Director Ruben Fleischer seems to have cashed in all his chips from Zombieland and made a small, dark, action comedy. Underneath its obvious commercial appeal, chances are taken with the humor of 30 Minutes or Less. Whether it be with Michael Pena‘s performance or being unafraid to have actual stakes, the film doesn’t always play it safe.
One would think Fleischer would jump right away into the world of tent-pole filmmaking, but he decided to wisely follow-up his hit film with a project that’ll allow his sensibilities to show. Fleischer won’t be staying in the comedy world forever, though. With his next film, The Gangster Squad, the director will be tackling an epic L.A.-set gangster picture through a digital camera lens.
The director was kind enough to make the time to talk while prepping The Untouchables-esque epic, where we discussed the darkness of 30 Minutes or Less, grounding comedies, and his love for digital filmmaking:
I mean this in a good way, but I was surprised by how mean-spirited the film was at times. Did the success of Zombieland give you leeway to make something a little darker?
I guess my taste is not the most obvious comedy. To me, this was challenging, and more than perhaps the conventional romantic comedy. I wanted to tell something more original, and it’s definitely something we haven’t seen before. I wanted to embrace the subject matter, and find the best performers to bring it to life.
Was there a lot of talk about how far you could push some of the meanness?
I don’t really think it’s mean-spirited at all. I think Danny [McBride] has a great ability of playing someone that’s a jerk or perhaps psychopathic, but can make you really like him. Although Danny strapped a bomb to Jesse’s chest, to me, you laugh at him because he’s funny. He is a villain, but he’s also relatable. His dad treats him badly, so maybe he’s just taking it out on other people.
Wouldn’t you say The Major’s death is mean? He didn’t really do anything to deserve it.
Well, what’s funny is that we shot a part where he survives. In the original script there’s a scene where Danny comes back and holds The Major in his arms, and The Major tells him he’s proud of him. When we played it for audiences, people just didn’t care about The Major that much. If some people feel like it’s mean-spirited, that’s fine. There was just a lot of people who thought he was just such a jerk he got what he deserved.
[Laughs] Does he really deserve to be shot in the chest and left for dead?
I guess I’ll consider it all the more.
[Laughs] Did you want to keep that scene in with The Major telling Dwayne he’s proud of him, or do you really like to listen to test audiences?
I didn’t feel the need for it to be in there. The only bummer was I felt it was a strong performance for Danny, and I think audiences have been really impressed seeing that side of him. In the end, the movie started with a few different endings. What’s great about it now is how streamlined it is. It just powers through, and I think that’s a big value in that of not having it overstay its welcome.
I believe the film is around 83 minutes, right? Did you have to cut out a lot?
I’m not sure how much we shot or how long the previous cut was. We definitely tried to make it nice and tight. As soon as you get the bomb strapped to his chest, there’s not a lot of time to mess around. We can’t really waste time being indulgent when the character’s life is on the line.
With the scene between Dwayne and The Major, what did The Major say about why he was proud of him?
That he was proud that his son finally had the balls to do something and try to kill him. In a messed up way, he’s rewarding him for trying to kill him.
[Laughs] That sounds really great, actually. Like Zombieland, you don’t gloss over how terrible the main character’s situation is. Is that important for you to find that sense of grounding?
If you don’t buy the reality of the movie, then I don’t think it works. It’s essential to me that you invest in the character’s experience, buy the grounded reality, and that you go along the journey with him.
Did you have constant conversations on the set about keeping things realistic? Like, if a joke could be very funny but not feel honest, would you cut it?
I think definitely with the improv it just went beyond the tone of our film, or got off topic, or strayed from character. One of the director’s jobs is to maintain that world you’ve created, and to make sure the reality of that world is consistent.
How much improv was there in the bank robbery scene, or was that very scripted?
The bank robbery scene was a very tight scene in the script. The structure of it of the guy getting shot and the paint [gag] was all on page. In the moment, some of the lines Jesse and Aziz said are ones that they came up with, especially the ones between Aziz and Sandra.
That’s the scene of the movie, so did a lot of prep go into that?
Yeah, but not to say we didn’t prep with every scene. It is the most climatic scene. There’s so much going on, and it’s so well written. It was such a heightened moment for the actors and the characters in the story.
Do you make sure you get a lot of time on each set, so that you and the actors can feel free to be spontaneous and find new things?
That’s a priority, and it’s how I work. I make sure that we have enough time to give the improvisers enough time to develop something that’s beyond the page.
Unlike a lot of comedy directors, you really play around with the camera. Do you find it important to be stylish, rather than just holding the camera straight?
Well, I appreciate you saying that. I come from music videos and commercials, where style is a big part of the whole world. I’ve always tried to add that to whatever I’m doing. With 30 Minutes or Less, there was a conscious decision on my part to make it a little less stylized. I wanted it to feel like an 80s action movie. For example, with the car chase, I restricted the camera angles to what would be in a typical 80s car chase. I didn’t want to get all crazy, Bourne-esque, or something like Bond. I wanted it to feel like the movies they reference in the film. I tried to really reduce the style. I decided to do the most basic opening credits we could possibly come up to say the movie is different, that it is about story, and that it’s not going to be about the style overwhelming everything.
The opening credits establish what type of guy Nick is. Could you talk about your collaboration with Jesse in making Nick go from, basically, an unlikable loser to someone that’s sympathetic?
Well, I wanted to use the credits to establish what kind of world we’re in. I tried with the driving sequence to show suburban Michigan and what type of people live there. We show Jesse smoking weed, which is to show this other side of Jesse Eisenberg. With the character, we saw him as this guy who’s been sitting on his couch and has let life pass him by. He probably had a lot of potential in high school. He wasn’t a loser, but he let life slip past him. Set a part from this guy is someone who’s got a real career, is dating girls, and he’s out there in the world. Nick is someone that’s a little pretentious and thinks he’s better than everything. He’s condescending, but he’s also trapped by his fears.
He’s one of those people that would rather not doing something than do something and fail. Instead of telling the girl he loves her, he decides to be alone. Instead of trying to get a world job, he’s fine having a shitty job because then he wouldn’t have failed at trying to do something better. He’s avoided taking chances for the safer route. As a result, he’s let life pass him by. The whole message of the movie, if I think you can say that, is that everyday is precious and you can’t let life pass you by. Without having expecting it, your life could be over. You’ve got to win some and lose some, rather than sitting on the sideline.
So you see it as a coming-of-age story?
Yeah, he definitely learns a lot through the experience. If anything the viewers can takeaway from if they’re just sitting on the sidelines, delivering pizzas, and smoking weed — and that’s not to say that isn’t a great way to spend your time — but if they want to aspire to bigger and better things, maybe this film will inspire to them to take initiative.
How long did you make music videos for?
I don’t know if I can say I’m not a music video director, but I started in 2001. I directed my first low budget video then. The last one I did was about four years ago.
Four years? Do you plan on making more videos?
If the right opportunity presented itself and if I have the time to do it, then I’d do it in a heartbeat. I love music videos, and I think maybe it’s my favorite format. I’m just occupied with other stuff now.
Why do you say it’s your favorite format?
Well, I love music. It’s very creative. Your responsibility is to come up with a cool concept that fits the song. There’s really no limitations, it’s your creation, and it usually involves some cool style or technique. It’s a format that challenges the filmmakers to constantly evolve to create something new.
At what point did you go into digital filmmaking?
I started with digital filmmaking. I’ve pretty much only done digital filmmaking.
Why didn’t you start with film?
It cost a lot of money. I had a video camera and I only had to pay five bucks for a Mini DV tape, and you could shoot hours worth of footage. Film is pretty expensive for someone starting out.
With shooting digital, do you also like knowing exactly what you’re going to get while on the set?
Yeah, that’s what I’m used to. In fact, Zombieland was shot on digital. For 30 Minutes or Less, we shot on film, and it was really frustrating not being able to see what I was getting. I think that’ll be my first and last film shot on film.
Why did you shoot on film?
Honestly, it was because of the flamethrower at night time. There’s a huge contrast ratio between the big, bright flame in the dark night, and that’s something digital still hasn’t quite mastered. We did test of digital versus film, where we shot fire at night, and there was just no competition. We committed to shooting the whole thing on film. That was the only reason.
Will you be shooting The Gangster Squad on digital?
That’s the intention.
Are you approaching making a period piece like Public Enemies did, or are you going for a filmic look?
I think digital is a very broad definition, and there’s a lot of different types of cameras and different looks. My ambition of shooting it on digital is not to make something that looks any different than film, and it’s just a different work flow. If it’s shot well, I would put any Alexa or Red Epic against 35 and see if anyone could tell the difference, and I’d be surprised if they could. I think if most movies were shot well on digital, most audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The Social Network was shot digitally, and I think that movie looks amazing. I think Michael Mann made a very conscious decision on the look of Public Enemies, and it was to distinguish it from film and make it look digital. I won’t do that for my film.
What’s the tone and scope of the film? Are you making a big epic?
It has a lot of action in it. It’s a classic gangster movie in the vein of The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential.
Is the tone a little heightened like The Untouchables, or are you going for something more grounded?
Heightened in what way?
Some of the acting is a little broad, and the score can be a little bit too.
I don’t see it that way. I thought the score was epic. I thought it was an incredibly exciting score. As far as the performances, I thought Sean Connery and Robert De Niro were amazing.
I love the movie, but I always thought there was playfulness to it, like other De Palma movies.
Sure. I don’t see it that way, but I’m not saying you’re wrong.
I understand. Do you see The Gangster Squad as an opportunity of not being pigeon-holed as strictly a comedy director?
Sure. It’s not a comedy, so by that, hopefully I will no longer be viewed as an exclusively comedy director. Unless, of course, we do something wrong.
30 Minutes or Less opens in theaters this friday.