Director Ruben Fleischer Interview For ‘Gangster Squad’
Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless, Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen runs the show in this town, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes and–if he has his way–every wire bet placed west of Chicago. And he does it all with the protection of not only his own paid goons, but also the police and the politicians who are under his control. It’s enough to intimidate even the bravest, street-hardened cop…except, perhaps, for the small, secret crew of LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O’Mara and Jerry Wooters, who come together to try to tear Cohen’s world apart. ‘Gangster Squad’ is a colorful retelling of events surrounding the LAPD’s efforts to take back their nascent city from one of the most dangerous mafia bosses of all time.
Under the direction of Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), ‘Gangster Squad’ stars Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling as the LAPD’s Sgt. John O’Mara and Jerry Wooters, and Sean Penn as real-life mobster Mickey Cohen. The film also stars Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Mireille Enos, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte as LAPD Chief “Whiskey Bill” Parker, and Emma Stone as Grace Faraday, Cohen’s moll and the object of Wooters’ attention. ’Gangster Squad’ is out now. My other interviews for the film can be found through the following links (more to come): Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone #1, and Emma Stone #2.
What do you think it is about the 40s/50s era that appeals to audiences and storytellers alike?
Ruben Fleischer: It was such an exciting time: that elegant, art deco, post-war era when the city was really being reborn and expanding. In the US, the country had been through a rough patch, between the Great Depression and World War II, but there was just an exuberance to life when people came back from the War. I think that was represented in the clothes, in the cars, in the music – and that’s fun to celebrate on film. There was exuberance about the victory overseas, the men coming home, and the economy coming back. Honestly, getting to recreate it and feel like we were there, giving the audience an immersive experience of going back in time, that was, for me, really exciting. I’ve always been fascinated by that period, so when the opportunity to explore it came along, I jumped at it.
As a fan of this gangster movie genre, what were some of the films you looked at for ‘Gangster Squad’?
Ruben Fleischer: There were a tonne of movies that we looked at. I mean, some of the classic gangster movies from that era, like ‘White Heat’ or ‘Gun Crazy,’ they were ones we definitely looked at. But there was also the tradition of gangster movies, whether it’s something like ‘Scarface,’ which wasn’t set in the time, but it is a classic gangster movie – or even ‘Goodfellas,’ it’s a gangster movie, yet not a 1940s era gangster movie. Then there’s ‘The Godfather,’ ‘The Untouchables,’ ‘L.A. Confidential,’ they were some classic movies we looked at. There were so many, it was great watching them again, “researching” (laughs).
What did you find most challenging in bringing this era to life? There seemed to be so much detail in the film, from the sets to the costumes….
Ruben Fleischer: It was tricky bringing that era to life, just because so little of still exists, you know? We had to find some buildings that are intact from that time period, and then also collect the cars and the clothes and the guns. Everything was period-accurate. The attention to detail from our production designer, Maher Ahmad, was amazing – in terms of designing it and filling the sets, they felt really real and authentic. It was all real stuff from the period. All of that took a while to assemble, but it was worth it. And for me, I love when movies take you back in time so completely that you feel the texture and the richness of the places, but because we also wanted this film to feel contemporary, it called for a delicate balance.
Speaking to the actors, they were telling me how putting on those clothes put them right in the era, into their characters….
Ruben Fleischer: Yeah, it’s something about the hats especially, I think. As soon as you put on a fedora and a trench coat you feel like you’re in a 1940s gangster movie (laughs). We wanted to inform the characters a lot with the clothes, in that Ryan Gosling Wooters has flashier pinstripe suits, whereas Josh’s clothes almost feel and look like a uniform. The real Mickey Cohen was really big into clothes, he even had his own haberdashery, which was on Santa Monica Boulevard. Mickey was notorious for never wearing the same suit twice. The fabric we used for him were all really sleek, fine fabrics.
How was it assembling this ensemble cast?
Ruben Fleischer: This is only my third film, so to get to work with this calibre of actors was really exciting. Sean Penn is one of the all time greats, and he was certainly, for me, the linchpin to the film. He was the person I first went after in terms of assembling the cast. Then once Sean agreed to do the film, I think he kind of gave it the stamp of approval that helped other people decide that they were willing to give it a shot. And people like Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling, they have a lot of respect for Sean, so I think they decided to be in the movie with him. I think that held true for everyone else. I think we really got the cream of the crop with this cast. I don’t think, for each individual role, that there’s a better person for that character. It was a true dream cast. For me as a director, to get to work with and learn from these incredibly talented people, it was a huge opportunity.
Working with someone Sean Penn, how much of his performance and characterisation of Mickey Cohen was him doing his own thing?
Ruben Fleischer: With Sean, that’s why I think you want to work with Sean Penn – because he is going to make it his own and make it so memorable. We talked a lot about the real Mickey and ways that we wanted to honour the real Mickey, but also ways that we wanted to change him. He was a boxer, and I think that was a big principle for Sean’s take on him, in so far as the make-up and his attitude. We also talked about how funny Mickey Cohen was in real life, he wrote an incredible autobiography called ‘Mickey Cohen, In My Own Words.’ It’s a really funny book, he was this larger-than-life person. We took on a lot of his grandiosity and his sense of humour and infused that into Sean’s version of Mickey Cohen. Mickey is such a dynamic, memorable, menacing character and Sean had the gravitas, the intensity and the humour to pull it off.
And then with Josh Brolin, what was it about him that made you think he would be right to play John O’Mara?
Ruben Fleischer: Josh is just so strong and so tough. He looks like he’s from the era. He’s just such a… man (laughs), I don’t know how else to say it (laughs). He’s just so masculine and strong, he’s an incredible actor. Also, he’s incredible with the action component of acting. In all of those fights, that’s Josh himself, we hardly used a stunt double for him in this film. He trained for all the action and he delivered above and beyond. The script described O’Mara as having a chin so strong you could break your fist on it. When you look at Josh, he lives up to that; he looks like he stepped out of that time period, and plays the part with a measured, quiet stoicism that’s really powerful.
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