There was a time when the gangster movie was a staple of old Hollywood: cops, criminals, girls and guns were commonplace. More recently, the best-known examples have included ‘LA Confidential’ and ‘The Untouchables’, and, like the latter, ‘Gangster Squad’ has its roots in a true story.
Drawing from a series of articles by LA Times reporter Paul Lieberman, screenwriter Will Beall has weaved together the true exploits of 1940s/50s LAPD detective John O’Mara.
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Los Angeles at the time was being infiltrated by East Coast mobsters, including the brutal, ambitious Mickey Cohen, and O’Mara was tasked with cleaning up the gambling, prostitution and corruption the crime boss had brought.
Gathering a team of honest cops, including sergeant Jerry Wooters, who were willing to take the fight to Cohen and co, O’Mara formed what would become known as the Gangster Squad.
To bring their story to the screen, Director Ruben Fleischer has gathered a cast that includes Josh Brolin as O’Mara alongside Gosling as Wooters. Also on board are Sean Penn (as Mickey Cohen), Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick and Mireille Enos.
Brolin found a lot to work with in O’Mara, telling us on set: “He was a guy like me. He's in love with California, but came back from the war to a ton of corruption in the LAPD. When Mickey Cohen moved in and monopolised and began to poison Los Angeles, he took personal offence to it. He was the Serpico of his time. He refused to be bought and he wanted to get it done.”
Surprisingly, the actor brought his relationship with his wife Diane Lane into the performance after a meeting with O’Mara’s real-life daughter. She told him her dad was ‘a romantic’, so Brolin re-read a book he made of all the emails he sent his wife during the first year of their marriage (there were 473).
He said: “I started going back and reading those emails recently and it's a nice thing to be able to feed Diane and I into this, because he was a total romantic, an idealist and believed in what he was doing here.”
For director Fleischer, tackling a story that has its roots in reality was a challenge, since he wanted to make sure he handled the subject sensitively while also creating a thrilling film.
“The families of the real characters have come by the set and they've been excited. We've even had one of the original squad on set. He saw Ryan Gosling playing sergeant Jerry Wooters and said there were weird parallels in terms of how he looked. That said, the script is definitely not 100% reality.”
There’s enough of the actual story in the film’s DNA, though, something that actually delighted family members of O’Mara and Wooters. “The kids had never really been told the whole story by the parents. So they get to learn part of their own history,” says producer Dan Lin.
“We've had some creative licence with who the characters were to make it more of a movie. And then when the family members watched us shooting, they told us it was more realistic than we think. One of the guys - Wooters - slept with brass knuckles next to his bed. For us it's a Hollywood detail, but in reality, he was a tough guy.”
They used this ‘creative licence’ in the casting of Sean Penn, who frankly looked nothing like Cohen - despite the fake nose.
This extended to the fate of the character. We won’t ruin the film, but in real life Cohen ended up in jail for tax evasion. Upon his release, he became something of a celebrity, to the extent that today he'd probably have his own reality show on American TV. ‘Cohen & Co.’, anyone? He went down again in 1961 for more tax trouble and then became a crusader against prison abuse. He very un-cinematically died in his sleep in 1976.
One thing the team behind ‘Gangster Squad’ did try to get right was those period details, from the sharp suits down to the knives and forks. And they have to be accurate. It’s not, as Fleischer laughs, as easy as running down to the nearest supermarket to pick up a vintage dinner service. But it’s all part of why he’s thrilled to be tackling the movie.
“Beyond just the gangsters, the period is just so elegant. There's no equivalent to it in modern times. The clothes, the cars, the world is just exciting. It looks like you've arrived in a time machine. I don't get too fetishistic, but I have a lot of people working with me who are very detail orientated. We have food on all the tables in Mickey Cohen’s club, Slapsy Maxie’s, but we had people making all the dishes they would've had in the '40s - steaks the size they were. Desserts. There was something in that level detail that you wouldn't think about but it looks different. Everybody is focused on making this reality as close as possible.”
And when the script, or an idea from the director, calls for a particular item, such things have to be taken into consideration. Even if you plan to kill someone with a writing instrument. “It just makes it so much harder. For example, we wanted to bash some guy over the head with a typewriter, so it had to be a period fake typewriter. They have to be made months in advance. We have to get the period version of everything. Maybe the breadsticks can come from the supermarket, but everything else has to be made specially!” Perhaps they should just stick to death by bread product…
'Gangster Squad' is out now.