Money Makers

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s a scene in the buddy cop movie, “Rush Hour 2” starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, that takes place in a Las Vegas casino. In the scene, Jackie Chan’s character is in the unenviable predicament of having a small bomb stuffed inside his mouth by a villain. I hate it when that happens.

Chris Tucker:
“Aw, man, this can’t be good.”

Roman Mars:
Jackie Chan’s mouth is taped shut, his hands are tied. He’s shoved onto the floor of the casino, about to explode. Fortunately, at the last minute, Jackie Chan’s partner, played by Chris Tucker, removes the tape from Chan’s mouth, and Chan spits the bomb onto a nearby roulette table, where it goes off.

Chris Tucker:
“Why the hell you didn’t tell me you had a bomb in your mouth?”

Jackie Chan:
“I did!”

Chris Tucker:
“No, you didn’t!”

Jackie Chan:
“I said, ‘Mmm!'”

Chris Tucker:
“What the hell is ‘Mmm?'”

Elizabeth Nakano:
So in that scene, where the roulette table explodes, money flies everywhere.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Elizabeth Nakano.

Elizabeth Nakano:
And to create this scene and a bunch of others in the movie, filmmakers needed a lot of money. Fake money.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
We had produced a billion dollars of $100 bills, which is quite a bit of money. We had 14 pallet loads of $100 bills, solid four-foot-by-four-foot cubes.

Elizabeth Nakano:
That’s Gregg Bilson, Jr. He’s the CEO of ISS Props, the company that provided all the fake money for the movie. And he says while they were filming “Rush Hour 2,” something strange happened. A couple of men showed up to Bilson’s office.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
Well, when they showed up, they were saying that they were from Secret Service and provided documents indicating such, and I thought I was being punked. I didn’t believe that it was a real situation.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Do you remember how many people there were?

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
Just two officers, but it got very serious and very real, very fast.

Roman Mars:
The Secret Service was in Gregg Bilson’s office because, during the filming of that scene in the casino, some of the fake cash had gone missing.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
Some souvenir seekers and extras grabbed some of that money, put it in their pocket, and it subsequently started turning up as counterfeit over the next few days.

Elizabeth Nakano:
People were trying to use the fake money as real money up and down the Las Vegas Strip, which meant that Gregg was being accused by the Secret Service of counterfeiting.

Roman Mars:
This is a serious charge. People who counterfeit money can face large fines and even jail time, which has made the use of prop money in movies really complicated over the years. We have pretty strict laws around the reproduction of U.S. currency, which can be traced back to the mid-1800s.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Around the time of the Civil War, there was a ton of counterfeit currency circulating in the United States. Some people say anywhere from a third to a half of all money was fake. The federal government wanted to give people faith in its currency, so it got serious about cracking down on counterfeit money. All reproductions of U.S. currency became illegal, including photographs of money.

Roman Mars:
Along with the law that criminalized reproductions of money, an enforcement agency was formed, the Secret Service. Yeah, those guys with the earpieces and black suits who protect the President, those guys.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Today the agency falls under the Department of Homeland Security, but at its start in 1865, the Secret Service was part of the Treasury Department, and its only job was to fight counterfeiting.

Archive Tape:
“Secret Service agents operating from field offices throughout the country have been constantly fighting the criminals who make phony money, as well as those who pass it to the public.”

Roman Mars:
That’s from a film put out by the Treasury Department in 1945 called “Doubtful Dollars.”

Film Clip from “Doubtful Dollars”:
“And accepting money, it is well to remember that, while not all strangers are counterfeiters, all counterfeiters are strangers. Learn to know your money and train yourself to examine the bills and coins you receive.”

Elizabeth Nakano:
Okay, so the ban on any photographic representation of money was in place for about a century, and this was a problem for advertisers and photographers. By the letter of the law, they were specifically barred from taking pictures of money.

Roman Mars:
The law was written before the invention of motion pictures, but when movies came along, it was generally assumed that filmmakers would follow the same rules as photographers: no money on camera.

Elizabeth Nakano:
And so, in the early days of cinema, when money was needed in a film, producers had to get creative.

Film Clip from “Shadow of a Doubt”:
“30, 35, 40, $40,000. Shall we start with 40?”

Roman Mars:
That’s a scene from the 1943 Hitchcock film, “Shadow of a Doubt,” and if you watch the movie and look closely, you can see that the bills in this scene aren’t American dollars. They’re Mexican pesos.

Film Clip from “Shadow of a Doubt”:
“Ah, details. I’m glad to see that you’re a man who understands details, Mr. Green. They’re most important to me. Most important.”

Peter Huntoon:
I remember seeing it in movies all the way from the ’20s and the ’30s and the ’40s up into the ’70s.

Elizabeth Nakano:
This is Peter Huntoon. He’s an author and expert on American currency, and he says you can see pesos in a lot of old movies. The reason for this is that after the Mexican Revolution ended around 1920, some regional Mexican money that was created during the Revolution lost value and was sold for cheap. The notes from the Mexican state of Chihuahua where Pancho Villa held power were some of the most widely-used in film.

Peter Huntoon:
They were absolutely gorgeous because they were multicolored. They had gold backs, black print, but the idea was that these things looked like money. They were real nice-looking, and so the studios bought them up.

Roman Mars:
But the studios weren’t trying to pass pesos off as American dollars. It was just all they had.

Peter Huntoon:
Nobody’s ever fooled by it. If you see this money go by in a movie, you know whether it’s American or not because, of course, you’d see that a block away.

Roman Mars:
In the second half of the 20th century, the government began relaxing restrictions on the rules around photographing currency, and it eventually became legal to film real money.

Elizabeth Nakano:
And real money is great for scenes where you need closeup shots, like this scene from the 1995 movie, “Dead Presidents.”

Film Clip from “Dead Presidents”:
“God’s not going to forgive me for this one.”
“I tell you what, Reverend with this kind of money, you can buy your way into Heaven.”

Elizabeth Nakano:
In this scene, four of the characters have robbed an armored truck and are splitting up the cash. The camera pans slowly over stacks of bills.

Roman Mars:
But it can also be risky to have real money floating around on set, especially if you need a bunch of it. So a lot of producers prefer to use fake money. These days, the government does allow for some reproductions of U.S. currency. It’s just not very clear how real fake money can look.

Trent Everett:
It depends. It’s very subjective. If it’s the same size as a current U.S. currency note and it’s front and back, and it’s made in the likeness of our U.S. currency, then we view it as counterfeit.

Elizabeth Nakano:
That’s Trent Everett.

Trent Everett:
I am an Assistant to the Special Agent in Charge for our Criminal Investigative Division of the Secret Service, and I currently oversee our counterfeit operations section.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Over the years, prop money in movies has begun to look more like actual money. Sometimes too much like actual money. Some companies did, and still do, turn out bills that run afoul of the law because, to look good on screen, fake money has to be pretty close to the real thing.

Trent Everett:
These movie companies like to have things look as real as possible, and that’s where they start running into issues.

Roman Mars:
Some people make bills that are the same size as real money but with one or two small design changes, like maybe it says, “In dog we trust,” instead of “In God we trust” or Benjamin Franklin making a weird face. Or there are bills that look exactly like the real thing, except they’re stamped with a small disclaimer. All of these would probably be unacceptable to the Secret Service.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Remember Gregg Bilson from “Rush Hour 2”? He thought they had made their fake bills look different enough from the real thing.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
There was probably 25 or 26 separate things that are not what a real $100 bill has on it, but it was still too close to the reality for them to accept.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Bilson had to turn over all of his prop money to the Secret Service to be destroyed.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
And then they confiscated and destroyed all the electronic files that were used in creating this money.

Elizabeth Nakano:
Bilson lost a lot of money, not just the fake money, but the real money it took to produce the fake money.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
Oh, it was well in excess of $100,000. Just the paper stock alone to buy enough paper to produce $1 billion was $77,000.

Roman Mars:
In the end, all Bilson really lost was money. He didn’t have to go to jail. These days, he mostly tries to avoid using fake money at all. It’s just too hard to please both the Secret Service and the movie producers.

Gregg Bilson, Jr.:
It’s not worth it. I’m not going to break the law for a TV show, a feature film, or a producer that I don’t even know.

Elizabeth Nakano:
But movies are definitely not the only way fake money is making it into the marketplace. Here’s Trent Everett again from the Secret Service.

Trent Everett:
It’s not that it’s just leaking out of production companies, but that it’s being sold on the internet where anybody can purchase it.

Roman Mars:
You can actually buy prop money right now on Amazon. It’s even on Prime, free two-day shipping. So, of course, we ordered some.

Katy Mingle:
Yep, this is it.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Katy Mingle opening up the package.

Katy Mingle:
Okay, so it’s a little stack about half an inch thick. It does look a good bit like money from a distance. It doesn’t feel that much like money though. It feels like just regular paper to me. Benjamin Franklin is making a really strange face. It’s like they took his mouth and shrunk it, and it says, “For motion picture use only,” but yeah, let me see if I can fool any of my coworkers with this.

Roman Mars:
Katie has about 10 hundred bills in her hands, which she’s going to say a fan sent us in the mail.

Katy Mingle:
Oh my god, you guys. A fan just sent us this note with all of this money in it.

Delaney Hall:
Who did?

Katy Mingle:
A fan. Just sent us …

Delaney Hall:
Is this for the Radiotopia Drive?

Katy Mingle:
It just says, “Dear 99pi …”

Delaney Hall:
Oh my god, that’s so much money.

Katy Mingle:
“Love your work. Please treat yourself to something special. Ryan.

Delaney Hall:
How much money is it? Is this real? This isn’t real. “For motion picture use only.” Shut up.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so Delaney could see it was fake as soon as it was in her hand, but from a couple of feet away, the money does look really convincing.

Elizabeth Nakano:
And Trent Everett told me they’re actually investigating some fake money that looks a lot like the stuff you guys bought from Amazon.

Trent Everett:
Currently, we are investigating the motion picture note that has been popping up all over e-commerce sites, but it’s two-sided. It is a similar size. It is in the likeness of a $100 US note. The only difference on it is that it says “motion picture use only.”

Elizabeth Nakano:
So don’t be surprised if some Secret Service agents show up at the 99pi offices.

Trent Everett:
No charges necessarily will be brought on the person for purchasing it. They just aren’t legally able to possess it.

Roman Mars:
Okay, just for the record, the person who purchased it is Katie Mingle, M-I-N-G-L-E.

Roman Mars:
Given how difficult it is to make money that looks real but not too real, it’s hard to imagine who still wants to be in the business of creating and supplying fake money for the movies.

Elizabeth Nakano:
But there are a few people still doing it, including RJ Rappaport.

RJ Rappaport:
I’m Rich “RJ” Rappaport, and I’m the President of RJR Props. We are a props house for film, television, music industry, commercials, and the entertainment industry.

Elizabeth Nakano:
When I visit RJ at work, he shows me around a huge warehouse. There are all kinds of different props: a hospital bed, a prison cell, a futuristic machine with lots of knobs and buttons.

RJ Rappaport:
We’ve got giant control panels like this, blue lights spinning across circuit boards and flashing LEDs and all sorts of interesting things.

Elizabeth Nakano:
RJ’s been in this business for years, but he still seems so excited by it. It’s almost like he’s a kid playing pretend with all the perfect toys.

RJ Rappaport:
For instance, if somebody had to disarm this, “It’s the Missile Control system!” “Not the Missile Control system!” “Yes, the Missile Control system!” “Cut the red wire.” “Okay, cutting the red wire.” “No, the blue one!” “Oh!”

Elizabeth Nakano:
When we step into the room with the prop money, it’s like seeing a bunch of movie clichés side by side. There are stacks and stacks of bills wrapped with paper bands like they just came from the bank.

Elizabeth Nakano:
So I noticed you also have a briefcase of money. Is that one whole prop that you give out, the briefcase with the stacks of cash in it?

RJ Rappaport:
It is. This is an entire prop ready to go, and we have other briefcases like this. This is a black leather briefcase, and this is a brown leather briefcase. Sometimes we fill them with fake drugs as well.

Elizabeth Nakano:
RJ says it took three years of back and forth between him and the Secret Service to agree on a design for prop money.

Roman Mars:
That kind of guidance isn’t something the Secret Service normally provides, by the way. RJ managed to finagle an exception.

RJ Rappaport:
We worked with the Secret Service, and we went over all of the laws, all of the updates, all of the changes. It’s a very tedious process where you’re just doing original artwork from scratch.

Elizabeth Nakano:
RJ says, when he makes bills that are blank on one side, he can make them pretty realistic, but otherwise you have to be really careful, jump through a ton of hoops, and even then sometimes the Secret Service will end up asking you to destroy everything you’ve made. It’s so much hassle that, ironically, there’s no money in it.

RJ Rappaport:
And it’s not a big moneymaker. No joke intended. It’s not the way that we make a living. It’s really not. This is really just a service that we do for our clients, and we know that, if they’re going to come back to us for something bigger and better, then we’ll make a living on that.

Elizabeth Nakano:
RJ has supplied money for a bunch of popular movies and TV shows, like the Netflix series “Ozark.”

Jason Bateman:
“Okay, money laundering 101. Say you come across a suitcase with 5 million bucks in it.”

Roman Mars:
In this scene, there’s a montage that includes cash on a glass table, cash running through a counting machine, and cash in a suitcase.

Jason Bateman:
“The IRS won’t let you buy anything of value with it.”

Roman Mars:
TV and movies are full of characters who come across suitcases full of money. It’s a fun plot device, but behind all this cash is someone like RJ who has been through a meticulous design process and years of back and forth with the Secret Service because, for the film producers, there’s no such thing as easy money.

Comments (3)

Share

  1. LP

    I would love to know the song used at time marker 5:54 in this episode. I tried to see if it was from one of the videos or listed in the credits but didn’t find it. Is there a place to find this info for future reference?

  2. LP

    Nevermind! Figured it out. For anyone else who’s curious the song is:
    Walk On By – Isaac Hayes w/The Bar-Kays (1969)

    But it would be nice to have a tracklisting of songs used in your podcasts if that’s not asking for too much (and if you don’t have that stored somewhere already)! :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist