The Real Nightcrawlers

The Times, Nov 2014

The expat Brits who inspired the Jake Gyllenhaal movie drive all night looking for crime scenes, and risk their lives filming them.

Nightcrawling-with-Marc-Raishbrook

Also at the Times

It’s about half ten on a Sunday night in south central LA. Traffic streams down the 105 freeway. All is well. Then suddenly, a black Dodge Charger with tinted windows, swerves out of the middle lane and roars off, darting and weaving through the cars.

“It’s a code 9 behind a 1029 Victor,” says Marc Raishbrook, a 33 year old stringer, in the driving seat. “The Sheriffs are in pursuit of a wanted vehicle. So now, it’s just a game of cat and mouse. We have to guess where he’s going so we can shoot the chase as it comes past. You have to think like a criminal.”

As he says this, he’s listening to six police scanners, all crackling and blurting at once. To the uninitiated, it’s an electrical storm of baffling jargon. But Marc listens to these scanners from the moment he wakes up to the moment his head hits the pillow at night. It’s a language he knows. And when he hears the right code it’s as though he himself is charged with electricity.

Right now for instance, he’s tuned in to the Sheriff’s channel to keep up with the chase, as he types the cross streets into his iPhone’s GPS on his lap, all while changing lanes at high speed and calling his brothers, Austin and Howard, who are also in hot pursuit in a separate car. The adrenaline is pumping.

“Here come the helicopters,” he says, glancing at a police chopper in the distance aiming its search cone of light. “Right, I’m getting off at Imperial.” And he lurches off the freeway, screeching around a corner. But the lights are red. He raps on the steering wheel. “Come on! Come on!”

The Raishbrook brothers run RMG News, one of the leading stringer firms in Los Angeles. For 20 years, they’ve been speeding through the LA night to shoot gruesome scenes – of accidents, shootings and fires – which they then sell to TV networks, local news channels in particular. The goal is always the same – to arrive first, get as close as possible, and to shoot the action, whether that means the arrest, the rescue, or sometimes even the shoot out.

It’s a competitive field – they’re up against a handful of other firms, such as On-Scene Video and Loudlabs News, as well as various renegade independents. But of them all, RMG has the highest profile. In 2008, they made a reality show, Stringers LA for Tru TV, which ran for two seasons. And more recently, they were hired as technical advisors on Nightcrawlers, the excellent Jake Gyllenhaal film about stringers. They took the stars out on ridealongs, showed them how to hold the camera, and stood by on set to advise on the placement of fire trucks and police cars.

“Jake wasn’t phased because he went on ridealongs before for End of Watch,” says Austin. “But Riz [Ahmed, Gyllenhaal’s co-star] loved it. We saw a home invasion and a car that crashed into a wall.”

Whatever stereotypes may come to mind for adrenalin junkies, or people who rush to human disasters, they likely don’t apply to the Raishbrooks – three mild-mannered brothers from Dorset, now in their 30s, who came to LA “to see some action”. Austin’s the most talkative – there’s a swagger to his voice as he recounts their most lurid adventures. But like his twin brother Howard, he’s not your average thrillseeker – they’re both 38, married, and have “normal” day jobs at the Corbis photo agency. Austin’s the Global Photo Desk manager, while Howard works as a cameraman for “red carpet stuff and aerial shots of celebrities’ houses”. Marc, meanwhile, is 5 years their junior, and a full time stringer.

“We grew up watching shows like Cops and World’s Wildest Police Chases,” says Austin. “I wanted to experience that excitement. And not a lot happens in Dorset.”

So as soon as they turned 18, they got on a plane. Some come to LA for a shot at stardom, others for the climate – Austin and Howard came for the gang violence and mayhem. And in 1995, there was plenty of both. They worked as security guards at a hotel on Venice Beach, mostly to get free board. And at nights, armed with a street map and a cheap police scanner, they set about learning the codes, and the streets.

“It’s hard,” says Austin. “The LAPD use one set of codes, the Sheriffs use another. For example, a stolen vehicle pursuit is a 1029 Victor for the Sheriffs, a Code 37 for LAPD, and a 10 851 for the California Highway Patrol. You can’t just dive into this.”

At the start, it was just for kicks. They bought an old Buick and set off in search of the world they’d seen on TV, without realizing how dangerous it was.

“We were naïve,” says Austin. “We’d sit on Crenshaw Blvd, which is notorious for gang members, and we had some really close shaves. One guy pursued us – it was a 100mph car chase. Luckily, he lost control of his car and crashed. Otherwise, I don’t know that I’d be here today.”

Marc came out in 2000, once he turned 18. And he had the closest shave of all. He heard on the scanners that the police were preparing to break up an underground gang party in the hood, with 200 people. So he and Howard parked across the street in a blacked out SUV and waited.

“But a fight broke out before the police showed up,” he says, matter of factly. “So we started filming but they were shooting at a car that was driving towards us. The bullets missed us by a couple of feet… You can hear them hit the wall behind.”

Marc sold that footage for about $5000, which is huge in the stringer business – he had something sensational to sell to entertainment shows and national networks, where the prices are negotiable. But that rarely happens. For the most part, stringers sell to local news networks, where they make between $160 and $320 per story, no matter what it is. It’s a hard way to make a living, and it’s not getting any easier.

“These days people shoot things on cellphones and just give it to the news for free,” says Marc. “So if we see them at the scene, we try and offer them money, to stop them from uploading it to social media. Or if they’ve already posted it, we pay them to take it down, before the news networks cotton on.”

The other problem is that crime has been going down for 11 years straight now. The criminal landscape of Bloods and Crips that the Raishbrooks remember from the late 90s is receding into the past. So there’s less to shoot and more people to shoot it. The stringer is getting squeezed.

“But it’s not about the money for us,” says Austin. “That’s what my day job’s for. We do this for the rush. It’s like an addiction. I used to have the scanners on at night, just in case I missed something. My wife convinced me to turn them off. But she loves the adrenalin rush too. One of our first dates was to south central.”

For the stringer, speed is everything. Once the code goes out on the scanner, it’s a race, and not only against other stringers. “You want to get there before the crime scene tape goes up,” says Austin. “And if it’s a fire, you want to be there before the fire trucks, because you want flames, not smoke. That’s the first question the news networks ask – did you get flames?”

So the Raishbrooks have shaved their response times down over the years. Where once Howard and Austin would drive together, with one of them navigating, now all three brothers cover separate territories in separate cars. They also pick strategic places to wait and listen. “There are parking lots in South Central where you can hear the gunshots before the 911 call goes out,” says Austin. “Then you drive around and find them. I did that in Inglewood and found the guy dead in the street, before anything went out on the scanner.”

This happens a lot. By Austin’s estimates, they beat first responders to the scene roughly 35% of the time. And while crime scenes are dangerous – “you never approach the body until the scene is secure,” says Austin. “You could be next” – car wrecks are different. “Our first responsibility is to help. So we all took courses in advanced first aid. One level below paramedics. Basic stuff like stabilize the body, stop the bleeding, hold the neck still. I was at a car wreck last week in Gardena.  He was half in and half out, legs all bent in funny shapes and he was convulsing. So basically, I knelt on the floor, and put his head between my knees until the paramedics came.”

Stringers get a bad rap. The sense that they’re rushing to exploit the tragedies of others is hard to avoid. Cops tolerate them at best, and members of the public sometimes lash out. Howard was at a scene where a 4 year old boy had fallen from a window and died. The family screamed at him – “how can you film this?”

But the Raishbrooks resist the bad press. When the LA Times memorably described them as “the paparazzi of pain”, Austin was appalled. “We’re not stalking people or harassing them,” he says. “What we shoot is news. We provide a service. The segment about that 4 year old’s death included a segment on how to child proof your windows.”

In Nightcrawler, the stringer is depicted as an inevitable product of the news media’s age-old adage, “if it bleeds it leads”. And there’s truth in that – the Raishbrooks have sold no end of gore in their time. But while Gyllenhaal’s character is a ruthless sociopath who’s oblivious to the suffering he sees, the Raishbrooks are human. They’ve seen plenty of horrors – splattered brains, suicides, murders, people trapped in burning cars, screaming for their lives – and some appear in their nightmares.

“How I’m still so down to earth and level headed, I don’t know!” Austin laughs. “It makes you appreciate life. I’ve seen how quickly it can be taken away.”

Back in south central, the chase is coming to an end, and the red lights it seems have made all the difference. As Marc speeds to the scene, his scanner announces, “Suspect is pulling up to the house… Driver is a male Hispanic.” And Marc swears under his breath. He’s missed it by a minute. By the time he’s out of the car, with his camera in hand, the offender is being bundled into a squad car.

“Sod’s Law,” he says. “They drive around for ages, and then give themselves up a minute before you get there.”

He shrugs and returns to his Dodge Charger. It’s been a quiet night. There’s a fire downtown, but it’ll be out before he gets there. Maybe he’ll head back to the hills and look for bears. It’s trash day tomorrow, and they come down the hill to root through the bins.

“I can usually a bear going through the bins,” he says. “It’d be even better in the daytime. I nearly had a bear in a Jacuzzi once, that would have paid my rent for three months!”

But he doesn’t set off just yet. For now, he waits quietly on a side street in south central, listening to his scanners. The codes are coming in thick and fast. And at any moment he might hear a 187 (fatal shooting), or a 998 (Sheriff shooting), or a 211 (home invasion)… You just never know.