For the new ABC reality series Take The Money And Run (premiering tomorrow night), I was the lead editor and worked with producers in the field during the shoots. I work on my fair share of shows during any given year that I find hard to endorse, but this isn’t one of them. Yes, it is a reality show, but it’s smart and suspenseful. Reading crime fiction, I usually find myself rooting for the bad guy, the antihero. But, today, I want to talk about my enhanced respect for the police.
Contestants have an hour to hide a briefcase filled with $100,000. If it stays hidden, they keep the money. Surprisingly often (to me), I found myself on the side of the cops trying to find that case within the allotted 48 hours. Once the team has used up their one hour to hide the case, they’re taken into custody and two sets of law enforcement pros take over: one in the field following the leads, and another at the jail handling the interrogations. They are given very little to start with—a GPS route, a cell phone record, and any receipts generated within that hour. That’s it. The contestants have to answer questions during interrogation, but they can lie all they want, just like real criminals.
Like some sort of psychological experiment, I was amazed to see how quickly the contestants in custody began to think of them selves as real criminals undergoing incarceration. These regular folks—pairs of brothers, best friends, a father/daughter team, husband and wife—gave themselves over to the fantasy of a life of crime incredibly easily. It helped that the cops working against them were real. The teams in the field are real partners, a different pair for each episode in the three cities we visited, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco.
The interrogators are also real. 23-year veteran, Mary Hanlon-Stone, is an author and Deputy District Attorney. Paul Bishop, with 35 years in metrpolitan policework, is a decorated Detective, widely recognized as a top cop, and also an accomplished author of police procedurals. This duo worked as interrogators in every episode, and do not share in the money, win or lose. At stake for them is professional pride and a desire to keep intact their professional record which boasts the fact that they have never lost a case in court that they have worked together. It was in the interrogations that I began to realize how difficult actual police work really is. Paul and Mary had to approach the contestants the same way they would a suspect in a major crime. They had scant evidence and a ticking clock, not unlike the fabled ‘first 48’ hours when most crimes are either solved or go cold.
In each city, the inerrogation rooms were designed with two-way mirrors that allowed us to shoot so no cameras were visible to the contestants. After they had been separated, booked, and locked away in solitary confinement, it became simple human nature to start to panic a little. Then, when they were brought to interrogation, in extremely short order, the “game” they were playing felt very real.(Check out this sneak peek to see Paul at work.)
Mary and Paul come at the contestants using tried-and-true physical and psychological techniques that have broken rapists, robbers, and killers. Some contestants proved more adept at lying than others, and some seemed so deer-in-the-headlights stunned by the experience, they began to crack under the pressure. The interrogators divided to conquer, splitting the team members up and interrogating them individually, so they could compare the lies and discern where the truth lived. The interrogations often lasted over an hour—they can be much longer in real life—which made editing them down a challenge, but also an intricate puzzle.
In the end, each show had a wildly different outcome. People played the game very differently, reacted to the interrogations differently, and dealt with the isolation differently. As veteran interrogators, however, Paul and Mary adapted to each personality they encountered, and every last contestant said it was harder than they thought. Think about that the next time you drive by a bank and think, “What if?” Under absurd time constraints, with little evidence, the cops in the field and the interrogators were able to build convincing conclusions. Imagine what they can do with time for fingerprints, background checks, DNA tests, and the looming threat of real jail time hanging over a suspect?
One trait that all the contestants seemed to share, and one I think all criminals must surely have—they thought they were smarter than the pros. Crime fiction readers, too, (admit it!) harbor a fantasy life where we think we could be the ones to learn from all the mistakes, flip the rules on the cops, and beat them at their game. As we watch the teams rushing around to hide the briefcase, we cannot help but formulate our own plans. And no doubt almost everyone at home will be thinking, “I could have done it better.” Before working on the show, that would have been me, too. Now, though, I’m not so sure.
Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, and Grimm Tales.