• Entertainment
  • movies

How Netflix’s How to Rob a Bank Tells a Wild True Story About Living a Life of Lies

6 minute read

The filmmakers behind Netflix’s latest documentary—How to Rob a Bank— do not want viewers to take its title literally. Although the film, out June 5, features accounts from real bank robbers who explain how they got people to hand over cash, directors Seth Porges and Stephen Robert Morse hope nobody gets ideas after watching it.

“This is a movie about how you shouldn't be a bank robber,” Porges says. “This is a story about what it means to live a double life, what it means to live a life of lies, and how unsustainable that is.”

Here, the story behind How to Rob a Bank.

How bank robbers successfully stole money across Seattle in the 1990s

How to Rob a Bank opens on Seattle journalists who covered the robberies in the 1990s discussing how banks were opening everywhere in the city at the time, as the number of successful companies, like Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks, grew in the area.

“Cash coming in from the tech boom was fueling this,” David Kerley, news anchor for KIRO-TV, says in the film. (Fun fact for Succession fans, Kerly played a news anchor who is anchoring ATN on election night.)

The film centers on the stories of Mark Biggins and Steve Meyers, two men behind 19 confirmed bank robberies across Seattle that netted them over $2.3 million. In the film, they appear to explain their tips and tricks and share how they took orders from a guy who lived in a treehouse named Scott Scurlock.

Based on interviews with friends and family members, it’s clear that Scurlock became a bank robber because he always wanted to make a lot of money. He was premed at the progressive liberal arts college in Washington state called The Evergreen State College, but to make money fast, he started making crystal meth. He got kicked out.

But his sister says in the film that the family knew something was off about him much earlier, when he stole a car as a teenager to go to the beach. It’s all especially surprising behavior, given he came from such a straight-laced family, with a father who was a minister and a mother who taught children who had learning disabilities. The family gave filmmakers access to Scurlock’s diary, in which he admits, “my mind is like an undisciplined child that's gone wild.” 

In the film, people who worked with Scurlock detail how much research he did before robbing banks. At one bank, they were able to befriend a teller and she gave them copies of the employee manuals, with protocols for the teller stations, managing the vaults of cash, and delivery procedures. The robbers wanted to be well-versed in bank lingo so they’d be taken seriously. They waited until armored vehicles that delivered cash arrived and they’d do their robberies when the cars left because that's when there was the most money in the bank. They also wrote down when cops came to patrol them, timing their robberies to when the coast was clear. If one of Scurlock’s accomplices saw police during a robbery, they’d page “Mama’s coming.” 

In the film, one of Scurlock’s accomplices, Biggins, explains how they’d use a bank customer’s car as a getaway vehicle. He wore a Ronald Reagan mask durings heists, while Scurlock wore a prosthetic nose, chin, and cheeks that disguised his identity. Law enforcement nicknamed him “Hollywood” because his disguise made him look like a burglar in a Hollywood film. Another accomplice, Meyers, waxes poetic about the experience of planning and executing bank robberies with Scurlock, calling it “the most creative thing I've ever done in my life.” He compares finding the perfect bank to rob to “finding a piece of marble that's perfect for some image I have that I want to sculpt.”

After every haul, Scurlock and his accomplices would go through the money, holding each bill up to UV light to see if there were electronic tracers. Gear to carry out robberies were buried in the ground, and the robbers burned their clothes after each robbery. Scurlock lived out of a treehouse when he was in Washington and used the stolen money to travel to far-flung places in the world. He gave cash to any friend who needed money, and also to establish goodwill in case he needed to call on them later for a favor. He made donations to Earth First, seeing himself as a Robin Hood figure who stole from the rich and gave to a needy, worthy cause.

Mark Biggins and Scott Scurlock in How to Rob a Bank
Mark Biggins and Scott Scurlock in How to Rob a BankCourtesy of Netflix—© 2024 Netflix, Inc.

What happened to the bank robbers?

One of the reasons the robbers kept catching banks by surprise is that they’d rob the same bank multiple times in a row, when the bank wouldn't be expecting them to come back so soon. But they were caught on Nov. 27, 1996, the day before Thanksgiving, when the robbers unknowingly stole stacks of cash with electronic tracers that the FBI had embedded specifically to track their whereabouts. A shootout between police and Scurlock ensued. Scurlock shot himself to death, and his accomplices Meyers and Biggins were sentenced to 21 years and 3 months in prison.

Both Biggins and Meyers had served their time for about a decade before agreeing to participate in the documentary. Meyers got out in 2013, and Biggins got out in 2015, and they both went on to live quiet lives. For both men, the Netflix documentary ends up being a time in which they can reflect on how addictive the robberies were. As Biggins puts it, “Once you do cross the Rubicon and start living that life you have to lie to everybody about everything, everybody you care about , everybody you meet.”

Meyers does not regret leaving that life behind, calling the moment they got caught “the end of a certain life I had. He and Scurlock were like “two comets" that started out “flying through the f-cking universe and suddenly boom," he says. "It's all busted up in one second. It's gone."

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com