Ruben Fleischer made his Hollywood bones with Zombieland, the clever and funny zombie apocalypse movie that famously offed Bill Murray. But for his next movie, the 37-year-old director is taking deadly aim at a more serious genre. “I love gangster movies like Goodfellas and Miller’s Crossing,” says Fleischer, “and L.A. noir films like Chinatown are also awesome.” Next fall’s Gangster Squad, an action-drama about the 1940s cops who battled Mickey Cohen’s mob for control of the City of Angels, is the perfect mesh of the two. Speaking from L.A., where he’s readying a violent shootout on Hollywood Boulevard on day 67 of filming, Fleischer discussed the humbling effects of filming at the city’s most famous landmarks, the amazing Sean Penn, and why audiences are ready to embrace Josh Brolin as a hero.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a totally different direction for you after Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less. How did you go about convincing the studio that you were the right guy for this movie?
RUBEN FLEISCHER: I was just looking for an opportunity to try something new, and when I read the script, I was completely passionate about it. I think that passion and that love for Los Angeles and the love for this period of time and the love for this genre kind of swayed any misgivings the studio might have had. It’s been a real step forward for me. The size and scale and period — and just the L.A. of it — makes the movie singular and special.
One of the movies that really made me love film in the first place was Chinatown, and that pointed me towards other similarly themed films and books, like L.A. Confidential. What attracted you to this chapter of L.A. history?
I was an American History major in college, and I think that the post-war era is one of the most exciting times in American history. There’s just so much change happening and so much innovation. There was also a lot of transition. And I think L.A. at that time represents that better than anywhere else just because it was a new city. It was less than 100 years old in 1949, and there was a ton of soldiers and people moving to the city and the suburbs were expanding. So it’s just a great backdrop for the world of this movie.
The film is based in part on Paul Lieberman’s series of articles that ran in the Los Angeles Times in 2008. Does the film focus on a certain chapter or thread from his writings or are they just a leaping-off point for your movie?
It’s a good leaping-off point. We’ve taken some creative license but tried to stay true to the original story and characters as much as possible. O’Mara (Josh Brolin), our lead character, has just come back from fighting the Nazis with all these ideals after seeing America at its greatest. And he’s come home and there’s a gangster running his city. While he was gone, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) took over and he turned the streets of L.A. into a battle zone. In our story, O’ Mara takes the lead of the Gangster Squad, a vigilante police force that fights the gangsters on their own terms, and the battle between them is for the future of Los Angeles: whether it’s going to become corrupt and run by this bunch of gangsters or these guys who fought for these values and want L.A. to be the shining beacon on the west coast that it was always intended to be.
You have an embarrassment of riches in your cast, from Sean and Josh, to Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to Nick Nolte and Anthony Mackie. But at the heart is Sean. He’s become that guy that the next generation of young actors idolize and attempt to emulate. Did you get a sense of that on set?
He definitely got a lot of respect, and I think the opportunity to work with Sean was an incentive for the guys to be part of the film, for sure. I was thrilled the first time I got to shoot with Sean and just actually hear him and see how he interpreted the character. I think Sean wanted to really make him his own. So he took pieces of the real Mickey that he connected with and then also filled in his own ideas of who the guy is. It’s not like an impression of Mickey Cohen but more a realization of him.
In the First Look photo, he seems to be surrendering to Brolin.
Ultimately it’s the story between these two guys. It’s Josh and Sean who face off at the end after a big gun battle between the Gangster Squad and Cohen and his men. O’Mara catches up to Cohen and Sean mockingly says, “Okay, copper, take me in.” It ends in a fistfight between Cohen and O’Mara, and it was a pretty epic sequence to film between Josh and Sean.
Josh is probably best known for playing great heels, in films like Milk, True Grit, and American Gangster. Do you think the audience will be surprised by his more noble character?
No, I think he’s heroic. Like when I watch him in No Country for Old Men, he just has this confidence. He feels like such a strong leading man, so I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone just how amazing he is when people see the film.
You’ve also captured Gosling in the midst of a massive career moment, and he’s attracted enormous amounts of attention, both wanted and unwanted, I’m sure. How has that impacted filming, if at all?
It really hasn’t effected how we work. He’s had an amazing year between Crazy Stupid Love, Ides of March, and Drive. Those are three really distinct and awesome performances, and a huge part of why I was so excited to work with him. But in our day-to-day, it doesn’t have much presence. There is paparazzi, but there is paparazzi wherever we go. I think that’s the nature of making a big movie in a big city. And it doesn’t seem, in any way, to have effected Ryan. He seems pretty focused on his character and his performance.
His character seems much more conflicted than Brolin’s O’Mara.
Ryan’s character also went to war, but when he came back, he was a little disillusioned. So he’s more on the fence, hanging out in nightclubs and hanging out with guys who might be gangsters. He’s less clear on where he stands in terms of standing up against Mickey Cohen. But he finds himself in a love triangle with Cohen and Emma Stone’s femme fatale character.
Who you know well from Zombieland.
There’s a reason why I was very, very eager to work with her again. She’s simply the best. Everyone as soon as they met her was taken by how cool and smart and funny and talented she is. I think she really transforms in this movie from being that sort of teenager or college kid that we’ve seen in movies into a real woman.
The city of Los Angeles seems like such an essential character in your story but I imagine it’s not always easy to recreate the Los Angeles of the 1940s.
These places don’t exist anymore. We had to take blocks of streets and build period storefronts and recreate clubs that have been closed for years. The past two nights, we had a full tommy-gun battle inside the Chinese Theater with gangsters lighting off 50 rounds a minute. And then tonight and the next night, it’s going to bleed out onto Hollywood Boulevard as our Gangster Squad retreats. We’re going to have a full battle on one of the most famous streets in L.A. And staging a scene at the Griffith Park Observatory is just iconic because you instantly think of Rebel Without a Cause and all the great movies that have filmed there. On Monday, we were on the steps of City Hall with Nick Nolte. It’s like going in a time machine when you go to the set.