Director Ruben Fleischer on 'Gangster Squad' Reshoots and Convincing Sean Penn to Star (Q&A)

Ruben Flesicher Directing Penn Gangster Squad - H 2013
Warner Bros. Pictures

Ruben Flesicher Directing Penn Gangster Squad - H 2013

Ruben Fleischer had to do a lot of fighting to get Gangster Squad made.

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Fleischer, 38, has only helmed two other feature films -- 2008’s comedy Zomebieland and 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less. But he wanted to take a big next step by helming a 1940s action film about infamous mob king Mickey Cohen and the group of LAPD officers who tried to take him down.

“I think that there was enough action in Zombieland to get me the job, but I definitely had to fight for it, because I wasn’t the obvious choice,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Even when he had the job, Fleischer had to get a cast. And while he ended up with a star-studded ensemble featuring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Fleischer says it took plenty of convincing to get some of the actors onboard.

And then, when the Warner Bros. film was finished and ready for release, a real-world tragedy affected its path. After the Aurora, Colo., shootings in a movie theater left 12 dead, Warner Bros. decided to reshoot a specific scene in Gangster Squad that featured a shoot-out in the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. This pushed back the release to January 2013 from its original September 2012 release.

Fleischer spent three nights in Los Angeles shooting the new scene, which features the characters in Chinatown. “This movie more than some of the others has been a really long road,” he says. “We had some stumbles along the way, but I’m so pleased and proud that an audience finally gets to see it.”

Fleischer spoke to THR about his long road to the theater, why he agreed to the reshoots, and his favorite moment between Brolin and Penn.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide to take on this project?

Ruben Fleischer: This is only my third movie. I’ve made two action-comedies before this, so just in terms of growing and developing as a filmmaker, I was really excited to do something that wasn’t comedic, and more sort of dramatic action. I’ve always loved the genre of gangster films. I’ve always been fascinated by history. I’m not a native Angeleno, but I’ve really embraced it as home. So it was a combination of those elements: of loving a period, of loving a city and really wanting to challenge myself and do something bigger and with more moving parts.

THR: How did you end up casting these actors? Who came on board first?

Fleischer: I cast Sean first. He was the only person I thought about for [the role of mob boss Mickey Cohen], and I had to really convince him to do it. I think he had some reluctance, given that I hadn’t made a movie of this scale or of this tone. I think when he does something, he doesn’t do it lightly. He’s an all-in kind of guy, so he just wanted to make sure if he was going to go all in that it was going to be worth it.

THR: Ryan Gosling creates an interesting character onscreen. He even gives him a very specific voice. How did that come about?

Fleischer:  Ryan, I think, tries to make every character he dives into his own. And his vision for Jerry -- I think he didn’t want to go the traditional tough-guy route. And so I think he was looking for ways to distinguish him, and so he did a lot of different things to define the character so he could make a personal connection to him.

THR: The film was originally scheduled to open in September 2012, but was pushed back after the Aurora, Colo. shooting. Why did you decide to reshoot that scene?

Fleischer: Out of respect for the families of the victims, we collectively decided that the appropriate thing would be to reshoot the scene. And the new sequence is a seamless replacement, so I don’t think we compromised the film in any way, and I’m proud of the fact that we respected the families of the victims, because it was such an unspeakable tragedy.

THR: While set in the 1940s, the film features some very modern-looking special effects and style. How did you come up with that?

Fleischer: The producers challenged me to make the movie to relate to a modern audience. But I think in making a movie, that’s all I want to do, is make it connect to a modern audience. That’s my ambition. And I'm always trying to push the envelope. I have a music-video background, and I feel like the responsibility of a music-video director is to do something that hasn’t been done before in a really cool visual way. So much innovation has come in filmmaking through music videos.

THR: There’s a great scene between Josh Brolin and Sean Penn where their characters are just going at it in a fist-fight. Can you tell me about filming that?

Fleischer: I didn’t want any style in that thing. I just wanted it to be as visceral and real as possible. I’m so proud of that fist-fight. I feel like we really made something special with that. A large part of that was that Sean and Josh did the entire thing themselves. They rehearsed the entire fight, long in advance. We shot it over three nights, no stunt doubles. It was just two movie-stars pounding on each other.

Gangster Squad opens in theaters on Jan. 11.

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