not recommend it. [laughs]
DW: One of the controversies right now is coming from people who think Martin Scorsese is glorifying Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” When it came to making “Superthief,” did you ever get that feeling that you might be glorifying him instead of properly showing the two sides of the story?
TR: No. What I wanted to do... and look, everyone knows what he did was bad, and he got convicted for that. To me, I wanted to not glorify it, but I wanted to have an audience member empathize with what he did do to kind of get an understanding of what he did do. Of course, if you’re the main subject, there are two ways to go with that. My whole motive was to kind of have the theme of, “There is no honor amongst thieves,” as well as “Crime does not pay,” and I think I make that very apparent in the documentary. But to explore this heist, you really have to get to know Phil Christopher, and there are a lot of endearing qualities that this man has that made him very popular and [allowed him] to get out of jail much faster than he was supposed to. And he had a lot of friends, and he was very charming. So, I think that there are a lot of qualities that need to be exposed. It might make you like the guy, but then you hear some of the bad things and then you know that he’s not a good person at times. So, you see both sides of the story really well.
DW: I’m sure you get a lot of questions about your sister, Tara, and having already directing her in the film, “Strike.” Has there ever been a time where she tries to one-up you in terms of who she’s acting with, or you try to one-up her in terms of what you’re directing?
TR: Never. We have a really good working relationship, as well as a good personal relationship. She’s actually been my biggest fan and trying to help me get into other people’s doors and opportunities and vice versa. She’s actually been very supportive of everything that I’ve done, and she’s never tried to one-up me, ever.
DW: That’s good to hear. Now, if you could have directed one of her previous films, like “The Big Lebowski”; “American Pie”; or one of her other ones, which one would you like to have directed?
TR: I would have liked to have directed “Van Wilder.”
TR: Yeah, I think it’s a fun movie. And it’s kind of like another version of “Animal House,” which has always been one of my favorite movies. To me, being able to work with Tara and Ryan Reynolds would have been a great, great time.
DW: Are you trying to get “Superthief” to be made into a feature film as well?
TR: We are. We already have a script written, and we’re currently in talks with some pretty big actors to play the lead role.
This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Tommy Reid for taking the time to speak about “Superthief.”