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Interview: Director Ruben Fleischer of 'Gangster Squad'

'On-screen violence is a scapegoat, to a degree... I don't think it's fair to put gun deaths on "culture."

By James Rocchi Jan 9, 2013 10:38AM

After the smaller-scale enterprises of the well-received "Zombieland" and "30 Minutes or Less," director Ruben Fleischer is stepping up to the plate with an all-star cast and sumptuous production values with "Gangster Squad." Telling the story of the real cops who took down Mickey Cohen in dramatized form, it has an all-star cast headlined by Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling, plus a scenery-chewing Sean Penn as Cohen. Originally slated for release in 2012, the film was pushed back after the Aurora, Colo. shooting to remove a theater-set shootout; in a unsettling sign of the times, we spoke with Fleischer in L.A. not long after the Newtown, Conn. shooting. Fleischer spoke with us about period glamour, cops-versus-crooks thrills and the relationship between violence on-screen and in the real world.


MSN Movies: How exciting is it to craft a world that simultaneously is about glamour and duty but also about voluptuous rot in a world of corruption?


Ruben Fleischer:  Wow. I feel like a really lucky guy. I mean this movie, just this time period, is such an exciting one. And it's so ... it is ... It's voluptuous. I can't get that word out of my head now that you said it, but it was such a vibrant and exciting time period. And bringing it to life with the clothes, the cars, the fashion, the music, and then filling it with this amazing cast that just looks the part was really exciting. Josh, I feel it's like he stepped out of a 1940s gangster movie, like he is just is that classic American tough guy.


Two-fisted cop ...


I mean, it said in the script when Will wrote it, the character description was "... with a jaw so strong you could break your fist on it," and when you look at Josh like that's how he is. He's just the toughest dude. And he really, I think, just shines in this film. I love his characterization of John O'Mara.


But you also pose a counter to O'Mara with Mr. Gosling's character Jerry Wooters, when he starts the film a little bit slippery ethically and sort of dries up and gets a handle on it. I mean, was that an important factor when you were looking to cast that part, or I did you just know you wanted Mr. Gosling?


What's interesting is that that was not how it was written, and that was what Ryan brought to it. And that's just a testament to what a talented and dynamic actor he is and how he tries to personalize everything and make a stronger connection and make a more interesting character when possible. Jerry was always a little morally dubious.

BING: Mickey Cohen l Ruben Fleischer



And in real life the Wooters character was best friends with the Whalen character, and he was the guy who was a cop but also hung out with gangster. So he did have a questionable moral code, but in terms of the way that Ryan used (a specific) character to personalize the story for him and to get onboard with the Gangster Squad I think makes it ...  you really invest in him because of that personal connection.


And also it's a real story. I mean there was a real Gangster Squad, and there was a real Mickey Cohen. But you have all these classic Warner Bros. gangster film touches like (a character) getting shot and Ryan Gosling holding him. How careful do you have to be about the blend between realistic and the dramatic?


For us, in terms of the facts you mean?




For us, we really used the truth as a launch pad. I don't think any of us wanted to do the just true-to-life version because honestly it would've been a much more boring story. I think that by embellishing certain aspects of it it makes it more exciting and entertaining for the audience, and we acknowledge that in the beginning of the film with the "inspired by." I don’t think anyone is expecting this to be shown in history classes. It's entertainment, and should be viewed as such. But I love that we were able to pay tribute to Mickey Cohen. He was an incredible kind of larger-than-life guy, and he also was like a huge self-promoter. And he would be so thrilled to know that there was a movie made about him. His whole life he was trying to get a movie made about him, but he could never actually do it. And so I promise you he would be very proud that he's now going to be known as a notorious gangster.


And embodied by Sean Penn as this kind of avatar of gangster capitalism, the winner-takes-all world that's kind of coming to '40s L.A. in a weird way ...


Yeah. In real life Mickey Cohen was running the rackets and the gambling and the prostitution and the vice, but he also was jus a really funny guy. He wrote a book called "Mickey Cohen" in his own words, and it was his biography. And it's actually a really funny book because Mickey was this crass kind of didn't-give-a-s**t about anything kind of guy. And I think I gave the book to Sean, and I think he really was informed a lot by the real Mickey Cohen.


Just this hilarious bon vivant, raconteur party starter ... who also killed people.


Yeah. He's somebody you love to hate. You know, he's so charismatic and so funny but also so despicable and the violence that he uses. We open the movie with kind of like a very strong image that just says, "Okay, this is who this guy is. He's pretty despicable." 


And it's interesting because certainly in like '30s gangster films we didn't get that level of real-world violence, but we do here. And again, it's sort of how do you depict these horrible, brutal events without sensationalizing them or giving them a pass? Do you find yourself having to do cuts and recuts?


Yeah, I think there's the tradition of it (in) ... well I guess all those movies, but Scorsese and "Goodfellas," you know the violence in that is pretty severe, but it's also one of my favorite movies of all time. And so we're informed a lot by the moves that have proceeded us and kind of the tradition of gangster movies. And with "Zombieland" I was blowing zombies away and like, I guess I really, I like to, I don't know how to say this ... but I think in bringing the movie to life, we wanted to push the envelope to a degree.


"Zombieland" was a great film with this very well expressed apocalypse that after the fact you realize, "Wow, they really pulled that off in a budget." "30 Minutes or Less," that same deal. Was doing a period piece with all accurate cars and locations and digital trickery, was that like going bicycle, bicycle, somebody else's car?


Yeah, I mean there's two answers to that question, because for me this was a huge leap in terms of filmmaking and the resources that we had to make it. You know, it was a 71-day shoot, which was about twice as long as what "Zombieland" was. Like you mentioned, there's an inherent cost that comes with making a period movie because if you need there to be the coffee cup in the scene you can't just go and buy a coffee cup. You've got to either rent one or go on eBay and find a period one. There was that level of attention to detail. But at the same time, we made this movie for a price, so I think as big as it is and as much action as there is, it costs half as much as its peers.


You squeezed every dime until it squeaked?


We definitely did, and we also had the benefit of the California tax incentive.




And so we had a cap on our budget that prevented us from spending more. Like there's a top level that is the maximum, just $75 million that you cannot exceed.


And still get that credit.


And still get that credit, so there was no way we could just solve problems with money. We had to be really smart and conservative with everything that we did.


We have a limited amount of time here. Let me ask you this: The film's release date was pushed back due to events in Colorado, and here we are talking this weekend after events in Connecticut. America sells movies, television shows, music to other nations all around the world, and they don't have the same kind of per capita gun problem we have. Is talking about media and representation the wrong thing to be talking about in this debate or discussion?


Yeah, I think it's a scapegoat to a degree. You know a movie is and should be entertainment, and I think that's where the line is drawn. But if you look at gun deaths in America relative to other countries there's no correlation. In the U.K., which I believe consumes all the same movies and TV and videogames that we have here…


And many that are worse.


... Perhaps. They had, I think, a total of 49 gun-related deaths last year whereas our numbers were in the thousands. So I don’t think it's fair to put it on "culture." I think it's more of an American system of values that needs to be reexamined.


. You knew you were shooting in L.A., but was it great to know that no one at any point was going to say, "Can we do this in Vancouver? Can we do it in the old part of Seattle?"


There were early discussions before we did get the tax incentive where we talked about maybe shooting the exteriors in L.A. and the interiors someplace else. But I'm so proud of the fact that this movie was made in Los Angeles. It is a Los Angeles movie. It's a love letter to Los Angeles, and it would've felt false to shoot it anywhere else.


Little touches like introducing Chief Parker's driver, which got a laugh from the L.A. natives last night.


Oh really? That's cool ...


 ... or at least from people who are well read. There was also a laugh for  Anthony Mackie's concerns about which area of L.A. he's always feared dying in.


Yeah, we didn't want it to be like conspicuous in terms of the references, but I think there's enough to add a level of authenticity. Burbank was a corrupt part of town, and I think they get their fair comeuppance in this film.  And yeah, it's cool to acknowledge the history with Gates in the film. But there were versions of this script that had almost like ...  they walk into a club and we'd see Errol Flynn talking to some girl, and I felt like I didn't want to make it conspicuous. And then also having people playing real people that people recognized, I felt like it would pull you out of the movie. There's that great moment in "L.A. Confidential" where a cop accuses a prostitute of being surgically altered to look like Veronica Lake, and he's told, "No, this is Veronica Lake."




I don't feel like you can top that. That's why I wasn't trying to. So anything that was to me felt conspicuous we pulled it out.


Really quickly, just because he's covered so much of this area and covered it so well, how do you get out of the shadow of James Ellroy with a project like this?


I think that the story is distinct enough, and because it's based on true events whereas Ellroy has his own characters, I feel like we were able to navigate. But I love his books, and I love the movies that have been made from his books. And I think it informs it no matter how hard you try to avoid it ... but I think this is pretty distinct from his world.


"Gangster Squad" opens on Friday. Want more Movies? Be sure to like MSN Movies Facebook and follow MSN Movies Twitter
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