Perhaps it’s only appropriate that a film detailing one of Los Angeles’ most infamous unsolved murder cases would have a long journey to the screen, but Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” had a bumpier road than most. Detailing LAPD detective Russell Poole’s investigation into the 1997 murder of Christopher Wallace – a.k.a. rapper the Notorious B.I.G. – Furman’s film was initially slated for theatrical release back in 2018, only for a lawsuit and financial trouble from the film’s initial distributor to leave it languishing for years.
Now picked up by Saban Films, “City of Lies” hit a limited number of theaters last weekend, with a wide VOD rollout set for early next month. For Furman, who notched successes with the Matthew McConaughey starrer “The Lincoln Lawyer” and Bryan Cranston’s “The Infiltrator” before embarking on the long process of bringing “City of Lies” to light, “It’s a very surreal moment, just because the concept of it coming out doesn’t feel real.”
Though Wallace’s murder is its central subject, “City of Lies’” protagonist is Poole (played by Johnny Depp) a longtime LAPD detective who served as an investigator on the Wallace case, and also played a key role in unravelling the department’s Rampart scandal. Poole, who resigned from the department in protest of its handling of the Wallace case several weeks before his pension was set to mature, and died suddenly of an aneurysm in 2015 while in the L.A. County Sherriff’s Department collecting material for a book, related his theory of the murder through journalist Randall Sullivan – represented by a fictionalized character played by Forest Whitaker in the film. Sullivan’s 2002 book “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” served as the source material for Christian Contreras’ screenplay.
Per “City of Lies’” portrayal of Poole’s theory, the department – whose reputation was then still bruised from the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, and was about to be tarnished yet again by the Rampart division scandal – allowed the Wallace investigation to languish out of fear that a more thorough accounting might have revealed that several off-duty LAPD officers were involved in the coordination of the shooting, and that the resultant legal liability could have potentially been financially ruinous for the department and the city. It would be far beyond the scope of this article to attempt to weigh the truth of the claims bolstered in the film, or the book on which it is based – the murder of Wallace, and the labyrinthine internal politics of the LAPD in the period between two of the biggest law enforcement scandals of the late twentieth century, have both been fodder for endless reporting, controversy and speculation over the past two decades. But Furman insisted upon going beyond Sullivan’s book in his research, and consulted at length with the journalist himself, as well as Wallace estate lawyer Perry Sanders and retired LAPD detective Sergio Robleto (who once supervised Poole), to re-examine mountains of the available files and records related to the case.
“It was more about the fact that by nature I’m a bit of a skeptic, and by nature I don’t trust institutional systems of bureaucracy,” Furman says of the process. “But it was due to my own skepticism that I felt I was going to quote-unquote ‘report’ the facts in the movie, that I had to have a point of view and the point of view had to be factually based, and I had to be able to substantiate it with actual hard facts that I could back up. I felt that there was a responsibility to do that because you’re dealing with real peoples’ lives. That was my singular goal. So my [initial] skepticism was confounded by the fact that as I did more and more of the research, not only was I becoming less of a skeptic that Russell’s theory was a thousand percent accurate, but I was also privy to things that Russell was not privy to, because he passed away, that absolutely solidified his point of view and all of the tremendous work that Russell Poole did.”
Of course, the film’s release history presents a tangled story of its own, all of it largely out of Furman’s control. Initially scheduled for a September 2018 release, the film’s first distributor, Global Road Entertainment, postponed the film after a locations manager filed a lawsuit against Depp, accusing the actor of punching him during an argument while on set. Global Road subsequently underwent bankruptcy, throwing the film into further limbo. A Daily Beast article from 2018 added even more wrinkles into the mix, with quotes from sources on the film disputing the accusation against Depp, as well as quotes from Sullivan questioning the reasons for the delay. Furman declines to comment on the matter, as it relates to ongoing legal proceedings.
He does, however, relate phone calls he received from police officer friends during preproduction urging him “not to touch” the story, as well as “a few times when the phone rang with some really scary threats.” But as he tells it, “The more warnings I got, and the few threats I got, and the long explanations I got of why not to do it, made me realize even more the large responsibility of the undertaking.”
That sense of responsibility primarily pertains to the families of Wallace and Poole, who cooperated with the production. In fact, Furman says securing the blessing of Wallace’s mother, Voletta Wallace (who also appears as herself in a late scene), was the first step undertaken before he agreed to move forward with the film.
“I said to her that I would not make this film [without her approval], because I had no intention of exploiting the murder of her son,” Furman says of his first phone call with Wallace. “I understood that it’s too easy to go out and exploit his life and his success and his death, and that I had no intention of doing that. So therefore I said I would only make the movie with her approval and blessing, and that I would only make the movie hand-in-hand with her. And because I wanted to humanize Christopher Wallace, as well as Tupac Shakur, I asked her to represent herself in the film. The gravity was there from the moment she picked up the phone. And that applies equally to Megan Poole, Russell’s wife.”
One of the ways Furman sought to humanize Christopher Wallace extended to his portrayal in the film, or rather, the lack of one: aside from a silent actor standing in for the rapper in a few flashback scenes, the only words heard from Wallace are from real-life recordings, with archival footage filling in the details.
“There isn’t an actor per se playing Biggie – there’s an actor representing him, but in the way we executed and shot him, we really tried to avoid any tropes of what you’d see in an actor,” Furman says. “I felt like no actor could step into the shoes of Christopher Wallace, no actor could portray the charisma of Tupac Shakur, so we really tried to use all the real imagery, the real footage, the real thing.”
And that certainly applies to the music. In one of the film’s more innovative touches, Furman and additional music composer Alberto Bof wove a cappella recordings of Wallace’s vocals (provided by Voletta Wallace) into the fabric of Chris Hajian’s score, in effect turning Wallace’s voice into a lead instrument within the film’s musical landscape. “This was all part of a larger thought process as to how to bring him into the film in a very specific human way,” Furman says.
Having “put his life on pause” for several years to shepherd “City of Lies” to release, Furman says his future professional plans are yet to be determined. “But I’m really trying to not worry about myself with regard to this film. … Let’s just hope nothing happens between now and the release date, because everything that could have happened has happened. And if it actually does come out, it’s not about me, it’s about justice and the truth, about Russell Poole and Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur, about these people who have left significant legacies, about valuing Black culture, and about things that are so much bigger in the world than me and my filmmaking aspirations. And as for me, in my solitude I’ll figure out what’s next.”