Most people never think about what goes into obtaining raw news footage, but all those car crashes and police chases and gang shootings that show the worst parts of living in a big city are captured by real people who risk their lives to bring audiences closer to something they desperately want to see, even if they don't want to admit it.
One of those people is Austin Raishbrook, a freelance cameraman in Los Angeles who, along with his brothers Howard and Marc, served as a technical advisor on the movie Nightcrawler. He not only gave writer-director Dan Gilroy advice on what it's like to actually spend your nights listening to police scanners in bad neighborhoods, but he also strapped bulletproof vests on stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed to take them into the crime-riddled underbelly that is Los Angeles after dark.
After being blown away by Nightcrawler, we wanted to talk to Raishbrook and learn more about his world, and as it turns out, the life of a real "nightcrawler" is even more wild than what's seen in the movie. Austin Raishbrook isn't just a camera man. The passion with which he talks about his adrenaline-junkie lifestyle makes him seem less like a real person and more like a character from a '90s Kathryn Bigelow movie. But he's very real and very, very fascinating; the kind of person who has stories for days.
Movies.com: Do you call yourself nightcrawlers?
Austin Raishbrook: No, nightcrawler is a term that Dan Gilroy coined. We're known in the trade as stringers, which are basically freelance cameramen. Nightcrawler is something that was created for the movie. It sounds a little bit more dark.
Movies.com: So how'd you become a stringer?
Raishbrook: First I'd like to explain that the difference between us and Jake's character in the movie is that he's very money driven, and that's really not what we got in this industry for. Me and my brothers, Howard and Marc, came over here 20 years ago. We grew up in the countryside in England, and to be honest it's a little bit quiet for teenagers, so when we turned 18 we came over here. We grew up watching shows like Cops and World's Wildest Police Chases and things like that, so it was always a passion of ours. Even back then, when I was five or six, I can remember chasing fire trucks and things like that on my BMX bike, so it really is an adrenaline thing for us.
We thought why not give Los Angeles a shot since it had a bad enough crime rate for us. So we came over here on a six-month visa, bought a crappy old car and a $100 scanner from Radio Shack and sat in one of the worst areas of town. That was probably one of the stupidest things we'd done up until that point.
As a stringer you've got to be smart. You've got to be streetwise and watch your back, and we went into it not fully understanding what danger we were putting ourselves in. We have been shot at. We've gotten in fights. We've had our camera gear smashed and stolen. It does get quite hairy out there.
We used to sit in these parking lots in Compton or Inglewood and follow the calls on the scanner, basically. And for five or six years we didn't make a penny doing it, we did it just for the thrills, just for the adrenaline rush. My wife jumps out of planes to get her adrenaline rush, and I just sit in Compton.
It really was just for the passion, the thrill, the adrenaline rush. You get a police chase and it's a big game of cat and mouse of trying to get in front of the pursuit to get the passing shot. The thrill of being in the mix of things is something we'd never experienced in England, and we experienced it first hand when we got here.
Movies.com: Have you guys consulted on other movies before this?
Raishbrook: No, but we did have a reality show on TruTV that was on for two seasons. We were basically reality stars just doing what we do. It was called Stringers L.A. and that was back in 2008 and 2009. Obviously that was quite an eye-opener for people watching that who didn't realize what it takes to bring you the morning news involves getting shot at.
So the way we got in contact with Dan is that I'd gotten a call from the licensing department from the film looking to buy B-roll from us that they could play in the background of the news station in the movie. We have 500-600 hours of footage, so we gave them a bunch of footage they ran in the movie, and I just happened to mention I was very interested in reading the script and discussing the technicalities of the movie. So the lady put me in touch with Dan and his team, and it all went from there.
We took Jake Gyllenhaal out to South Central. We took Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, all those guys out so they could get the feel of what it was to be a real stringer.
Movies.com: And did you sugarcoat that experience any? Did you take them out on a night where you knew it'd be a bit calmer?
Raishbrook: No, not at all. We picked one of the busiest nights. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest because it's late and people are off work and they do stupid, stupid things. We didn't sugarcoat it at all. We still had a job to do, we're never off duty.
Movies.com: When Dan Gilroy mentioned going out with your brother, he said it was a night he'd never forget and that Howard probably wouldn't even remember what they saw.
Raishbrook: We've been doing this for 20 years. We've seen a lot of things. Two nights ago I arrived pretty much at the same time as the cops did to a fatal shooting. I'm 20 feet away from this guy who has been shot in the head and he's just laying there in a pool of blood. We see things like that all the time. There are fatal shootings pretty much every day in Los Angeles.
There are so many different ways to die in Los Angeles. DUI crashes, shootings, stabbings, fights, people dying in fires. We've seen it all. There have only been a few occasions that are permanently stuck in my memory. One of them was when we were on a ride along with a highway patrol and the first call of the night was a DUI crash. When we turned up, the car was a 21-year-old student who had stalled on the freeway and she'd been rear-ended by a drunk driver. When we got there, her car was fully engulfed in flames and she was screaming and there was nothing we could do to get her out. That's something I remember quite vividly.
What affects me more are the emotions you see out there. Like at the fatal shooting the other night, when the family comes out and is crying and collapsing on the floor. That's always hard to see. But this is news. These things do happen whether we're there or not. We do get quite a bit of criticism for shooting them, but they do happen, and if I video a DUI crash and someone sees it on the morning news it may make them think twice before having a couple of beers before going out.
Movies.com: Do you wish your footage was even more exposed because it might help prevent future incidents?
Raishbrook: People see our stuff on the news all the time, and the more people who see that, the more people will realize what world they actually live in. But a lot of what we shoot doesn't even make the news. There are things we won't even bother with any more. A random gang shooting doesn't make the news, but they still happen. So the more exposure our footage gets on the TV, the better I think it is for public awareness.
There are things we shoot that make it on entertainment shows. We get crashes on tape, we get shoot-outs on tape, and those sell quite well to things like World's Craziest Police Chases and Rescues Caught on Film. That's the entertainment value of it, but I do wish there was more exposure to this type of thing on local news.
Movies.com: What are your overall thoughts on Nightcrawler?
Raishbrook: I did like the movie, and I think the biggest part that's representative of how Howard, Marc and I are is Jake's drive in the movie to get the shot. You can see the passion. When we took Riz Ahmed out, he came out with Marc and I. Marc was the navigator and I was the driver, and in the movie Riz plays the navigator. And how that's portrayed in the movie is spot-on. Jake's character getting very frustrated and upset when Riz can't find the right directions is very true to life. Details like that and just the passion of doing it were great.
Movies.com: Are there people like Jake's character in your career? Are there other stringers that you guys avoid because of the way they operate?
Raishbrook: There certainly are other stringers that are more gung ho about things, but you have to respect the law in everything you do. You can't interfere in crime scenes. You can't go into people's houses. The invasion of privacy is a big issue. As a stringer you've got to know your laws, you've got to know your boundaries. If you get a ticket for speeding, that fine is going to outweigh the price you'll get for the footage, so it's not worth it. Interfering with crime scenes really isn't something any of us do. It just doesn't work like that.
We do get to scenes very quickly. We do get to scenes before fire departments or the police, but no one messes with a crime scene to get a better shot. We certainly wouldn't be moving bodies around or going into people's houses.
Movies.com: Has the movie changed anything for you guys, careerwise?
Raishbrook: It's obviously fantastic that the movie showcases what we do, though I do think it's going to expose us to more competition because people will say, "Oh, I can do that." But being a stringer is not something you can just pick up over night. You may have a camera and a scanner, but that doesn't make you a stringer. You've got to know what they're talking about.
I listen to 1,600 frequencies that belong to thirty different departments, each with their own codes. You've got to know how to shoot properly. You've got to know the area. You've got to know back streets and the quickest way to get there. So even if it does bring in competition, it's not going to hurt us. I'm still going to be doing this when I'm 80 years old, whether I make a penny from it or not.
Movies.com: Is there something that could make you stop or is the kick from doing it so strong that you can never give it up?
Raishbrook: There really isn't. I have a two-year-old son now, so I do certainly pick and choose what I go to. Being a father has certainly changed things. If I know there's a shooting in a particularly bad area, I just won't go to it. There's still that passion and drive to get the camera out. And we're never off duty. It doesn't matter where we are, I always have my camera with me.
Movies.com: What's the biggest surprise you've ever caught on camera?
Raishbrook: One of the closest is when I woke up and my apartment was on fire. That was the closest thing I've ever come across. Literally I woke up and the apartment was full of thick, black smoke, so I grabbed my video camera and ran down three flights of stairs in thick, black smoke and if I tripped I wouldn't be here talking to you right now.
There was another incident where I was driving around in the day and spotted a car fire. I didn't think much of it, I just grabbed my video camera from the glove box and just video'ed the smoke from a quarter of a mile away. Later on it turned out that a teacher had been kidnapped, tied up, and burnt alive in the back of the car. So, yeah, you never really know what's going to happen or where it's going to happen and you don't know what story is going to evolve around it. You always have to be ready.
Nightcrawler is in theaters now. If you'd like to know more about Austin Raishbrook or see more of his footage, head to these places:
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