Interview: Lansky Director Eytan Rockaway Talks Crime Drama

The biographical crime drama Lansky, starring Sam Worthington (Avatar films, ManhuntTerminator Salvation) and Academy Award nominee Harvey Keitel (Bugsy, The IrishmanReservoir Dogs), is out tomorrow in theaters and on demand. It’s directed by Eytan Rockaway from a story he wrote with his father, Robert Rockaway. The film also stars AnnaSophia Robb, John Magaro, Minka Kelly, David Cade, and David James Elliott.

“David Stone (Worthington), a renowned but down-on-his-luck writer, has the opportunity of a lifetime when he receives a surprise call from Meyer Lansky (Keitel),” says the synopsis. “For decades, authorities have been trying to locate Lansky’s alleged nine-figure fortune, and this is their last chance to capture the aging gangster before he dies. With the FBI close behind, the Godfather of organized crime reveals the untold truth about his life as the notorious boss of Murder Inc. and the National Crime Syndicate.”

RELATED: Exclusive Lansky Clip Featuring Sam Worthington & Harvey Keitel

ComingSoon’s Sabina Graves caught up with Lansky director Eytan Rockaway to discuss the film, working with Harvey Keitel, and how his father inspired the character of David Stone.

Sabina Graves: Lansky is a film I think that is firmly planted inside of its protagonist’s mind where you have Sam Worthington as David Stone and interviewing a subject who has outlived their peers and has survived so much. What was your collaboration with Sam Worthington in creating this character that is the audience’s way into Lansky’s story?

Eytan Rockaway: The reason that I think that Sam Worthington’s character is very interesting because it helps the movie give that emotional arc, and it gives it a point of objectivity that I needed as a filmmaker. When I did the movie, I didn’t want a guy telling his story, and then we cut back to the scenes of the past, but personally, I was also looking at it in a very objective way. Took the historical information. My father interviewed Meyer Lansky. So I read his transcripts and everything. His character, David Stone, is based on my father’s interview with Lansky before he died. Yeah. So, that was actually the catalyst for this whole movie. My father wrote a book about gangsters. He’s a very well-known history professor. So I had that bug in me and specifically the Lancy character.

Working with Sam with the character, it was important for us to get that his emotional arc with the family and that fatherly figure that he had with Lansky throughout the movie. But in a sense, through his character, we understand that he’s being objective about it to a certain extent. So I think that was very helpful and Sam is an amazing actor. I remember when we were shooting the movie, I walked into his trailer, and I saw the screenplay placed out across the wall with lines. There’s like a crazy genius, you know, mapping out his character arc. It was a lot of fun working with him, really, really good actor. He has a great work ethic. I mean, we explored, and it was an amazing experience.

It’s really awesome to know that David Stone was inspired by your father. That’s so cool. We get a lot of other movies where it’s from the perspective of Lansky, or you have the stories that are more obvious, like centering [Bugsy] Malone or [Lucky] Luciano. You do something without those characters sort of taking the spotlight through having him have those interactions with his family that also kind of mirror David’s interactions with their family. Was it important for you in the cinematic way to photograph the film and Lansky’s past just as real as the present day that we’re also seeing?

Yes. When I approached it on a technical level, on the visual level, I’m used to seeing old gangster movies shot in a very classical way. What I tried doing with this movie is the opposite. Everything in the 1980s, shoot it very classically to represent his old age, slow-paced life. Very kind of beautiful, somebody going towards the end of his life. The first part of the movie, the 1930s and 40s, I wanted to shoot more in a modern way, more realistically to give that energy, to show his violent past, to give youth to those scenes because they were much younger back then and use handheld cameras. So I tried doing as much as possible. Again, we shot the movie in 20 days. So most of the days, it was like taking out my shot lists, throwing it in the garbage and me and the DP setting up the shots and figuring out how we shoot it instead of 15 or 20 setups, shoot it in four or five and get the coverage and the scenes that we need. But that’s independence in a mind when you have your back to the walls is when the best creative ideas come to you.

Amazing. It’s wild in 20 days. Congratulations, oh my gosh.

I had a great crew. I don’t recommend it to everyone [laughs].

What was the scripting process like? Were there chapters of Lanksy’s life that you felt were avoided previously that particularly spoke to you that you really want it to highlight?

Yeah. I wanted to highlight for me the first part of the 1930s and 40s were his rise to power, and were important for me to show specific moments in his life in the 1980s when he’s older. For me, it’s an old man reflecting on his life and dealing with his morality and dealing with the perception of it. While at the same time, you have a man that sees him as a father figure and through him what’s important. I guess both of those elements.

Harvey Keitel, such an amazing job. Oh my goodness.

He’s a legend. He’s a great human being on and off-screen. When he walked on set the first day, he shook every single person’s hands on the set—everything from the caterer to the grip. I mean, every single person before we started his first scene. He’s just so much fun to work with.

That’s amazing. At what point of the process did he come in? Was he someone you had in mind, even during the scripting process?

He’s a good friend of Danny A. Abeckaser. He’s also in the movie. He plays the young agent. He had a connection to him, and he sent him the screenplay. Then Harvey met with me, and he signed onto the project. It took us years to make this movie from the moment he signed on to the project. It took three years until we went into production. He lives near me in New York. So I used to see him in the streets. So the first year, I’m like, “Hey, it’s the director of Lansky,” and he’s like, “Hey, great.” The second year I was like, “Hey, the director of Lansky.” He thought I was stalking him. When we finished shooting the movie, he gave me a book, and he wrote inside, “To my friend Eytan, the only stalker I was ever happy that caught up to me.” Yeah, working with him was just an honor. I mean, he’s a method actor. He was one who was head of the actor’s studio for two decades. I learned so much from working with him. It was nerve-wracking at first, but once you get to know him, it was just such a pleasure.

Amazing. How much of your script was sort of informed by what your father wrote, and were there any sections that you kind of took inspiration for more sort of fictional liberties in regards to Lansky’s experiences that you were wanting to sort of put into focus for this story?

I would say most of it is historically accurate. I did a lot of research. I mean, everything you see in the movie is accurate, including, by the way, the FBI trying to locate him before he died. So everything was accurate. I did take creative liberties, and obviously the David Stone character in the movie. I created scenes that portray the specific things that happened, but not necessarily true. I won’t give away too much, but there was a murder scene that happens in the forest. Things like that happen, but did that specific thing happened? No, but there were many other instances that similar things happen other than that. Most of it is historically accurate and public domain and public knowledge. I just took my father’s transcripts and interviewed him, did research, and had other people helping me out with that.