For his third directorial effort following the genre mélange of action comedies “Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less,” Ruben Fleischer has taken a leap forward in scope and ambition, while taking the narrative back to 1940s Los Angeles. Inspired by the seven-part LA Times articles by Paul Lieberman, “Gangster Squad” charts the apex of NY gangster Mickey Cohen’s westward reign, and the guerilla band of LAPD organized to bring it to an end. Armed with a passion for period detail and a modern sensibility, Fleischer has stepped up to the challenge with a fantastic cast behind him, and at the film’s Beverly Hills press conference last month, stars Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone — along with screenwriter/former LAPD cop Will Beall and producers Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick — joined the director in describing the experience of bringing the project to the screen.
1. Fleischer secured the directorial gig with his distinct passion for the material.
For Lin and McCormack, the initial development stages were all about securing a precise tone and approach with their director, and they both agree that the minute they met Fleischer, they knew they had found their man. “When Kevin and I started looking at directors for this we had a really specific mission for this, which is, we’re telling a period story set in 1940s Los Angeles, and we wanted to make it feel contemporary,” Lin said. “And Ruben’s very much a contemporary filmmaker, but he had a real love for history. We knew him personally before the movie started, so we knew he was a history major, he really loves Los Angeles, and we wanted to make this our love song to [the city].”
McCormick returned to Fleischer’s statement for the project as “not your father’s gangster film,” and said that he wanted “each of the chunks in the movie to be distinguished by its own action language.” Fleischer agreed, saying it was a great opportunity “coming from a comedy background and making the transition to an action-drama movie,” and with Sean Penn filling the larger-than-life shoes of Mickey Cohen, alongside supporting turns from Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick, he also wanted to certify a homegrown feel. “It was honestly really important to me that we — well, Ryan’s Canadian — but we have North American actors not doing accents, and Josh is a seventh-generation Californian. Sean Penn is also a native Angeleno, his grandparents own a bakery in Boyle Heights where Cohen was from, and he used to do bread runs for their bakery in the summers, so there is a very serious, personal connection for many of the actors in the film.”
2. Bringing the period Los Angeles setting to life required more than just an aesthetic focus.
For the meticulously designed, immersive environments that Fleischer required, he brought on his longtime production designer Maher Ahmad, with whom he shared “a real love and appreciation for history, especially 20th century American history and specifically art deco.” Coupled with the costume design of Mary Zophres, who brought the glamor to Stone’s gowns and the leading men’s stylish suits, Ahmad’s work instantly transports the audience into an exuberant version of ’40s LA, one looking to carve its own gangster territory apart from “The Godfather” or “The Untouchables.” However, Brolin believes the film’s characters, including his squad leader John ‘O Mara, offer a more removed view of justice than what exists today.
“I think [O’Mara] has a lot of integrity, and it’s this old idea of someone who has the honor of not following the manual of what law is,” he said. “He had to think dirty in order to snuff out these guys who were trying to turn Los Angeles into the Wild West, into a cesspool.” During Cohen’s time, this meant prostitution rings and drug smuggling happening in near-daylight, with the most influential cops bought out from altering that existence. “My dad came to visit us when we were doing a scene at O’Mara’s house, and I’d asked him a bunch of stories about what it was like back then. He didn’t tell me anything,” Brolin remembered. “But we were looking out onto the street that had been recreated, and he just kind of went off on these stories about how when he was 9 how he used to go in the back and peek in the backdoor of [upscale restaurant] Slapsy Maxie’s looking for Mickey Cohen and his goons. He was talking about all this kind of corruption and the idea of gangster as celebrity, yet there was an innocence to everything he was saying and I think that’s the difference. The innocence of who O’Mara is, and the idea that you can manifest something honorable and have an impact.”
3. The relationship to the story’s real-life characters provided a necessary emotional grounding to the action.
“Gangster Squad” is first and foremost an action film, and as such meets a requisite level of heightened entertainment, but for the cast and filmmakers, there still existed the tale’s real-life counterparts for which to appropriately pay tribute. Brolin got to speak to O’Mara’s daughter for inspiration and accuracy, while Gosling got to do the same for his portrayal of Sgt. Jerry Wooters. The actor recognized the need for divergence where it counts though, and provided a peculiar motivation for his slippery, fast-talking character. “I kind of admired how Bugs Bunny was never above dressing like a lady in order to get out of trouble, and I thought that could be interesting in this in some way,” he said. “I was also trying to relate that to, well, that this was a real person, who was much braver and more admirable than the version of him in the film.”
Brolin agreed, saying, “You create a composite character and see how it fits, and then Ryan is doing something this way and then Sean is doing something that way, and hopefully you’ve got to adjust and find the best dynamic that you can create on the set.” Apparently Brolin’s portrayal of O’Mara was different to the one seen in the finished film though — “less of a laconic character” — and one where they “found it much better to have me shut up and go for more of that Bogey, Eastwood type thing.” He concluded with a smile, “What you do on the set sometimes isn’t necessarily right, so thank god for editing.”
As the film’s femme fatale Grace Faraday, Emma Stone had what she calls a “nice jumping-point, pressure-wise” being one of the manufactured characters for the film, but that didn’t mean she failed to work with Beall to deliver a fully-formed presence. “What [Will and I] had talked about was that she had come out to Los Angeles to be famous, and she ended up on the arm of someone who’s really notorious,” said Stone, claiming Grace to be a “reality-show type” who remains “famous by association.” She added, “I thought something pretty heartbreaking is going on under the surface, and I didn’t get a lot of time with the guys as much, so each scene was just trying to bring as much of that to the surface as I possibly could.”
4. Sean Penn was naturally a thunderous presence on-set, but Brolin wasn’t so fazed.
Tearing into each scene with a sustained energy of violence and power, Penn as Cohen meant for Fleischer a nerve-wracking dream come true, and for the actors a challenge to step up their game. “I was really nervous to work with him, honestly, not only because he’s one of the world’s greatest living actors, but he’s also a great director,” Fleischer commented. “I can promise you I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before shooting with him.” Brolin — who’s known Penn for a large chunk of his career and last worked with him in “Milk” — had a different experience though.
“I don’t find him very intense myself,” he said with a laugh. “The great thing about him to is you go, ‘That’s the guy who was Harvey Milk.’ That’s the shocking thing. His conviction is so complete, and has the ability also to be as vulnerable as he is intense.” Stone unfortunately got the latter half of that assessment saying her character’s position as the “forgotten girl on his arm” made it so “he’s doing his lines elsewhere while I’m watching him more than anything.” Fleischer provided an attempt to showcase the actor’s humorous side though, as he took the cast to a Hollywood screening of one of Penn’s most famous roles.
“We all went to see ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High‘ at the Hollywood Forever cemetery and that’s who Mickey was: Real scary and intense, but also a real sense of humor.” Brolin added with surprise, “He was frickin’ Spicoli, man!”
5. Recent real-life tragedies have restructured the cast and crew’s approach toward their completed film.
Fleischer’s film is approaching release for the second time now. “Gangster Squad” was pulled from its original September 2012 slot as its position as an extremely violent film showcasing copious amounts of gunplay had placed it alongside the horrific real-life events that occurred near that date. (It should be noted, this press conference took place prior to the incident in Newtown). As such, Fleischer and co. are left dealing with their feelings on the tragedies while attempting to provide their version of an escapist action spectacle. Brolin said, “We’ve had a lot of things come up lately that make [the action scenes] very serious,” Brolin explained. “And you’ve got to understand the impact of that when you’re doing something. You’ve already decided to do that type of film. It was a lot of fun, but for a guy who doesn’t have any guns myself — I live in a very Republican part of California and surrounded by gun-toting guys — I get a little nervous.”
He added, “Of course there’s a sensitivity, but you have to look at the grand scheme of things from a universal standpoint. You have video games, psycho-pharmaceuticals, low employment, parents who aren’t at home, CNN who gloms onto the worst and not the best or most heroic. So there’s no one factor.” The interim between the film’s original release date and its new slot found Fleischer re-shooting the film’s theater-set shootout, and he stands behind that decision. “The Aurora shooting was an unspeakable tragedy, and out of respect for the families of the victims, we felt it necessary to reshoot that sequence, and I’m proud of the fact that we did.” He continued, “I think that we didn’t compromise the film or our intent, and I think the [newly shot] Chinatown sequence is really well done, and that we should all respect the tragedy and not draw associations to our film.”
“Gangster Squad” opens in wide release January 11th.