Filming true-crime caper Bandit was practically a heist in itself

“It was the shortest shoot I’ve ever been on, and the biggest movie I’ve ever made.”

That’s Toronto director Allan Ungar talking about his new movie Bandit, which stars Josh Duhamel in the true story of Gilbert Galvan Jr., an American who came to Canada in the 1980s and pulled almost 60 bank robberies and other heists, taking in more than $2.3 million, before being caught.

The film is a comedy, its light tone helped by the fact that Galvan – dubbed The Flying Bandit by the media for his habit of jetting across the country to rob banks in other cities – was unfailingly polite and never violent. “He was basically an honorary Canadian,” says Ungar. “He adopted the Canadian mentality.”

Ungar, 33, says he took inspiration from films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard that combine action and humour. There’s also a little of Catch Me If You Can in Bandit’s DNA. “That’s how Josh was pitched the film. His agent said: This is your Catch Me If You Can. That’s why he read it. And he called me a week later and said he’d take it.”

The cast is rounded out by Elisha Cuthbert as Galvan’s wife; Nestor Carbonell as a determined police officer; and Mel Gibson as an Ottawa crime kingpin. Filming was supposed to take place in Vancouver and Ottawa, but COVID restrictions, especially quarantine requirements for any out-of-country cast and crew, necessitated a move. American producers suggested Georgia or Puerto Rico.

Ungar recalls telling them: “I don’t know if any of you have guys have ever been to Ottawa, Vancouver or Toronto, but Puerto Rico will not work. However, I think rural Georgia can double for rural Ontario, and I think Atlanta can double for Vancouver.”

Filming in the U.S. was expensive, and so a planned 32-day shoot featuring 200 scenes and 95 sets and locations was cut to just 21 days. “It was gutted,” the director groans. “I’m still trying to figure out how we did it.”

He found himself driving around southern Georgia, peering between plantations and colonial buildings for anything that could pass for the kind of Victorian architecture more common to Canada, or looking for a building that could be shot from three angles to look like different banks. The small towns of Valdost, Tifton and Thomasville came through.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done before,” Ungar says of having Georgia play Canada. Usually those civic impersonations go the other way. “And I was terrified what Canadians would think if the movie came out and they could see right through it.” He notes that getting the period details right was its own challenge, but “Georgia as Canada was much more difficult.”

Ungar says one of the producers did suggest changing the script so the story happened in America. “That went in one ear and out the other,” he says with a chuckle. “I didn’t even give it the time of day. There was no other way to do it.”

Indeed, Bandit wears its Canadian heart on its sleeve, notwithstanding the necessity of shooting stateside. (The crew did manage a few days of filming in Ottawa before production wrapped.) The soundtrack is stocked with period-appropriate music by Canadian acts likes Trooper, Doug and the Slugs, and Burton Cummings.

And while the banks’ names had to be changed to things like Golden Crown and Royale East, their corporate colours will be familiar to Canucks. Also, calling the then-new air miles program Air-o-plan isn’t fooling anyone. The joke in the movie is that Galvan travels so much for his job as a “security consultant” that he racks up the points.

There’s even a cameo by Galvan himself, whose story was told in the 1996 book The Flying Bandit: Bringing Down Canada’s Most Daring Armed Robber. Kraig Wenman adapted the book for the screen. Galvan is in two scenes as a patron at the bar where Josh’s version of him meets Gibson’s character.

“He’s there,” Ungar confirms. “Eagle-eyed viewers will be able to see him.” He says Galvan liked to tell stories to the crew but mostly stayed out of the way of the filmmakers. “I think he realized that we had done our homework,” he says. “He was so happy to be there, and so happy that his story was being told.”

Read the full article on National Post.