There’s the David Ghantt that Zach Galifianakis said he’s come to know in real life – the sweet, quiet, modest, self-deprecating former Kings Mountain resident who once stole $17 million from his employer.
Then there’s the David Ghantt that the bearded, soft-bellied comic actor plays in Relativity Media’s new “Masterminds” – a cartoonish clod who shoots himself in the shorts, can’t discern a clever disguise from a preposterous Halloween costume, and locks himself in the back of a van while trying to steal said cash from a Loomis Fargo vault in Charlotte.
“I kept having to tell David: ‘I’m not playing you verbatim. ... I’m borrowing a little bit from you here and there,’ ” says Galifianakis, star of the movie that is exaggerating the tale of simple North Carolinians committing the zaniest crime this part of the state has ever seen. “I had to remind him: ‘I’m playing a much dumber version of you.’ ”
“Masterminds,” which opens Friday, is based loosely on the 1997 Loomis Fargo heist in Charlotte. Ghantt, then 27, crammed the very-many millions into the van alone, later fleeing to Mexico with $25,000 of it stashed into the legs of pantyhose that he wore as a money belt; while he waited futilely for the woman who helped him plan the caper, his greedy co-conspirators and their friends and relatives proceeded to blow millions and, ultimately, their cover. At the time, it was the second-largest all-cash robbery in U.S. history.
Galifianakis and “Masterminds” director Jared Hess took the basic outline and broad strokes of the story and amped the idiocy to 11. And they did it all with the blessing of David Ghantt.
Once all 21 arrests were made, it was dubbed the “hillbilly heist,” and the rest of the country jumped at the opportunity to make those involved the butt of condescending headlines like “They Had 17 Million Dollars and No Sense at All” and “Thieves Find Cash Can Buy Anything But Brains.” (The most definitive document on the crime is former Observer reporter Jeff Diamant’s book “Heist,” published in 2002 and revised last year.)
Galifianakis and “Masterminds” director Jared Hess took the basic outline and broad strokes of the story and amped the idiocy to 11. And they did it all with the blessing of Ghantt, now a free man, who spent many long days as an on-set consultant while the film was being shot in Asheville, Franklin, Waynesville and Puerto Rico.
“I immediately fell in love with the guy,” Hess says. “He’s so genuine, and we wanted to make sure that was portrayed on screen. And David Ghantt has a sense of humor about it. He’s like” – Hess slips into a lazy Southern drawl – “ ‘Oh, while I was livin’ it, it was real rough and stressful, but looking back – yeah, it was pretty funny.’ ”
In fact, Hess says Ghantt – who “always felt destined for a life of adventure,” according to Galifianakis’s opening voice-over – told him he doesn’t regret his crimes.
“He’s like” – Hess is getting pretty good at his Ghantt impression by this point – “ ‘The two best things I’ve ever done is steal the money, and make a movie about it.’ ... And he knew that we were doing a comedy, and not like a Michael Mann thriller. It’s a celebration of this absurd heist that went wrong.”
The movie rights were purchased years ago, but the project foundered as it went through multiple scripts (including one by UNC School of the Arts alums Jody Hill and Danny McBride, who recently created “Vice Principals” for HBO), each screenplay centering on different characters. Ultimately, the studio went with a version by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey that focuses on Ghantt, who served nearly 5 1/2 years in federal prison for his role in the crime and was ordered to pay $3.8 million in restitution.
The comedy – which also stars Kristen Wiig as Ghantt’s former co-worker and (not-fully-requited) love interest Kelly Campbell, Owen Wilson as manipulative ringleader Steve Chambers, and Jason Sudeikis as eccentric killer-for-hire Mike McKinney – had been in the can for almost two years. It languished in limbo as Relativity weathered serious financial woes.
Galifianakis, who plays the young David Ghantt but is actually the same age to the month as the real one (46), will be remembered by fans of “Masterminds” as much for his over-the-top North Carolina accent as he will for his mop-top-with-bangs ’do.
Oh my God. Pffft. I mean, that’s actually how I really talk.
Zach Galifianakis on the accent he used in playing David Ghantt in “Masterminds”
“There was some back and forth, initially, with the studio, like: ‘But if he’s got an accent that’s that strong, are people gonna be able to understand him? Is that gonna alienate people?’ ” Hess says. “It’s like, ‘No! This is such an important part of the character. We’ve gotta do it.’ And so we were both very firm on that.”
Both the twang and the bangs were real, by the way. Nope, that’s not a wig. And that accent?
“Oh my God. Pffft. I mean, that’s actually how I really talk,” says Galifianakis, laughing. He grew up in Wilkesboro, went to N.C. State University (though he remains one credit short of a degree), and up until a few years ago – even through three star-making turns in “The Hangover” movies – he lived a virtually TMZ-free life of peace and quiet on a farm in Alleghany County. He now splits time between California and Canada.
“The tricky thing is to try to sound like I don’t talk like that,” he continues. “It’s a fun accent to do. North Carolina itself has about seven different accents that I can pick up on. In the Eastern part of the state” – now he starts doing voices – “it’s much more breathy. And you go west, and” – shifting gears to something far more nasally – “everybody talks out of their nose. ... The Southern accent, I miss it so much. I love that sweetness on everybody’s breath in the Southern accent.”
He clearly loves the South. During a phone interview with the Observer, he mentions at least a half-dozen times his fondness for the Tar Heel state; he talks wistfully about growing up with “guys like Ghantt” in Wilkesboro, and about a visit to N.C. State last winter; he even leads off by asking about Charlotte in the wake of the recent national-headline-making protests. And he ends the call by saying: “Best of luck to Charlotte in the next few weeks.”
Young men are morons. They just are. And yes, I realize I’m talking to the audience I’m trying to get to go see this movie.
Galifianakis seems to be equally enamored with the man he portrays as a (lovable) idiot on-screen.
“The most attractive thing was how nice of a guy he is,” the actor says. “He did something wrong, but you meet him years later and he’s just a nice man. ... He’s older, he’s mature, and he has more perspective – he’s a Monday-morning quarterback at 46, and he can kind of reflect on the mistakes he’s made.
“Young men are morons. They just are. And yes, I realize I’m talking to the audience I’m trying to get to go see this movie.”
Galifianakis says he and Ghantt have remained in touch over the two-plus years since filming, although the relationship is sometimes a bit one-sided.
“I chatted with him a few weeks ago,” he says. “He called me, then I called him back – and David’s a quiet guy. He’s really pretty quiet. I’m like, ‘David, I’m calling you back.’
“ ‘Uh-huh.’ (Long pause.)
“ ‘Well, you called me!’
“I mean, what??” Galifianakis is emitting the breathiest of breathy laughs, and through the phone you can almost imagine that Southern sweetness on his breath.
“We need him to rob another bank,” he adds, perhaps only half-jokingly, “so there can be a sequel.”
This timeline originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer on Oct. 4, 2007 – the 10th anniversary of the crime portrayed in the new film “Masterminds,” starring Zach Galifianakis. (For a more deeper dive into the Loomis Fargo heist, read this 1998 story by then-Observer-reporter-now-New-Yorker-staff-writer-and-author Paige Williams.)
Oct. 4, 1997: David Ghantt leaves a Loomis Fargo vault in Charlotte with $17 million stacked in the back of a white Ford Econoline van. He meets Steve Chambers, Kelly Campbell, Eric Payne and Scott Grant in the parking lot of a Gaston County graphics company, and they heave most of the cash into a rented Budget truck. They ditch the van in nearby woods with $3.3 million still inside.
Oct. 5: Ghantt makes it to the Playa del Carmen Resort in Mexico, with a fake identity and $25,000, ready for Campbell to join him.
Oct. 6: FBI discovers the van with the money still inside and two Loomis Fargo security tapes showing Ghantt taking the money from the vault.
Oct. 7: Michele Chambers walks into a Mount Holly bank with a briefcase full of cash. She asks the teller how much cash she can deposit without having to fill out paperwork. The limit is $10,000; Chambers deposits $9,500 – an early round in a jumble of money storage, cash deposits and money laundering that eventually leads the FBI to the conspirators. The teller fills out paperwork anyway.
Oct. 25: Steve and Michele Chambers move from their Lincolnton mobile home to a $635,000 mansion on Cramer Mountain, paying $400,000 down. The two begin a wild spending spree, eventually buying a furniture store, expensive jewelry, a sports car and thousands of dollars in antiques.
Less than two weeks later, tipsters would raise questions about their sudden wealth to FBI agents.
December 1997: Campbell buys a $30,000 minivan using mostly twenty-dollar bills at Harrelson Toyota in Fort Mill, S.C., and registers it under one of Steve Chambers’ aliases. This is the first big break for FBI agents who then connect Campbell and Ghantt to Chambers.
For the next three months, agents track purchases, connecting the conspirators and building a case. Meanwhile in Mexico, Ghantt runs low on money. Campbell has still not joined him. He continues to tell her he loves her by phone.
Feb. 10, 1998: A judge allows the FBI to use wiretaps to monitor phone calls. They figure out Ghantt is in Mexico.
March 1: Ghantt is arrested in Mexico days before he might have been killed by Mike McKinney, whom prosecutors say Steve Chambers hired as a hit man.
March 2: FBI agents and local law enforcement officers simultaneously arrest Steve and Michele Chambers at their Cramer Mountain home, Kelly Campbell at her Mount Holly trailer and Mike McKinney at the Hampton Inn in Gastonia.