Set Visit : Gangster Squad

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Today marks two years since I packed up my two suitcases and moved from Sydney to Los Angeles. High five to me for surviving and keeping all my body parts natural! In these two years I have learnt several important lessons: always take Fountain, listen to classical music to sooth traffic related road rage, if you ride a bicycle people will think you’re strange, and never go out of the approved LA suburbs. Ever.

I broke that last rule for a good reason – to visit the set of ”Gangster Squad”, where an empty furniture store in a shady part of town had been fashioned into a 1940’s speakeasy bar called Slapsy Maxies. Getting a specially arranged shuttle (for safety) with a small group of journalists, we could see the bright lights as we exited the freeway, illuminating the filming area and surrounding crowd, who were still waiting and watching when we left at 3am the next morning.

Since that cold, long night, ”Gangster Squad” has been in the news, it’s release delayed and reshoots ordered to replace a scene that too closely resembled the Colorado cinema shootings from earlier this year. The film is based on another grisly true story, one that took place decades ago… The 1940s, a time when LA police formed a maverick squad to capture gangster Mickey Cohen, and broke all the rules to do so.

“My father wrote me an email recently,” says Josh Brolin, who stars as policeman John O’Mara, “He told me that when he was a kid he used to drive up Sunset Boulevard watching places like this, the Kiss Kiss Club and stuff. There was the innocence of 40’s, yet when guys came back from the war things had changed, there was a tonne of corruption happening. When Mickey Cohen moved in and wanted to monopolize on Los Angeles, my character really took offense to it. O’Mara was like the Serpico of his time. He refused to be bought; he was getting reassigned, nobody trusted him because he wasn’t on the take. He did what he could, and finally he did it illegally. I mean, not totally illegally, he did it within the boundaries of the law, but the law back then was a different thing then it is now. It wasn’t so paranoid.”

Sitting behind a monitor directing ”Gangster Squad” is Ruben Fleischer (”Zombieland”, ”30 Minutes or Less”) who is a self-confessed fan of gangster movies. “I think some of the greatest movies of all time are within this genre, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to get to make one. Every decade has their take on it; in the ’70s it was The Godfather, China Town. In the ’80s, The Untouchables, the ’90s, L.A. Confidential and Goodfellas and there hasn’t been one for a while with that kind of staying power. I was just psyched to get on board and make a movie like this.”

“Ruben is a movie junkie,” says Anthony Mackie, who plays squad member Coleman Harris, “And like myself he’s all about pictures. When I first got this movie, we went through all these pictures to see who this person would be, who black people were in general in Los Angeles at that time. And if you do a movie in this period you have to have a L.A. Confidential conversation, you have to have an Untouchables conversation. Because those are the two movies for me that define that era. It was really important for him to create characters that were true to this period. “

Of the characters in the film some, like Mackie’s, are fictional composites of people who were likely to be around at that time; but others, like Brolin’s, are based on real people, meaning the actor could go to the family and find out more. “When I met with my character’s daughter, she would tell me about the relationship between her Mom and Dad, and what she remembers had a huge impact on me. My wife will be mad at me for saying this but I will anyway! When we first got to together we wrote these emails to each other, even though we spent almost zero time apart. I would go into the bathroom and while I was in the bathroom I wrote another email to her. Anyway I put together a book of emails that we had after the first year, which I thought was about 60 or 70 emails, and it turned out to be 470 pages of emails. And I started going back recently and reading those emails, it was a nice way to feed what Mireille Enos (the actress playing opposite Brolin) and I are doing in this, because O’Mara was a total romantic, a total idealist, and really believed in what he was doing here. It’s been fun to be able to play that kind of passion.”

Joining Brolin and Mackie in the squad is a group of hot young actors – Ryan Gosling as Sgt Wooters, Giovanni Ribisi as wire-man Conway Keeler, Michael Pena as Navidad Ramirez, and Robert Patrick as cowboy cop Max Kennard; all out to get Mickey Cohen, played by Sean Penn. “I don’t know what to say about the cast but I’m just – I’m the luckiest guy there is,” says Ruben. “Mickey is the villain and Sean was the person I just knew it had to be. We worked really hard to convince him to do it. And then if you read the character description of O’Mara, it says that he has a kind of jaw that you break your fist on. That’s Brolin to a T. Ryan embodies a lot of the traits that the Wooters character has. Then filling out the cast with Giovanni, Anthony, Robert and Michael, we got four amazing guys. Nick Nolte plays Chief Parker. It just goes on and on. And Emma Stone (as love interest Grave Faraday) she’s someone who I’d worked with before and I just think she’s the best, I was really psyched when she agreed to be a part of the film.”

“I feel really privileged to be able to work with everybody,” admits Giovanni, “It’s like a dream cast for me to be able to work with these guys. It’s been a learning experience to say the least.”

“It’s a big man love circle!” says Mackie, laughing, “It’s a really great group of guys because everyone’s completely different. You have Josh, who’s the crazy New Yorker, you have Ryan, who’s the mellow cool cat, you have Giovanni, who’s the nervous twitchy guy, you have Michael, who’s the clown, and Robert who’s the stoic figure of the group. We work together really well, and it’s fun. And Ruben is such an intellectual, we joke and clown with each other, but honestly he’s the stiffest person you’d ever met, so my goal has been to freak him out, piss him off, get him off center, or make him laugh every day.”

Says Brolin, “Sean and I have known each other since we were kids, but got really close in the last 5 or 6 years. We’re always looking for things to do together because we enjoy each other. Working with him is the greatest. We’re veterans in our own right. Ryan has a lot of fame right now that he’s dealing with, and psychologically it has to affect you, but I think he’s doing a really great job with it. I didn’t have to worry about that. Sean wrote me an email a few years ago, it said ‘I’m watching you in Bed of Roses right now and I can’t believe it didn’t make you a huge star…’ that was a joke obviously. I was very fortunate that I got to be in this business a long time before anyone took any kind of notice.”

And for native Californian Brolin, shooting the film entirely in Los Angeles was an extra treat. “I love California, I love Los Angeles, I love the whole of California. My whole thing with all the money I make is just buying as many places in California as I can because I love it. We have everything here, we have the ocean, we have the mountains, we have the desert. I’ve been all over the place recently, shooting a lot of movies in a lot of places other than LA. Movies used to be shot in LA but not anymore, so it’s nice to be home. And look at this, it’s incredible. I just saw this set driving up, I got off the freeway and was like ‘Holy shit! So cool!’ It’s pretty great.”

And at 3am, when the group of tired journalists finally shuffled back into the bus, I looked out the window at the huge set and had to agree. Coming to the dodgy part of town was definitely worth it.


Gangster Squad is released in Australia on January 10.