Ruben Fleischer, the guy who directed “Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less,” had a hard time convincing Warner Bros. that he was the guy to tackle a gangster movie. After all, he’d only done contemporary comedies. But Fleischer wowed them with his vision for “Gangster Squad,” based on the real-life team that took down mobster Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles in the 1940s.
Fleischer also had to convince Sean Penn to play Mickey Cohen, no mean feat since Penn’s directed more movies than Fleischer has and usually steers clear of anything so mainstream.
The director sat down with Moviefone to talk about getting the cast on board, creating the look for the film and why he prefers the new shootout scene to the one that had to be cut after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting.
You’re a big gangster movie fan. Is that the reason you wanted to make this?
Yeah, there’s a few genres of films that I think every young director dreams of someday getting to make, and for me, a gangster movie is definitely at the top of the list. The thing is, they don’t make that many of these movies. It’s been a long time since we had a real classic gangster movie, so I felt incredibly lucky to get this opportunity. I actually had to fight really hard to get the job, because, I guess, having done two comedies, I wasn’t the natural person to hire for it. So I felt really lucky that they took a chance on me.
How did you convince them?
It was a combination of things. I love the script and so I feel like I just had a lot of passion for the story, but on top of that, I was a history major, so I’ve always loved 20th century American history. That was my focus, so I’m just really familiar with a lot of the postwar era true-life stories. I’m not from LA, but when I moved here, I really embraced it and adopted it as my home. I became really familiar with the older parts of the city and I love downtown and a lot of [buildings from that era] which still exist. I think there was an authentic excitement and love for the period that I was going to bring to it. I did a visual presentation that showed them some of the ideas I had about the way it might look and how I might cast and how it might feel. I think they honestly just took a risk and hired me and I’m very grateful they did.
How hard was it to get Sean Penn on board?
He required some convincing as well. He doesn’t traditionally do commercial movies, and I think he was nervous about working with a director that was newer and unproven. But I think he really liked the script and saw in Mickey an opportunity to make a very iconic movie character. And once he jumps in, he jumps in with both feet and he just worked really hard to make MIckey his own and very memorable.
Emma Stone also looks like she walked right out of a 1940s film. Was there any one classic movie star you were trying to evoke with her look?
Emma’s never looked better than she does in this movie. I think it’s a really strong tribute to the starlets of the time and the glamour of the women of that era. The dresses are very evocative of some of the most iconic stars of the ’40s, like Veronica Lake. We had a wall of all the ladies of the era and it was very inspirational. We were just trying to bring Emma back in time. Our costume designer, Mary Zophres, custom-made all the suits and dresses in the film, including that red dress Emma wears in the poster.
There’s a sort of “Wild Bunch” aspect to the film, and not just because the character played by Robert Patrick is a Western-style gunslinger. It’s also in the vein of “The Untouchables.” How much were you inspired by — or trying to stay away from — those films?
I think it was both. There’s something to a mission movie, whether it’s “The Wild Bunch” or “The Magnificent Seven” or “The Untouchables,” where you assemble a team of guys with different roles who work to bring down the bad guy. We didn’t create that plot structure, but I think we made it our own. And the actors certainly made it their own in terms of making the characters as cool and dimensionalized as possible. I can’t imagine a better ensemble cast. Everyone is the absolute best person we could have gotten in that role. They’re unmatched. In terms of the style of the filmmaking, I think one of the reasons I got the job is there’s a fair bit of style in “Zombieland.” There was a desire to infuse this movie with some visual bells and whistles. I didn’t want it to become conspicuous. I felt like it was a fine line to walk in terms of it being modern and contemporary, but not taking it out of that period.
I think I was most aware of the “bells and whistles” during the jailbreak, when you do a freeze-frame every time Ryan Gosling fires his gun.
I think that turned out really neat. Will [Beall] wrote in the script that “the muzzle flashes lit the room like panels of a graphic novel” is how he described it. And so I was trying to figure out how to bring that to life. I hope that those still frames are not too jarring, but they really capture that moment of the muzzle flash, so we tried to showcase that.
You previously spoke to us about the decision to cut and completely revise a scene that involved a shooting in a movie theater after the Aurora, Colorado tragedy. How do you feel now that it is removed?
I think it was the responsible and the appropriate thing to do. As much as I loved the previous sequence, we thought maybe we wouldn’t be able to match it. I think the new sequence is both seamless with the film and really exciting and dynamic. There’s a suspenseful component too, which is cool. For me, I think it’s neat that the showdown now takes place in Chinatown, because the film “Chinatown” — while the association is very distant — that’s one of the greatest movie of the period ever. When we were originally talking about the movie and locations we were excited by, we had talked about Chinatown just because it is so visually interesting.
The movie is a lot funnier than I expected from a gangster film. And it got a lot of cheers at the screening I attended.
Oh really? No way. Holy cow. The humor is something I’m really proud of. It doesn’t hurt that our cast is really funny. Ryan is one of the funniest people in the world and so is [Anthony] Mackie]. All of them are funny, but it was an unexpected thing when we played it for an audience for the first time and we got as many laughs as we did. I’m proud of that, because that’s my background.