Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless, Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the show in this town, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes and every wire bet placed west of Chicago. And he does it all with the protection of not only his own paid goons, but also the police and the politicians who are under his control. It’s enough to intimidate even the bravest, street-hardened cop…except, perhaps, for the small, secret crew of LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who come together to try to tear Cohen’s world apart.
At the film’s recent press day, Brolin, Gosling, Emma Stone, director Ruben Fleischer, producers Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick, and screenwriter Will Beall talked about the stylish retelling of events surrounding the LAPD’s efforts to take back their nascent city from one of the most dangerous mafia bosses of all time. They discussed collaborating with their creative team to capture the look and tone of late 1940s L.A., assembling a strong lead and supporting cast, working with Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, learning the action choreography for the film’s most challenging fight scenes, and writing the strong female characters that lead to Mickey Cohen’s demise.
Question: Ruben and Dan, can you talk about how you found the tone and the voice for this film?
Ruben Fleischer: For me, this movie was a big opportunity coming from a comedy background and making the transition to a more action-dramatic movie. I had a lot of learning to do in the process. But luckily, the cast was filled with some of the most talented actors you can assemble, and that guided to a large degree the feeling of the movie, just the authenticity of their performances, and then, for me as a filmmaker, having a real opportunity to stretch my legs with these bigger action sequences and trying to make it as exciting and as entertaining as possible.
Dan Lin: When Kevin and I started looking for directors for this, we had a specific mission which was, we were telling a period story set in 1940s Los Angeles and we wanted to make it feel contemporary. Ruben is very much a contemporary filmmaker, but he had a real love for history. We knew him personally before the movie started, so we knew he was a history major. He loves Los Angeles. We wanted to make this movie our love song to Los Angeles.
Kevin McCormick: When Dan and I started meeting with directors, Ruben came in and was on fire about it and had look books and tear sheets and was totally passionate about it. One of the aspirations he had was that every action sequence would be different, that each of the chunks of the movie would be distinguished by a different kind of action language, and I think to a large extent he succeeded in doing that.
Q: Ruben, how did you collaborate with your creative team on the look of the film? I grew up in L.A. and thought it looked fantastic.
Fleischer: Thank you so much. I was lucky to work with Maher Ahmad, our Production Designer, who also designed “Zombieland” and “30 Minutes or Less.” We both have a real love and appreciation for history, especially 20th century American history, and specifically Art Deco. We wanted to bring the glamour of Los Angeles at that time to life. And, [we worked] in partnership with Mary Zophres, our Costume Designer, who designed all the incredibly elegant gowns that Emma wore and the super stylish suits that both Josh and Ryan wore that became their uniforms. It infused the movie with so much style. I’m sure they can tell you about it, but when they put on their suits and put on their hats, it just instantly transforms you into the period. It was a combination of the clothes, the cars, the music, and of course, the production design that all worked together. And then, we were lucky enough to have Dion Beebe, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, to capture it all, which really was the polish on the finished piece. It was like the frame was filled with beautiful things, but he lit it so nicely and made it so elegant.
Josh Brolin: Particularly the actors.
Q: For Ryan and Josh, some of your scenes were real nail biters. Which of your scenes were most challenging?
Ryan Gosling: I’m sorry, I just had a Red Bull. It was challenging for me when I realized that I was not going to get a Tommy Gun. I thought for sure I would have one, and instead, I got a little tiny lady gun. Josh hogged the Tommy Gun, so that was difficult for me. How about you, Josh?
Brolin: Thanks, Ryan. I think the fight with Sean (Penn) was the most difficult because Sean didn’t rehearse as much as I did, so his fists were flying wildly during the fight hoping that they got something that was useable. It was a tough fight that we rehearsed for many, many weeks, and I loved the way that it turned out. I think, for both of us, being the current and ex-smokers that we are, that was the most challenging on an oxygen level.
Q: Did any punches connect?
Fleischer: I’ve got to give credit to Josh and Sean because in that fight sequence it’s entirely them. There’s no stunt doubles and we shot over the course of three nights. Usually, the shooting of the fight sequences started at midnight and we shot from midnight until 6:00 am. They were doing that incredibly brutal physical wet fight in all hours of the night.
Q: Ryan and Emma, this is your second movie together. What do each of you like most about working with the other?
Gosling: Well, Emma owes me money, and the only way I can try and get that back is by doing movies with her. She still owes me that money.
Emma Stone: How much more?
Gosling: What’s that?
Stone: How much more?
Gosling: How much more do you owe me?
Gosling: Well, I’m glad we’re finally talking about it. It’s a shame we had to come here and do this. Well, Emma and I have a good relationship. (to Emma) Did you like working with me?
Gosling: I think it was hard for us to be serious. We had made this comedy together and so we were a couple of knuckleheads. And then, we thought this will be fun to work together again. And then, we had to try and be serious. I was trying to pretend I was Humphrey Bogart or something, and that kind of made it difficult. Did you find that hard?
Stone: I found that hard. But, I mean, I really liked it. I want to work with you a lot if you’ll have me. Thanks so much for bearing with us.
Q: Ryan, I caught something in your voice that sounded like you were trying to do an early talkie in a higher octave?
Gosling: That was more of a wardrobe issue.
Q: So your clothes actually created the performance?
Gosling: Yes. Well, it was quite itchy, so I had a rash and I channeled that irritation into my hatred for the gangsters.
Q: Will, one of the things I like about this movie is that it has two very strong female characters that lead to Mickey Cohen’s demise. Was it that way in the original book?
Will Beall: (to Emma) You don’t exist in the book, so I made you up. I’m new at writing movies and women are hard to write. So, for me, it was about rewriting. And then, so much of it was what the actors brought to it. I had not read the book, and I don’t think the book was done. I think my script might have been done sooner, so I drew on the articles from the L.A. Times.
Fleischer: In real life, John O’Mara’s wife was a real person who was kind of a rock for him. We got incredibly lucky in casting Mireille Enos for whom this is her film debut. I think she brings so much to the character and the relationship. (to Josh) I know you enjoyed working with her a lot. Right?
Brolin: This is her film debut?
Brolin: I didn’t know that. Yeah, it was great. We got to talk to some people. We got to talk to John O’Mara’s daughter. You try to create a composite character and see how it works. And then, you get to the set, and Ryan’s doing something this way and Sean’s doing something that way, and then you’ve got to adjust and hopefully find the best dynamic that you can create on the set. It was the same thing with “American Gangster.” There was a very specific character that I was going after, more like Bob Lucci, and then you find out about somebody else who just feels more dynamic and right for the time. This, it was less of a laconic character when we filmed it, and then, in editing, we found it much better to have me shut up and go for more of that Bogie/Clint Eastwood-type thing. It seemed to balance things out better. So even what you do on the set isn’t necessarily right. Thank God for editing. But yeah, this was more of a composite thing and imagination, and also, you lend yourself to the romantic idea that you have of that time and what that is for you personally.
Q: You have an African American and a Hispanic in lead roles in a film about corrupt cops in the LAPD. Why was it important to bring that into the picture and reflect that time period in maybe a little different way?
Lin: You may know that one of O’Mara’s best friends was Tom Bradley who was also a police officer.
McCormick: He was police chief and then became mayor of the city for a long period of time. We wanted to make sure in the casting and in the construction of the story that it was as reflective of the city as it is now, and so it wasn’t lily white.
Lin: Will can touch on this some more, but part of the inspiration for Michael Pena’s character is also … Will obviously served in the LAPD before becoming a screenwriter and really wanted to reflect the Squad as the police environment that he worked in as well.
Q: This is a mix between non-fiction and fanciful creation. How did each of the actors approach your characters and can you elaborate on how you saw them?
Brolin: I like that you said fanciful. That means something more than what you say. I don’t know. How do I see him? I think he has a lot of integrity. I like the fact that it’s this kind of old idea of somebody who has the honor of not following the manual of what they say law is back then. I think the law was a lot less paranoid than it is now. The boundaries of law were a lot more malleable then than they are now. Guys thought outside the box, so the good guy was not necessarily the good guy. He had to think dirty in order to snuff out these guys who were trying to turn Los Angeles into the Wild West and into a cesspool. After he got back from World War II, he was shocked at how much Los Angeles had changed. Instead of being narcissistic and selfish, he thought about the future of his kids and the kind of stuff we think about now. Whether we’re truly that kind of country or not, I think we were much more so back then. And talking to my pop, my dad came to visit us when we were doing a scene at O’Mara’s house one day and I’d asked my pop a bunch of stories about what it was like back then — I’m seventh generation Californian — and he didn’t tell me anything. But he finally got to the set one day and we were looking out on the street that had been recreated because of the cars mostly. The houses were pretty much already of that time. And he just went off on these stories about when he was 9 years old how he’d used to go back and peek in the back door of Slapsy Maxies and go down the street to Ciro’s and looking for Mickey Cohen and his goons and all that kind of stuff. He was talking about all this corruption and all these gangster stories and the idea of gangsters as celebrities back then, and yet there was an innocence in everything he was saying, and I think that was the difference. The innocence of who this guy is and the idea that actually you can manifest something honorable and have an impact.
Q: Ryan and Emma, what about your characters?
Stone: Mine wasn’t based on a real person, which was a nice jumping off point, pressure-wise. I guess what we had talked about was the fact that she had come out to Los Angeles to be famous and she ended up on the arm of someone who was really notorious, which is kind of like what reality show people sometimes are like today. She was just famous by association or by proxy. I thought that was interesting and something pretty heartbreaking is going on underneath the surface. I didn’t get a lot of time with the guys as much, so each scene was just trying to focus on bringing as much of that to the surface as I possibly could.
Gosling: I was kind of admiring how Bugs Bunny was not above dressing like a lady in order to get out of trouble. I thought that could be interesting in this in some way with this person trying to avoid and make themselves inconspicuous. In some way, that was in my head. But I also was trying to relate that as well to the idea that this is a real person, and I think it’s important to note that the man himself was a much braver, more admirable character than the version of him that I play in the film. For dramatic purposes, it was necessary to have the character have a conflict and have to be affected personally by the death of this shoeshine kid, and then to be provoked into joining the Squad. It was trying to balance what felt best for the film but also trying to honor the man himself. So I did find it difficult.
Q: Did you find a lot of material on and pictures of the actual guy?
Gosling: Yeah, there’s that sort of stuff, but we also had the chance to meet some family members, and his kids came to the set and told me a lot of great stories and a lot of great details. Apparently, when he ashed his cigarette, he would ash it in the cuff of his pants, and then at the end of the day, he would dump out his cuffs and dump out all the ashes.
Q: For the actors, what were the best and worst parts of the costumes?
Brolin: I think Ryan’s already covered that. Itchy and tight.
Q: The film has a wonderful supporting cast including Robert Patrick, Nick Nolte, Mireille Enos and Michael Pena. Can you talk about how you got that together?
Brolin: You start these things out and you have this kind of studio-propelled value dream team – and I won’t mention any names – but you’re trying to get who is of most value and it’s kind of great when that doesn’t necessarily work. You go down this idea of a rung of a ladder, and you go okay we’ll get this person, and they turn out to be the best actors you could possibly get for those parts. I think we came out with an amazing cast that wouldn’t necessary do…why would they do smaller parts like that, because a lot of those guys are lead guys now. I just think the way it came together was great. I’m usually the guy who’s fucking around all the time on the set and in this one I got to stand back. When you have Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena and Robert Patrick on a set together, it’s absolutely fucking chaos and it’s a lot of fun to be able to watch. They created a kind of vortex that became what you see on film which I think is the great exhale of this film. Within all this testosterone, it’s because of them that you get to take a breath, and then the impact of all the other stuff is much more apparent because of them.
Fleischer: I feel really lucky to have gotten to work with so many talented people, especially as a young director learned so much from all of them. But I think for each role there couldn’t have been a better person to fill it. Everyone was pitch perfect and it really brought so much to it. There was a real sense, like the Squad really did function as a squad both off and on screen. There was a lot of comraderie among the actors, and then as Josh said, also a lot of chaos in terms of just I felt like a school teacher sometimes trying to control the class. It was a little bit hectic.
Q: For Dan, as a very successful Chinese-American producer, what kind of projects are you interested in that you think will be successful in both America and Asia?
Lin: I want to do movies like this movie. I want to do hero movies. This movie is ultimately about guys who if they succeeded, the police chief was going to get all the glory, and if they failed, no one would know who they were. Yet, all these guys stepped up and their characters stepped up to do the right thing. Those are the kind of movies I want to tell, whether it’s in China or worldwide.
Q: Josh and Ryan, what was it like learning the action choreography for the fight scene between you guys and Sean at the Plaza Hotel?
Brolin: You need to watch the gag reel and then you’ll understand.
Q: What’s on the gag reel?
Brolin: I’ll show you the gag reel if you want to come over afterwards. I think it’s funny because those things are so serious and you’re making decisions. Ryan does this great thing with the planter when he shoots behind him. It’s all so super cool and all that, but the reality is it’s just two actors living this childlike existence. It’s kind of fun, but at the same time, it’s very serious, and we’ve had a lot of things come up lately that make it very serious. The impact that that has, you have to understand that when you’re doing something like that, you’re lending to the story that you already decided to do. So it’s not something like how do we treat this in a way that may be more respectful than not. You’ve already decided to do that type of film. It was a lot of fun doing it, but at the same time, for a guy who doesn’t have any guns myself, I live in a very Republican area in Central Coast California, and I’m surrounded by gun-toting guys. So I get a little nervous doing that type of thing. That’s why I talk about the fight with Sean and I because I like tactile things. I miss a good fight. So the gun thing, I’ll show you the gag reel, and then that will show you how kind of lost we were.
Q: Is there’s a special sensitivity about what you just said now because of the recent events in Sandy Hook?
Brolin: Well, of course, there’s a sensitivity. And I know there are a lot of people up here that would love to answer that from a more producer standpoint, but of course there’s a sensitivity. You have to look at the grand scheme of things from a universal standpoint. You have video games, you have psycho-pharmaceuticals, you have lowest employment yet parents that aren’t at home. There are many, many different factors. You have CNN that gloms onto the worst of what’s going on and not necessarily the best or the most heroic. So there are many different factors. There’s no one reason. There’s always been violence in movies and there always will be violence in movies, and whether it lends to the one psychotic that’s out there who’s thinking the worst thoughts you could possibly think is always going to be a mystery, I think.
Q: What do you think this movie has to say about what’s going on now about our pursuit of justice, where our culture is, and what our society is willing to accept or not accept?
Fleischer: I think this movie is about people standing up for their beliefs and doing what’s right. It’s a celebration of these cops who rid L.A. of organized crime, of vice and corruption, and honestly we’ve never had organized crime since they got rid of Cohen. So I think it’s to honor the memory of these police officers who stood up for justice and didn’t allow crime to overtake the city.
Lin: And the values of the story are pretty pristine. There’s great satisfaction at the end of it because these guys meet their goals. They succeed in the end. As Ruben pointed out, the face of L.A. was changed as a result of it.
Brolin: There’s no reason why L.A. shouldn’t become Chicago and New York. There’s absolutely no reason other than you can’t walk everywhere.
Q: Can the director and producers address what had to be done with the film after the Aurora incident and if you have anything to say about it in light of the recent events in Newton, Connecticut?
Fleischer: The Aurora shooting was an unspeakable tragedy. And, out of respect for the families of the victims, we felt it necessary to reshoot that sequence, and I’m proud of the fact that we did that. I think that we didn’t compromise the film or our intent in the Chinatown sequence, the really strong sequence. I think that we should all respect the tragedy and not draw associations to our film as a result of any of these types of tragedies.
McCormick: I concur with Ruben. I think he stated it most succinctly and right.
Q: Unlike “LA Confidential,” it was refreshing to have L.A. cops played by actors who don’t normally have British or Australian accents. Was that deliberate?
Fleischer: It was honestly really important to me, although Ryan’s Canadian, that we have North American actors not doing accents. Like he said, Josh is seventh generation Californian. California and Los Angeles are a big character in the film. I love the fact that he is representative of L.A. just because he is so L.A. I mean, so California. Sean Penn also is a native Angeleno. His grandparents own a bakery in Boyle Heights where Mickey Cohen was from, and he used to do bread runs for their bakery in his high school summers. So, there is a very serious personal connection for a lot of the actors in the film, and I was proud of the fact that it is a North American cast largely. Jack Whalen who’s played by Sullivan Stapleton was our only foreign actor in the film.
Q: What did you learn from working with a guy like Sean Penn?
Fleischer: Maybe I’ll start off. I was really nervous to work with him honestly, not only because he’s one of the greatest living actors, but also he’s a great director. I can promise you I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before my first day of shooting with him. I couldn’t have asked for a more collaborative or generous partner in the film. When he jumps in, he jumps in with both feet. He brought so many ideas to the character as well as to the film. He was incredibly collaborative and generous with his talent.
Brolin: It’s Sean, you know. He’s great. Sean’s great.
Fleischer: You guys have known each other your whole life, right?
Brolin: We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t find him very intense myself, but… He’s an amazing actor. We have a lot of fun and that’s why I say that. We have a lot of fun. We work similarly and we have a lot of fun on the set. We don’t go around with furrowed brows and stuff like that. We have a lot of fun so we have a place to springboard from and dive into. Working with him is actually a great pleasure. And then, when you’re looking at somebody in the pupil and they’re doing their best to be as intense as they can, and you’re doing the same, when you know each other as well as we do, it’s kinda dumb, but hopefully you guys will enjoy it.
Stone: My character essentially is the forgotten girl on his arm a lot of the time so I said about a line to him. For the most part, he’s doing his business while I’m off to the side. I was watching him more than anything. So however you feel as an audience is how I felt as an actor.
Brolin: The great thing about him too is you like him because that’s the guy who was Harvey Milk. That’s the shocking thing about Sean. His conviction is so complete when he’s doing something, but then you’re remembering as a fan, holy shit, this is the same guy who did this. This is the guy who has the ability to be as vulnerable as he is intense. That’s what makes him, at least to me as a fan, so special.
Lin: Not only vulnerable and intense, but also a real sense of humor. Ruben reminded us of that. Before the movie started, we all went to see “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” at the Hollywood Cemetery and that’s who Mickey was. He was scary and intense, but also he had a real sense of humor. He was funny and he was quirky as well.
Brolin: He was frickin’ Spicoli, man!
Q: What if anything was done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie?
Brolin: It’s the eco question.
McCormick: It is an eco question and Warners has a very rigorous eco policy. There’s an eco officer on the set. The waste is sorted out.
Fleischer: The things that I remember are all the plates and forks and stuff are biodegradable. We use bio-diesel in the generators instead of traditional diesel. We didn’t use plastic bottles. We had aluminum water bottles with big jugs of water on the set and we were trying to limit the consumption of plastics. But outside of that, I think those were the main things.
Lin: Ruben did ride his bike to the production office to work.
Fleischer: Yeah. I rode my bike to set and walked to set a few times because I was living in Hollywood and it was shot in Hollywood a lot. For me, personally, I try to save on gas.
Q: Any last words from anyone on “Gangster Squad” and what the audience is in store for?
Fleisher: I’m really proud of just how much audiences seem to like the movie. I’ve watched it with large audiences and it just seems like a movie that people enjoy from start to finish. It’s a real crowd pleaser and has a little bit of something for everyone, whether it be action or romance, suspense, laughs. There’s a little bit of something for everybody.
Brolin: I’ll tell you. It’s just a quick thing. In a cut that was a little bit earlier than this final cut, Sean and I went to a test screening and we snuck in the back. I don’t remember where it was.
Fleisher: It was in Glendale.
Brolin: In Glendale. And we snuck in the back. I think Sean even had a hoodie on which I thought was funny. And not only were there a lot of laughs and all that, but we got through the film and it was wild the reaction. I mean, clapping, standing up, hooting, hollering. You’re in the movie and you can’t really feel the same way, but to see that kind of reaction, it’s kind of great as an escapist movie. You can follow the testosterone or whatever you see it as and just go along for the ride and take it for what it is. It’s quite a treat.
Fleischer: It’s a lot of fun.
Lin: I’m not saying this just because the actors are here, but we truly had an all-star cast. Looking back on it now, it’s amazing how we assembled all these guys. They are so busy. As you know, they are all stars now in their own right, and the fact that we got them all together to make this movie, I think, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Beall: I feel like early on our mantra was “not your father’s gangster movie.” It has all the traditional stuff that you want out of a gangster movie, but Ruben brought a pace and a kinetic energy to it that I’ve never seen. I think he does for gangster movies a little bit what “Star Wars” did for sci-fi.
McCormick: (laughs) You’ve gone too far, Will.
Fleischer: But it’s sweet.
Brolin: What Brando did for “The Godfather”?
Beall: It’s fantastic and it’s a great gangster movie and also a great kind of modern western.
Fleischer: It’s a lot of fun.
Brolin: We were under the impression that it was a little more character when we first got into it. And we should’ve known having seen “Zombieland” that it was going to be a little more fast-paced and fun and have a little more humor in it. And that’s how it’s turned out, and I think it’s absolutely for the betterment of the film.
Lin: I think everybody’s proud of it and it’s turned out to be a real crowd pleaser.
Q: Josh, what’s next for you?
Brolin: I just finished “Oldboy.”
Q: The remake?
Brolin: I did “Labor Day” and then I did “Oldboy” after that. “Oldboy” has been working great. Spike Lee is fantastic. Sean Bobbitt, who shot it, is unbelievable. He’s the guy who did “Shame” and “Hunger” and he just shot “Twelve Years a Slave.” It’s certainly good stuff. It’s more of a reinterpretation.