In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about scenes that were the most challenging to shoot in their movies. For our latest installment we chat with Ruben Fleischer about his gritty noir Gangster Squad (out on Blu-ray and DVD today).
Set in 1949s Los Angeles at the height of gangster Mickey Cohen’s (played by Sean Penn) reign over the city, a group of LAPD’s hard-boiled finest come together to form a rogue squad dedicated to taking down Cohen by any means necessary.
Ryan Gosling plays Jerry, the smooth-talking member of the group who hangs out with shady characters and shadier women. In a striking scene we follow Jerry as he enters Cohen’s legendary club Slapsy Maxie’s to meet his friend, mob enforcer Jack Whalen, and catches eyes with Cohen’s pin-up squeeze, Grace (Emma Stone).
Fleischer breaks down the challenges of making the scene, including building Slapsy and how the scene changed in post.
Creating from Scratch
For me the scene with the biggest challenge is one I really love, the scene where we find Ryan going into Slapsy Maxie’s. Typically if you’re going to build a big 1940s period club interior you’d do it on a soundstage, but with this film we built very few sets and we shot as much as we could in practical locations. When we were scouting for Slapsy Maxie’s, which is kind of Cohen’s club and the iconic location for him, we struggled to find a period façade that we could make a club where the block was still pretty intact and didn’t require too much to turn back in time. We scoured all over Los Angeles looking for a location and we ended up going to a town called Bellflower, it’s about a good 30-40 minutes away from downtown L.A. This block there was entirely period accurate. I think because socio-economically Bellflower hasn’t had a huge change since the ‘40s it kind of was left intact and there’s very little done cosmetically to the whole block. What was really great was the outside of what we wanted the club to be was also vacant on the inside. I don’t know how many square feet it was, but it basically was a giant unoccupied area. It used to be a drug store but it was just sitting there. So we decided to build the Slapsy Maxie’s set on location there. Doing it allowed us to treat the exterior and interior as one, usually you have to split them up.
So in the club you walk in the door, you feel like you’re walking into a real club, there’s a big dining room with a stage and performers and you go into the backstage area and that was all practical too. Within the story of the movie that’s where Cohen also staged his illegal gambling activities so we actually put his El Dorado Trust upstairs so it was an entire, practical working version of Slapsy Maxie’s —the downstairs was a club, there was a backstage and the upstairs was an illegal gambling operation, which the Gangster Squad later comes in and busts. So I have to just give credit to my production designer Maher Ahmad who transformed this dowdy block into this incredibly glamorous 1940s exterior and then built that whole club and made it opulent as I feel like the clubs of the time really were. We used places like Sardi’s and the Mocambo and a lot of references of the period to figure out what the esthetic was and we took aspects of the different club interiors that we liked to build out what the environment was. And then the color scheme we went with gold and green, which are Cohen’s presumed favorite colors, just because they represent money. So we really tried to make a lush, lavish interior.
Inspired by a Legendary Scene
Because we had this period-accurate interior/exterior when scouting, the DP Dion Bebe turned to me and said, “We can do the Goodfellas shot.” Everyone knows that famous Copacabana shot where it starts on the street and winds its way through the kitchen and ends on stage with Henny Youngman doing stand-up. We decided that we’d go for it. There was a lot to it. We shot over the course of two different days. We had about 50 period cars on the street, 300 extras I think between the interior and exterior that we had to choreograph. The amount of rehearsals we had to do to get the camera in synch with Ryan as he makes his way into the club and making sure that everything happens at the right time was definitely challenging. I think it took 17 or 18 takes to finally get the one that ended up being in the movie. We put a Steadicam operator on a crane so the shot starts with the big crane in the air. It comes down where we find Ryan as he meets the shoe shine boy, they have a little interaction and then the Steadicam operator walks off the crane and we had to work out the choreography where Ryan flashes a badge to get to the front of the line. The camera has to meet him just as he’s coming across the bouncer so we can see his actual badge which is in his hat. That was an idea Ryan had: that he carries his badge in the top of his hat, which I’d never seen before but thought was pretty cool. And then he had to take his badge out and put the hat on the coat check girl’s head and then these two cute girls eye him up and down as they come out of the club and then we really tried to land so when the camera crosses the threshold to the interior of the nightclub that the song really swells just as the camera passes though. We see this place hopping. I don’t know how many dancers we had, but there were a lot, we had a full band performing onstage with a singer and then you had choreographing, there’s a pair of dancers that break off from the crowd and lead up into the direction which allows us to find Ryan as he comes across and then he takes us over to his table where he starts his dialogue with Whalen.
So that was all done over the course of one night, that one shot. Then another night we did the meat of their conversation where Jack Whalen is giving Jerry the lay of the land.
Enter the Femme Fatale
As scripted, this is where Jerry and Grace first meet and we wanted it to be a really meaningful connection so the way we played it was in this crowded nightclub where there’s tons of music and talking, when their eyes meet the sound falls out and they’re allowed to just focus on each other for just a beat. We’re hoping that the audience believes in love at first sight. She quickly excuses herself from Cohen’s table and I love the shot where we see her head to toe in that striking red dress. I feel like it’s an opportunity for audiences to see Emma Stone as they’ve never seen her before, as this really incredibly glamorous, pin-up kind of classic ‘40s femme fatale as she almost glides across the room.
One idea Ryan had for the scene was this interchange where he says, “I like to play post office,” and she says, “That’s a kid’s game,” and he says, “Not the way I play it.” And that wasn’t in the script, it was from an Abbott and Costello movie Ryan had always loved. So we kind of borrowed it for our film.
There were a lot of conversations about the blocking of how they were standing. This is Cohen’s club and she’s Cohen’s girl so this conversation had to be somewhat discreet. The way they staged it, Ryan is kind of looking into the bar and she’s looking out so from a distance the hope would be Cohen couldn’t make out too easily that they’re taking to each other. But it also made for a pretty neat dynamic in the way that they’re never really looking directly at each other until the very end when he turns to her and says, “I was just hoping to take you to bed.” You can see that she loses a breath at that line.
Ultimately due to editing and various other things, the scene order of this shot changed. This was originally Ryan Gosling’s character introduction. It was simultaneous to Josh Brolin busting up the thugs in Cohen’s place. In the original version Cohen receives a phone call at his table telling him Brolin’s character had knocked over his place and he sends over some guys to take care of it. But that got cut out. In the finished cut we actually meet him earlier at the police station, but for a long time this was his character's introduction. In my experience scenes move around in post because questions always arise. For this one a question that would come up with the way we had the scene placed was is Ryan’s character a cop? So situating him at the police station early on you knew he was a cop and the context of the conversation in the club scene.
But what we see here is the world that Jerry lives in. He’s a creature of the night and he’s a little stumbly drunk. Unlike the rest of the cops who are pretty straight and narrow, he’s definitely a guy who lives in the grey areas. He’s dining with a known gangster and picking up girls in nightclubs.
And in post there’s an interesting aspect to the scene: when you watch it the crane shot shows what was Wilshire Boulevard at the time, we decided to create the glamorous Miracle Mile section of Wilshire. So the opening shot with the crane all that neon on the right side of the screen and everything in the deep background is all visual effects, so as the camera comes down off the crane and goes to street level, that’s when the scene becomes one hundred percent practical.
Taking It In
Meeting Emma for the first time in the film is exciting and having Ryan and her doing that banter is fun. I love the way the scene looks, the glamour of the period, the nightclub and be able to turn back the clock on Los Angeles and portray it in the light that it looked like in that period. I think it’s a signature location in the film and I think it was nice to showcase it in such a special way.