About the Production
No names. No badges. No mercy.
GANGSTER SQUAD is an action-packed story of redemption, of righting wrongs, of men taking back what's theirs, and the belief and commitment required to make a difference, to save the city they love, the City of Angels.
In order to preserve the law in Los Angeles, the members of the gangster squad -- a small group of LAPD cops secretly tasked to take on the city's most nefarious crime lord, Mickey Cohen -- would have to break it. GANGSTER SQUAD, inspired by these true events, depicts the height of Hollywood's glamorous Golden Age in 1949, and also a time of great turmoil in L.A. Cohen ran the town and had local government officials at the highest levels in his pocket. It would take a lot of guts-there could be no glory in it -- to put an end to his reign.
Ruben Fleischer, the film's director/executive producer, a former history major, couldn't wait to delve into that world. "It was such an exciting time: that elegant, art deco, post-war era when the city was really being reborn and expanding," he observes. "There was exuberance about the victory overseas, the men coming home, and the economy coming back. I've always been fascinated by that period, so when the opportunity to explore it came along, I jumped at it."
Producer Dan Lin says, "Ruben wanted to put a new twist on the genre by taking his contemporary filmmaking aesthetic and applying it to the period setting, providing a modern edge to a story that takes place back in the days when the good guys had to act like mobsters to take down a mobster."
And they did, essentially engaging in a turf war with the bad guys, though the cops' modus operandi in going for Cohen's inner workings wasn't exactly by the books.
Josh Brolin, who, as Sgt. John O'Mara, heads up the squad, notes, "In the movie, my character has returned from World War II, where he fought to make sure his country, and several others, could maintain their independence. He was heroic. Then he comes home to L.A. and finds that Mickey Cohen has stripped his city dry of any honor, so he has no problem saying yes when his chief enlists his help. And because O'Mara and the others are operating covertly, they don't worry about liability, they don't think that, 'Oh, if we do this we'll get sued.' The cops essentially behave as badly as the criminals, because that is the only way to get to them."
"These guys have sort of been forced into a situation where, because everyone around them has become complacent or worse, it's tough to be on the right side of the law," adds Ryan Gosling, who plays a cop initially reluctant to join the lineup. "A few of them decide they're not going to stand around and watch while their city is taken over, they're going to take matters into their own hands. Some because they can't stand the injustice and feel compelled to right the wrongs, and others, like the character I play, because it's become personal."
"There was a real shift in the culture at that time, and something had to be done," Lin says. "Gangsters had taken over New York and Chicago, and L.A. had become their next target. It was virgin territory and every mobster's dream: blue skies, sunny beaches, and beautiful girls."
Emma Stone, who plays a wannabe actress-turned-moll, instantly fell for the story when she read the screenplay. "It had such a romantic and smoky and nostalgic feel, with a lot of intense action and suspense. I immediately felt that I knew what it must have been like to be a part of that place and time."
The movie is based on former Los Angeles Times writer/editor Paul Lieberman's book, GANGSTER SQUAD, his non-fiction account of what he calls "the battle for Los Angeles" that took place between the police and Cohen's crew from the mid-1940s all through the '50s. Will Beall, a former LAPD homicide detective, penned the script.
"What struck me about these guys is that they risked everything, and not for recognition, not for medals, not for monetary gain, but for the future of the city," Beall offers. "They believed in the promise of L.A."
"I've always wanted to make a gangster movie," says producer Michael Tadross. "Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, George Raft -- I loved them all. Will's script evoked the genre and the period right from the first page, and the true stories and people Lieberman wrote about that inspired it were just incredible. We wanted to make a proper gangster film, but for today's audience."
Producer Kevin McCormick states, "The book, as well as the articles Paul wrote in the L.A. Times that were the basis for it, covered a lot of terrain, a bigger time span. But one particular angle -- about Bill Parker taking over as police chief and looking to clean up the town -- became a natural point of view to build our story around."
According to Lieberman, "L.A. went from being a dusty outpost at the beginning of the 20th century, through prohibition in the '20s, to a home for the booming aviation and defense industries during World War II. By the end of the 1940s, it had become a sprawling, modern city of something like four million people, ripe for the picking by the Eastern mafia. So, when Chief William Parker took charge, it was a critical time. He was humorless, an extreme disciplinarian, and he was going to put an end to the corruption."
Played in GANGSTER SQUAD by Nick Nolte, "Whiskey Bill" Parker is a man who isn't going to give over to any vices, like so many before him have done; he's going to meet the corruption head on. That means taking on public enemy number one, Mickey Cohen, brought to life on screen by Sean Penn.
"I thought it would be a fun old-school gangster picture with a cast I have great admiration for," Penn says. "And upon meeting Ruben Fleischer, I was sold."
"These characters and the amazing actors who signed on to play them, this story, the fact that it's all based on the city's history and, to top it off, that it's my favorite film genre," Fleischer smiles, "it all just got me really excited to make this movie."
Due to rampant corruption in the ranks at nearly every level, Chief Parker is unable to unleash the full force of the LAPD on Mickey Cohen and his thugs, or even publicly go after them. Parker must instead rely on a furtive few to undermine the mobster's operation. His mandate requires they execute no search warrants and make no arrests; they must anonymously, ruthlessly and with as much efficiency as possible, cut out the heart of Cohen's livelihood, by any means necessary. They are not to bring him to justice. They are to bring justice to him.
To head up this clandestine crew, Parker chooses a man who has no trouble taking matters into his own hands. Josh Brolin plays the part of Sgt. John O'Mara, a man who's come back from war, and can't quite figure out how to live in peace time.
"I'm a seventh generation Californian and a native of Los Angeles, so I have massive pride about my hometown," Brolin states. "I felt a real connection with O'Mara for that reason. I also liked that while he doesn't heed all the rules and he doesn't like red tape, he has strong principles; he sees the wrongs that need to be righted and he believes he can turn things around."
"O'Mara is a very principled person who's returned home after America's victory over the Nazis," Fleischer says. "He doesn't like that another form of evil has taken up residence in his city and corrupted it with gambling, prostitution and drugs. He can't abide it. So, he accepts Parker's challenge, even though it means putting his and his family's lives on the line."
McCormick observes, "He really feels it's his obligation to make the world a better place, but he sees that others don't necessarily hold to the same standard. He doesn't really fit in because he won't bend to accommodate injustice. He's extremely rigid, which could be seen as a character flaw or as what sets him apart, what makes him special, which is what Parker sees."
Though he is one of many cops on the force, O'Mara prefers to operate on his own, and in his own way. He's something of a renegade who does things singlehandedly, sometimes even unarmed. "The script described O'Mara as having a chin so strong you could break your fist on it," Fleischer recalls. "When you look at Josh, he lives up to that; he looks like he stepped out of that time period, and plays the part with a measured, quiet stoicism that's really powerful."
To take out Cohen, O'Mara will have to work closely with a team, and the chief charges him with pulling together the roster. "He recruits a bunch of misfits like himself," says Brolin, "guys in lowly or outsider positions because of their rebellious natures, but who are able to get the job done, sometimes in a very brutal way."
The first man he reaches out to is Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a loner of a different sort, played by Ryan Gosling. "Up till now, O'Mara's been banging his head against a wall, getting knocked around and arresting guys who get out just hours later, while my character looks on from a barstool on the sidelines," Gosling offers. "Jerry also came back from the war to find the whole town under water, but, as he says in the film, O'Mara picked up a bucket while he picked up a bathing suit."
Which is why Wooters initially turns O'Mara down. "He's not trying to be a hero," the actor continues. "He doesn't have any fantasies about that. I think he feels like he did his fighting overseas, and there's so much corruption here, it seems pointless. He's just trying to stay above it, and stay alive."
"Ryan is so charismatic, so fun to watch," Fleischer says. "He really brought dimension to this guy who's become so disengaged, who just wants to get lost in drink and women. That is, until something terrible happens that lays this new war at his feet, and he realizes that by sitting this one out, it's costing the city, and he has an obligation as a person and a policeman to do something about it."
"Wooters isn't picked for the squad because he's a great shot or a good fighter or a technician," Gosling adds. "He's there because he has good instincts and knows how to survive."
But Jerry Wooters has another motive for keeping a close eye on Cohen: Grace Faraday, the mobster's current piece of arm candy. Despite the obvious risk, Wooters finds her irresistible, and Grace is not immune to his charms, either.
Emma Stone was drawn to the role and eager to work with director Fleischer again, having starred in his film ZOMBIELAND. Stone says, "We sat down and talked about the story and the character, and I said, 'Of course, let's do this together.' I love Ruben, he's so enthusiastic and his shots are so beautiful."
Stone points out that her character, an entirely fictional creation of screenwriter Will Beall, "moved out to Hollywood to be a star. Not an actress, a star." Clearly, things didn't go according to plan. "I imagined she kind of fell in with Mickey's crowd, and that being on the arm of this incredibly powerful man gave her the admiration she was looking for, so she convinced herself it was alright. Now, even though she feels trapped, she knows that, without him, she's got maybe a couple of bucks between her and the street."
"Emma is not only one of the smartest, funniest actresses I've worked with, she's also somebody you can't take your eyes off of when she's onscreen, and that kind of allure is really what this part called for," Fleischer says. "The love triangle between Grace, Mickey and Jerry is tricky -- you're not quite sure what each one's motivations are. But both she and Wooters are looking for a way out, and each finds a kindred spirit in the other. They have a spark that ignites, and neither one can ignore it, dangerous as it is not to."
Both Grace and Wooters are pragmatic enough to realize they aren't only flirting with each other, but that they're flirting with almost certain destruction if they follow their mutual attraction where it seems to be leading. Mickey Cohen may be an underworld figure, but his very public image and commanding presence make him a man not to be crossed... in business or pleasure. He goes beyond merciless; any breach is a betrayal for which one pays the ultimate price. But he also has the undeniable charisma that comes with great power.
According to Lin, "Cohen, in real life, was over the top. He was a gangster, but a Hollywood gangster. He was funny, he loved talking to reporters and, in public, he really wanted to entertain people, as if he were one of the movie stars he was always trying to woo. Of course, in private, he was doing dark, evil things."
Fleischer cites, "When I imagined bringing the movie to the screen, the one character that everything seemed to hinge on was Cohen, the villain, this larger-than-life personality. I immediately thought of Sean Penn, so having him in the role was huge. Mickey is such a dynamic, memorable, menacing character and Sean has the gravitas, the intensity and the humor to pull it off."
Though only remotely familiar with the real man, Penn says that for his interpretation of the character, "I tried to ignore the literal. The real Mickey Cohen so resembled Al Capone, who I thought De Niro had done so indelibly in THE UNTOUCHABLES, that I felt, for a wide audience who largely would not have been aware of Mickey Cohen, mimicking Cohen in looks or behavior would have been unnecessarily burdened with baggage. I thought it was interesting to approach it and let it grow from just a few pieces of Cohen's background. He was a prize fighter, but the style of fighting was more primitive than today, and Cohen was more primitive in many ways."
"Sean really brought to life this guy who, in reality and in our somewhat fictionalized account of him, has a huge ego and is very colorful," McCormick relates. "Cohen had his own publicists, spreads in LIFE Magazine, owned his own haberdashery and never wore the same suit twice, and had a collection of beautiful, statuesque ladies on his arm all the time. Sean's interpretation of the man is fascinating. In the heyday of gangster movies, those guys were always such seductive characters, and I think Sean has that same ability to mesmerize us."
"There's something very appealing about the way Sean plays Mickey Cohen," Brolin echoes. "Watching him during a scene, I couldn't help but like him, even though my character despises him and everything he stands for. Sean really brought out the charm in him, even when he was doing something deadly."
Because Cohen, O'Mara, Wooters and a few other characters were loosely based on, or composites of, real individuals, Lin says, "We took a few liberties with the story, as movies do, but in order to honor the real-life people, we felt it was important for our actors to know what really happened. We wanted our cast to understand that there were a number of different groups out there at various times -- the Hat Squad and the Intelligence Squad, as well as the Gangster Squad. Nick Nolte, who plays Chief Parker, was a kid when our film takes place, but he was really schooled in these assorted police squads' histories."
"Los Angeles was easy pickings," Nolte recalls. "Parker was smart, a good chief. He had a war going with Bugsy Siegel, and Cohen was Siegel's second-in-command. When Bugsy went to Las Vegas, Cohen inherited L.A. The movie starts up with Cohen in full swing, in control of the Sunset Strip, pitting Parker against him."
With so many lawmen on the take, Parker has got to come up with a different scheme. "It's not just the lawbreaking that gets to him, it's society breaking down," Nolte contends. "He sees that O'Mara also feels really offended by the things that are going on, and hopes he can use those feelings to get things cleaned up."
"Nick is one of the all-time greats," Fleischer says. "You can't imagine a tougher guy to set the tone for this macho squad of cops. The screenplay describes him as Richard the Lionheart, and Nick definitely lives up to that."
"I've worked with Nick a few times over the last 25 years," Tadross conveys, "and there's nobody better. He's a true legend."
While it was the chief who asked O'Mara to put together a squad, the person who helps the sergeant handpick each member is his wife, Connie, played by Mireille Enos.
"Connie is a no-nonsense woman," Enos says. "She knows her husband came back from the war with some baggage, and she's been trying to help him make different, safer choices. When she finds out about the squad, she's devastated; she sees it as a death sentence, as if he's choosing to widow her and leave his unborn child fatherless. But, because she's the woman she is and she loves him, she makes the decision to be there for him rather than shut him out, and she's instrumental in putting together the lineup."
When Connie observes that O'Mara's looking at all the over-achievers on the force, she proposes a different strategy: look for the guys who've flunked out everywhere, the ones with anger and attitude who don't play by the rules. To her mind, those are the guys Cohen won't have on his payroll -- and the ones who'll help keep her husband safe. After looking through the personnel files he brings home, her first pick is a cop with excessive force and insubordination notations, just the kind of guy she believes will have O'Mara's back, Coleman Harris. Anthony Mackie plays the switchblade-wielding cop who proudly patrols one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city.
"My character gave up his high-ranking position on the force to become a beat cop because he wanted to attack the problems at the source," says Mackie. "He wanted to go to the streets in a black neighborhood and fight every two-bit dealer. But then O'Mara offers him the opportunity to go to the top of the chain, to get at the guy who's facilitating the drugs that trickle down to the kids."
"I created Coleman Harris because I didn't feel I could tell a story about Los Angeles in the late '40s and not talk about Central Avenue, the Jazz Corridor, the uniquely African American culture in the city during that era," screenwriter Beall states. "Harris is a guy who knows that world and who walked away from a promising career to represent the law in a part of L.A. that the rest of the department isn't interested in."
With a personal stake in helping O'Mara bring down the city's crime syndicate, Harris is quickly on board. It doesn't take much convincing for fellow officer Conwell Keeler to join up, either. Though he has a family, which O'Mara initially views as a deterrent, Keeler sees a chance to help clean up the city as a worthy cause, for his children's sake. Keeler also brings something extra to the table: technology.
"There was a lot of advanced equipment used in WWII that was slowly making its way into traditional police methodology," Fleischer says. "Keeler was the wire man who planted bugs and listened in on Cohen's conversations." In fact, the real Keeler's work contributed to the foundation of electronic surveillance in police departments throughout the country.
In the film, Keeler, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is indeed an electronics specialist, who was doing cutting-edge intelligence during the war and has access to the latest gadgets as well as the know-how to implement them in his police work.
"One of the first conversations Ruben and I had about the character was that he saw him as the conscience of the group," Ribisi remembers. "For me, that translated to a guy who wants to fight for something bigger than himself, for something he believes in, and there's kind of an innocence to that. We have so much at our fingertips today, I think sometimes we forget that there was a time before cell phones, that in order to contact somebody you had to knock on their door or write them a letter. It was fun to play a guy who could see what was coming before other people did, and use it to his -- and the law's -- advantage."
While Keeler represents the future of policing, Max Kennard harkens back to the past. "Ruben wanted to include an iconic Old West-style lawman as part of the group, and that was really interesting to me," says Robert Patrick, who portrays Max. The actor was very committed. "I watched a lot of old westerns and picked up on the mannerisms, and lost about 30 or so pounds so I could look like a lean cowboy."
Kennard patrols the Olvera Street beat, and serves as mentor to an eager young Latino cop, Navidad Ramirez. "There were a lot of racial prejudices at the time," Patrick continues, "but my character, a rough-edged Texan, looks at Navidad like a son. He's agreed to work with him at a time when a lot of other people won't. Theirs is a great little story within the bigger story, and I was really proud to be a part of it."
Michael Pena, who appeared in Fleischer's last film, 30 MINUTES OR LESS, plays the rookie. "Ramirez is just out of the academy and no one wants to partner with him because of his heritage, so he's paired up with this gunslinger who's willing to watch out for him. He wants to be where the action is, and he definitely feels he has something to prove. Having grown up in the Chavez Ravine, he just wanted to be one of the good guys, and he sees the Gangster Squad as a way to make his mark."
Loyalty isn't reserved for the men on the right side of the law. In fact, for Cohen's operation to run smoothly, it's just as critical that he be able to trust the crooks around him. Holt McCallany plays Karl Lockwood, Mickey's right-hand man and, in many ways, the most important guy in his life if he wants to stay alive. McCallany himself has a unique connection to the period in which the film takes place.
"It just so happens that my mother, Julie Wilson, used to be a famous nightclub singer in the '40s, '50s and '60s. She actually performed in places like the Mocambo and the Trocadero."
McCallany, who worked closely with Penn throughout production, researched the real mobster extensively and likens Penn's performance to "a jazz musician that hits the perfect note. There'd be a certain expression in his eyes or he'd deliver a particular line and I'd think, 'That's Mickey Cohen, there he is.' It was kind of uncanny at times."
Despite their fortitude, the members of the Gangster Squad know that making even a small dent in Cohen's business will be no small feat and that getting close enough to take note of his comings and goings, as well as determining where to hit him so it hurts the most, won't be easy. But the task is made a little less painless by the presence of Jack Whalen, a mysterious figure with movie star looks who occupies an interesting niche between the police and their prey. The character is loosely based on the real man, who became a lifelong pal of Jerry Wooters after the two met in a minor face-off at a Hollywood hotel.
Sullivan Stapleton, who plays Whalen, says, "In the movie, they're childhood friends who have obviously gone in different directions, but remained close nonetheless. Jack is linked with Cohen, yet he seems to go his own way. He hears things, and he passes some of that info along to Jerry. I wouldn't call him a snitch, per se; I think he's just looking after his buddy, and vice versa."
Fleischer was thrilled with his GANGSTER SQUAD cast, whether they played hardened criminals, hard-nosed cops, or anyone in between. "The combination of personalities was just an amazing gift for me as a director," he states. "Everyone is so talented, so instinctual, and just brought so much to their roles. I couldn't have asked for more."
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