I've been a fan of Fleischer's since I had the chance to see ZOMBIELAND a little more than three years ago. With his fresh take on the zombie subgenre, Fleischer demonstrated an excellent balance between the comedic, action and dramatic elements of the story to make for one of the more enjoyable movie-going experiences of 2009. If you didn't see ZOMBIELAND with a crowd of rabid zombie fans, then you certainly missed out a bit.
30 MINUTES OR LESS was his next effort, and, while the dark comedy may have been a small step back from his immensely popular directorial debut, it's a bit of an underrated film as the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari is enough to carry the film through some stretches where the humor may not be so overt. However, once again, Fleischer was able to provide a good time at the movies.
Now he's moved into mobster territory with GANGSTER SQUAD telling the story of Mickey Cohen's takedown by a secretive L.A. police unit that was willing to fight fire with fire in order for good to triumph over evil. GANGSTER SQUAD has certainly had a tough go of it in trying to get into theatres. Marked for a September release date last year, after one previously calendar shift, the film was pulled from the 2012 slate by Warner Bros. following the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado as the film itself contained a violent shoot-out sequence that took place within a theatre. The decision was made to cut that scene from the film entirely, and Fleischer was tasked with reshooting a crucial part of his film nearly eight months after wrapping principal photography. A new release date in January was set... the clock was ticking... and after re-assembling the cast and crew and putting together an entirely new sequence, GANGSTER SQUAD was retooled and finally arrives for our consumption.
I recently had the chance to talk with Fleischer about his fun new picture, getting in-depth about the tough journey it's been for GANGSTER SQUAD to get to this finished form as well as the decision-making process along the way to make those changes to the film. We also get into some of the film's broader themes and the lingering prospect for a ZOMBIELAND sequel, so enjoy...
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - Hey, how are you?
Ruben Fleischer - Awesome.
The Kidd - Good to talk to you today.
Ruben Fleischer - Thank you.
The Kidd - Okay, so let’s get the big thing out of the way, which is of course the delay. And the shift after the [Aurora] shooting. Everything is under the microscope at this point, whether it’s the film, the studio, and also you as far as what’s going to happen as now... With trailers released you know there’s a sequence that involves the shooting inside the movie theatre. So just for context purposes, can you kind of just discuss the setup of the original scene? Because it still plays as a very integral and crucial part of the film building toward the climax, right?
Ruben Fleischer - Yeah. Have you seen the movie?
The Kidd - Yes.
Ruben Fleischer - Okay, great. Well, in both versions, it’s an ambush sequence, where Mickey [Cohen] learns that the Gangster Squad... Well I don’t want to give it away... Basically it’s Mickey’s opportunity to turn the tables, and in the original sequence, it took place at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. They’re led into a trap and... you know, there’s gunmen positioned within the theatre to attack the Gangster Squad and... They shoot up the theatre, and there were a lot of innocents that died as a result of it. And it just bares a... very eerie resemblance to the tragedy that happened in Aurora. So we felt a responsibility, both the studio and us as filmmakers, to not put that version out into the world just in respect of the families that suffered that loss, and not wanting to have the collective American public relive it. So I think it’s the appropriate decision, and I think the new sequence is even more suspenseful and definitely as visual and I love the associations with CHINATOWN... That’s one of the classic L.A. noir stories. In the end the movie wasn’t compromised creatively, and I think the new sequence is really seamless with the rest of the movie.
The Kidd - When these discussions are happening, and I’m sure it happened fairly quickly, you’re kind of put in this no-win situation. Because if you keep the scene, to try and stay true to what you saw artistically first, it’s viewed as being insensitive. But if you cut it, there’s a certain perspective that, I guess, “the terrorists win.” So how long did these discussions go on as far as what to do with this? Or was it kind of an open and shut case, like, “We need to change this"?
Ruben Fleischer - It was very open-shut. As soon as the news broke, there was a collective decision on the part of the studios, the producers and myself that we weren’t going to put it out. It wasn’t a hard decision, it just felt like the responsible thing to do. The funny thing is that so many movies have reshoots in them, but usually they’re not triggered by external events. But, you know, pretty much every big movie that comes out has significant reshoots of big action sequences and things like that. So a lot of movies change over the course of production and towards release. It’s not uncommon that they’ll have scenes that don’t work for whatever reason. They show it to an audience, and the audience doesn’t like it, and they have to reshoot. So this was something that we knew that was something we had to be responsible about, and I think took the reins of the situation, but it’s not like this was the first movie to ever reshoot an action sequence. It happens all the time.
The Kidd - How difficult is it then...? Because at that point, it’s just a little over a month out from release, probably a month and a half. So how difficult is it, not only logistically, to kind of round up the cast and crew, and to get everyone back in the mindset of the film, but also to kind of create something from scratch that would work in the film, which was, at that point, basically a finished product, and still make it gel with everything that had already been established?
Ruben Fleischer - Yeah, man, I’m not going to say it wasn’t challenging. It definitely was. Just coming up with the sequence... And we all loved the Grauman's sequence. I mean shooting that was like a real dream come true for pretty much every cast and crew member involved with it. Getting to shoot in such a historic place with such incredible significance to anyone who loves movies. To me that’s like going to Saint Peter’s for Hollywood. It’s really the official church for anyone that loves movies. It was a really special thing to get to shoot there. I think we’re the first movie to get to shoot inside the Chinese since 1970-something. It was something that we all really quickly collectively decidedly that we had to change, and so we kind of all just worked really hard together to figure out something that would be just as iconic and just as exciting... And the one advantage we had, because it was a finished film, we could kind of reverse engineer the sequence. While I love the Chinese Theatre sequence, it was a big tommy gun shootout, and the finale of our movie is a big tommy gun shootout. One of the benefits when we went back and did it was that we were able to kinda change the rhythm of that sequence so it feels a little bit smaller than the ending so the ending can kinda shine when that comes. It plays kind of a different rhythm that the movie doesn’t have in terms of the suspense leading up to the trap that Mickey sets. So we worked really hard, me, the writer, and our stunt coordinator, and we just thought about different locations that would match the Chinese Theatre... We came up with Chinatown... Actually, a friend of mine, Mike White, suggested Chinatown, which I’m very grateful for... And then we just went down there and walked around figuring out how it might play out and using the location almost as a backlot to figure out where we might stage it and what might happen. We kinda had the existing scene as a model, as far as the beats we wanted to hit, and then we just sort of tailored it to the new location.
The Kidd - One of the more interesting things of the film to me is the blurring of the lines between what makes a hero and what makes a villain. There’s a lot of stories that get told that don’t really self-examine this kind of... means justifying the ends, and the lengths to which people have to go to actually fight crime and make a difference in doing it. And it creates kind of this moral quandary. How important was it, for you, to kind of establish and hammer home this moral dilemma with the characters as far as how far they were willing to go and thinking they were doing the right thing, as opposed to just having what would be seen in other films as this cool set of vigilantes?
Ruben Fleischer - Well, that’s one of the biggest things in the movie, is kind of like the line and where it’s drawn, and how far do you have to go to fight for what’s right and in so doing do you lose a sense of yourself. And that’s really Josh [Brolin’s] struggle that he and his wife talk about, and he reveals to Ryan [Gosling]. And at the end they kinda have a heart to heart, and I think he opens up and we finally get a little insight into this very like... withdrawn, emotionally vacant guy. But... I love the title of the movie. I’ve been noticing we’ve been getting some flack online for the title of the movie, but A.) it was the real name of the squad that existed, and B.) I like it as a double entendre. It’s called the gangster squad because they’re the guys that are the cops that have to round up the gangsters, but they also kinda become gangsters themselves through the process of fighting the mob on their own terms. They’re fighting fire with fire, and they have to become gangsters themselves as they go after Mickey Cohen and his crew. I like the title because it functions on two levels.
The Kidd - I also want to talk a little bit about the visual style of the film, because there’s this dichotomy of L.A., and how it’s shot, and showing it as this glossy and glamorous kind of locale, but it also has this very seedy criminal underworld that you wouldn’t see on the surface. So how much work did you put into making this decision as far as how L.A. would be depicted... sort of as its own character in the film, as well?
Ruben Fleischer - Yeah, that’s something I’m really proud of is that way the city looks and how we were able to turn back the clock to 1949. A lot of period movies tend to desaturate, and they give it a grainy kind of look. I think it’s almost like a subconscious thing where, “Oh, this is a period film, we’re going to drain the color a bit and make it look more black and white.” Me and the cinematographer, Dion Beebe, had a lot of conversations about the aesthetic of the film, and if you look at the movies of the time and any color photographs of the period, it was an incredibly lavish, rich palette. The country had just gone through the depression and then World War II and there’d been a lot of hardship in America. The postwar era was filled with this new life, you know? People had money in their pockets, there was a real joy that the war had come to an end and that the good guys had won. The cars... You know, they hadn’t built a new model car during all of the ‘40s because of the war, so finally new models were coming out and there were these incredibly new lines... We take place in the fall of ‘49, so we’re just pushing toward the ‘50s. The music is changing. The very beginning of rock ‘n’ roll is starting. The clothes are changing. Finally women can... the fashions of the late ‘40s are some of the most exciting of all time. So there’s just this incredible... life that was happening. And in the clubs of the time, too. If you look at the Mocambo or Ciro’s, iconic L.A. clubs, they were like some of the most glamorous places you could ever imagine. So we definitely wanted to showcase that with our production design, with the way it was shot, with our costumes, everything feeds into this idea of this glamour. And Mickey Cohen, too. That guy, in real life... They say he never wore the same suit twice. He was a real clothes hound. He had a bulletproof Cadillac. He was someone who live a really large and lavish lifestyle, so we wanted to show the period in all its glory and not try to take the life out of it.
The Kidd - You kinda know going in what you’re going to get our of your leads. With Brolin and Gosling, they have this chemistry that works together. But when you’re dealing with a group dynamic of this nature, it’s often the guys on the periphery that kinda bring the film to life. So how easy or difficult was it for you to find guys like Giovanni Ribisi and Anthony Mackie and Robert Patrick and Michael Peña that kind of round out the band and give it a little more depth than just guys in the background?
Ruben Fleischer - Well I’m thrilled with the cast that we got for this movie. Sean [Penn] Ryan, Josh, Emma [Stone] are beloved by all, but I am a huge fan of pretty much every single person in this movie. Anthony Mackie is one of my favorite actors and favorite people. He’s so talented that he can do anything. And he’s actually one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, off camera. Giovanni is someone I’ve been a fan of for as long as I’ve been in L.A. and watching movies here. He’s always interesting, and he seems like he can do no wrong. And Michael Pena obviously I’ve worked with in THIRTY MINUTES OR LESS, and so, he’s somebody that I just worship. He’s an amazing dramatic actor, but to me there’s no one funnier. Robert Patrick was really somebody I’m so proud to have included in this film. He... I think audiences are really going to love his character, and I’m really excited for him to hopefully get some acknowledgement from this part because he’s... You know, we all loved him in TERMINATOR 2. He was amazing in WALK THE LINE... He has that great scene in SAFE HOUSE... He’s just an amazing actor and I’m so happy to have featured him in this film.
The Kidd - Let me ask you about this recreation of Mickey Cohen, and how integral was Sean Penn in kind of helping craft a character that can kinda stand on its own, as opposed to other depictions of the character while also remaining true to the real life source material?
Ruben Fleischer - Yeah, I think when Sean and I first talked about Mickey... The real life Mickey Cohen was short and bald and kind of fat... And our movie bares a lot of similarities with THE UNTOUCHABLES, and so he felt like Capone kinda did the short fat mobster... I mean DeNiro had done as Capone... that transformation... And he just didn’t feel like he was overlapping with that. And so... In his decision to bring Mickey to life... There’s an amazing book called Mickey Cohen, In My Own Words that’s an autobiography that Mickey wrote, and I read it andI gave it to Sean. It’s incredible insight into the guy who was this pretty crass and very funny insecure gangster who is pretty honest in that book. I think the sense of humor that Mickey had in real life was something that we talked about... Mickey was funny and I find Sean in this movie really, really funny and charismatic. While he’s also scary and menacing, he kind of cracks me up. And then another aspect of Mickey was that he had fought 150 amateur fights in his life. He had a kind of busted up nose, and I think Sean used that as a starting point for the prosthetics which he has on his brow and also on his nose, which is I think the only real nod to Mickey... He had a scar under his eye and Sean kept that scar, too... The boxing is a big part of the character in the film. We start the movie showing him boxing and the movie ends with a big... kind of boxing match. So those were things that Sean took from the real Mickey Cohen and wanted to realize but as far as what he looks like... Because people aren’t as familiar with Mickey Cohen we didn’t feel a responsibility to represent him photographically, necessarily.
The Kidd - I want to ask you one question about ZOMBIELAND, or the future of ZOMBIELAND. Because there had been talk after the film came out about a potential sequel and everybody was kind of in favor of it, but it didn’t seem like... it didn’t seem like it may or may not happen, I guess. Has the time for ZOMBIELAND 2 come and gone? Or do you still think that there’s a chance that we could see these characters come together again?
Ruben Fleischer - I would love to see those characters come together again. I have so much fondness for the movie and would be excited to go back into that world. I think after the first one was done, as a young filmmaker, I didn’t want to follow it up with a sequel because I was ready to try something new and explore different subjects and characters and subjects and things like that, but now that I’ve made two different movies, I would be excited to return to ZOMBIELAND... I’m not sure... Jesse and Emma have sort of been on a skyrocket with their careers since then, so I don’t know what their availability is and we don’t have a script, so I doubt it will happen anytime soon, but I think it could be cool to go back into that world. I just don’t know how immediate it will be. I also just recently heard, and maybe through your network you’re able to track it down... That they’ve sold a pilot for a TV show that I’m not involved with... That the producers sold a TV show... Which is what... the original ZOMBIELAND was intended as a TV show. So I really know very little about it, but I heard recently that someone had sold the pilot. So maybe it’ll be on TV and we’ll get to see that world and some of those characters on television.
The Kidd - Thank you very much, I appreciate your time today.
Ruben Fleischer - My pleasure.
The Kidd - Thank you.
GANGSTER SQUAD opens in theatres this Friday, January 11.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.
Like me on Facebook.