City Of Lies – Adapting non-fiction narrative into big screen drama

What started out as Portland-based writer Randall Sullivan’s 16,000 word article in Rolling Stone in 2001 (with a follow up article 4 years later and reprint in 2011), and his acclaimed 2002 non-fiction bestseller LAbyrinth, evolved into the film City of Lies directed by Brad Furman (The Infiltrator, The Lincoln Lawyer) from the 2015 Hollywood Black List screenplay by Christian Contreras. 

Randall Sullivan

Two hip-hop superstars were shot dead within six months of each other — Tupac on the evening of September 13, 1996, in Las Vegas); and B.I.G.’s ambush in Los Angeles almost six months later to the day.  Many surmise that the latter’s death was the result of an East Coast-West Coast hip-hop feud further fueled by Shakur’s shooting death in Sin City.  Rumors also professed that B.I.G. may have been involved in his music rival’s murder, as well as the 1994 shooting.  While B.I.G. was never officially implicated in Tupac’s killing, their respective deaths are forever intertwined.

 Tupac and B.I.G.

Nine days after the March 9, 1997 high-profile murder of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. near the Petersen Automotive Museum in the LA’s Museum Row district on Wilshire Boulevard, an off-duty African-American police officer was shot and killed in the San Fernando Valley by an undercover LAPD narcotics cop, the outcome of an apparent episode of road rage. 

As LAPD homicide detective Russell Poole began to connect the unlikely dots between these two incidents, he became convinced that LAPD officers moonlighting at Death Row Records (including the March 18 shooting victim, Kevin Gaines) had been involved in a conspiracy to kill B.I.G., but his superiors were unsupportive of his theory.

What began as two unrelated crimes in the City of Angels turned into a diabolical maze, a labyrinthine conspiracy of corruption and deceit within the LAPD, already strained by the racism revealed by the 1991 Rodney King beating and the resulting, uncontrollable race riots a year later; and the investigative blunders of the 1994 O.J. Simpson murder case.  Also complicating the investigation was the fact that the black officer, Gaines, was shot and killed by a white cop, Frank Lyga, which just added to the controversy.

Poole, who shockingly experienced stubborn resistance from his LAPD superiors during his investigation, began uncovering a growing cadre of black officers who were allied not only with Death Row, but with L.A.’s murderous Bloods street gang.  Poole, who prematurely resigned from the force in 1999, also unveiled incredible evidence that at least some of these “gangsta cops” may have been involved in the murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur six months earlier, something the LAPD did not want investigated or exposed. 

Despite numerous investigations by the LAPD, along with lawsuits, books, movies and a flood of allegations, the 20-year-old slaying of B.I.G. (whose real name was Christopher Wallace, a.k.a Biggie Smalls), along with that of Shakur, remain officially unsolved to this day.  In addition, nobody was ever charged or prosecuted in either murder.

In the film City Of Lies Johnny Depp portrays real life LAPD detective Russell Poole, with Forest Whitaker as journalist Jack Jackson, a reporter (and fictional character) desperate to save his reputation and career, who tracks down Poole in 2015 and enters into an uneasy partnership with the cop to finally put the case to rest. 

As Poole relives the unbelievable story of power, corruption and crime in flashback, Jackson, who produced a controversial (and inaccurate) news story about the murders during that era (for which he was somewhat ostracized), wants to amend his reporting about the two-decade old scandal and unsolved crimes.  Relentless in their hunt for the truth, the two men threaten to crack the foundation of the LAPD while fighting for their own redemption.

City of Lies is a controversial story telling is the compelling account of two broken men and their mutual hunt for the truth. Set against the backdrop of LA’s infamous rap culture and scandal and deception, it is a powerful tale that systematically unravels the reputation of the city’s law enforcement, politics and justice system, while introducing us to a new kind of hero.

The Journey From From Page To Screen

In 2000, while researching a potential story on the Los Angeles Police Department’s infamous Rampart Division scandal as a staff writer for Rolling Stone magazine, author Randall Sullivan fatefully met Russell Poole, a former (resigned) LAPD detective convinced that the department had assisted in covering up Suge Knight’s involvement in both the Tupac and B.I.G. slayings.  That introductory meeting would become the catalyst and inspiration for Sullivan’s book.

The Portland-based writer, in L.A. to begin his research, first sought out the district attorney who prosecuted former LAPD officer Rafael Perez, “a dirty cop who was the instigator and really the source of the Rampart scandal,” Sullivan relates about the late 1990s police corruption uncovered in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gang unit of the LAPD‘s Rampart Division.  More than 70 police officers either assigned to, or associated with, the Rampart CRASH unit were implicated in some form of misconduct, making it one of the most widespread cases of documented police corruption in U.S. history. 

“At some point during the conversation, we started talking about the Rampart Task Force, which was set up to investigate the growing scandal,” Sullivan remembers about his exchanges with deputy D.A. Richard Rosenthal.  “The D.A. told me it didn’t start as the Rampart Task Force.  It started out as a unit set up by a former detective named Russell Poole to explore some theories about the murder of Biggie Smalls.  I knew I had to talk to Detective Poole, but, he was tied up by a lawsuit he had filed against the City of Los Angeles claiming that the LAPD’s obstruction of his investigation into the B.I.G. murder had compelled him to resign from the police department in protest.”

Sullivan tracked down Poole in Orange County, where the highly decorated cop spent his entire life, growing up the son of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officer.  Sullivan quickly found a guy, now resigned from the force for over a year, who needed to confess to an objective audience, “to somebody who would truly hear him,” per Sullivan, regarding his frustrations about the stalled case.

“Russell took me to a storage unit filled with documents he took from the LAPD when he left, which represented the entire history of the investigation of the murders of both Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur,” Sullivan continues about that introductory meeting eighteen years ago, recalling the details like it was yesterday.  “He let me quickly sort through them and I saw that they were nearly all LAPD reports relating to the B.I.G. murder and to some other investigations Russ had been involved in while he was assigned to the department’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division.  I convinced him to let me make copies of the stuff I thought was most significant, then took those hundreds and hundreds of pages back to my hotel, where I spent the next two days reading through them.” 

“By the time I finished, I was absolutely stunned by the evidence indicating that the LAPD had covered up the involvement of police officers in B.I.G.’s murder and in other crimes,” the author continues.  “I called Rolling Stone, got on the phone with my editor, Bob Love, and publisher Jann Wenner, and told them I didn’t want to write an article about the Rampart Scandal as such, but that I did want to write a piece about The Notorious B.I.G. murder and how that may have been tied into Tupac.” 

What started out as a 16,000 word article in Rolling Stone in June, 2001 (“LAbyrinth — The Story of Death Row Records, Suge Knight, Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and the LAPD”) became Sullivan’s 2002 book, a comprehensive chronicle of the culture of hip-hop music, a controversial empire ruled by a king named Knight, and another notorious chapter in the history of the LAPD.  Four years later, Sullivan wrote a follow-up story for the magazine (“The Unsolved Mystery of The Notorious B.I.G.”), which Rolling Stone reprinted in 2011.

“I realized at the time there was way too much story to tell within the limits of a magazine article and feel satisfied with the result,” Sullivan offers about expanding his initial investigative piece, which took seven months to research and report, into a book.  “Even though it was a 16,000-word article, I knew I had more to say.  I called my publisher at Grove-Atlantic and told him I had a book here.  I wanted to more fully depict Russell Poole and the circumstances that surrounded his investigation.  I wanted people to feel his frustration and share his angst.  Given that I’ve spent years on most of my other books, I still can’t believe I got it done so quickly.  I think the contained fury I felt kept me as tightly focused as I’ve ever been.”

Sullivan’s Labyrinth — A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal took the author just three months to write after finishing his 2001 Rolling Stone article.  Upon its well-reviewed publication in 2002, the book immediately attracted the attention of the film world, including option interest from a British production company just months after hitting bookstore shelves.  Over the next decade, several Hollywood studios expressed interest in adapting the book into a movie, none of which ever came to fruition.    

In 2012, English film producer Miriam Segal (The Infiltrator, Good) purchased the film rights to Sullivan’s book, saying “our vision at Good Films has always been to make intelligent, original films with integrity, and this is no exception.  I was looking for a piece that would explore how society policed itself and how different classes and races of people were dealt with by the judicial system.  And, this story seemed to epitomize all that, which is why I wanted to turn the book into a movie.  Being a European not living in L.A. at the time, I didn’t really know much about Rampart or the murders of Tupac or Biggie.   So, I found this story incredible and Randall’s book a real page-turner.  For me, the most interesting thing is why, to this day, no one’s ever been prosecuted.”

“I think the theories of who actually pulled the trigger are less important,” Segal states about the two star rappers’ murders.  “It’s the person who ordered the assassination of both that intrigues.  When you talk about an assassination, the murderer himself is an agent paid to do it by somebody else.  And, when you find out that somebody else was crooked law enforcement running an entire city, that’s worrisome and alarming.  The film is about accountability and injustice.  This is not a whodunit, because we don’t know who did it.  There’s a lot of finger pointing, but this is not what the film is.  It’s a story which doesn’t have an end.  You don’t know who did it, and we can’t say who we believe did it because we have no proof.  It’s about Poole’s desire to make sure we discover who did it.”

In addition to the fascinating true-life crime drama set against the flamboyant backdrop of the West Coast hip-hop culture of the 1990s, Segal also found the story’s protagonist, Russell Poole, intriguing, saying, “when I started to delve into it, I met with Russell Poole.  If you were to create a cliche of normal, he was that person.  I kind of fell in love with him from the minute I met him because he cared.  I’m not exaggerating when I say he was the most down-to-earth, real human being I think I’ve ever met.  A simple gentleman with no attitude, no affectation, no sense that anything he did was anything other than what was right.” 

“And, I think people who pursue good for its own sake and not for altruistic or selfish reasons are to be admired,” she states.  “I think movies are all about heroes that nobody can touch…that nobody can become.  Here was a man who was your average Joe, who lived next door, who joined the police because he believed in law and order, and who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.  No agenda, didn’t want to win a Pulitzer Prize, didn’t want to make more money, didn’t even want to get promoted.  He just wanted the truth.  I thought that was the story, his story, that needed to be told.  Once I met Russell, to me the story became about him…because his whole life had become about this case.”

“I do think Russell was a hero,” Sullivan concurs.  “He didn’t set out to be one; he was first and foremost a man doing his job.  It was his refusal to back away from or turn a blind eye to anything but his very best work that made him ultimately heroic.  For Russ, being a homicide detective was a calling and crusade.  Doing anything less than his best simply wasn’t possible for him.  He couldn’t accept that the politics of the police department could be more important than solving a murder — any murder.  There’s a fine line between stubbornness and integrity and Russell Poole walked it — even when it led to his personal destruction.”

“We find Russell Poole when he’s essentially lost all hope that what he believes matters,” Segal elaborates about Poole’s arc in the story, which jumps back-and-forth between 1997 and 2015.  “He’s been pushed out of the police force, he’s holed up in a vagrant’s apartment living on welfare and obsessing about the case that he could never prove.  He’s then discovered by a journalist who, in a sense, is on the same mission — the Forest Whitaker character, which allows us to then go back in time to hear from the Poole character about what happened during the investigation.  Where he was frustrated and where the door was slammed in his face and how eventually he got pushed out of the police force.  The film tells both sides of the story.”

“Jackson is a character who has been on a similar journey,” Segal continues about the plot.  “As a young journalist, he did a story about who murdered Christopher Wallace, Biggie Smalls.  And, over twenty years, that story and his theories have been disproved.  So, essentially, he’s been ostracized.  Now, he is a man on a mission to prove a point.  So, he goes in search of Russell Poole, hoping he can shake down the information from him as to who actually pulled the trigger so he can release that as a major exposé.  And he finds Poole in this very distressed state.  But, as Russell Poole tells his story, his confidence rebuilds.  And, a friendship, this bromance in a sense, evolves between the two men.  Their meeting inspires Poole to go back into the field to try and get his case reopened, which could also help redeem Jackson’s career.”

“Randall’s book is fantastic,” Segal says about Sullivan’s source material, adding, “and it’s one of the few times I’ve taken a piece of underlying material and remained faithful to it.  Normally, when you adapt something, you use the quintessence of it when making it into a movie.  This book is so well-written with such a dramatic narrative.  And, there was so much more in the book we couldn’t put in the movie.  But, it had to be authentic to Randall’s reporting, not sensational for cheap effect.”

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Christian Contreras landed a spot on the 2015 Hollywood Black List, the annual compilation of the best unproduced screenplays.  In addition to that prestigious accolade, the film also marks Contreras’ first produced screenplay for the big screen. He most recently landed a screenwriting deal with filmmaker David Goyer and Warners Bros. for an historical thriller centered around Isaac Newton called “Principia.”  He has also written a trio of projects in development, one of which is scheduled to be produced by Miriam Segal — “What I Loved,” based on 2003 the bestselling novel by Siri Hustvedt.

In adapting Sullivan’s non-fiction narrative into a big screen drama, Segal says that “Christian (Contreras), who wrote the script, did a lot of research…immersed himself in documentaries of the era while also reading a lot of the L.A. Times articles that were published, along with a lot of other reporting from the period.  He encountered a problem finding a way to tell the story because it’s one which doesn’t have an end.  We struggled to find how to do the movie solely depicting Poole’s ’97 story, which proved challenging.  One day, I suggested to Christian that maybe we put the voice of the reporter, Jackson, who is entirely fictional, into the film.  And, he came up with the idea of bookending the film, of looking at Russell Poole as he was in 2015, in contrast to the 1997 flashbacks.  And that’s how the construct came about.”

“I’d just worked with Christian on a different project and felt his take on the material was really exciting.  And, he wrote a brilliant script,” praises Segal about a screenplay that landed on the esteemed 2015 Hollywood Black List.  “Poole is still living the story as he talks about the past events, then he hands that information to Jackson, who comments before we go back in time once again.  Although it jumps between the two time periods, it’s all the same story because they’re essentially investigating the case again twenty years later by using the resource of Poole’s experiences as the lead detective on the case in 1997.”

“I think Christian made a brilliant choice to set the story in the present, twenty years after Poole’s initial investigation,” Sullivan chimes in about the script.  “I really admire the way he brought the story up-to-date by using the journalist as the second main character. 

“I grew up with Biggie and Tupac’s music, so writing this immediately fascinated me,” says Contreras about his first produced feature film script, which he began adapting from Sullivan’s book in 2013.  “I was in high school and university in the ‘90s, and L.A. seemed to be the cultural epicenter.  From the music industry to the film industry; from Rodney King to the fall of O.J. Simpson and his ‘Trial of the Century’…all eyes were out west.  Musicians often become voices for the young, or the young find their voices through their music.  I think this is true for sports stars as well and none came bigger than O.J. Simpson.  It was a riveting, pre-internet-as- we-know-it, time, and it made an indelible imprint on me that resonates to this day.”“I wanted the film itself to be like a dialogue between the present and the past,” Contreras adds about the construct of the script that jumps back-and-forth over a two-decade span of time.  “Between half-remembered or half-incorrect ‘facts’ and actual ones.  The flashback structure provided a way to present events whilst having a dialogue about them — what our collective memory got right, what it’s forgotten, and what it never had right in the first place.”

“I wanted the film itself to be like a dialogue between the present and the past,” Contreras adds about the construct of the script that jumps back-and-forth over a two-decade span of time.  “Between half-remembered or half-incorrect ‘facts’ and actual ones.  The flashback structure provided a way to present events whilst having a dialogue about them — what our collective memory got right, what it’s forgotten, and what it never had right in the first place.”

“I think the book LAbyrinth is a page turner, just like the articles that Randall Sullivan wrote for Rolling Stone,” states director Brad Furman, who reunites with both Segal and Contreras on the film after their first collaboration on his compelling 2016 true-life crime drama, “The Infiltrator” (on which Segal served as producer and Contreras donned his other professional hat — as a featured actor in the film). 

Brad Furman

“There are constant revelations (about) corruption, our belief in the institution of law enforcement, and the trust that goes along with that,” Furman continues about the essence of his new film’s story.  “When you see a police officer, you are supposed to feel protected, not fearful.  Knowing that we entrust and believe in these institutions and how ultimately they let us down in this situation is pretty daunting and worthy of exploration in our movie.”

“When you really look at the pieces of the puzzle and the interconnected tissue (among) the police, the corruption, the police’s relationship with Death Row, the police’s relationship with the street, there’s really no one in that paradigm that can be trusted,” Furman insists, “and I felt that was a story that had to be told.  And, there are so many minute details in that story, that page turner, called LAbyrinth, that I questioned whether we could fully honor in an hour-and-40-minute movie.  But, we surely tried to get at the essence of it.”

Furman, a Philadelphia native, remembers being a student at NYU film school in 1997 when the murder of The Notorious B.I.G. happened on the other side of the continent.  “I grew up in Philadelphia, immersed in a lot of things related to black culture,” he offers about his east coast boyhood.  “Most of the kids I grew up with were black, so I was exposed to a lot of things culturally that, I think, made my childhood unique.  Being from the MTV generation, I grew up a product of rap and hip-hop and R&B.  I was also a fan of both Tupac and Biggie, so I felt a huge responsibility in telling this story, which in a way is an homage to these two icons.”

Given his roots in his ethnically diverse inner city upbringing, Furman also notes one obvious fact about the murders — “it’s sad to say, but it may be due to the nature of the color of these men’s skin (that) justice has never been served.  But, it’s more than just black-and-white.  I hope this is a story that will leave people wanting more answers, that will leave people fighting and searching, not only for justice in this particular story, but so many others.  We live in a very broken system in my opinion, especially politically, and we are responsible for policing ourselves.  And, if we don’t do that, then we’re in a lot of trouble.  For me, that’s the core of the movie.  On the surface, the (story) is about the murder of these two young, under 25 rappers which has not been solved twenty years later.  While we explore why, I ask myself ‘is that what the movie’s really about?’.  To me, it’s about so much more.” 

Adds the film’s star, Johnny Depp — “it’s a brave book and a brave movie.  I hope people watch the film and try to demand justice.” 

In tackling the fact-based story, Furman also embraced the huge responsibility he had “to reflect everything fairly and objectively.  When making a film based in fact, there is a responsibility to many parties.  We had responsibilities to the Poole family, to the Wallace/B.I.G. family, to the Shakur estate, as well as to others involved like Frank Lyga and Kevin Gaines, all of these different people.  There was no way that I could possibly tell this story without working very closely with individuals associated with the LAPD who were very supportive, like the late Sergio Robleto.  I was blessed to have Sergio on the production.  He knew Russell Poole back then, was a detective and investigator on the LAPD himself for many years.  He was also the lead detective for the Wallace estate.”

Robleto, the film’s technical advisor during the seven-week shoot, was Poole’s supervisor in the LAPD’s South Bureau Homicide division during his last four years on the job (Robleto took over the South Bureau, where Poole was already assigned, right after the Rodney King incident in 1991, and retired in 1995).

Years before the film went into active development, Robleto read Sullivan’s book, saying “Randall wrote a fantastic, fact-filled book.  I didn’t think they wrote books like that anymore.  It accurately depicts what happened during that time period.  He firmly believes in Russ Poole’s convictions, based on the facts that he gathered, as do I.”

Robleto was also a key source for both scripter Contreras and author Sullivan, who recalls during his research for the initial magazine article that “Sergio and I spent several hours talking about the case and about Russell.  I think we share a similar pain about the way Russell declined in the last year or so of his life, as the injustice wore him down.  We both want to remember him the way he was before that.”  Adds Contreras, “I worked closely with Sergio Robleto, who served with Poole and I believe is fair to categorize as part of Poole’s extended family.  Russell and Sergio, truly good people, were invaluable in filling in gaps or painting the world or providing context for the screenplay.”

Robleto was excited to join the project, not so much because it was his first as a film tech advisor, or his intimate familiarity with the facts.  More so because “Brad told me the movie wasn’t necessarily about the murders, but rather the character of Russ Poole.  That was quite an emotional thing for me, because Russell was a very dear friend of mine.  Somebody whom I looked up to in terms of being a very principled individual and a completely professional detective.  In telling this story, Brad wants to try and honor the tenacity of Russ Poole’s efforts to find out who killed Biggie.  I was able to provide them with insights from my experience of being the expert witness for the Wallace family when reinvestigating the murder case.”

“I first met Russ in 1981 when he was a young rookie policeman,” Robleto recalls.  “He was kind of naïve but very trusting.  His dad had been in law enforcement, a county sheriff.  I was his sergeant back then.  He was easy to direct and very enthusiastic about work.  Later, when our career paths crossed again in homicide, it was the same thing.  He was very tenacious and very victim oriented.  He was totally committed to helping the families of those who had lost their loved ones, to regain that confidence in the justice system.  He was extremely tenacious and very aggressive at trying to do everything he could on his cases.  Really a role model for other investigators and a professional at crime scene investigations.”

“I was already retired when Russ began looking into the Biggie and Tupac cases, the Gaines and Lyga case, and the Rampart corruption case,” Robleto details.  “When he went through those cases, he saw the same names, Death Row, Suge Knight, Rafe Perez and D-Mack, over and over again, and that caused him to believe that they were all intricately involved with one another.  So, he began to investigate those links.  I think he was blocked, not necessarily out of any evil intent, but rather because of bureaucracy within the LAPD.  And, that frustrated him because he had been accustomed to having the freedom to solve any and all cases when working at the South Bureau.  He did not find that when assigned to Robbery-Homicide.”            “I really related to the adversity and the mistreatment and the level of injustice and disrespect that Russ Poole was up against,” Furman chimes in, picking up on Robleto’s remarks.  “He accused the police department, as a collective whole, of injustices.  He also accused particular individuals and subsequently became a pariah as a result of it.  He was ostracized and pushed out.  It always weighed on me that Russ actually left the force because things got so horrific for him.” 

“Sadly, a week before I was supposed to sit down with Russ Poole, he passed away and that threw…the movie into a whole other stratosphere,” Furman adds about Poole’s sudden and untimely death at the age of 58 in August, 2015.  “It was obviously beyond heartbreaking, but we forged ahead.  The movie was reworked as a result of that.  Megan, his widow, had us over to her home and we spent time with her and built a really wonderful relation with her and her family, Russ’ children.”

“I was fortunate enough to meet with Russell Poole a few times before his untimely passing,” writer Contreras chimes in.  “After Russell’s passing, Brad and I still met with his wife, Megan.  Her contributions were priceless.  Stories and anecdotes about Russ no doubt filtered through Brad to Johnny in his portrayal of the man.  Poole’s children visited the set several times and were helpful in their enthusiasm and selflessness for the project.  This wasn’t a pleasant time for the Poole family to revisit, but they did so with grace.  That grace was a source of strength for not only the writing process, but the filming as well.  We’re indebted to them.”

Adds producer Segal, “Russell was absolutely thrilled that, finally, someone was going to make this story into a movie.  That’s why it’s so tragic that he never got to see it to its fruition.  He died of a heart attack in 2015 in a police station trying to get (the L.A. Sheriff’s Office) to reopen the case.  It’s unbelievable.  We had just started to package the film when we found out he died.  Christian and I then spent a long time debating whether we should change the ending or not.  Originally, we didn’t, but then decided to change it and include his death in the film, which doesn’t give anything away.  Russell was just a guy in a uniform who did a good thing and continued to do that good thing until it literally killed him.  It’s heart wrenching.”

Furman notes another heart wrenching fact about Poole’s premature passing — “his family doesn’t participate in any pension, health, welfare, any type of stuff related to what you would typically get being a police officer for as long as he was.  It’s beyond heartbreaking and, again, one of many in a long list of injustices he endured.  All because this guy was pursuing the truth and wanted the truth to be (told).  And that’s a scary thing.  Fear rules our society, but he was a guy who was fearless — in his fight against the system, to tell what he believed to be the truth, which he backed up with research and investigation and hard work.  I hope we honor that in our movie.”