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In Gangster Squad, an extraordinary (and authentic Angelino) cast helped bring to the screen a secret chapter of Los Angeles history, as director Ruben Fleischer (pictured), screenwriter Will Beall and producers Dan Lin & Kevin McCormick explain in this special Q&A.

Gangster Squad is based on real events. In the post-war Los Angeles of 1949, Brooklyn-born ex-boxer now crime king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs as many rackets as he can command under his ruthless control, reaping the ill-gotten gains from drugs, guns, prostitutes and if he has his way, every wire bet placed west of Chicago. He does it all with the protection of not only his own paid goons, but also the police, judges and politicians who are on his payroll. When Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) commissions Sgt. John OíMara (Josh Brolin) Ė a decorated commando from the US Army Ė to set up a small, secret crew of LAPD officers, it is OíMaraís pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) who reluctantly helps her husband with strategic recruitment advice. Led by OíMara and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the small team (Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael PeŮa, Anthony Mackie) set about breaking up and crushing Cohenís illegal operations.

QUESTION: How did you find the right tone and your voice for this film in terms of the noir aspects and sense of heightened reality?

RUBEN FLEISCHER: For me, this movie was a big opportunity, coming from a comedy background and making the transition to an action drama film. 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 I think the authenticity of their performances guided, to a large degree, the feeling of the movie. But then, for me as a filmmaker, it was just having a real opportunity to stretch my legs with these bigger action sequences and try 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 really specific mission, which is we were telling a period story set in 1940s Los Angeles, but we wanted to make it feel contemporary. And very much, Rubenís 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 really loves Los Angeles, and we really 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 just on fire about it. He had look-books and tear-sheets and was totally passionate about it, and 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.†

QUESTION: Could you tell us about your most challenging scene?

RUBEN FLEISCHER: Iíve got to give credit to Josh (Brolin) and Sean (Penn), because in that climactic fight sequence, itís entirely them. There are no stunt doubles and we shot it over the course of three nights. And usually the shooting of the fight sequences started at midnight and we shot from midnight to like six a.m. and they were doing that incredibly brutal, physical, wet fight in all hours of the night.

QUESTION: Will, the film has two very strong female characters. Was it that way in the original book, or did you create those characters to help tell the story, as with Anthony Mackie's character?†

WILL BEALL: Oh, yeah, neither of those characters exist in the book. I made Emma Stone's character (Grace Faraday) up. Iím 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 when I started writing. I don't think it was done when I wrote the script, so I drew on the articles from the L.A. Times.†

RUBEN FLEISCHER: John OíMaraís wife was a real person and she was kind of a rock for him. But we got incredibly lucky in casting Mireille Enos, for whom this is her film debut, and I think she just brings so much of the character in the relationship. And I know you enjoyed working with her a lot, right?

WILL BEALL: Yeah, it was great. I mean, we got to talk to some people. We got to talk to John OíMaraís daughter. You kind of create a composite character and see how it works, and then you get to the set and then Ryanís doing something this way and Seanís doing something that way. And then youíve got to adjust, and hopefully find the best dynamic that you can create on the set.†

But, yeah, this was more of a composite thing, and imagination. And, also, you kind of lend yourself to the romantic idea that you have of that time and what that is for you personally.†

QUESTION: Dan Lin, as the most successful Chinese American producer, what kinds of projects are you looking for?†

DAN LIN: Right. I want to do movies like this movie. I mean, I want to do hero movies. And this movie is ultimately about guys who, if they succeed, the police chief is going to get all the glory. If they fail, no one would know who they are. Yet all these guys stepped up and their characters stepped up to do the right thing. So, those are the kinds of movies I want to tell, whether itís in China or worldwide.

QUESTION: What do you think this movie has to say about our pursuit of justice, and what our society is willing to accept or not accept?

RUBEN FLEISCHER: I think this movieís about people standing up for their beliefs and doing whatís right. Itís a celebration of these cops who rid L.A. of organized crime, of vice and corruption, and, honestly, weíve never had organized crime since they got rid of Cohen. So, I think itís to honor the memory of these police officers who stood up for justice and didnít allow crime to overtake the city.†

KEVIN MCCORMICK: And the values of the story are pretty pristine, and thereís great, I think, satisfaction at the end of it, because these guys meet their goals. They succeed in the end. And, as Ruben pointed out, the face of L.A. was changed as a result of it.†

QUESTION: Unlike with L.A. Confidential, it was kind of refreshing to have L.A. cops played by actors who donít normally have British or Australian accents. Was that something deliberate or just the way it worked out?

RUBEN FLEISCHER: Yeah. It was honestly really important to me that we have North American actors not doing accents and with Josh, like he said, heís a seventh generation Californian. California, and Los Angeles specifically, is a big character in the film, and I love the fact that he is representative of L.A., just because he is so California. Sean Penn is a native Angelino. His grandparents owned a bakery in Boyle Heights where Mickey Cohen was from, and he used to do break runs for their bakery during 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 Waylon, whoís played by Sullivan Stapleton, was our only actor in the film not from North America.†

QUESTION: Can you talk about reshooting some sequences of the film as a result of the terrible events [cinema massacre] in Aurora?†

RUBEN FLEISCHER: Yeah, I mean, 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 Iím proud of the fact that we did that. I think that we didnít compromise the film or our intent, and I think the Chinatown sequence is a 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.

QUESTION: Everyone has heard about how intense Sean Penn is. Can you talk about what it is like to work with an actor like him and what you may have learned from him?

RUBEN FLEISCHER: I was really nervous to work with him, honestly. Not only because heís one of the greatest living actors, but also heís a great director and I can promise you I didnít get a lot of sleep the night before my first day of shooting with him. But I couldnít have asked for a more collaborative or generous partner in the film. When he jumps in, he jumps in with both feet, and he brought so many ideas to the character, as well as to the film, and was incredibly collaborative and generous with his talent.†

DAN LIN: He's not only vulnerable, intense, but also has a real sense of humor. Ruben reminded us of that before the movie started. We all went to see Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And thatís who Mickey was. He was scary, intense, but also he had a real sense of humor. He was funny, he was quirky as well.

QUESTION: Any last thoughts about the film you wanted to tell us?

WILL BEALL: I feel like early on, our mantra was: Not your fatherís gangster movie. It has all the traditional stuff that you want out of gangster movie, but Ruben brought an energy to it that Iíve never seen. The pace and the kinetic energy that Ruben brings to it is, I think he does for gangster movies a little bit what Star Wars did for sci-fi. [Laughs]

RUBEN FLEISCHER: Youíve gone too far, Will. But that was sweet.

And what Brando did for Godfather. [Laughs]

Published May 15, 2013

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Ruben Fleischer

Gangster Squad is available on DVD from May 15, 2013.

Sean Penn - in Gangster Squad

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