Producers Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick Talk Story Origin and the Vibe They Were Going for on the Set of GANGSTER SQUAD

     December 13, 2012

dan lin kevin mccormick gangster squad

Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick are two of the producer on Gangster Squad, and both saw the film as a chance to take a period story and make it fresh for modern audiences. The films that kept coming up were Sherlock Holmes (which Lin was a producer on) and The Untouchables. They spoke at length about the origin of the film, its director and cast, and the vibe they were going for with the movie. Our on-set interview with Lin and McCormick follows after the jump.

gangster-squad-posterIs it true this isn’t based on a book, but that they’re writing a book at the same time?

Dan Lin: Yes it’s based on Paul Lieberman’s seven part series that he wrote for the LA Times.

The real people…

Lin: Very much so, some of the real people have come to visit, they are two squad members who are still alive… Bert Phelps has come to visit us, and he’s 86, and family members of O’mara’s – who’s played by Josh Brolin – his kids has come to visit, Wooters, Ryan Gosling’s character – his kids have come to visit. It’s exciting for them.

Kevin McCormick: And in some cases the kids hadn’t been told the real story. With the younger kids, either the father had left the force or it was a chapter earlier on before they had grown up. So for them it’s exciting because they get to see a part of their history and watch a movie get made.

Lin: What was interesting for us is that we had creative license to make it a movie. And the family member would tell us “it’s more realistic than you think.” So, for instance, the Wooters family told us he slept with brass knuckles next to his bed.

McCormick: In terms of electronic surveillance, which is something we take for granted now, was something that wasn’t done much or was coming in to common usage, and one of the things in our story is that they actually bug Mickey Cohen’s house, and one of the guys, one of the survivors, was telling us that there was a mob gathering and they were sent to surveil them, and they bugged a television set, which in an uncanny way, is what we do to Mickey Cohen in the course of this movie.

gangster-squadWhat trepidations if any did you have about taking on a period movie given the fact that there are more Public Enemies that don’t do as well as there are movies like L.A. Confidential, was there any commercial consideration or concern, and how does that effect the size of the production or how the story was told?

Lin: Honestly, when we first got a hold of the story we took it to Kevin, who’s head of production at Warner Brothers and he asked me the question you’re asking now “Dan is this L.A. Confidential, is it Bugsy?” I said neither, it’s Untouchables, but we haven’t seen this before it’s set in L.A. And secondly, I read these articles when I was producing Sherlock Holmes, and it’s a very similar approach, we’re taking a period story and making it contemporary. You’ve seen today so it’s some of the look, and the actors, and Ruben Fleischer, the director, is an unusual choice we’ve made, but because he’s taking a contemporary approach to the story being told. So the movie’s you’re referencing, Public Enemies, L.A. Confidential, our movie shouldn’t feel like that, it’s more distinct, but it should have a modern feel to it.

McCormick: Dan had a real gut reaction to the material, which I had read, just as a newspaper junkie, and one of the movies Dan had worked on as an executive was The Departed, which had a fantastic outcome. It became a bigger movie in the way that it was cast, in its director, etc. I’m not saying these movies are in parallel, but Dan’s instinct could be something special, and the second part is that though it is a period movie, and period movies are quite difficult to get made, Warners as you may or may not know, the gangster movie was a staple of theirs and really kept the lights on for the studio in the 30’s, and they really invented a generation of leading men and bad guys who populated movies for the next twenty years. So this plugs into something they do really well, although other studios did gangster movies, Warners did films ripped from today’s headlines, and though these are stories that played out years ago, when Dan was talking about it being produced like Sherlock Holmes, we looked for a new way to interpret the action and violence in the movie, and the cast that was attracted to the material really elevated the picture. It’s always a crap shoot to do a period picture but it brings something contemporary in its attitude and cast of characters.

Lin: I’m excited for you guys to be here today, you didn’t get to see what this street looks like normally, but this town – Bellflower – isn’t doing very well economically, 90% of the street has been shut down, it’s gone bankrupt, but it’s very much a De Palma shot tracking through the city and then the club, so you can see the homage to predecessors like The Untouchables which is the touchstone we use.

gangster-squad-ryan-gosling-emma-stoneAnd real locations for a lot of it?

Lin: A lot of real locations.

McCormick: Bellflower not so much, but certainly a lot of the other places that are coming up, Grauman’s Chinese plays a significant part in it, we’re at the Park Plaza Hotel, which is a prominent hotel in the time period we’re playing in, which is adjacent to MacArthur Park.

Lin: We spent some time at Griffith Park, at the observatory, so we’ve been shooting at some real locations.

McCormick: And even the bungalows are locations that the cops families would have lived in in that period. And the creative people, Mary Zophres, who’s done the clothes for the picture, who was just nominated for True Grit last year, and has done a number of period movies with the Coen brothers, so it’s not just the men’s clothes that are fantastic, but also the women’s clothes. (Emma) Stone’s clothes, are just beautifully designed and built. For a costume designer it’s an incredible gift to do a movie like this, it’s not like you go to a store to do your shopping, you actually get to build the costumes. Our production designer, Maher (Ahmad), this is every production designers dream to build a location like that, it doesn’t come across that often.

You mentioned The Untouchables, which I think is one of the most watchable movies ever made, did you have any non-Gangster movie references when it came to this movie?

Lin: Ruben was diligent and every single week he showed us a different movie, or homage. Often they were Coen brother movies, who is a big influence on him, Heat is a movie we’ve been talking about a lot, yesterday we were talking about Munich for the scene we’re shooting tomorrow.

gangster-squad-josh-brolin-ryan-goslingI know in the old Warner Brothers films there were restraints on the clear cut nature of the good guys and the bad guys, and the bad guys had to meet their maker in the end, did you explore more grey areas?

McCormick: I think that’s one of the essences of what this movie is, there’s a fine line between the good guys and the bad guys, and it’s certainly part of the exploration of where our main characters go.

So you see it as something of a film noir?

McCormick: Yes, but Film Noir, L.A. Confidential is more film noir. This is influenced by that but more action oriented.

Lin: Even the coloring, it’s warmer, brighter than a film noir. Dion Beebe, our academy award nominated cinematographer, he’s made it brighter, it’s not a dark movie, when you see the film it will be so warm that it pops.

After he made two smaller somewhat irreverent comedies, what made Ruben the right choice for you guys?

McCormick: We met a lot of people and Ruben made the first movie because it was something he was passionate about and when the second movie came his way, the second movie had an irreverence about it, and from a career standpoint it was the last time he’d want to do a movie like that. This was a movie that he felt that it was important to make. We met with a lot of people, but I felt, and Dan felt after that meeting that he was genuinely excited about it, and what he could bring to it. And from our experience he’s immersed himself and has an incredible work ethic.

Lin: I first met Ruben, when my company did a thing called “creative salons” where we invite filmmakers to speak about their film, and we had him there for Zombieland, and at those things you learn more about the people, and Ruben said he aspired to do more than comedies but it was his way in. He was a history major at Wesleyan, certainly this is something he wanted to dig into, and lastly he’s obviously – and as we said before – he’s obviously a very contemporary guy and so we knew we wouldn’t get a dusty old fashioned picture with him. It was going to feel modern and the action was going to be kinetic, and frankly, there is some humor in the movie. Kevin and I were talking about it, the way Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, there is some humor. In real life he was an over the top character who tried to attract a lot of attention, he wanted to attract more attention as a gangster than the police did, and I think Ruben pulls that out of him.

ryan gosling gangster squadAnd he loves movies as well.

McCormick: He’s an autodidact in that, he watches a movie every day, not steal but for inspiration, and I think one of the things that our writer Will Beall, and I don’t know if Dan told you this or not yet, but Will is a former PD homicide detective who became a writer and author, and he really created distinctive roles for the characters so that in Sean and in Josh and in Ryan they are three extremely distinctive performances and I think we think so far they’re blending together in an exciting way.

Lin: It’s worth talking about Will because when he first came in with the story, it was from hearing it from other cops. He was LAPD homicide detective for many years, and he said the reason why he wanted to do this movie was because he said “on a bad day one of the senior officer would take us to a bar and talk about the good old days, talk about how it used to be” talk about shades of grey, he said “to get the gangsters you would have to act more like a gangster.” Whereas now it’s much more black and white, and if you do anything in between, you’re thrown in a federal penitentiary. Back then you could act more like the gangsters to take them down. So that’s been a theme of our movie, how far do you have to go and still retain your self before it’s too late.

How much does the gravitas and cast keep you guys from contemporizing it and turning it into a big pop movie? They made Mobsters, which was clearly meant to be a modern poppy version of a Gangster film, and having done Sherlock Holmes, do you see the potential going in that it could lean that way?

McCormick: It isn’t Young Guns, which is fantastic, but it has a very specific agenda, there’s a real subtext for each of these characters, people with stories that start before the movie begins, and stories that continue after the movie ends. Mickey, this is Sean’s first week and he’s brought a level of complexity and execution to his performance that I think is dazzling. But Josh has been incredibly moving and solid, and Ryan…so this isn’t a carbon copy of anything, it’s become its own thing. The underlining material that Dan spotted that Will scripted, that Ruben directed, the neighborhood they’re hanging out in with each other, it’s not just the three leads you have Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, we just have a roll call of excellent actors in the prime of their… even Robert Patrick. And it’s not The Magnificent Seven but they each have their own thing going on.

josh brolin gangster squadHow much mixing and matching was done in casting?

Lin: We cast the three leads first, it was always anchored by Ryan, Josh and Sean. And then – it was always fun we put up photos on the board and did some mixing and matching, we had different ethnicities, different ages, obvious we wanted to find the right wife for Josh and the right love interest for Ryan. Once we anchor the main three roles, we had a lot of fun.

McCormick: I’d like to say Ruben was so rigorous and passionate about it. And the luck of once Sean came on board we had Josh, we had Ryan, every other part became so much easier to cast, they’re each excellent in their own way. They have a high standard for their work.

Was there any contact with Whitey Combs or his family?

McCormick: We haven’t. I think Gangster Squad is interesting because Mickey became a cartoon character towards the end of his life, the Life magazine layouts, the autobiography, his essence changed from being a tough guy to a sideshow.

Lin: Would have had his own reality show now.

You talked about having the families come in and talk to you guys, was there any internal pressure about portraying real people in a semi-fictionalized way?

Lin: You should talk to the actors, but Kevin and I talked about always being respectful, these guys are heroes. The reason why Paul wrote this is because many of the original members were passing away and there’s only two members of the squad still alive, so it’s really an homage to them, and these guys were heroes. If they did their jobs right no one would hear about them, it was a secret squad. And so we’ve always maintained that we needed to portray them in a heroic way.

McCormick: And I think whenever you deal with non-fiction material, you want to honor the essence of the story, but you have to tell a story. And so sometimes things are changed and rearranged and sometimes characters are created to get you from the beginning to the end, and in this case, some of those things have happened.

gangster-squad-movie-image-sean-pennHow much is fiction then?

McCormick: I’d say a large portion of it is real.

We’re told you’re about halfway through the shoot. What have you been happiest with so far, or what’s exceeded expectations?

Lin: I think the chemistry between the guys exceeded expectations. A lot of the actors hadn’t worked together before and you’ll see the bonding that comes between the actors, and it happens on screen.

McCormick: I think they each set a very high standard, and when Sean started this week, everyone ratcheted their game up. There’s no divas, no prima-donnas, everyone shows up ready to play, and that’s an exciting and heady environment for anyone to want to work in.

What about the female side of the cast?

Lin: well, the main female character is Emma Stone’s Grace, who is Mickey Cohen’s etiquette tutor, and then she falls in love with Ryan Gosling’s characters. And we’ve been impressed with her, it’s a much more serious role than she usually plays. She looks gorgeous, and very much of the time period.

McCormick: I think one of the things that has made Emma so successful is that she feels relatable for older and younger people. The challenge is playing Mickey’s girlfriend and the question is how they look together. Her dreams have broken a little bit because you don’t come off the bus from Ohio thinking “I want to be a gangster’s girlfriend” I think you have your own dream and you have to settle for something. She’s looked at a lot of Lauren Bacall movies, and Mary has dressed her beautifully and she’s incredibly sophisticated, and she and Cohen fit together in an uneasy way, but you see why she and Ryan Gosling’s characters do fit together. So she pulls it off. The second part for us, considering there are only two significant roles for women in the movie, if you go back and look at something like Untouchables, the wife is just a story point, and we wanted to have women who were flesh and blood characters to make this a universe where women could feel some identification with what goes on, so Josh Brolin’s wife Connie (Mireille Enos) she’s someone you could totally see as the rock behind the man, who doesn’t take any shenanigans, and sees through the tough guy outside, but she’s also a truth teller, and when he starts to go over to the other side, she’s the one who wants to save her family. I think there’s some balance to it, and women will think there’s something there to watch.

gangster-squad-movie-image-josh-brolinLin: They both play tough female characters, but they’re both great. Mireille Enos, Connie, helps put together the squad, she wants to protect him, she doesn’t want him to die trying to get Cohen, at the same time, she’s his moral compass, and when he does enter shades of grey, she’s the one pulling him back. And then, obviously, Emma Stone’s character is dealing with two tough guys. In Cohen a dangerous guy, and Wooters, who’s reckless as well.

Is Emma Stone’s character based on anyone?

McCormick: It’s a conglomerate of a number of people.

But Connie is Connie?

Lin: Correct.

McCormick: When the Wooters family came to set they said that there was always a picture of a redhead, but their mother didn’t look like that. And the O’Mara family said Mireille Enos looked exactly like their mother, so there was something kind of great about both those recognitions.

Do you see this evolving into a franchise?

Dan: We’re focusing on this movie. I don’t know if you know but the gangster squad started in the 40’s and went all the way into the 60’s, it started as the gangster Squad, but they changed their name officially into the intelligence squad, but the squad itself called themselves the gangster squad. There’s always possibilities to tell more stories, but right now we’re focused on this one.

Gangster Squad Opens January 11.

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