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Interview: Producer Joseph Nasser talks ‘Amber Alert: Terror on the Highway’

Joseph Nasser and the poster for 'Amber Alert'
Joseph Nasser and the poster for 'Amber Alert'Courtesy of Joseph Nasser/Nasser Entertainment, used with permission

Producer Joseph Nasser recently spoke to the Chico Movie Examiner about his work on “Amber Alert: Terror on the Highway,” which releases to DVD for the first time on July 29. Along with being a film producer, Nasser is also a level three reserve police officer.

Amber Alert” tells the story of an ex-con named Eddie Larsan (Tom Berenger), who still has no problem with committing crimes after he is released from prison. After a failed attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife, Larsan goes for a drive in the Cadillac he stole from two elderly women in Seattle. That night, at a lookout in Oregon, he decides to kidnap two young girls (Britt McKillip and Genevieve Buechner). This triggers the Amber Alert system, and Police Chief Martha Geiger (Torri Higginson) begins tracking him down.

Nasser talks about his time as a reserve officer; how long it actually takes before an Amber Alert is triggered; and what new ways law enforcement is looking to implement the alert in current technology. Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: I got word that you were a reserve police officer, and I had to look that up, because I didn’t know what that was at first. And I saw they pretty much do the same thing, but they’re more like volunteer workers. Are there a lot of differences between being a reserve officer and being a regularly scheduled police officer in terms of what you can do?

Joseph Nasser: Yeah. Reserve police officers have three different levels – reserve level one, two, and three. Level one reserve officers equal to any kind of full time regular officer. Level two and level three have limited law enforcement duties in that they have to be with a level one in order to patrol and whatnot.

DW: OK. Which level are you?

JN: I’m level three. All levels have to go through the police academy; all levels have to have a background check. It doesn’t matter whether you’re full time or part time; it’s the same academy.

DW: Yeah, so you get the same training. Do you guys also handle a gun, too?

JN: Yeah, you shoot and handle weapons as well as [getting] pepper-sprayed, maced, and all that stuff. You get tasered in the academy. A lot goes on when you go through the police academy, because you have to get certified by the state.

DW: Since you are reserve, are you more on call, or are you actually given a schedule?

JN: Pretty much both. I get a minimum of 19 hours a month. And if I’m needed for anything between those 19 hours, I could be called in, and I’ll be ready and willing and able.

DW: In how many Amber Alerts have you personally been involved?

JN: Well, as a movie producer, I’ve been involved, and as a law enforcement officer, I’ve been involved. The law enforcement officer ended more along the lines of training, whereas a lot of the movies and the DVDS I have [done] have been used to train law enforcement agencies that have Amber Alert divisions and squads and units. And, of course, as a movie producer, this is my second Amber Alert movie.

DW: In the film, when the Amber Alert gets issued, they mention that it’ll go off in Oregon, Washington, California, and Idaho. So, does every Amber Alert start off in four states or does it depend on the severity of it?

JN: Every state in the union has an Amber Alert. It’s national now, so every state has an Amber Alert. If the Amber Alert starts in one state and goes to the next, then it will get issued in that next state. If it’s in the four corners, it’ll get issued in all four states. Sometimes they do have an Amber Alert with four different states in them at the same moment; it’s interesting.

DW: You had mentioned that you had done “Amber’s Story,” that first Amber Alert film. What were the differences between showing the Amber Alert process in that film and showing it here? Was there anything you showed differently?

JN: Well, yeah. I mean, the fundamental difference is that the first Amber Alert movie was the genesis of the Amber Alert. It was about a little girl named Amber, who the bill was named after, who was abducted and subsequently found murdered. It showed that the media had no way of knowing that this kid was abducted and who abducted her. They had a description of the truck and whatnot, but they simply didn’t know how to get it out to the media, to the news, or telephones – which we have today. So, the mother decided that she was going to lobby to have local TV stations issue out alerts, and they called it the Amber Alert. That’s the difference. In this movie, we don’t show how the Amber Alert started or the genesis of it; we just show the Amber Alert kicking in and saving children from kidnappers.

DW: Is there a possibility that you’ll make a third film to make it a trilogy?

JN: Yeah, we are already developing a third, but we’re in talks with various distributors about getting it out to the market as well.

DW: One of the things the movie does show is how the process of the Amber Alert goes. It starts off by them gathering the evidence and ends by them issuing the alert. In real life, how long does that actually take?

JN: How long does it take for the Amber Alert to kick in?

DW: Yeah, how long does it take from the time that evidence is gathered to the time that the chief gives the OK?

JN: Well, it’s probably within 20 minutes. Law enforcement has to basically confirm there was an abduction, and that there’s a risk of some sort of bodily injury or death. And we have to have sufficient, descriptive information, and the child has to be 17 years of age or younger. And then there’s an immediate entry into the Amber Alert data and into the National Crime Information Center describing the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the child. Basically, within minutes, it’s out into the public on freeway signs, in telephones, and on local television stations.

DW: The characters who get abducted in the movie, one is 17 and one is 18. In real life, if they’re both abducted, do they both get mentioned in the Amber Alert or just the one that is 17?

JN: No. Basically, what’s mentioned is the vehicle and the suspect’s description. It doesn’t say boy or girl or this age or that age. It just says the car and the sufficient description to track the suspect down.

DW: One of the things that was introduced last year was the alert being issued via SMS text. And a lot of people were confused by the whole thing, and they turned that notification off. I want to get your take on why it’s important to have the Amber Alert notification on a smart phone.

JN: If you don’t happen to be driving, if you are waiting for a bus, and you happen to see this car drive by, you have the information on your phone versus a freeway sign or a television broadcast. And people will be aware, and they can make a phone call.

DW: Technology is changing every year. Is there anything now on which the Amber Alert could be implemented that it isn’t already?

JN: Right now, they’re talking to various busses, seeing who has screens on their busses. And there are also gas stations that have 24-hour screens of basically commercials. Those are two different types of technology in which they’re talking about issuing Amber Alerts as well, whereas the owners of the gas station or the bus driver would stop and program the Amber Alert into the business or into the bus monitors. Those are some of the newer technologies we’re working on right now.

DW: With some movies based on true events or inspired by true events – in this case, inspired by the use of the Amber Alert – there are things that have to be changed in order to make sure the film’s story and plot flow smoothly. Aside from showing quick takes of how the Amber Alert process goes, was there anything else that you had to alter in order to keep the plot flowing smoothly?

JN: One of the most dramatic and spectacular things, unfortunately, to see is a kidnapping. And very, very little needs to be fabricated to what the story is; it’s too much adrenaline if anything. If anything, we need to pull back.

DW: What made you guys want to do these two films as feature films and not as documentaries?

JN: We didn’t want to point a finger at any victims and have them in a spotlight. So, rather than find a true Amber Alert story, we decided to basically inspire it on multiple Amber Alerts that took place and keep the facts of what it takes to call an Amber Alert and what it takes to basically have a successful outcome of an Amber Alert. Those are the facts that we stuck to, but we didn’t see any reason to put the spotlight on victims of such a tragedy.

DW: And you actually give a background to Tom Berenger’s character, too. Was he based on one particular person, or was he based on general suspects?

JN: We based him on a character in California that kidnapped two girls and drove them up to the mountains. That was actually the first time an Amber Alert took place in Southern California, so that’s what the villain was based on – not the victims.

DW: That was my last question. Is there anything you’d like to add about “Amber Alert” that I might not have mentioned?

JN: If any law enforcement agency is interested in the movie, we will send it to them free of charge as long as they use it for training purposes.