Remington Chase and Stefan Martirosian should be on top of the world. In the last two years, they have produced a dozen films, including Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as a Navy SEAL fighting for his life in Afghanistan. Two years ago, no one in the industry had heard of them, but now they mingle with A-list stars. By their own estimate they have become the biggest independent financiers in the business, plowing $100 million in cash into production, plus another $200 million in bank loans.
In the week before Christmas, just before the premiere of Lone Survivor, they're having coffee at Urth Caffé in Santa Monica — and sitting down for their first in-depth interview.
But Chase and Martirosian aren't here to talk about the bravery of the Navy SEALs or about working with Peter Berg. Instead, they want to quash a story about their pasts.
And no wonder. Their backgrounds include convictions for cocaine trafficking; ties to the Russian oil business, the Armenian government and the African diamond trade; and stints as federal informants. Most disturbing are allegations that they orchestrated a contract killing in Moscow — allegations that the Moscow police took seriously enough to investigate.
Chase and Martirosian say they can explain everything. (They've brought along a Hollywood publicist to help.) But they are deeply worried that if information about their pasts comes to light, they will lose their financing, which will ruin their movie careers.
"To have 'drug conspiracies' is gonna destroy us — absolutely destroy us," Chase says. "The chairman of the board of J.P. Morgan is not going to be interested in getting in bed with a drug conspirator. I might as well just hang it up right now."
A few minutes later, Chase is offering "unprecedented access" to film sets in exchange for killing the story.
"You're gonna destroy relationships," he says. "You're gonna destroy families. You're gonna destroy jobs for people, and countless motion pictures."
After nearly 30 years in America, Stefan Martirosian still speaks with a thick Armenian accent. A mop of dark, black hair falls over his eyes.
Remington Chase is a hefty man, with sandy hair and glasses. As a kid in L.A., he got bit parts on TV shows. Now, among other things, he is a helicopter pilot with an interest in aerial photography. While Martirosian projects Eastern European charm, Chase brims with intensity.
By their account, they met at a tourism conference in Moscow in 1979. Martirosian had come there as a student from Armenia, which was then a republic of the Soviet Union. Chase says he was there "on an interest in Moscow." They became friends. When Martirosian immigrated to Los Angeles in 1985, the two went into business together.
The nature of that business is not entirely clear — they maintain that their first venture was a dollar store in Moscow — but it is probably no coincidence that both were ensnared in separate drug stings in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1993.
It wasn't Martirosian's first brush with the law. In April 1989, he was on a bus that was stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Questioned by a Border Patrol agent, he said he was a Soviet citizen with legal residency in the United States, but he did not have his resident alien card.
As Martirosian was being taken off the bus, the agent spotted a duffel bag above his seat. Inside were four kilos of cocaine and a Russian newspaper.
To this day, Martirosian says the bag was not his. He claims the bag also contained Egyptian shaving cream — proof that it belonged to a group of Egyptians also on the bus.
"I've never seen any cocaine in my life," he says. "I've never touched it."
Nevertheless, he pleaded guilty — and then skipped out on his sentencing. Two months later, he was in Las Vegas to watch a boxing match with his uncle. He says his attorney's assistant spotted him in a restaurant and turned him in.
Back before a judge, Martirosian tried to withdraw his plea. He claimed that he had only pleaded guilty because he thought he would get probation in exchange for providing information on KGB agents to the FBI.
The judge denied his request, and threw the book at him for fleeing his sentencing hearing. He was ordered to serve 9½ years in federal prison.
His luck improved, however, when the case went to appeal. The appeals court found that he had not been advised of the mandatory minimum sentence, overturning the conviction and the sentence. In 1992, he was released.
A free man for the first time in two years, Martirosian quickly turned around and offered to sell large quantities of cocaine to an undercover FBI agent in Jacksonville.
Court records tell the story. In May 1993, he arranged financing and traveled to Costa Rica to check on suppliers. Unfortunately for him, the DEA had infiltrated the suppliers. Over the course of several meetings with an undercover agent, Martirosian agreed to help transport 800 kilos to St. Augustine, Fla. They agreed that Martirosian would send $200,000 from L.A. to Colombia, and that the cocaine would be shipped from Colombia to Costa Rica and on to Florida. Instead, in September 1993, he was arrested in a St. Augustine hotel room.