The narrative surrounding the decision by production and distribution company Global Road Entertainment to indefinitely postpone the release of the film City of Lies doesn’t tell the whole story, say multiple people involved with the production.
City of Lies, which was scheduled to open on Sept. 7, stars Johnny Depp as an LAPD detective investigating the still-unsolved 1997 murder of rapper Biggie Smalls. Media reports have blamed the decision to cancel the opening on Depp’s erratic behavior, pointing to, in part, allegations that he assaulted the film’s location manager, who later filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages.
According to court filings, Depp is accused of punching location manager Gregg “Rocky” Brooks after Brooks informed the star that an upcoming take would have to be the last outdoor shot for the night as their permit was about to expire.
However, crew members who were there insist it never escalated beyond a verbal confrontation and no punches were ever thrown.
“They had a little moment, there weren’t punches, there wasn’t anything, just were in each others’ face for a second,” script supervisor Emma Danoff, who was sitting next to Depp when the alleged altercation began, told The Daily Beast. “We shot for maybe another hour-and-a-half after that, we went inside. We finished and the locations guy came up to Johnny and they hugged and it was all cute and that was it.”
Three other crew members who spoke to The Daily Beast support Danoff’s recollection.
Reached by email, Brooks’ lawyer Arbella Azizian vigorously disputed this version of events.
“[M]y client was punched,” Azizian said. “He was punched twice in the rib cage and this was witnessed... I suggest you use a different source to get a more accurate assessment of what happened on set.”
Depp’s lawyer, Adam Waldman, issued the following statement to The Daily Beast: “Despite false media reports suggesting otherwise, Johnny Depp never touched the person suing him, as over a dozen witnesses present will attest. In a court filing we have generally denied all claims and we will fight these latest sham allegations.”
Yet, whatever did or did not happen between Depp and Brooks, City of Lies director Brad Furman sees the distinct possibility of darker forces at work to kill his movie.
The film’s release was officially shelved on July 19, according to industry data collected by RenTrak. Furman told The Daily Beast he didn’t learn of the decision until the beginning of August during a conference call with Global Road executives, who he says informed him that “they had spoken to Johnny Depp’s people at CAA and that his agents were in accord with this course of action and that a Johnny Depp movie at this time was not releasable.” But when Furman “started talking to people and doing my own due diligence, I realized that Johnny Depp’s team, including his point agent, including his sister who is his manager, none of them had heard anything about the push of the release.”
Author and investigative journalist Randall Sullivan, whose 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 was the basis for City of Lies, says he was immediately suspicious of Global Road’s motivations when head of publicity Lori Burns told him by phone that the movie was being shelved.
“She was trying so hard to sell the narrative that this was all about the bad publicity for Johnny, and when someone’s trying too hard to sell it comes through,” Sullivan told The Daily Beast. “I thought, ‘You know, why is she trying so hard to convince me?’ If that’s true, then she could have just told me matter-of-factly but she’s going on and on about all the research they’ve done and that has made me start thinking, is there something else to it?”
Sullivan’s book relied largely on interviews with LAPD detective Russell Poole, Depp’s character in the film, who fingered Death Row Records boss Suge Knight as having masterminded Biggie’s murder with help from the LAPD. Poole was forced to resign from the force in 1999; he died from a heart attack in 2015.
Since the information contained within was over a decade old when Furman began adapting LAbyrinth into a movie, he enlisted Sullivan to help connect him with key figures who investigated the murder of Biggie Smalls, whose real name was Christopher Wallace, to see what more he could find out.
Furman managed to get in touch with Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace, as well as attorney Perry Sanders, who represented the Wallace family in their 2002 wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD. (The suit, seeking $400 million in damages, was dismissed in 2010 without prejudice, meaning it can be refiled.)
The filmmaker’s holy grail turned out to be Sergio Robleto, a former LAPD homicide detective who later went on to become the lead investigator for the Wallace family’s 2002 civil suit against the LAPD. Robleto, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 69, gave Furman “the keys to the kingdom.”
“We went down the rabbit hole, and I saw everything,” Furman said. “I got in in a way that nobody has ever gotten in.”
Furman became one of the few people, law enforcement or otherwise, to gain access to the complete, unredacted case files from the investigation and the related federal probe into the LAPD’s notorious Rampart Division Some of this non-public information wound up in the movie.
According to Furman, Sanders, Wallace’s attorney, said making the movie could be “a risk” to him. After that, Furman says a friend of his with ties to the Los Angeles underworld told him not to make the film. Then, a police officer Furman knew independently but hadn’t heard from in 15 years contacted him out of the blue and warned against making the movie. Furman says this cop advised him to get a burner phone and to cover the camera on his computer so no one could hijack his laptop and figure out a way to frame him.
“I already knew I was going to be banging up against the police in making this movie and that’s something I had to accept in service of the truth and justice,” said Furman. “The threat was real since day one and I decided back then I couldn’t let anything bully me, or this story. But the insanity of this situation is at a point where I walk into my home alone, I find myself like a 13-year-old kid, checking my doors.”
LAbyrinth author Sullivan experienced similar issues the last time Hollywood took an interest in making his book into a film—a production which didn’t work out, either. Leonardo DiCaprio was lined up for Depp’s current role as Detective Russell Poole, and Sullivan thought it was a lock. That’s when Sullivan believes the LAPD stepped in and began pressuring DreamWorks, which was developing the project, to shut it down.
“The Los Angeles Police Department is the most politicized police department in the country, and its relationships with financial powers and political powers in the city, and in the state, and even in the country are, I think, unprecedented,” Sullivan said. “I saw the way they were able to marshal resources to oppose making this movie…There may have been other things, I don’t think it was based mainly or entirely on political pressure, but [DreamWorks was] clearly scared by the things they were getting told, they were getting scared off this project.”
The FBI shut down its investigation in early 2005, claiming it had insufficient evidence to prosecute. At the time, attorney Perry Sanders told the Los Angeles Times that the department had “exerted political pressure on the FBI to lay off the case.” Richard Garcia, the then-assistant director of the FBI’s LA field office, strongly denied this.
A former FBI agent who worked the Biggie Smalls case told The Daily Beast that the extent of the corruption in the LAPD went far beyond a police officer being complicit in a homicide.
“As bad as the crime was in the Biggie murder, and all the other corruption, the cover-up far exceeds, I think, what the crime was,” said the former agent, who asked not to be identified. “I think when this movie comes out, there’s going to be a lot of people scrambling and running for the hills because they’re not going to want to have to answer some questions about the corruption that was going on at LAPD.”
The former agent believes a City of Lies release could revive Voletta Wallace’s civil suit, which would “absolutely completely bury and ruin LAPD and more importantly, would shut down all the different task forces that LAPD had with the FBI as well as other federal agencies, [from which] they get all that federal grant money. Not to overstate it, it would basically shut down LAPD. They could not afford to take that hit.”
Of his forthcoming book Dead Wrong, the sequel to LAbyrinth that will be published in January, Sullivan said, “I describe the frightening political machinations that prevented the federal case of LAPD involvement in the Biggie murder from being prosecuted. Truly outrageous.”
Sullivan believes that these same political pressures may have contributed to the postponement of the release of City of Lies, adding, “I think Johnny is being made a scapegoat and frankly, it pisses me off.”
All it would take to deep-six the film is “a phone call,” Furman said. “I can’t exactly prove this, but there are too many arrows pointing in that direction, too many people have called me, too many cops I’ve spoken to, that there’s no way it wasn’t discussed.”
Global Road’s financial troubles may have played a role as well, with the film distributor facing a “definite possibility” of bankruptcy unless it can secure new funding, according to a report in Variety, which said the company’s domestic feature production and distribution division has already been taken over by its lenders.
Sullivan says Global Road invested a lot of money in the production of A.X.L., a sci-fi picture about a robotic dog scheduled to open August 24, and they subsequently may not have had enough cash to cover the release of City of Lies.
“Also, they were being warned, even threatened, with the consequences of releasing a film that pointed such a large and sharp finger at the LAPD, and that would put the City of Los Angeles at risk of tremendous liability,” Sullivan wrote in an email to Furman that was reviewed by The Daily Beast. “I’ve seen up close how powerful those threats can be.”
Global Road executives did not respond to an interview request; the FBI declined to comment. LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said in an email, “I have no knowledge of these events and the Department has no position for or against the distribution of this film.”