From the Set: Gangster Squad


Looking at the cast and crew of the upcoming film Gangster Squad, it’s easy to see why almost anyone in Hollywood would want to join the production: the chance to work alongside Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña and Nick Nolte among many others, under the watchful eye of director Ruben Fleischer. But Josh Brolin says he jumped on the production because it takes a different approach to the gangster stories that he’s seen in recent years – namely, by giving its period detail a decidedly visceral feel.

“There’s been these movies recently like ‘Public Enemies’ that have copied this old school cadence in their language,” he explains. “I like the idea of it being as normal as possible and as modern as possible even though it’s not modern. I doubt that they knew they were speaking in that cadence back then. So when you hear something in that cadence, it takes you out of it for me. That’s why I like the version that we’re doing.”

Fleischer, who previously made the comedies Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, echoes Brolin’s sentiment, acknowledging that he wants the film to connect with contemporary viewers, but not in a conspicuous way.

“All I can do is just make it how I think it should be made and hopefully that connects with a modern audience, but we’re not trying to do anything that pulls you out of the period,” Fleischer says. “We’re not doing like Tarantino, like how he put in a Bowie song during like the Nazis [in ‘Inglourious Basterds’], you know. It will never break the time period. I guess it’s just more like more modern techniques of filmmaking and whatever sensibilities that inform the film.”

Meanwhile, Mackie reveals that the film will still address the cultural norms of the time, including the comparative rarity of seeing an African-American police officer working alongside whites. “If you look at that time, that year specifically, 1949, was a very specific turning point in African culture in America. I feel like you had a bunch of people in black communities with a very keen eye for where they wanted their culture to go, and they were working towards that and Rocky Washington was working towards that.

“So I feel like bringing that character to life, and showing what not only he meant to his community but also to the police force in Los Angeles, and the Gangster Squad taking on Mickey Cohen was more interesting than the other side of that.”

As a departure from those comedies which made him a box office commodity, Flesicher seems to be out of his element. But the cinephile filmmaker says that he jumped at the chance to take on a film in a genre which he’s loved for a long time.
“I just I think really I was a fan of the genre,” he explains.

“I mean, I think that some of the greatest movies of all time are within this genre, like ‘The Godfather,’ and ‘Goodfellas,’ and ‘Untouchables,’ and there’s just so many classic gangster movies that I was always such a fan of. So I was just thrilled at the opportunity to get to make one.” He adds that he’s especially excited to be able to contribute to the legacy of the gangster movie his interpretation of them, filtered through the cinematic era in which his career has developed.

“Every period kind of has their take on it, like in the ’70s it was ‘The Godfather,’ ‘China Town.’ In the ’80s, it was ‘The Untouchables.’ The ’90s, I guess it was ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and there hasn’t been one for a while that kind of had the staying power. There were a few in the early 2000s that I don’t think were up to the same level as those other ones. So I was just psyched to get on board and to get to make a movie like this.”

The combination of period detail and modern style suits Brolin well, and he admits he shares much in common with his character. “Well, basically he’s a guy who’s like me — he’s in love with California,” he says. “I grew up thinking that I had to move to New York to be a good actor. But after a while you start to live the world a little bit and you start to appreciate where you’re from. I love California man, I love Los Angeles, I love the whole of California — we have everything here, we have the ocean, we have the mountains, we have the desert, we have everything. I could really connect to that, and that’s what that guy is.”

Brolin also says that the character embodies a certain kind of fear and disillusionment, which, though it’s rooted in the period in which the film is set, seems likely to resonate with viewers now. “He has the innocence of the ’40s and ’30s, and yet they came back from the war and things had changed, there was a ton of corruption happening. And when Mickey Cohen moved in and just wanted to poison and monopolize on Los Angeles, he really took offense to it. And he did what he could, and finally he did it illegally. I mean, not totally illegally, he did it within the boundaries of the law, but the law back then was a different thing then it is now. It wasn’t so paranoid.”

The Untouchables is a film that comes up often as the actors and filmmakers are discussing Gangster Squad, both as a point of inspiration and of departure. Mackie, for example, says it symbolizes a certain kind of gangster movie whose influence is simply too powerful to ignore. “If you do this movie in this period you have to have a ‘L.A. Confidential’ conversation, you have to have an ‘Untouchables’ conversation. Because those are the two movies for me that define that era. So it was really important for him to create characters that were true to this period.”

Brolin, on the other hand, ascribes the eternal conflict of gangster movies to larger myths, a sort of primal conflict which runs recurrent in almost all drama. “It’s cops and robbers, it’s good and evil, it’s Shakespearian, it’s mythological, it’s classical, and it’s Greek.”

Fleischer describes the film’s action sequences, which he says definitely will satisfy viewers accustomed to high-octane thrills. “It is at its core an action movie. This has several big set pieces that are big action sequences, like car chases and shoot-outs and stuff like that. So I think that’ll be our real chance to kind of say how the feel of this movie is in a contemporary way. It’s because the addition of visual effects and just all the sort of developments and action in the past ten to 15 years, since the last one of these types of movies was made, no one has to really explored in this period.”

Ultimately, however, Brolin says that the distinctions between the behavior of the era and the behavior of today, and the movies of yesteryear and the movies of today, are much less important than even he and his colleagues have made them seem. “I want to believe that people were just as visceral as they are now,” he says. “When we think about the ’40s, you think about the innocence and all that. I think there were a lot of things that were more underworld and a little more debaucherous than that.”

“This may feel more period than any other movie you’ve seen about this period, because we didn’t try to make it feel period. It just is.”

Gangster Squad opens in theaters on January 11.