Director Ruben Fleischer Talks ‘Gangster Squad’: A 21st Century Mob Movie

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This weekend’s Gangster Squad may invoke classical conventions of the mobster genre, but director Ruben Fleischer never set out to make an old school throwback. His dramatic action movie is a part of a new breed of period pieces, ones made with a very modern sensibility. They move at a bullet’s pace, are shot with feverish popcorn energy, and avoid any preconceived notions of being stuffy.

Fleischer didn’t set out to make an epic like The Godfather, and after 30 Minutes or Less and Zombieland we wouldn’t expect that from him, but that doesn’t mean he settles into expectations either. Generally if you work in a genre more than once, you become distinctly known as, in Fleischer’s case, “the comedy” guy. While Gangster Squad has its laughs, it shows Fleischer working on a whole new level as a visual storyteller in a different genre . Speaking with Fleischer, he was obviously happy to escape the pigeonhole with his third feature film.

Here’s what he had to say about seeing his movie 400 times, the hilarity of Sean Penn and why he’ll continue to shoot digitally:

Have you gotten a chance to see the film with a lot of audiences?

Yeah, we did a lot of test screenings over the course of it, so we did three public audience screenings. Then last night at the premiere was a lot of fun, since it was at the Chinese theater and it was fun to hear the response to it. It gets a lot of laughs and cheers.

Were you actually able to relax and enjoy the movie?

It’s hard not to watch anything you’ve made and not be critical of it. It’s funny, I really haven’t seen Zombieland or 30 Minutes or Less since their premieres.

If they’re on television you won’t watch them?

If I’m flipping through channels and I see them I’ll watch it for a minute or two and say, “Oh, yeah, that was cool,” and then I’ll change the channel. When you’re editing a movie you watch it…I swear to God, I must have seen Gangster Squad around 400 times. It’s hard to enjoy it and lose yourself in the story. I’m just so super aware of every decision that was made to compose every single frame of the movie.

Are you able to remain objective about the movie on that 400th viewing?

It’s tricky. I think that’s a challenge, because you can’t lose perspective during editing and you’ve got to stay strong, go with your gut, and trust your instincts. Once it’s locked you want to get away from it. Last night was fun because I hadn’t seen the movie for two months. We locked it in October, so it was neat seeing it for the first time in a while. Last night was great.

Was there a scene or two where you could genuinely get immersed?

There’s a few shots I just love the way they work. One of them is where they go back stage and the guy goes, “Who are you?”, and they say, “We’re the band!”, and then they knock him out. The camera spins around and follows them as they march up the stairs, and I’ve always loved that shot. That one shot with Ryan [Gosling] and Emma [Stone] in bed where it’s all one take and he says “Mickey Mouse” is really fun, because it’s a real moment. It’s the same with the big kind of Goodfellas shot. It’s fun to watch them play out in real time.

The other day I read a quote of yours saying you’ve never felt like a real director. Now having made a movie like this with a Goodfellas shot, do you feel like a real director?

[Laughs] I still got a ways to go, I think. This movie was definitely a huge learning curve. I think I learned as much on this movie as my first, about getting to work with these actors, recreating period Los Angeles, and all the action. Honestly, it was a great experience.

Gangster Squad

So you’re a different man than the Ruben Flesicher who made The Girls Guitar Club?

[Laughs] I have come a long way since then. Every project is a new learning process. Everything informs everything else. Hopefully I’ll keep continuing to grow as a director and getting better and better as I keep making stuff.

We actually posted that short on the site the other day.

I saw that. That was awesome. That thing was the first time I ever said “action” in that context. It really was my “let me see if I can do this” kind of thing. I had worked as an assistant director and seen him make stuff and knew what was involved, but in terms of initiating it, meeting those girls, putting together that crew, and putting everything together…it was like that and Zombieland were parallels as the first step.

Did making that short film give you confidence as a director?

Absolutely. It was funny, I spent all my money on it and I was convinced after it was done I would be getting movie offers and TV pilots. I’d say, “Oh, it’s cool I spent all my money on this, because I’ll be making so much money after making all those movies and TV shows after this short [film] is done.” As soon as it was finished I was begging people to watch it, but they wouldn’t watch it. After that I was broke and I had to figure out how to get it all together, so it was a long road back.

That short was how I learned to direct. After that I started making things on my own. I had a budget for The Girls Guitar Club, but everything that followed I had zero dollars. The only money I spent was on the video tapes. That was really how I learned to direct, scout for locations, edit, and produce at the same time as I directed.

The last time we spoke you mentioned you had only ever shot on digital, with the exception of 30 Minutes or Less. Now having made another film digitally, do you still think you’ll never want to shoot on film again?

Yeah. 30 Minutes or Less for me was my opportunity to try film, and I just don’t prefer that process. I think the video tap monitor just looks so crummy. When you’re shooting on an ALEXA and watching it on the HD monitor live it’s so much better for me, since I know what I’m going to get. I was constantly frustrated on 30 Minutes or Less, so there’s no question. I guess my DP would have preferred to shoot this on film, but I was real clear we were going to shoot this digitally.

Do you think it’s just nostalgia for certain directors who like the mystery of not knowing what they’re going to get?

I think it’s less nostalgia, more of just what they’re used to. Since I came up on shooting Mini DV I always had a little monitor on set. Whatever the format was I shot exclusively on video. I never had the budget for film. I was just used to working that way. When I had to go to film and just watch such lower quality resolution on the video tap it was really painful for me. I think so many great directors came up shooting film their whole lives, so that’s what “shooting” for them is. That just wasn’t what my reference was.

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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