The Jewish Nomad: Allan Ungar on telling a very Canadian bank robber story—with Mel Gibson in Georgia, U.S.A.

Allan Ungar shooting with Mel Gibson. (Credit: Daniel Shippey)

It’s not every day that you hear of an up-and-coming Jewish director/producer/screenwriter from Toronto who recently made a Hollywood movie starring Josh Duhamel, Elisha Cuthbert and… Mel Gibson?

Yup, you heard me right.

Allan Ungar met with me to chat about his latest feature film Bandit, about the infamous bank robber Gilbert Galvan. He escaped from a Michigan jail in 1984, assumed a different identity, and settled in the Ottawa Valley under the name “Robert Whiteman.”

It was his home base for a thievery spree across 59 banks and jewelery stores, across 14 different cities that he flew into—covering every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland—which yielded him at least $2.3 million. He pulled off the heists in work clothes that he tossed in the trash after each heist, and sauntered away in the three-piece suit he was wearing underneath.

Galvan’s last stand during this period came in 1987, after he was nabbed for robbing a bank in Peterborough, Ontario, and served a decade behind bars on both sides of the border.

But he made headlines again in the suburbs of Chicago: in 2001 for attempting to return to his old robbery tricks, and once more in 2015 for stealing alcohol.

Bringing a Canadian story to life

Allan Ungar and his Vancouver-based writing partner Kraig Wenman got the rights to adapt Robert Knuckle’s book The Flying Bandit about seven years ago.

“The whole thing that attracted me to the project—beyond, you know, being a really great story, and being a true story—was that it was a Canadian story.”

After many years of planning to shoot the project in his home country, Allan was sitting in his parents’ basement in the Lawrence Park neighbourhood when he received a call. 

Due to COVID-19 protocols, the movie he saw as a reflection of his patriotic pride would have to be shot in—wait for it—the south of Georgia. 

Turning that part of the U.S. into Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto circa 1986 was stressful indeed. But they managed to pull it off. (Still, locals in the city of Tifton did a double take when they saw a Canadian flag on its city hall.)

The challenge was to find street corners or building styles that aligned with ones they were trying to emulate, like the Victorian architecture synonymous with the Annex area of Toronto or the Glebe in Ottawa.

Fortunately, they had a few days at the end of the shoot to grab footage in our nation’s capital.

“I think we might have set a record: the first Canadian movie to ever leave Canada to shoot in Georgia. I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”

Details to look forward to

When I asked him what’s most proud of in the film, Allan immediately responded: the performances.

Canadian actor Elisha Cuthbert plays the romantic counterpart to Josh Duhamel—who plays the Flying Bandit himself.

(Credit: Daniel Shippey)

As a huge fan of the Calgary-born actress ever since seeing her on the TV series 24 Allan feels audiences will resonate deeply with the incredible chemistry the pair has on screen.

The director shared that both actors display great maturity and depth in their roles.

“I think that Josh is one of those guys who women love in the rom-coms. We’ve also seen him in the Transformers franchise. He’s one of those actors who has been around but who’s been constantly getting better at his craft.”

For the director, this is also a foray into a different genre than what he’s known for.

“People look at me and they think of fun popcorn action-comedy movies. Kraig and I joke that no one dies in this movie, no one gets shot in this movie. It’s a drama.”

The elephant in the room

Now, what should we be thinking about a new movie co-starring Mel Gibson? 

Allan is well-aware of the actor’s history of making antisemitic comments. But this was also about casting the best person for the role.

And while doing research for the film, he was immediately struck by Gibson’s similarity to real-life Ottawa mob boss Tommy Kay. 

(Ottawa is the last place you’d imagine a scary mobster, Allan jokingly pointed out.) 

At the end of the day, though, the role for Gibson is secondary to Duhamel. And besides, the 33-year-old director has fond memories of growing up watching the Lethal Weapon series of movies with his dad.

“It kind of just became about the work and putting the director hat on and saying: we got a job to do. He’s not a huge part of the film, but he’s great.”

This movie is also a fatherly tribute

Allan’s father died in November 2021, at age 68, while shooting was finishing up on Bandit.

Thomas Ungar was the youngest president in the Jewish National Fund’s history. He was a source of pride and inspiration to his son.

“He was always very much of the mindset that your upbringing is not just cultural, it’s also religious, and you have to adopt that.”

Although he doesn’t consider himself religious, Allan brings the values he learned from his dad with him to the movie industry: etiquette, and the desire to connect through community.

Fun fact! Bandit was produced by Montreal-based producer Eric Gozlan, an Orthodox Jew.

“It’s very nice to work with other Jewish people, because it feels like—other than in Hollywood—we are a tiny, tiny minority.”

Bandit is dedicated to Thomas Ungar, and will be released on Sept. 23, 2022.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

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