Director Ruben Fleischer Talks ‘Gangster Squad’: A 21st Century Mob Movie

By  · Published on January 10th, 2013

This weekend’s Gangster Squad may invoke classical conventions of the mobster genre, but director Ruben Fleischer never set out to make an old school throwback. His dramatic action movie is a part of a new breed of period pieces, ones made with a very modern sensibility. They move at a bullet’s pace, are shot with feverish popcorn energy, and avoid any preconceived notions of being stuffy.

Fleischer didn’t set out to make an epic like The Godfather, and after 30 Minutes or Less and Zombieland we wouldn’t expect that from him, but that doesn’t mean he settles into expectations either. Generally if you work in a genre more than once, you become distinctly known as, in Fleischer’s case, “the comedy” guy. While Gangster Squad has its laughs, it shows Fleischer working on a whole new level as a visual storyteller in a different genre . Speaking with Fleischer, he was obviously happy to escape the pigeonhole with his third feature film.

Here’s what he had to say about seeing his movie 400 times, the hilarity of Sean Penn and why he’ll continue to shoot digitally:

Have you gotten a chance to see the film with a lot of audiences?

Yeah, we did a lot of test screenings over the course of it, so we did three public audience screenings. Then last night at the premiere was a lot of fun, since it was at the Chinese theater and it was fun to hear the response to it. It gets a lot of laughs and cheers.

Were you actually able to relax and enjoy the movie?

It’s hard not to watch anything you’ve made and not be critical of it. It’s funny, I really haven’t seen Zombieland or 30 Minutes or Less since their premieres.

If they’re on television you won’t watch them?

If I’m flipping through channels and I see them I’ll watch it for a minute or two and say, “Oh, yeah, that was cool,” and then I’ll change the channel. When you’re editing a movie you watch it…I swear to God, I must have seen Gangster Squad around 400 times. It’s hard to enjoy it and lose yourself in the story. I’m just so super aware of every decision that was made to compose every single frame of the movie.

Are you able to remain objective about the movie on that 400th viewing?

It’s tricky. I think that’s a challenge, because you can’t lose perspective during editing and you’ve got to stay strong, go with your gut, and trust your instincts. Once it’s locked you want to get away from it. Last night was fun because I hadn’t seen the movie for two months. We locked it in October, so it was neat seeing it for the first time in a while. Last night was great.

Was there a scene or two where you could genuinely get immersed?

There’s a few shots I just love the way they work. One of them is where they go back stage and the guy goes, “Who are you?”, and they say, “We’re the band!”, and then they knock him out. The camera spins around and follows them as they march up the stairs, and I’ve always loved that shot. That one shot with Ryan [Gosling] and Emma [Stone] in bed where it’s all one take and he says “Mickey Mouse” is really fun, because it’s a real moment. It’s the same with the big kind of Goodfellas shot. It’s fun to watch them play out in real time.

The other day I read a quote of yours saying you’ve never felt like a real director. Now having made a movie like this with a Goodfellas shot, do you feel like a real director?

[Laughs] I still got a ways to go, I think. This movie was definitely a huge learning curve. I think I learned as much on this movie as my first, about getting to work with these actors, recreating period Los Angeles, and all the action. Honestly, it was a great experience.

So you’re a different man than the Ruben Flesicher who made The Girls Guitar Club?

[Laughs] I have come a long way since then. Every project is a new learning process. Everything informs everything else. Hopefully I’ll keep continuing to grow as a director and getting better and better as I keep making stuff.

We actually posted that short on the site the other day.

I saw that. That was awesome. That thing was the first time I ever said “action” in that context. It really was my “let me see if I can do this” kind of thing. I had worked as an assistant director and seen him make stuff and knew what was involved, but in terms of initiating it, meeting those girls, putting together that crew, and putting everything together…it was like that and Zombieland were parallels as the first step.

Did making that short film give you confidence as a director?

Absolutely. It was funny, I spent all my money on it and I was convinced after it was done I would be getting movie offers and TV pilots. I’d say, “Oh, it’s cool I spent all my money on this, because I’ll be making so much money after making all those movies and TV shows after this short [film] is done.” As soon as it was finished I was begging people to watch it, but they wouldn’t watch it. After that I was broke and I had to figure out how to get it all together, so it was a long road back.

That short was how I learned to direct. After that I started making things on my own. I had a budget for The Girls Guitar Club, but everything that followed I had zero dollars. The only money I spent was on the video tapes. That was really how I learned to direct, scout for locations, edit, and produce at the same time as I directed.

The last time we spoke you mentioned you had only ever shot on digital, with the exception of 30 Minutes or Less. Now having made another film digitally, do you still think you’ll never want to shoot on film again?

Yeah. 30 Minutes or Less for me was my opportunity to try film, and I just don’t prefer that process. I think the video tap monitor just looks so crummy. When you’re shooting on an ALEXA and watching it on the HD monitor live it’s so much better for me, since I know what I’m going to get. I was constantly frustrated on 30 Minutes or Less, so there’s no question. I guess my DP would have preferred to shoot this on film, but I was real clear we were going to shoot this digitally.

Do you think it’s just nostalgia for certain directors who like the mystery of not knowing what they’re going to get?

I think it’s less nostalgia, more of just what they’re used to. Since I came up on shooting Mini DV I always had a little monitor on set. Whatever the format was I shot exclusively on video. I never had the budget for film. I was just used to working that way. When I had to go to film and just watch such lower quality resolution on the video tap it was really painful for me. I think so many great directors came up shooting film their whole lives, so that’s what “shooting” for them is. That just wasn’t what my reference was.

One of the reasons you shot on film was because of the contrast ratio with the flamethrower at night time. There’s a scene in Gangster Squad where a car blows up at night and the contrast seems fine. Over the past few years, would you say that’s been an advancement for digital?

We definitely had to fix some of that digitally. There’s no denying the fact digital blows out on big explosions. For example, that car explosion shot we had to go back and fill it in with some…I mean, there’s no data, so it just clips and goes to white. We would go back and paint the fire back in, if that happened. Another case is when Ryan [Gosling] lights the dollars on fire and tosses it creating that fireball was something we shot on film, actually. We did that because we knew we’d have problems. That is the biggest problem, I’d say.

Have you noticed any advances?

It’s always getting better. I mean, the ALEXA is better than the GENSIS. It’s not there yet, though. That Chinatown sequence with all that stuff just blew up, so we had go fill all that back in. That was the ALEXA, but there’s no doubt it’ll improve and get better.

Why do you prefer the ALEXA to the GENSIS?

It’s four years later, technology has evolved, and, at this moment, the ALEXA is the best. I’m sure in a few years there’ll be another one that’s better than the ALEXA. Unlike film that constantly has film running through it, it’s constantly about the chip, who has the best chip, the best resolution, and the best color range. It’s almost like cameras and their chips have become their film stocks. You can now choose your camera for different looks, whether it’s RED, ALEXA, or the new Sony. They all have their own pros and cons.

When shooting digitally, especially a period movie, was there ever that talk with DP Dion Beebe of letting it look like film?

Well, we just wanted to make it look great. For me, maybe you guys notice the difference, but I promise you if you ask a normal film going audience if that was film or digital they’d have no idea. It’s just whether it looks good or bad, and that’s the question. We did use anamorphic lenses on this movie, which gives it a more filmic quality with the flares and that classic anamorphic focus shift. Those are film feelings, even if you’re not aware of them. You just associate those aspects to traditional 35mm. I think the anamorphic lenses just help take us out of the digital range a little bit.

When people have commented the film feels too digital, I think they’re commenting that they think there’s too much digital effects or too much tricky stuff, as opposed to the actual quality image.

All those digital effects, obviously with the CG blood, make the movie feel like a very modern, 21st Century gangster movie.

That was the ambition. I think this movie works best when people go in wanting to have a good time. If people expect The Godfather, then they’re going to be disappointed. If you accept the movie as a classic 1940s, gangster B-movie genre film, I think you’ll be very satisfied.

One thing The Godfather definitely doesn’t have is Sean Penn. I know critics sometimes use the term “scenery chewing” as a negative, but he just approaches every scene here like that shot of him scarfing down a lobster. I have to ask, did you just let him run wild?

[Laughs] Yeah, he couldn’t get enough of it. He’s so funny. One of the things I was most psyched on for this movie was how funny Sean was. We haven’t really seen him be funny in a long time. I mean, we forget sometimes he was Spicoli. The dude is one of the funniest people you’d ever meet. I love that he brought that to Mickey Cohen in this film.

But I imagine some of his one-liners, like, “Here comes Santee Claus!”, are on the page too, right?

Nope, that was an improv’d Sean Penn line.

Can you recall any other improvised moments?

Yeah, that fork line, “That’s the thing I like about only having one fork: you can never make the wrong decision.” That was just Sean Penn in the moment.

And of course that “Santee Claus” line leads to a big shootout. How was it shooting action of this scale for the first time?

It was definitely a direction I was excited to go in, and it’s a direction I’d like to go in further. It was great getting to play with all these toys. I mean, every single day I learned something new. I was surrounded by Academy Award winners and nominees, so it wasn’t just the actors who were so experienced, and all of them helped me elevate my filmmaking.

Did you have the desire to make a movie like this a few years ago?

Yeah. All the movies I love aren’t just comedies. As a young director, I think I was really excited to capitalize on a moment and get outside the genre I was doing and just push myself. I want to try more challenging things.

Now moving forward as a bigwig director, where do you see yourself going?

[Laughs] I don’t really have an answer for you, honestly. One thing I know is I love exploring these worlds. It’s so cool to have gone to the apocalypse with Zombieland and then this with the 1940s. I think that’s one of the joys of moviemaking, getting to inhabit these worlds. I hope I continue to have opportunities to explore new worlds, bring them to life, and work with great actors.

You know, I think that’s a through line for all three movies: the cast is the best possible people we could have for each job. I can’t imagine anyone other than who is in Gangster Squad or Zombieland. I mean, Zombieland was defined by Woody [Harrelson], Emma [Stone], Abigal [Breslin], Bill [Murray], and Jesse [Eisenberg]. It was just a perfect cast. Even for 30 Minutes or Less I think the chemistry of those four ‐ Danny [McBride], Nick [Swardson], Aziz [Ansari], and Jesse [Eisenberg] ‐ was great. The aspect of the films I’m most proud of is the casting.

Going forward I hope I can inhabit different worlds and continue to work with different actors.

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Gangster Squad opens in theaters on January 11th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.