Interview: Gangster Squad Director Ruben Fleischer


It’s been quite some time since the period gangster genre has had any sort of presence on the big screen, but unlike the “Godfathers” and “Goodfellas” and movies that glorify the crime side of things, the action thriller Gangster Squad looks at the war on organized crime from the police point of view.

Based on true story of Los Angeles in the 1940s, it stars Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin as Sgts. Jerry Wooters and John O’Hara who assemble a team of officers, played by Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick, to work outside the law to take on the influx of criminals from Chicago, most notably Mickey Cohen as played by Sean Penn.

What might not be so obvious from the trailers and commercials is that it’s also the latest movie from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, who first met on the set of that movie and its follow-up, the action-comedy 30 Minutes or Less. It’s a very different movie for Fleischer that shows he has more range, being able to handle drama and romance (most notably between Gosling and Emma Stone) as well as a visually stylish film that remains true to the period.

Having not spoken to Fleischer in some time, got on the phone with him to talk about the movie and ask him about the famed scene of a movie theater shootout that had to be replaced due to its disturbing promixity to the events in Aurora, Colorado just a few weeks before the movie’s original September release date. I remember when we spoke at Comic-Con in 2011 and I think you went right into this movie like a month later.
Ruben Fleischer:
That’s absolutely right. I was in rough pre-production at that time where “30 Minutes” was coming out and this was just starting to ramp up.

CS: That’s really fast to go from one movie to the next and it doesn’t seem like you’ve had much time off between the last three movies. Maybe that’s just my impression.
No, it’s true. I mean, I feel lucky honestly, but I’ve done three movies back-to-back with not really any break between them, so it’s good now to finally catch up on the rest of my life now that this movie is done.

CS: Maybe either the second or third time we spoke, which was even before “Zombieland” came out, you were saying pretty clearly that you wanted to do different kinds of movies, you didn’t want to do the same thing over and over, and this is definitely very different. It’s further away from “30 Minutes or Less” than that was from “Zombieland” and that was a pretty big gap.
Yeah, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to try different things. I’ve done two comedies, so this is a bit more of a dramatic action movie and I probably wasn’t the most obvious choice for the job so I feel really lucky that Warners was willing to take a risk on me and let me direct this film.

CS: Was this something you chased after? I’ve read that you’re a fan of gangster movies and they don’t come along that often.
Absolutely, yeah, I had to fight for this job, but as soon as I read the script, I just got so excited about it and the opportunity to really make a love letter to Los Angeles and make another movie in the classic tradition of gangster films and add to the canon of the genre. Yeah, I had to fight for the job, but I’m glad that I got the opportunity.

CS: The gangster genre has had its ups and downs, but it seems to be experiencing a bit of a Renaissance thanks to shows like “Boardwalk Empire” that’s gotten people interested in it again even though it’s a different time period.
Yeah, I love “Boardwalk Empire.” It’s so stylish and cool, and I feel like with the resources of a feature film, you can take it even further, just in terms of the glamor of the period and the audience’s feeling of immersion in the 1940s.

CS: Were any of the cast attached or already interested when you came on board or was this something you put together from scratch?
There was no cast involved before I got hired to do the job and it’s honestly the aspect of the film of which I’m most proud, just ‘cause I think this is one of the greatest ensemble casts assembled, starting with Sean Penn, all the way through… I mean, everyone’s so so good and it’s beyond even Ryan, Josh, Anthony, Michael, Giovanni, Robert Patrick, Emma Stone, but also people that maybe audiences are less familiar with like Mireille Enos – I think this is her film debut, which I’m really proud about because I think she’s so good in the film. I also love Troy Garity, who doesn’t have a single line in the movie, but he’s such a menacing premise as Wrevock, who is Cohen’s assassin.

CS: I think this is the third or fourth movie where I didn’t recognize Frank Grillo although I’ve seen a lot of his recent movies including “The Grey,” which I also didn’t recognize him in.
I feel badly for Frank, just because he is so incredibly talented but unfortunately, he was in another really great scene that didn’t make it into the finished cut of the movie so he just gets that one scene… But it’s awesome. That’s what I’m saying. Every single role from top to bottom is filled with an incredibly talented actor.

CS: I’m glad you told me that was him because I still didn’t know what character he played. I found out later he was in the movie.
Yeah, he’s the guy in the beginning, but he had a great scene with Sean that was the first scene in the movie, but it didn’t end up in the finished version of the film.

CS: That’s a shame. Maybe it’s just obvious to me, but Sean seems like an actor who you just know can play the role of Mickey Cohen, just knowing the character and what’s involved. What was it like working with him as he got into the character?
I was definitely intimidated at the prospect of working with him, but also really excited. He’s not only an amazing actor, but a great director and I have so much respect for him, but he’s incredibly generous and collaborative and ended up being a real mentor to me throughout the process. I think he’s just so electric in the film, you can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s so charismatic, but also so despicable. I mean, he’s Sean Penn. There’s only one and he’s just amazing.

CS: When he was watching the boxing on film was that the real Mickey Cohen on the film?
That was not. There’s no existing footage of Mickey Cohen, but it was a real period boxing match and we did a lot… the boxing aspect of Mickey Cohen was something that Sean really focused on and made a big part of the character. It wasn’t that way in the script, but when Sean was looking to define Mickey, that was definitely the aspect of him that he really got excited about in terms of the prosthetics of his nose and his brow, as if he had been a boxer who fought 150 fights and developed that kind of cartilage. The final fight with Josh was a very satisfying conclusion, seeing this boxer get his comeuppance by this cop and that final fight, it starts as a boxing match but then just becomes a slugfest.

CS: When you do a movie based on real people and a real story, do you have to do a lot more preparation? How is the process different from what you did for your previous two movies?
I think given the period nature of the movie, there’s a ton of research involved, whether or not it’s based on true people. There’s so much detail that we have to pay attention to in realizing the film. As far as the reality of our movie, it’s definitely inspired by true events but it’s a fictionalized telling of it. The characters’ names are real people, but they’re not necessarily a completely non-fiction retelling of their stories. Sean took aspects of Mickey that he was excited about and we ignored other aspects of him and I think that was true for a lot of the characters. One of the neat things though was that children of both John O’Mara and Jerry Woodard–Josh and Ryan’s characters–visited the set and were telling stories about their dads so there was a real personal connection for all of us to the history. There was even a surviving member of the gangster squad who was in his 90s who came and visited the set, which was really cool, just to have that personal connection to the past.

CS: The other great catch was that you got cinematographer Dion Beebe to shoot the movie. I don’t think he does many movies these days so that was a great catch. How did you work out how to shoot the movie compared to your other ones?
I just feel really lucky to have worked with Dion. He is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer and a true artist but also an incredibly lovely person and he taught me so much through the process of making this movie. He’s just so experienced and so talented and has an amazing crew. I think a lot of people have been saying that they love the look of the film and I think it’s to his credit as well as my production designer Maher Ahmad and my costume designer Mary Zophres. I think the three of them really helped craft this world and bring us back in time in watching it.

CS: With a movie like this, you could have gone the Tarantino route where you set it in the time, but you use more modern visuals or music, but you kept it faithful to the times. You have a couple of scenes where you do some slow motion stuff. Can you talk about how you decided at one points you needed to do something a bit more modern visually?
Yeah, it was a fine line. I think that we didn’t want it to become over-stylized – not to disparage, it but “Sherlock Holmes” is a period movie with an incredibly modern visual sensibility. We didn’t want to go that far. We wanted to walk a line. I definitely had no interest in using music that was outside of the period. It’s kind of cool in the trailer how Jay-Z is used, but I would never thought that would be appropriate in the film.

CS: I remember seeing the first trailer and wondering whether that would be in the movie.
Yeah, I love the song and I love the way it plays with the visuals, but I at no point had any interest in putting modern music in the film. The one thing that kind of functions on two levels is the score which I think has period aspects but feels contemporary at the same time. That was cool to be able to make it exciting in a contemporary action movie, but then have the instrumentation be a more traditional one, but I love all the old songs that are in the film. We tried to feature some really cool artists and songs.

CS: I have to ask about the scene that you ended up reshooting and replacing after the Aurora shooting. When I heard you were changing the movie, I was a little disappointed because I feel that filmmaking is an art and that shouldn’t be affected by outside occurrences. But was that your own decision or were there a lot of discussions about making that change?
Yeah it was a collective decision on the part of the studio and the filmmakers to reshoot the sequence at Grauman’s, but I’m very proud of the fact that we decided to do it out of respect for the families of the victims of Aurora. I think it was absolutely the right decision and I don’t feel like the movie was compromised in any way. The Chinatown sequence I feel is very strong and feels like it always belonged there. Some people have even asked me which was the sequence we replaced because it was so seamless that they don’t realize it was never there from the beginning or it was shot almost a year after the original principal photography started.

CS: I wasn’t sure myself from when and where the scene was replaced.
In that sense I don’t feel that the movie was compromised in any way. I understand your point about artistic integrity, but I feel like this is the right thing to do in that it was the respectful thing to do and I don’t think the movie suffered as a result.

CS: Do you think we’ll see the original scene on the DVD or sometime down the line or do you feel it’s on the cutting room floor, never to be seen again?
That’s not my decision to make ultimately, but we’ll see. I think that it could go either way. It’s an exciting sequence and one that I was proud of, but given the events, I don’t want anyone to be offended or hurt or for it painful to be viewed in any way, so I think we have to be respectful and see what will happen over time.

CS: You’ve been attached to a couple other projects over the years. Are you ready to jump into something else now that this is done or are you still deciding?
Yeah, I have a couple of projects in development, but nothing concrete where there’s a script that’s ready to go, so I’m aggressively reading for new projects and can’t wait to get started on the next one.

CS: Are you still developing stuff for TV as well?
Yeah, that’s actually what I’ve been occupied the most recently. I did an overall deal with 20th Century Fox this last year and I sold five pilots and we’re in the process of getting the scripts to the network and we have our fingers crossed that they’ll let us shoot some of them.

CS: Are you going to direct some of the pilots yourself?
Yeah, that would be my ambition. As to what they pick up, it’s not up to me, but if they decide to shoot any of our pilots, I would want to be the director of them.

You can also read what Fleischer had to say about taking on the long dormant video game movie Spy Hunter as one potential project here.

Gangster Squad opens everywhere on Friday, January 11.