Written by: Matt Patti | June 1st, 2020
I recently had an opportunity to speak with director Nick Leisure and actor Marshal Hilton about A Clear Shot (which I also reviewed). Inspired by the true events of the 1991 Good Guys electronic-store hostage situation, A Clear Shot captures what took place on that fateful day during one of the worst hostage situations in American history. Starring Mario Van Peebles and Marshal Hilton as the police respondents to the situation, the film explores how the police, the hostages, and the gunmen respond to the events, and takes a deeper look into what motivates each of them. I talked with Leisure and Hilton by phone about the real-life event, what challenges there are in making films about true events, and about certain aspects of the film itself. Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation edited for length and clarity.
Matthew Patti: Nick, what was your inspiration to make this project? Do you or anyone you know have any connection to the 1991 Good Guys Hostage situation?
Nick Leisure: Yeah. So the actual event that happened in 1991 happened at Good Guys electronics store, which was connected or right next to the mall that we used to hang out at as kids in Sacramento. I was actually like a couple of blocks away when it started to go down, at a friend’s house, and we were in junior high school at the time and saw it on the news and it was a long, over eight hours, standoff. So, we decided to just walk over there cause we were like, “Hey, that’s right down the street.” So we went over there for a couple hours, hung out in the parking lot and kind of watched everything go down. It was just one of those things that as I got older and became a filmmaker, I thought for a few years I’d turn it into an actual film one day and then we did it.
MP: How about for you, Marshal, any connection for you?
Marshal Hilton: Well, I think I told the story to Nick. I’d say 10, maybe 15 years ago, somehow or another I came across a video clip and I watched it and it was that moment at the end of the film and it was the clip that had the front window blowout and all the action going on and the gal run out and she was tied up to a cord or something like that. I remember watching that and I don’t know if I got it on either Myspace or I don’t know where I got it. But I remember watching it and I went, “wow, that is intense” cause it was real and it was like life and death stuff and you just didn’t see that kind of stuff 15 years ago on the internet. It was just intense and I watched it maybe a half a dozen times. I remember shaking my head going, “wow, that must’ve been crazy.” Fast forward 15 years later, I get a call from Jessica Meza who’s playing Advencula in the film. She goes, “Hey, we got this thing and blah, blah, blah, you’d be right for Kappy, blah, blah, blah” and I go, “cool.” And she said, “it’s called Good Guys.” And she sends me a script, a little video link, and I had no idea what the link is and, I s*** you not, I click on the link and that thumbnail comes up. I go “Geez, that looks familiar.” But I couldn’t place it, and I watched it and my mouth kind of dropped. I just went, “oh my God, I’ve seen that before. F***, I’ve seen that before.” Then, I remembered and then it was about the Good Guys and I went, “oh my God” and I was completely, totally intrigued from that moment on. I was just like, “oh my gosh, I have to check this out.” It’s kind of weird how the universe works cause I had forgotten about the video. Lots of things have gone on. Then that thing comes across my radar again that many years later. It makes me smile right now thinking about it. So, then I got to read it and I went, “oh, this is a story about that thing.” And from that point on I was kind of like, “this is pretty cool” and then I went through the process and eventually got cast as Kappy.
MP: So both of you definitely have some good connections to it. On that same vein, Nick, how precisely did you aim to stay true to the facts of the events of the situation? Did you find it difficult to stay true to those events while also making an entertaining film at the same time?
NL: In the beginning, I did a lot of research and I used to be a creative director and producer at ABC News, too. So, I have a lot of contacts at the news station and I spoke to some of the reporters that were actually there. One of my good family friends was the homicide detective that actually was there at the time, too, one of my mom’s friends. And I spoke to the actual sheriff and different people that were involved in this, in the actual story. Everybody seemed really cool about it except for one particular hostage, she kind of made her living off of being that hostage and a survivor from that situation. It’s kind of sad because we’ve had some mutual friends. But, she’s kind of one of those people that, if she’s not involved in that particular thing, she’ll get really mad and like, she wants to get paid type of thing. So, we had made a decision, my writer and I, to make it more inspired by rather than really based onand trying to make the actual story exactly to what it was. I’d say about 60% to 70% of the movie is really what happened. There were some things at the end that obviously were changed from the true story and Mario’s character and stuff. It didn’t happen that way. The police department in Sacramento, it’s my hometown, screwed up in that incident and that was the first time they ever ran into a situation like this before. So, they really didn’t know what they were doing at the time. Their main concern too was they didn’t want to look bad in the film because media over the years, they do like a yearly thing on the Good Guys hostage situation pretty much on like ABC and 20/20and those types of things. They were concerned about me trying to make the police department look bad. So I tried to sit with my writer and really figure out a story that was going to tell that story in a way, but not really make the gunmen look that bad and not really make the police officers look like they screwed up a lot cause you could kind of feel for both of them. You had a detective who really cared about trying to help these kids get out of there and then you could look at the side of the teenagers who were not being welcomed in this country and felt like they had no other way to get out of there. We gave them some personalities and stuff where you could see that they actually cared about living and dying, or at least most of them, I should say. So we tried to make it, not that it was right for them to do it, but we tried to make it seem more human on all levels when it came to this story.
MP: Right, I realized that. We get to see many flashbacks of the gunmen earlier in life and it helps for the audience to almost sympathize with them. Were the events in these flashbacks fictional or fact?
NL: The things they were talking about, those things are based on facts. Like Pham, he was trying to go to college and things like that and that’s what we got off the nose. But, I mean going to like the ocean and drinking a beer together and stuff like that, those are things that we just kind of threw in there cause we don’t know if that actually happened, so we just kind of threw that in there for the story, those types of things.
MP: Detective Gomez seems to flirt, drink, and joke around with the police while the hostage situation is ongoing. Do you think this is a tactic that real detectives use to calm themselves in these types of situations?
NL: I don’t know. In this scenario, I don’t think that. In this scenario, a real detective didn’t do that and the drinking thing was more Mario’s idea, the drinking originally wasn’t going to be there like that. When we got on to the actual set and started to go over the lines and were talking about things, that was more of a personal, artistic thing that Mario kind of came up with. He came up with his own backstory on what he was doing as far as the detective, like maybe I’ve gone through this like divorce and split up and I’m smoking, I’m drinking. We wanted it to look kind of messy. We had a nice car, like a cop car type thing, undercover cop car for him. He’s like, “no, find me like a crappy old piece of junk bucket.” So, we found like the crappiest car we could find that one of the crew members had on set somewhere and then kind of dirtied him up and undid his tie a little, and there’s scenes where he’s tucking in his shirt and things like that. So he just looked like a mess, which I think added to his character, definitely, versus just coming in as a clean cut cop. Marshal kind of already had that clean-cut look coming in anyway, so it kind of gave it that contrast of Mario coming in, like maybe he had a long night somewhere the night before.
MH: He definitely looked like it. That’s for sure.
NL: Yeah. I think it added some paint to the canvas and things. So, that was more of an artistic thing that didn’t really happen in real life.
MP: There are many races represented in the cast of this film. Did you purposely try to cast a vast diversity of people, and how important is it to do this in the industry today?
NL: Obviously the gunmen were Asian and the lead detective in Sacramento was an African American. But I did want to cast like a lot of different races and ethnicities in this feature film cause I feel like it’s important right now. I feel like I wanted to bring something and this was the perfect film. In fact, Sacramento was a very diverse city too. So I really felt like this was something that, with the cast of the hostages, I could have put anybody in there, it could have been all white people. It could have been all Mexican, could have been whatever. But I felt it was an opportunity to definitely add a bunch of color to it.
MP: Marshall, do you agree with that assessment?
MH: Yeah, I do. It was definitely a broad spectrum that Nick put together, but it didn’t look to me like it was a blatant, super try to be super over the top with it. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff now, you could watch something, you can pick up a show on TV or whatever. And with the casting, you can tell right away that somebody went for a real hardcore, specific diversity angle and sometimes it just looks like it. You just go, “yeah, okay, I get that.” But this one, it didn’t feel like that. It felt a little more organic. Like it was a cross section. Nick lives in Sacramento. I’ve been up there a few times and if you go into a big box store, you’re going to find all kinds of people. All kinds. So it felt organic to me and, and it is important, and so I think he did a good job with it.
MP: Yeah, I completely agree. Throughout the film the four gunmen seem unorganized, and although Loi says he is the leader they seem to lack a true leader. Do you think this makes them more dangerous?
NL: Yeah. You’ve got four teenagers who have never done this before, obviously, and they’re not really criminals and they don’t think this out. And at that age, when you’re 17, 18, 19 years old and you decide to do something skippy, you don’t really think it out and figure out how it’s going to end well. So, just the fact that like they are asking for Ginseng and things like that, which you know, was really part of the story. It was just kind of like outrageous in a way where it’s like, okay, these are kids, I can do this. If these were adults who like really plan this out and map this out, they probably wouldn’t be asking for Ginseng. They maybe would be trying to figure out the more specific way to get out of that situation. In and out. So I think we tried to make it as close as we could to the notes and stories and stuff that I read about and the interviews. One of my close friends who’s a reporter at ABC news, he was actually there on the scene. I spoke to him quite a bit about it and how the gunman would speak and things like that. And I’ve got friends that actually lived there and still live in that same area within a few blocks of the store where it was at. It’s actually a Dollar Tree now. But, that area, they call it like Little Saigon so it’s kind of like a little Asian area too, right by there. It was kind of like the way that they spoke and everything, when these four actors got together, we talked about that. We talked about this is the type of actions that we want you to have and just how we want you to say it and stuff like that. And they picked it up really quick.
MH: I was going to add to that, Nick, when you were talking about the things that they did with the Ginseng, when I first read it and then I really started thinking about it on a layered thing, you know, you had a kid ask for a bulletproof vest like Robocop. The thing is, they were so fresh off the boat and from another country and enamored with American pop culture that, without any context, those kids actually thought that crap was real. They really thought that there was bulletproof vests like Robocop and that a helicopter full of gas could fly all the way to Thailand with a bunch of people on it. They really believed that. So, the assimilation, the lack of really understanding language barriers, not being able to communicate, not fitting in and then thinking on top of that, that that s*** could really happen. That’s, amazing to really think about if you really think about it. And then having a bunch of law enforcement guys shaking their heads going, “what in the hell are these guys doing?” because it was so abstract and it was so bizarre. I’m not a cop. Alright. I have never trained to be a cop, but I can’t imagine having to try and handle requests like that and just trying to sift through that. That had to make it twice as hard as what it was for these guys to try and get through it. It was really bizarre to me, but I found that really interesting.
MP: I found something else interesting, too: the fact that, I don’t know if this was true to the story or not, but while the other 3 gunmen carry pistols, Pham carries a shotgun. Yet, Pham seems to be the most unsure and scared of the bunch. Why do you think they decided to give the seemingly weakest one the big gun? Is it perhaps the thought that maybe the most frightened person is the most dangerous?
NL: Yeah, so it was true to the story as far as his character carrying a big shotgun like that. But as far as him being that emotional, that was something that we added on for the story, but we wanted to make Tony’s character really like the guy who just doesn’t give a s*** and he’s like going to be tough no matter what, till he dies, and then we wanted to kind of have like a spectrum of characters. Pham, he’s the one that is kind of only there because his brother’s there and his friends are there and he’s not going to leave them alone. But then we’ve got Hao’s character, which is like kind of in between where he’s thinking like it’s a good idea and then when he gets there and he’s more intelligent where he can decipher and say like, “hey, this is probably not a good idea.” So, adding those different elements, I think, to the canvas was like a lot better than having four guys that were just all out for blood the whole time.
MH: I think it was a good choice, it gave context and wit to those guys. I think that was a good choice.
MP: Near the end of the film, one of the hostages begins giving advice to the gunmen, specifically Loi, about what to do and that she cares about them and doesn’t want to see them get hurt. I don’t know, once again, if this is based off facts, but do you think she really cares about them or is this like a clever ploy to gain their trust?
NL: So that didn’t really happen. That was something that we added to that particular character and that particular character happens to be the girl that was pregnant that was there that I was talking about earlier. She was the one that was pregnant and she’s the one that’s always trying to make a living off of being a hostage survivor there. She’s wrote a couple of books about it and stuff. I’ve spoken to her family and stuff, even during the time that we premiered this in Sacramento. Everybody thinks she’s kind of like off her rocker, including the media, like even the chief, cause she’s done some stuff with the media before and they’ve all told me the same thing. Different outlets and media around here all pretty much say the same thing about her. So that’s kind of the beginning. I tried to reach out to her and get her involved in this project and she ended up becoming more of a hassle than anything. She wasn’t trying to even talk to me at first, didn’t reach back to me at all. Then when she found out the project is actually going to turn into a film, then she started mouthing off to everybody about how she should get paid to do this.
MH: That six seconds of fame is turning into 25 years of neurosis.
NL: But, out of respect for the hostages and her, I respectfully even responded to her afterwards and said I’m sorry you had to go through this situation, stuff like that, and just try to keep it professional. I reached out to you numerous times before we even started writing this project and it didn’t seem like you were interested at all. You didn’t respond to me at all. And then once the project was up and going, I’ve never had an issue with anybody on this project. So everybody else has been very cooperative and cool about it. And even the Sheriff’s department was just like, we just don’t want to make us look bad, type of thing. Like I said, I’ve known a couple of people that know her and they’ve told me things that she said and they’re just like, she’s crazy and she’s just always trying to look for a way to make money off of it in some way, shape or form. I noticed even during the time that we did the premiere, all of the sudden, on her social media, everything was posted, like continuously about flashback videos of what happened, her whole manner online and stuff and her profile picture and stuff all changed to the front of the Good Guys store and stuff like that.
MH: Oh, you’re kidding. Wow. Really?
NL: The sad thing is that there’s maybe one or two people that even commented on her stuff at all. I guess she reached out to David Fernandez and yelled at him and sent him an email saying “I’m glad that you made money on behalf of my child dying” and all this type of stuff. All dramatic. It was crazy. So that’s when I spoke to media about it before and they’re like, she’s always trying to talk about this story every year.
MH: You know, her fingers are burning up ready to hit that keyboard as soon as the DVD drops.
NL: Yeah, I know. I feel bad for her in one sense, but you know, you can go about it in different way. I even spoke to her mother and her grandmother and they reached out to me and I talked to them and they told me she’s not all there and she never really was all there. And I invited them to the premiere.
I said, you guys are welcome to come to the premiere. She’s welcome to come to the premiere. You know, we’re not trying to cause any scenes or anything, but I’m not going to stop anybody from coming to the premiere. I’ll even give you tickets. They were really cool with me about it. But even her own mother and grandmother warned me that she’s kind of off. She’s always been trying to get a book deal and all this type of stuff. She did a couple of books that were self-published, I think, but they didn’t really go anywhere. I checked one of them out and my writer did too and the whole book was about her and that scenario and didn’t have anything to do with anybody else. It was all about her, like how she felt and her version of the story stuff. So, I don’t know if I’ll do another one that’s like this.
MP: It’s tough when real people are involved, right?
NL: Yeah, yeah.
MP: Gentlemen, I want to thank you both so much for taking time to speak about the film and I hope everything goes well with its release.
NL: Thank you. Appreciate it.
A Clear Shot comes out for home viewing on June 2, 2020.