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Tuesday, 05 March 2013 14:43

Gangster Squad's Creative Team

Written by  Dyana Carmella
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gangstersquad_ruben_pennEvery filmmaker knows that creative collaboration is an essential part of production. This topic was highlighted when Film Independent recently held a discussion with the creative team behind the stylish Warner Bros. film Gangster Squad. The movie’s period look and noir atmosphere was created by a team of talented artisans, including Director Ruben Fleischer, Editors Alan Baumgarten and James Herbert, and Academy Award-nominated Costume Designer Mary Zophres (True Grit). Set in Los Angeles in 1949, Gangster Squad stars Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone and Sean Penn in an action-packed story that follows Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (played by Penn) and the secret band of cops who want to take him down.

At the Film Independent event, Fleischer mentioned that he wasn’t the studio’s first choice to helm this ambitious project. Warner Bros. is known for groundbreaking action films that push the envelope, such as The Matrix, 300 and the Harry Potter franchise. Best known for directing the comedies Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, Fleischer won the studio’s approval when he pitched his vision for Gangster Squad, which involved a stylized look for the women, cars and guns, and action sequences with car chases and shootouts. “For me, a big part of the movie is the visual style,” said Fleischer. “In shaping this movie, it was really important for me to put together the absolute best possible team I possibly could. One of the things I’m proudest about is that when I got hired for the movie there was no cast involved. So it was my job to put a cast together. The person I anchored the film on and the only way I saw the movie was with Sean as Mickey Cohen. And so it’s easier said than done, but I had to convince both the studio and Sean Penn that he should be Mickey Cohen.” Having Penn on board made it easier to cast the entire film, but Fleischer admitted that the process involved dealing with some big egos. “Getting the six Gangster Squad actors in a room was less [about] directing and more [about] lion taming or something like that,” noted Fleischer. “It was intense. Not that any of them are bad guys. It was just a lot testosterone, a lot of alpha males in one room together. You have to make everyone feel special and that they have a purpose in the scene.”

gangster_squadUsing the art of costume design, Zophres brought the Gangster Squad characters to life. “To me, Josh is a manly man and so is Sean,” said Zophres. “For me, the movie was perfectly casted in that Ryan is more of a honkytonk [man], and that’s who he plays in the movie.” In real life, Mickey Cohen was an unattractive bald man who was known to never wear the same suit twice, so Fleischer had to compromise with Penn in making some adjustments for the character. “Sean mentioned that if he was going to do this, he wasn’t going to play the real Mickey Cohen,” recalled Fleischer. “We decided very early on that we were going to do a fictionalized telling of history as opposed to trying to do a documentary or something like that.”

When it came to the film’s visuals, Fleischer wanted the color palette to be slightly de-saturated. Background colors were organic to ensure that the lead actors and their wardrobe would stand out from the extras. The only character that wouldn’t follow this palette rule was Emma Stone’s. “I can’t start a movie without knowing the color palette,” said Zophres. “The decision was made early on that [Stone’s character] should not be part of the palette. I knew what dress she was going to wear in each scene, so we made sure none of the other background actors had the same color on that she was wearing.” To introduce all of the main characters, the production team created a key scene involving extensive Steadicam work following Gosling’s character into a nightclub. Filming on location in Bellflower, Calif., the crew did 17 takes and, as an editor, Baumgarten knew how critical it was to get this shot right. “[The goal was] to get as much storytelling and character [information] across as we could as efficiently as possible, because it’s a long scene with four parts to it and a lot of important aspects to it,” said Baumgarten. Another stand-out scene involved a stop-action sequence in a jail cell. Fleischer and Baumgarten inserted stylized still frames into the scene, extending each image over three frames while brightening it to give the scene the feel of an animated comic book.

gangster-squad_2Gangster Squad shot for a total of 71 days in California, and a very specific budget fit the requirements for the state’s tax incentives, but finding locations to represent old Hollywood proved to be a challenge. “It’s tricky to find old L.A. today,” admitted Fleischer. “Bellflower was authentic and original. It’s easier [there] to find existing older buildings, and the shooting will flow better and you have more options.” The movie was shot digitally with the ARRI ALEXA, and a digital imaging technician was on the set daily. Fleischer liked the idea of doing a color test on set to gauge the final look of the film. He also enjoyed the privilege of working with Oscar-winning Cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC (Memoirs of a Geisha), who gave the film a very lush and authentic look.

The filmmakers shot RAW and did a lot of color-correcting in post, but the footage was beautiful from start, thanks to the high-level professionalism of the crew. “I shot my first movie on digital and shot the second movie on film, [but] I got frustrated with film and looking at a degraded image,” said Fleischer. “I like looking at an HD-quality image in my monitor, and … Dion probably would have shot [Gangster Squad] on film if I didn’t have anything to say about it. We made a compromise because we shot with anamorphic lenses. I think [the ALEXA is] a great camera, and the look was never intended to be anything other than what it would look like on film, [but] I just prefer the digital workflow.” The panel discussed how the transition from film to digital can be troubling but also wonderful as long as the DP can master the motion, shutter speed and frame rate. With numerous stunts involving thousands of extras, shooting on digital saved the production money as all of the bullet shots were done in post (so there was no need for multiple sets of costumes).

The relationship between a director and editor is one of the film’s most important collaborations during production and post. For Fleischer and Baumgarten, their combined creative process meant giving each other space to work. “In the beginning of Zombieland, I was in the editing room all the time,” said the director. “By the time I got to Gangster Squad, I would be there daily but not hourly or minutely. I would work in the morning and look at cuts, and Alan would work on it at night.” And how can a director know if he’s chosen the right editor? Fleischer knows: “It’s all about gut instinct and if you click with someone.”
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