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In 2012, Josh Trank surpassed Steven Spielberg as the youngest director to debut at the top of the weekend box office. In the eight years that followed his splashy debut, Chronicle, Trank experienced a stunning reversal of fortune due largely in part to what he has described as Fox’s mishandling of his 2015 sophomore effort, Fantastic Four. After a period of soul-searching, Trank hit the reset button and poured himself into his work. By the end of 2018, Trank finally emerged on the other side with Capone. With shades of Barton Fink, Twin Peaks and The Shining, the off-kilter Capone explores the last days of America’s most notorious gangster, Al Capone (Tom Hardy), and his rapidly deteriorating health.
As Capone isolated himself inside his Miami Beach mansion, his late-stage syphilis led to a variety of health problems including a stroke. Capone also suffered from mounting paranoia, and sensing that the FBI was spying on him, “Fonse” began to suspect his inner circle of conspiring against him. Capone’s paranoia even allowed Trank to channel his own paranoia that he felt on the troubled set of Fantastic Four.
“What I had just experienced after Fantastic Four came out and in the five months leading up to Fantastic Four being released, I was at home reading articles about myself, and to me, it felt like it was this mythological version of this out-of-control person that has the same name as me and who I didn’t quite relate to,” Trank tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It made me think about these extremely famous, iconic human beings and what it would have been like to sit there in the comfort of your own home and to turn on the TV or radio and watch somebody portraying you in a way that is somewhat familiar but also completely exaggerated and dramatized for everybody else’s consumption. It all came directly out of my own experiences, and writing Capone was a way for me to synthesize the confusion that I had inside …”
Despite the few ups and many downs of Trank’s experiences on Fantastic Four and his scrapped Star Wars spinoff about Boba Fett, he’s now able to separate himself from his past and enjoy those films as a fan again.
“What I tried to do with Fantastic Four was so arrogant for somebody who hadn’t really gotten the handle of his own skill set as a filmmaker to do that kind of stuff with it,” Trank reflects. “I can definitely watch those movies now, enjoy them and be separated from them. At the beginning, five years ago, I just felt bitter for very obvious reasons. I think it’s important to be honest with yourself and admit that. I know a lot of people who you can see it in their eyes that that’s how they feel — the way that I was feeling — but they would never say it.”
In part one of a wide-ranging conversation with THR, Trank discusses how Capone helped him put Fantastic Four to bed, the kindness of Tom Hardy and Capone‘s bumpy road to securing distribution.
Josh, I sincerely loved the movie.
Oh, thank you. That means a lot to me. Are you safe and well right now?
I’m doing as well as one can possibly do right now, thanks. I’m just fortunate to still be able to cover independent film. How are you holding up?
I’m doing the same, thanks. I’m just staying as productive as possible. If and when this miraculously lifts … I just want to make sure that the stuff we’re doing right now will allow us to come back out of this even stronger than we were before. But, yeah, I’m OK; I’m just here with my dog and staying safe. This is no different from what my life is like normally. A lot of my friends have joked, “Dude, you’ve been in self-quarantine for 20 years.” (Laughs.) So, psychologically, this is OK for me. Obviously, I’m just worried about other people, and it’s also why I feel good about releasing this film the way that we’re releasing it in this circumstance. A lot of people out there are trapped inside at home in claustrophobic situations with their families, and they’re going crazy while watching Hulu on their phones. So, I want them to be able to have something new to watch. Whether this type of a film is going to be triggering or not is hard to tell. It’s sort of ironic because this is a movie about Al Capone — alone in his house and freaking out — while a lot of other people are in that same situation. I don’t know if that’s something that’s going to be helpful for people to relate to or if it’s just going to remind them of what they’re dealing with. It’s hard for me to tell. I just know that I love this movie so much. I loved Chronicle, and I’m obviously so proud of it. It was such a representation of everything I wanted to say in a movie and in that movie, but this movie is the movie I’ve always dreamt of making my whole life with a cast of actors that I’ve looked up to for so long. We all became such a big, loving family during the process of making this film, and they’re all still family to me; we talk all the time. We’re all really excited for everybody to finally see this film. Tom is so incredible in this and so interesting. For all the actors in this film — Tom Hardy, Noel Fisher, Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan — each one of these actors has their own very passionate fan base, and I feel very positive that the showcasing of them as actors in this movie is going to be more than enough to please their own fan bases in that sense.
When Fonzo, now Capone, was first announced, it surprised a lot of people since it was such a left turn from your previous work. However, I’d wager that your first two films were really the left turns and that Capone was more in line with what you first saw yourself doing. Is this hunch remotely correct?
It’s frighteningly correct, actually. One of my all-time favorite movies and my biggest inspiration for this film — and by no means do I mean that as a template for this film — would be Barton Fink by the Coen brothers. It sounds weird, but I first saw Barton Fink when I was 9 or 10 years old. (Laughs.) You don’t really think of Barton Fink as being a movie a 9-year-old would go crazy for, but I did for whatever reason; I just always loved everything about that movie. In middle school, I had to do a book report, and I wrote a movie report on it instead. I didn’t get a good grade on it for that reason. The kind of movies that I have always wanted to make were more in line with these out-of-left-field, odd character portraits about people in a time and place facing their own personal hell on some level. Or, the type of films that … touch on the existential themes of life itself in a way that feels more open-ended for anybody to walk away from and have their own perspective on.
Michelle Williams and Linda Cardellini have both told me that Tom is an “unpredictable” actor, and it was meant as a compliment in both cases. As great as Tom is, did you offer him any performance direction on set, or was it just a matter of clearing the runway for him to do what he does?
(Laughs.) Clearing the runway is hilarious. It’s a mix! Tom is one of my best friends. I’ve known him since September or October of 2016, and we’ve talked every single day since then. We think very similarly, and the moment that I met him in person, he showed me such kindness and human-to-human respect in a way that for an actor of his aura, I just didn’t expect at first. He’s just such a down-to-earth human. As an actor, when you say action, he will do unpredictable things after action, but when you say cut, it’s Tommy. He’s sweet and open-minded. I’ve worked with great actors before where you feel a little bit of apprehension in giving a note because these people are so talented and you kind of feel, “Well, what could I say?” other than just giving some sort of broad direction like “Can you do that in this way?” or “Can you do it a little faster?” But, the thing with Tom that is so remarkable and why I always want to have the opportunity to work with him is that he wants to hear it all, and it’s OK to talk philosophically about that stuff in the moment. He and I can be talking in a totally different language about what the action requires; we can talk in metaphors about it, which is usually pretty easy for us. I don’t want to go into detail about it because that’s just something personal between him and me; it’s our own little language. But, I know how to talk to Tom, and he knows how to talk to me. There’s nothing more fun than giving Tom direction because you want to see what he does with that direction. That’s where it becomes unpredictable. That’s why I laughed at clearing the runway because that’s what I thought it would be like before I ever met him. It wasn’t at all a case like, “He knows the dialogue, just everybody clear out and let him go. Then, we’ll shoot everything around that.” He’s very straightforward and just a professional. He’s not a method actor by any stretch of the imagination, and thank God; that’s a good thing. He turns on and turns off like a light switch. There were a couple of really incredible moments in my raw footage where we’d have these really, really long takes. The part in the movie when he’s talking to Junior (Noel Fisher) and drawing after his stroke, he says to Junior that he doesn’t know who he is, basically. In that moment, when the camera was on Tom, he’s playing a post-stroke, physically ill person, and he looks it. It’s so broken and sad. In the middle of this one particular take, everybody in the room started laughing because Tom giggled a little bit. When he looks at him and goes, “No,” and doesn’t know who Junior is, it just felt too mean because Junior was sitting there, looking at his dad so sweetly. And then, Tom was just like, “Oh my God, that’s so mean; I’m so sorry, Noel.” We just kept the camera rolling, and he was like, “I’m good, I’m good.” In that moment, he went from dying Al Capone to Tommy with a sweet smile on his face and as quick as the snap of your fingers, he’s instantly scary Al Capone again. When I was editing the movie, I’d look at that moment a lot just to appreciate what level of skill he has at his disposal to be able to do that. I don’t know anybody who can do that; he’s so good.
The second act has shades of The Shining‘s Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel. Was this a conscious choice of yours, or is it just the nature of two characters who are both haunted?
It wasn’t anything that I was conscious of while I was writing it, because I was writing it more from a place of how I was feeling, and like I said, if there was any sort of conscious influence as a means of permission to go to certain places, it would be more of Barton Fink than anything else. But, once I finished my first draft, read it through and thought about it, The Shining definitely popped into my mind in terms of a film taking place in this big interior space where you never know exactly how big it is and that there could be all these doors that lead to other places. So, in that sense, that’s what struck me and clearly the descent into madness. So, it wasn’t anything conscious, but it was definitely subconscious for sure. I’m a hard-core Stanley Kubrick nut. Besides Barton Fink being my favorite movie at 9 years old, another little weird factoid is that I used to print out pictures of Stanley Kubrick, and I’d put them up in my room when I was in high school. Some boys had their favorite basketball players on their wall, but I had Stanley Kubrick making stern, pensive staring faces; that was my hero. By the time I graduated high school, I’d seen every single one of his movies well over a hundred times. His filmography is so deeply embedded into my subconscious that it was no surprise to me that it would have that influence come out of it. That makes me really happy because I consciously did not want to make a movie that was a template type of a film. That’s not a diss to any movie that is a templated film, where you’re taking this movie and that movie and mixing them together. I love those movies, too, but I like to go into something having as little conscious, specific influence as possible and just seeing where it can go from there.
Fonse (Hardy) is quite paranoid at this point in his life, and there are a number of scenes where he’s suspicious of those around him. Almost every person in his inner circle received his side-eye at one point or another. Was this story point a reflection on your own recent past — including the paranoia and vulnerability you felt on Fantastic Four?
Yes. One-hundred percent, yes. (Sighs.) So, there’s a scene toward the beginning of the film when he’s alone and he turns on the radio. He hears this radio play about himself, and it’s the first verbal mention of Al Capone, gangsters or anything like that. That was one of the first moments that came into my head before I even really started writing this. What I had just experienced after Fantastic Four came out and in the five months leading up to Fantastic Four being released, I was at home reading articles about myself, and to me, it felt like it was this mythological version of this out-of-control person that has the same name as me and who I didn’t quite relate to. I understood this character, Josh Trank, that was being portrayed on Film Twitter, blogs and other outlets, but the fact that he had the same name as me and had apparently been to the same places as me was just weird and surreal. I had some filmmaker friends that I talked to about these things, but I didn’t really know anybody who’d been quite on the receiving end of that kind of an experience like me. That’s not to say it was that bad. I’m fortunate in my life for so many reasons, and obviously, that was not by any stretch of the imagination the worst thing that could happen to somebody. As far as just the experience, it was bizarre. It made me think about these extremely famous, iconic human beings and what it would have been like to sit there in the comfort of your own home and to turn on the TV or radio and watch somebody portraying you in a way that is somewhat familiar but also completely exaggerated and dramatized for everybody else’s consumption. It all came directly out of my own experiences, and writing Capone was a way for me to synthesize the confusion that I had inside about what had just happened and to project that onto somebody who I don’t think we’ve ever really seen that experience portrayed before.
Despite finishing your director’s cut at the end of 2018, your festival plans changed once distribution hit a snag. When you were asked to recut the film for a wider audience, did you react in a way that was basically, “Oh, great, here we go again,” or were you confident in the fact that you knew you made a good movie and that the cream would eventually rise to the top?
We screened it for distributors, and there were no takers. I think it was a combination of the price point mixed with the fact that it’s not an obviously commercial type of a movie. It doesn’t fall easily into any genre, which we knew. The movie that’s coming out is the script that I wrote. It’s the movie we were all excited about, and we all agreed on. It’s hard when you then show this film that everybody is all so proud of and then to be like, “Oh, nobody wants to buy it and get behind it for whatever reasons that I don’t personally know.” So, when I was told that the thing we had to do was bring in an editor who we could all respect together, that could look at my footage, look at the movie and try to put together a more commercial version of this film, I had about 30 minutes where I was like … (Softly screams.) But, it’s exactly what you said; the second version. That’s where I went to. It was a little nerve-racking at first, but I just felt so confident in the film; I love it. I remember saying to the producers, “No matter how bummed out we might feel right now that we’re not getting any takers, this — in no way, shape or form — changes my life for this film. In fact, I love it even more now, knowing that there are people out there who don’t want to get behind it. I feel even more defensive about how much I love it.” So, the idea of bringing on another editor was fine. I was like, “The worst thing that can happen is we see something that we don’t like, and it’s fine; we still have my cut. The best thing that can happen is maybe this editor sees something that I didn’t see because I’m so close to it.” And then, we saw the results of that. Another thing I’ll point out because you’ve seen the film and other people will soon see the film, so this will make more sense, is that you can’t really put this movie together any differently in a way that would be more commercially appealing. Ultimately, when you consider the content in the film, the content itself is what makes it risky. Unless you wanted to do the Fantastic Four thing and reshoot half of the movie, that’s a different thing entirely. But, to just take what’s there and change it on some level … We saw the results of that, and we all thought that it’s got to be the movie that I wanted to make because that’s the movie that we all love. I’m so grateful. At the end of January or February is when Vertical came in and expressed their passion for this film and for my cut, and the only compromise they asked for was that I change the title to Capone, which I’m fine with. I rewatched the movie pretending it was called Capone, and I kind of laughed a little bit. It’s not the title I would go straight to because it’s the obvious title, but it does give a slightly different, irreverent edge to it because you expect a movie called Capone, starring Tom Hardy, to be like some sort of Untouchables solo spinoff, and it’s clearly not. So, I was fine with that, and like I said, I just couldn’t be any more excited. I feel so lucky on every level that I get the rare opportunity as a filmmaker to show people exactly what I wanted them to see.
Generally, when I have a bad experience, I tend to resort to the “out of sight, out of mind” approach since the smallest reminder can trigger an unpleasant feeling. In your case, when it comes to superhero movies and space opera films, are you still able to enjoy those films as a viewer without experiencing adverse effects of some kind?
Now, I’m able to enjoy them. I definitely felt bitter right when Fantastic Four came out, and it was a bitterness toward that genre. I felt very bitter, and I felt outcasted from a group of cool filmmakers that are making those movies in a successful way. I probably felt bitter toward people who I have enormous respect for like James Gunn, who was miraculously able to make Guardians of the Galaxy both a massive four-quadrant crowd pleaser but at the same time, a very personal, auteur-istic, idiosyncratic and crazy film. I just felt bitter toward all of that. At the same time, I started to realize that those movies are what James Gunn is destined to make. That’s his home; that’s his world and he owns that. I have so much respect for it, and people like James Gunn have taken a genre that is otherwise very much easily produced in the hands of non-filmmakers to successful levels … He’s taken that genre and shown us that with the right, capable, confident mind that it can be turned into something that is unpredictable, interesting and so cinematic on every level. I also think Peyton Reed is incredible. Ant-Man is fun, wild, crazy and undeniably well made on every level. I just started to realize that what I was trying to do as this young filmmaker who hadn’t earned the right yet after making only one movie … It’s something that I can easily say now, but back then, I wouldn’t be able to comprehend this thought. I hadn’t earned the right as a filmmaker yet to say that I could change the game with superhero films. I know that people consider Chronicle a superhero film, but to me, it’s a film with science fiction elements to it … And it’s really an emotional teenage drama with heightened fantastical elements. It’s more along the lines of a Stephen King story or something. What I tried to do with Fantastic Four was so arrogant for somebody who hadn’t really gotten the handle of his own skill set as a filmmaker to do that kind of stuff with it. I obviously loved what I was doing at the time and thought I was onto something, but when I take a look back, I’m able to, as a film man, remove myself and enjoy the works of James Gunn and Zack Snyder … Zack Snyder is a visual genius and clearly he has a very passionate fan base, so it’s not like it’s not spoken of enough, but I think he’s incredible. These are filmmakers who I just am really inspired by, such as Ryan Coogler and what he did with Black Panther. I can definitely watch those movies now, enjoy them and be separated from them. But, to answer your question, at the beginning, five years ago, I just felt bitter for very obvious reasons. I think it’s important to be honest with yourself and admit that. I know a lot of people who you can see it in their eyes that that’s how they feel — the way that I was feeling — but they would never say it. I think it’s important to say it because it allows you to advance and grow on your own personal path. Why I bring up James Gunn as an example of somebody I find to be very inspiring while he’s doing things that are totally different than where I’m going is that I aspire to someday end up in a place where I’ve found my own type of James Gunn home like he found and now has.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Capone is available on Digital HD and VOD on May 12. Stay tuned for part two of THR‘s conversation with Josh Trank.
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