Netflix’s Shot in the Dark: we ride along with the ‘stringers’ of LA

Netflix’s Shot in the Dark: we ride along with the ‘stringers’ of LA

0 comments 📅29 June 2018, 07:00

New Netflix series Shot in the Dark follows the Raishbrook brothers – freelance news cameramen, known as ‘stringers’ – based in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. Fueled by our love of the Jake Gyllenhaal movie Nightcrawler, MyM magazine convinced them to let us ride along for a few nights. Here’s how the reality lived up to the fantasy…

Like a giant illuminated lattice, the lights of Los Angeles stretch out, extending in every direction to the horizon. Tiny, bright clusters of colour seem to shimmer in a big, black ocean, made dark by the night sky above. No other city in the world offers a view quite like this.

At night LA looks at peace. The traffic congestion that’s commonplace during the day has all but disappeared and there’s hardly a vehicle in sight. Yet every night, across the vast expanse of the city, a handful of people (known in the business as ‘stringers’) spend those dark hours racing to crime scenes and car crashes to film them for local TV news.

That’s how we find ourselves in a super-charged, silver Ford Taurus, racing northwards along the 405 freeway, its mighty six-cylinder engine roaring and the needle on every dashboard dial flung to the far right. “Fuck. Fuck. We’ve got to get ahead of it. I’m coming off here,” the driver snaps, cutting across three lanes and barely making the exit. The lights at the bottom of the ramp are just changing from green to amber as he puts his foot down and makes a hard right turn at the same time. The tires squeal and I slide across the back seat, scrambling for my seatbelt.

(L-R) Marc, Howard and Austin

The man behind the wheel is Howard Raishbrook, a 38-year-old, British-born Los Angeles resident. We’d heard a call: “Code-3, possible 503, units in pursuit.” Half a dozen cop cars are chasing someone at over 100mph eastbound on the 101 freeway. Knowing he’ll be stuck behind pursuing police units if he stays on the freeway, Howard hopes to take a short cut and get ahead of the chase, to get the footage he wants. All the while he listens to overlapping broadcasts on the scanners, to keep track of exactly where the fleeing vehicle is.

At the next intersection the lights are red and Howard’s frustration is obvious. “Damn! Trouble is we’re at the top of the last news hour, so there will be choppers all over this any second. They’re hit and miss, these pursuits, but Christ I love ’em,” he laughs. “It’s just a cat and mouse game really…” at which point the light changes and our burning rubber leaves a cloud of smoke behind us.

Car Crash TV

Howard and his brothers make up RMG Entertainment – AKA the Raishbrook Media Group. His younger brother Marc is also out tonight covering the Downtown area, but twin brother Austin is at home nursing a sick wife and child.

One of the scanners bleats something incomprehensible. “They’ve got him,” Howard says, both surprised and disappointed at the same time. “Marriott hotel, Ventura and Sepulveda. That’s two blocks from here…”

The tires squeal once more as he pulls a sharp U-turn in the road and as we pull up to the hotel forecourt I can see a police perimeter being set up. A small crowd has already gathered and more units are arriving.

“We might be able to get the arrest…” he mutters, already half way out of the car and scrambling to get his camera. Sadly, the suspect is already in custody and Howard chats to one of the police officers and then talks into his cell phone.

A few minutes later we walk back to the car. “There were undercover officers working a prostitution sting at this hotel,” he says. “The guy dumped his car and ran straight into them! If that pursuit had been in say, South Central, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Frustrated at the near miss, we gently cruise past the flashing lights and media frenzy and creep off into the night to wait for another call. That means heading back, at a more leisurely pace, to our ‘staging area’ – an empty parking lot close to a strategic intersection of LA’s 405 and 101 freeways. There’s also a gas station here where we refuel and visit the restroom.

The background squawk of the five scanners Howard has mounted in his car is constant as we talk. I make out the odd phrase, but it’s still meaningless and might as well be a different language. Occasionally he translates the tangled mess of transmissions: “Code 3-11, indecent exposure. Some guy masturbating in a truck at Pico and Western. Code 419, DB, that’s ‘dead body’, San Gabriel Valley. That’s over where Marc is.”

Siren’s Call

Born and raised near Gillingham in North Dorset, the Raishbrook boys developed an interest in the emergency services from an early age. “Anytime we would hear sirens in our town, which was probably twice a month, we’d get on our bikes and pedal miles to try and follow it,” Howard remembers.

After a few years, the pushbikes were replaced with police scanners and the boys would listen in to local law enforcement, although there wasn’t much murder or mayhem in North Dorset. “Most of the time the calls were about things like a stray cow or injured badger,” he laughs.

Together with his twin brother, Howard became interested in photography and video production and following some work experience at the BBC, they both decided to move out to Los Angeles, aged 18. Sustaining themselves with studio-based production work, they bought a cheap $100 police scanner from RadioShack and listened in to the LAPD. Back in 1995 resources were limited, the internet as we know it was only just beginning to take shape and there was no GPS to speak of, so Howard and Austin were forced to rely on fold-out maps and an inch-thick manual of technical terminology called Police Call Radio Guide.”

The inside of Howard’s car looks like the cockpit of a stealth bomber

They quickly learned that most incidents took place in South Los Angeles, a troubled area south of Downtown, between the 10 and the 105 freeways. “Everything outside of that was either too far away or we wouldn’t listen to.”

For five years they spent their nights sitting in a rented car in the worst areas of Los Angeles, listening to a police scanner and driving to the scenes of crimes to film. “We had this huge archive of footage and it dawned on us that we could make some extra cash on top of our day jobs. We could sell this stuff that we loved making anyway.”

That idea was helped by TV station news schedules, which dictate the work of a stringer. Every local station has 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock news that broadcasts breaking stories. However, the next major news broadcast is at 4am, which leaves a window of about six hours. A stringer’s busiest time, when most incidents occur, is usually between midnight and 2am.

“News crews don’t work during this time because of union rules that dictate the number of hours between shifts, plus they’d have to get hazard pay, double time and stuff like that. Helicopters can’t go up ’cause of noise complaints. They all go home at 11 o’clock or 11:30, so it’s fair game then and that’s what it’s all about,” he explains.


When director Dan Gilroy asked the TV stations who was best at this kind of work, he was told to contact the Raishbrook boys and they ended up serving as technical advisors for the film. Austin even has a cameo.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Bill Paxton rode along with Howard and his brothers for several nights, to help get them in character. “Bill was really good fun,” Howard says. “Jake was focused on researching his part, so he was quite serious. Bill grew up around here and one night we got into a police chase, and he was giving me all these brilliant shortcuts, so I told him if I ever need a navigator, I’d call him. He loved that. We were high-fiving in the street, it was a bit surreal.”

Nightcrawler isn’t the Raishbrook brother’s first flirt with fame. Back in 2008 they were the subjects of a reality TV show called Stringers LA that was shown late at night across America on truTV. “It became quite popular, but we only did two seasons. There’s only so much you can do with that formula. It was quite graphic and we had a few producers quit ’cause they couldn’t deal with it.”

Following the film’s success – and frustratingly for Howard – the number of people attempting this work has risen significantly. “Since the movie came out, we get job requests all the time, but they’ve got to be switched on, they have to have their own equipment, they have to be able to film and edit footage. It’s usually young guys, full of piss and vinegar, I think the expression is,” he says.

The rates vary slightly between stations, but they are flat rates nonetheless. Howard gets paid the same for a plane crash as he would for a hydrant crash. He might get a little more from the networks, like CNN or ABC Network News, but entertainment shows like World’s Weirdest Videos pay the most.

Car wrecks are among the most common incidents Howard comes across at night

The scanners continue their constant stream. “Someone’s just thrown a brick through a department store window at La Brea and Venice,” Howard translates. “Trailer park shooting. Hmmm, that’s hardly news.”

The outside of his silver Ford Taurus might look like an ordinary car, albeit with a few more aerials sticking out of the back, but on the inside it looks like the cockpit of a stealth bomber. Mounted above his head are control panels for three digital scanners, plus two handheld scanners fitted to the dashboard, to monitor the police and fire departments and California Highway Patrol. The car even has a high-speed Wi-Fi hotspot, enabling Howard to upload video direct from his laptop, which is locked into a stand on the passenger side. Finally, mounted HD dashcams – front and back – supplement his handheld camera. With this set up, Howard can shoot, edit, upload and have his stories seen around the world in under 10 minutes.

Operating a police scanner isn’t just a case of sitting and listening, though. Howard constantly adjusts one scanner and then another, gently turning a dial here, occasionally pushing a button there, tweaking this, moving that, taking in everything that’s going on.

“They’re set on ‘hyper scan’ so they’re scanning through every dispatch channel and every tactical channel. When I hear a specific tone I’ll pause it on that because I know it’s going to be a new dispatch,” he says. “There’s a guy walking down 6th Street in Downtown waving a machete.”

Code of Conduct

Not everyone looks favourably on the Raishbrook’s work and they’ve had their fair share of bad press; the Los Angeles Times called them the “paparazzi of pain”. Distressed friends and relatives at the scene of a crash or a fire have also been known to hurl abuse and even take the occasional swing: “People have come up to us and say, ‘How dare you film my cousin who’s been shot’ or ‘That’s my grandmother’s house burning down, you heartless bastard’ and they’ll start pushing us away and smacking our camera,” he says.

However, Howard says the three brothers don’t spend much time deliberating the moral qualms that come with the job. He says they live by a straightforward code that keeps their consciences clear: help first if you can, film second. Soon after discovering they often beat the paramedics to a scene, they all underwent first aid training and carry emergency first aid kits in their vehicles.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. The Raishbrook brothers served as technical consultants on the movie

Perhaps I was fortunate not to see any shootings, ‘DBs’ or mangled car wrecks, but every time I see a late-night news story from Los Angeles, I’ll think of the Raishbrook boys working hard but loving their job.

“I like how Jake Gyllenhaal put it in the movie, he’s like a coyote, he’s out there, he’s hungry. And that’s how we feel, we feel like the city is ours. It quietens down, a lot of people go to bed and the criminal underbelly just comes alive. And I love it. I just love it.”

Scott Snowden is MyM’s US Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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