Ruben Fleischer exploded on the scene with Zombieland, which made him a hot young director to keep an eye on. Though his follow up (30 Minutes or Less) could be typed a sophomore slump, it may have been because he didn’t want to keep making comedies like Zombieland. Gangster Squad is Fleischer’s chance to show that he isn’t just a funny guy with a great eye, but someone who could do anything. Our on-set interview with Fleischer follows after the jump.
Question: [One] of the things that they said was that they brought you in specifically to give it a sort of modernness that merged with the period details. How did you approach this when you came in to it?
Ruben Fleischer: I was a fan of the genre. Some of the greatest movies of all time are within this genre, 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. And every period has their take on it, like in the ’70s it was The Godfather, Chinatown. 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 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. And in terms of making it modern, I’ll just – 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 conspicuous that pulls you out of the period. We’re not like Tarantino, how he put in a Bowie song during like the Nazi’s, you know. It will never break the time period. I guess its just more techniques of filmmaking and whatever sensibilities that inform the film.
There’s a lot of action scenes as well.
Fleischer: Yeah. I mean, it is as its core an action movie. So I think the action will be our chance to define it. A lot of those movies that I referenced aren’t actually that action-y. There aren’t big shoot-outs. I mean, there’s moments in each of those films, but this has like several big set pieces that are big action sequences, like car chases and shoot-outs. 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 ’cause the addition of visual effects and all the sort of developments and action in the past ten to fifteen years.
Can you talk about the casting and especially with Ryan and Emma?
Fleischer: I don’t know what to say about the cast but I’m just – I’m the luckiest guy there is. To me, when I read it, Mickey is kind of the villain and Sean was the person I just kind of knew it had to be. And so we worked really hard to convince him to do it. And then with Josh and Ryan, if you read the character description of O’Mara, which is Josh’s character, it says that he has a kind of jaw that you break your fist on. And I feel like that’s like Brolin to a T. And Ryan is just – I mean, he embodies a lot of the traits that the Wooters character has, and it all just kind of fell really in to place. Then filling out the cast with, you know, Giovanni, Anthony, Robert Patrick and Michael Pena, we I think got four just amazing guys to fill out the squad. Nolte’s incredible as Chief Parker. I mean, it just goes on and on. But with Emma, she’s someone who I’d worked with before and have a – I just think she’s the best, and so I was really psyched when she agreed to be a part of the film.
This seems like a departure from some of your earlier films Do you feel like it’s working a different set of muscles?
Fleischer: Oh, yeah. I mean, these are muscles that have never been worked before. I mean, this is like a much different scale; it’s not comedy. So just in terms of just working with some of the world’s greatest actors and just having to do more dramatic stuff is new to me. But also just managing the scale of this film. It’s just such a huge picture. We were in 55 different locations over 68 days. You know, on a day like today you saw 200 extras; there’s 65 I think speaking parts. It’s just a lot of choreography, a lot of action, a lot of – there’s just a lot.
So this is day 33; you’re almost halfway done.
Fleischer: Today is 34 actually. We’re officially halfway done today.
Do you feel like you’ve got a handle on it now?
Fleischer: Yeah. Every day you learn a little bit but like every day has its challenges. Like this shot was bigger than anything we’ve done. So there’s always something every day that’s new. Sean just started on Monday, so for me that was a big deal just like working with him for the first time and wanting to be really prepared for that. Last week we did all the stuff that Josh – or Josh’s character’s house, the O’Mara house, and we worked with this actress, Mireille Enos, who brought so much to her part, but it’s really a crucial traumatic scenes for Josh’s character. So every day and then from here on out it’s a lot of action. We had to wait ’til later in the calendar year for the action ’cause it all takes place at night. So wanted to have the longest nights that we could. So we pushed all the action towards the end of the schedule, so like we’re halfway done but we have – we’ve really just started the action stuff because it all plays at night.
Did you schedule it that way?
Fleischer: Yeah, just ’cause like if we’d done it in the summer and we started shooting in August – or September. What is it now? I don’t even remember. But – what day did we start, September 6? So I guess there was just less light then and now it’ll be dark. And also just by having the time shift it helps us because like, for example, this kid, he has to stop at midnight. We have a big sequence with him and having – being able to shoot that extra hour earlier with a kid just is one more hour with him. So it’s all like just stuff like that that you got to think about.
Fleischer: Awesome. He’s incredible. I was nervous, but he’s so generous and just so – he’s the best at what he does. So he really knows what he’s doing and he also is a great director. So he has a lot of really cool ideas and it felt like a real collaboration and it’s been really exciting.
Did you feel any special responsibility because it’s a story based on real people and real events?
Fleischer: That is a challenge. The families of the real characters have come by the set and they’ve all been really excited, like the O’Mara family and the Wooters family have come by and there was actually even a guy that was on the Gangster Squad that came by. He like saw Ryan and he’s like – there was weird parallel’s that you wouldn’t have expected just in terms of like what he looked like and how he was and how his real character was. So yeah, there is a responsibility but the script is definitely not a hundred percent reality-based, even just the way that Mickey meets his fate at the end of the movie is different than reality. So it’s going to be – I’ll be interested to see how that’s perceived.
Is this maybe more where you feel like your creativity lies? Are you deliberately taking a departure from the kind of films you made when you started making features?
Fleischer: No, this is – I am just happy to make a movie, honestly. And I can’t say I just have one taste. It’s like somehow my favorite filmmakers, you know, bounce between genres. Like if you look at a career of somebody like Soderbergh or Danny Boyle or the Coen’s. I mean, it goes – there’s no real through line other than just their style, but the type of genre or the type of subject matter seems to go all over. To me, if I were just to keep doing like small action comedies, I think I would – it’s good to try different things.
Are you influenced by the Coens?
Fleischer: Yeah, I mean, I’ve said it before. It’s like – I got to stop saying it, but yeah, they’re my favorites and I feel like there’s no one better at making movies than them.
There’s not enough brown in here for that.
Fleischer: I think there’s beyond just the gangsters. It’s just the period. I mean, it’s just so elegant. A place like this, there’s no equivalent to it in modern times. And so just the style that everyone had and the cars, the clothes, and the world that just is an exciting world to sort of like when you come to these sets or out on the street and you’re looking in this direction, it looks like you’re in a time machine or something and it’s just so cool.
Do you get a little fetishistic with the period detail?
Fleischer: As much as anybody, but I luckily have a lot of people working with me that are very detail oriented. So like, you know, we had food on all these tables but we actually had somebody who was making all the dishes that they would have in the ’40s. So their steaks were cooked the way – and the size of the steaks. Like that, the desserts – you know, just like – there was something even in that level of detail. The food like where you wouldn’t think about that but it looks different. So it’s great that not only do I have to be focused on it but everybody who comes to the table from the prop guy to the food stylist, to the costume designer, to everybody – they’re all focused on just making this reality as authentic as possible.
But period details must be a challenge.
Fleischer: Yeah. It just makes it so much harder ’cause like let’s say you need, you know, like something like tomorrow we wanted to bash some guy over the head with a typewriter or something like that. And so we needed to get like a fake typewriter, but it had to be a period fake typewriter. So all these things have to be made months in advance and you can’t just go to the store to get it. If we forget something, we’ve got to get the period version of it. So it’s hard. I mean, maybe the breadsticks can come from the supermarket but most things like have to come really special for this.
There’s not a lot of fake typewriter stores.
How difficult is it to make it sort of immersive. I mean, I feel like there’s always a challenge with making a period movie that looks – that where everything looked brand new and it’s actors inside of fake environment. How – I guess what are you doing sort of directorially to make sure that it’s as immersive and honest?
Fleischer: I think it’s more than me. I think it’s everybody. And I think it’s that attention to detail. Like our costume designer has done every Coen movies since Fargo, but she got nominated for True Grit and she’s done a lot of period stuff, so she just – there’s ways that you can make a suit that – ’cause like the thing is like they all have to have new suits, ’cause like they’re gangsters so they’re going to have like the newest suits. But they can’t look like costumes. That’s the difference. They have to look like they live in those suits. So we’ve made I don’t know how many but I would guess over a hundred suits from scratch for these people and they’re using period fabrics that have been around since the time, and it’s just that level of detail. In here, like that’s the challenge. This is a new club; it should look like a glossy fancy club. So you can’t just age everything down and make it look old. So it’s a challenge between – yeah, I guess the new and the old, and with our DP, Dion, he did like Chicago and he did Memoirs of a Geisha, and he did Nine. So he’s done a bunch of period, big period movies that like in the way that we shoot it help inform the style and the period as well.
Are you shooting digitally?
Fleischer: Yeah, which is something that maybe wouldn’t seem as so obvious for a period movie but we’re shooting on the Alexa, which I just think is a great camera. It doesn’t seem to me in any way to take away from recreating this reality.
It seems like him having worked with Michael Mann would I’m sure help that, too.
Fleischer: He knows cameras and I just personally prefer shooting digital. Like I shot – my last movie on film and I didn’t enjoy the experience, So that’s just more comfortable for me.
Is there a scene coming up that you’re particularly looking for to?
Fleischer: Well we have all this action stuff, so that’ll be really fun. We have this big huge shoot-out for the finale in the movie that we’re doing in MacArthur Park. That’s like just Tommy guns and big, big, you know, just gun fight. And then we’re shooting a gun fight on Hollywood Boulevard, in front of the Chinese Theater, which should be really cool. And then we have a couple just great Mickey Cohen, Sean Penn scenes that’ll just be fun to see him. You know, we’ve only had three days with him now, so it’ll be fun just to see him get deeper into the character and just really bring him to the next level.
You are obviously like a sort of cinephile director in terms of liking a lot of other films. Did you draw upon any inspiration from any other films? Be it that gangster films or even other kinds of movies for look, tone?
Fleischer: It’s hard to just recount them, but the guy who wrote the movie put all these details in the script that are from movies that I didn’t even know about. And so I think true cinephiles will be excited about the combined effort that both he and I will inform the film with, but there’s a lot of like subtle things that I didn’t even know the source from that are reoccurring and actually Ryan’s a pretty big movie buff, too, and he’s managed to throw a few in himself. Like the other day, he just impromptu there was a scene, a song to Josh that was from a movie that I’m sure when people see it, they’ll recognize. It was pretty cool.
It must be so rare to have an amazing set like this where every piece of it is where it should be. The front going all the way to the back stage.
Fleischer: Yeah, and that shot we could have never done unless it was this way. But I don’t know if they’ve taken you around in here yet but there’s an upstairs, too. So on the script this is not only Mickey’s club but it’s also the center of his illegal business. So we’ve built that upstairs as well. So when they do the raid of this place, which we’re shooting tomorrow, they come in and they shoot this place up. They go upstairs and then they burn down his apparatus. So you should definitely make a point of going upstairs and seeing this world ’cause it has like – they just dressed it today, so all these phone lines and lamps and like switchboards and like his whole kind of like – it’s like an illegal gambling place, and so…
Are you shooting much on soundstages or trying to do location work?
Fleischer: Very, very little. It was a cost thing. This movie is a lot bigger than it was budgeted for, and so this place we should have built on a stage. I mean, it’s great that we didn’t because it afforded the reality that you’re referring to. But if this was a superhero movie or something, this would have been built on a stage for sure. But like I said, we’re shooting in 55 different locations. So it’s almost all practical. And some things like Emma’s apartment, like her character’s apartment in the movie we shot in this small apartment in like – ’cause her character doesn’t have a lot of money so we shot in this small apartment in like the sort of Fairfax District that it like just gave a neat quality to the scene because it felt like a cramped apartment that she would live in. If we were to have built it on a set, we would have made it much bigger and we would have been able to take out walls to get to different angles, but because we were constricted by the real place we were like super tight the whole time, which I think adds something to it. We shot in this garage in Sylmar. That was just a nightmare for two days that like this cramped, crummy garage that like there was no reason we shot it there. It should have been built, but we just didn’t have the money to just build everything. So we a fight in a elevator. We built the elevator. We built this hallway that ties the elevator and these rooms where this fight at the beginning of the movie takes place. And then we built a half of Josh’s house where it gets shot up and we have this long shot through where there’s like bullets going off and we couldn’t do that in a real house. So we built that.
Fleischer: I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. I mean, I guess every shot we try and do something cinematic with it, but I don’t know. All I can do is just try and make it look as cool and as good as I can and luckily I have like some really talented collaborators on this film to help me out a little bit. But I don’t know that I’d like – I wasn’t like – when I do this movie I got to do a huge like copa shot type shot or like – it reminds me, too, of the Boogie Nights opening shot, so hopefully this will be another great tracking shot in the encyclopedia or something like that, but I don’t know. It was dictated by the location. It wasn’t even my idea; it was Dion’s idea. We came here and we were talking about his introduction and we were just kind of like, “Well, we can do a really cool interior tracking shot because the location allows it, which if this was to be a – built on a stage, it never would have happened.” So I think you just adjust to – just when you’re thinking about the script and thinking about it you just kind of come up with the best ideas you can to make it as cool and memorable as you can and hopefully other people like it, but I don’t have enough like – I don’t know about styling.
Gangster Squad Opens January 11.
For more on our Gangster Squad Set Visit:
- 15 Things to Know from Our GANGSTER SQUAD Set Visit
- Josh Brolin Talks GANGSTER SQUAD, Fascination with Gangster Culture, His Character, Working with the Incredible Cast and More During Our Set Visit
- Producers Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick Talk Story Origin and the Vibe They Were Going for on the Set of GANGSTER SQUAD
- Giovanni Ribisi Talks Gangster Fascination, 1940s Technology, and His Character Moustache on the Set of GANGSTER SQUAD
- Anthony Mackie Talks the Appeal of the Gangster Genre, African-Americans in Film Noir, and More on the Set of GANGSTER SQUAD
- Robert Patrick Talks Gun Tricks, Ensemble Chemistry, and Losing 30 Pounds on the Set of GANGSTER SQUAD