One of the reasons you shot on film was because of the contrast ratio with the flamethrower at night time. There’s a scene in Gangster Squad where a car blows up at night and the contrast seems fine. Over the past few years, would you say that’s been an advancement for digital?
We definitely had to fix some of that digitally. There’s no denying the fact digital blows out on big explosions. For example, that car explosion shot we had to go back and fill it in with some…I mean, there’s no data, so it just clips and goes to white. We would go back and paint the fire back in, if that happened. Another case is when Ryan [Gosling] lights the dollars on fire and tosses it creating that fireball was something we shot on film, actually. We did that because we knew we’d have problems. That is the biggest problem, I’d say.
Have you noticed any advances?
It’s always getting better. I mean, the ALEXA is better than the GENSIS. It’s not there yet, though. That Chinatown sequence with all that stuff just blew up, so we had go fill all that back in. That was the ALEXA, but there’s no doubt it’ll improve and get better.
Why do you prefer the ALEXA to the GENSIS?
It’s four years later, technology has evolved, and, at this moment, the ALEXA is the best. I’m sure in a few years there’ll be another one that’s better than the ALEXA. Unlike film that constantly has film running through it, it’s constantly about the chip, who has the best chip, the best resolution, and the best color range. It’s almost like cameras and their chips have become their film stocks. You can now choose your camera for different looks, whether it’s RED, ALEXA, or the new Sony. They all have their own pros and cons.
When shooting digitally, especially a period movie, was there ever that talk with DP Dion Beebe of letting it look like film?
Well, we just wanted to make it look great. For me, maybe you guys notice the difference, but I promise you if you ask a normal film going audience if that was film or digital they’d have no idea. It’s just whether it looks good or bad, and that’s the question. We did use anamorphic lenses on this movie, which gives it a more filmic quality with the flares and that classic anamorphic focus shift. Those are film feelings, even if you’re not aware of them. You just associate those aspects to traditional 35mm. I think the anamorphic lenses just help take us out of the digital range a little bit.
When people have commented the film feels too digital, I think they’re commenting that they think there’s too much digital effects or too much tricky stuff, as opposed to the actual quality image.
All those digital effects, obviously with the CG blood, make the movie feel like a very modern, 21st Century gangster movie.
That was the ambition. I think this movie works best when people go in wanting to have a good time. If people expect The Godfather, then they’re going to be disappointed. If you accept the movie as a classic 1940s, gangster B-movie genre film, I think you’ll be very satisfied.
One thing The Godfather definitely doesn’t have is Sean Penn. I know critics sometimes use the term “scenery chewing” as a negative, but he just approaches every scene here like that shot of him scarfing down a lobster. I have to ask, did you just let him run wild?
[Laughs] Yeah, he couldn’t get enough of it. He’s so funny. One of the things I was most psyched on for this movie was how funny Sean was. We haven’t really seen him be funny in a long time. I mean, we forget sometimes he was Spicoli. The dude is one of the funniest people you’d ever meet. I love that he brought that to Mickey Cohen in this film.
But I imagine some of his one-liners, like, “Here comes Santee Claus!”, are on the page too, right?
Nope, that was an improv’d Sean Penn line.
Can you recall any other improvised moments?
Yeah, that fork line, “That’s the thing I like about only having one fork: you can never make the wrong decision.” That was just Sean Penn in the moment.
And of course that “Santee Claus” line leads to a big shootout. How was it shooting action of this scale for the first time?
It was definitely a direction I was excited to go in, and it’s a direction I’d like to go in further. It was great getting to play with all these toys. I mean, every single day I learned something new. I was surrounded by Academy Award winners and nominees, so it wasn’t just the actors who were so experienced, and all of them helped me elevate my filmmaking.
Did you have the desire to make a movie like this a few years ago?
Yeah. All the movies I love aren’t just comedies. As a young director, I think I was really excited to capitalize on a moment and get outside the genre I was doing and just push myself. I want to try more challenging things.
Now moving forward as a bigwig director, where do you see yourself going?
[Laughs] I don’t really have an answer for you, honestly. One thing I know is I love exploring these worlds. It’s so cool to have gone to the apocalypse with Zombieland and then this with the 1940s. I think that’s one of the joys of moviemaking, getting to inhabit these worlds. I hope I continue to have opportunities to explore new worlds, bring them to life, and work with great actors.
You know, I think that’s a through line for all three movies: the cast is the best possible people we could have for each job. I can’t imagine anyone other than who is in Gangster Squad or Zombieland. I mean, Zombieland was defined by Woody [Harrelson], Emma [Stone], Abigal [Breslin], Bill [Murray], and Jesse [Eisenberg]. It was just a perfect cast. Even for 30 Minutes or Less I think the chemistry of those four — Danny [McBride], Nick [Swardson], Aziz [Ansari], and Jesse [Eisenberg] — was great. The aspect of the films I’m most proud of is the casting.
Going forward I hope I can inhabit different worlds and continue to work with different actors.
Gangster Squad opens in theaters on January 11th.