Credit: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television
Where does fake movie money come from?
"I just got out of a meeting with the Secret Service. I'm still in the parking lot," said Rich "RJ" Rappaport at the beginning of our phone interview. The reason for the meeting? Some discussion about fake money.
Rappaport is the founder of Atlanta-based RJR Props, a movie prop company that specializes in faux cash for filming. His money was used in "The Wolf of Wall Street," "The Fast and the Furious," the Netflix series "Ozark" and in 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar music videos. But printing money is a delicate business, which is why he stays in touch with the men in black.
"I wanted clarity about laws and regulations. Most other companies that make prop money are actually producing illegal prop money, and that can get a show shut down and someone fined and jailed."
Too good to be fake
Technically, fake money in the US should adhere to strict federal rules (outlined in the Counterfeit Detection Act of 1992) which include being printed on one side only and being significantly larger or smaller than actual currency. But not everyone is on board with the rules, and incidents do happen.
In 2001, during the filming of "Rush Hour 2" in Las Vegas, about $1 billion in convincing prop money was blown up during a scene, but some bills escaped destruction and ended up in circulation. That's when the Secret Service got involved. The event set a precedent for prop money makers.
RJ said he speaks directly with the government to comply with federal rules while finding ways to create the best possible fake dollars. He makes two types: one for close-ups and one that will look real from about 15 inches away. He calls them high grade and standard grade.
"Our standard grade prop money is printed on both sides, but has an optical illusion built into it. It looks realistic at an arm's length, but when you start bringing it closer, it actually changes over and it reveals itself as fake." The trick, he said, is to make it look real on camera but fake if somebody tries to spend it at a store.
"We also have a high grade type, better known as close up money. That's the one you use for a close-up scene, or if somebody is counting money and putting it in someone else's hands. That looks fantastic. But since it looks so real, we can print it on one side only."
Ima Not Real
To comply with federal laws, reproduction money cannot be made by modifying the design of actual money, so RJR Props have created their own design.
"We start from scratch. We start with blank paper. We get a paper that looks incredible. Some of our paper has a color change as you move across: pink-yellow-pink or green-yellow-green. We're the only company in the world that does this because it's very expensive, but we want our money to look right," said Rappaport.
At a glance, the high-grade money looks just like the real thing. But once you zoom in, the differences become obvious.
Instead of "United States Federal Reserve," the words under the "100" in the top left corner read "Unreal Fake Currency Reserve." The artwork of Franklin's face has been done from scratch, and doesn't have his name underneath it. The seal is a different design, and the two signatures actually read "Ima Not Real" and "Not Real Currency" instead of the names of the Treasurer of the United States (changed to "Treasurer of the Treasurer") and the Secretary of the Treasury (turned into "Secretary of the Secretary"). Nothing survives the scrutiny: even "United States" is spelled with a "W" instead of a "U."
In the walls
How much does prop money cost? RJR sell theirs in stacks of 100 bills, with the standard grade going for $45 per stack, and the high grade for $65. They also make a special "distressed" type of money that looks like it's been in circulation. That costs an extra $20.
"It's very difficult to make, harder than people would imagine. It's made by hand. Every bill is wrinkled, creased, stained, cigarette-burned. Everything that you might find on money in circulation, that's what we do to it. It's a difficult process, usually requiring 15 or 20 people sitting around a table."
One of the largest orders of prop money RJR has ever filled was for Neflix's "Ozark," in which a drug cartel lawyer, played by Jason Bateman, stashes large amounts of cash in the walls of his house and other locations.
"We didn't know what was going to happen and it turned out to be absolutely fantastic. It was absolutely iconic. You never know how these things are going to turn out. But that was a very very memorable moment," said Rappaport.
Hollywood of the South
The Atlanta area, where RJR is based, has recently become a huge filmmaking capital, thanks to attractive tax credits, and has earned the nickname "Hollywood of the South." It boasts the largest purpose-built studio outside of Hollywood, Pinewood Studios, where "Avengers: Infinity War," and "Spider-Man: Homecoming" were both filmed.
To keep up with demand, RJR has about 30,000 different props other than money in stock, including everything from fake cocaine to space capsules (the latter used in the NASA drama "Hidden Figures.")
"We have an operating room that you would see in a hospital. We've got doctors offices. We've done an entire computer laboratory with the latest, newest servers. We had to do what's called a server farm for the movie 'Ant Man.' We have airport props like walk-through metal detectors and baggage scanners and they're all fully operational. I think we have five or six aircraft, some of them are real and can be filmed from the inside or the outside. We've got cameras from some of the earliest American TV shows, like the 'Howdy Doody' show and 'Sesame Street.' We got vintage cameras from the original NBC, ABC and even CNN studios."
A large part of the business is music videos, which fuel a lot of the demand for fake money. "We get music video artists probably 20 times a week, which is really quite, quite a bit if you think about it," said Rappaport.
While most props are rented, money is almost always purchased (and occasionally flaunted on Instagram.) But does anybody in the business use real cash?
"Yes, actually there are a number of artists who use real money," Rappaport revealed.
"But I can't say who uses real money and who uses fake money because it would be a security risk."
Top image: A still from "Breaking Bad"