'Gangster Squad': When good guys acted like bad guys to save L.A.
Mickey Cohen's raucous old nightclub, Slapsy Maxie's, is long gone. But on a recent Friday night, I found myself roaming around a stylish replica of the legendary gangster's old club where Warner Bros. is filming "The Gangster Squad," which chronicles the real-life exploits of an elite group of 1940s LAPD officers who were given the rough 'n tumble assignment of cleaning up the city, starting by running Cohen's mob out of town.
The film, which is in the middle of a 68-day shoot that ends in mid-December, stars Sean Penn as Cohen, Emma Stone as a sultry femme fatale and Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena as members of the Gangster Squad.
The new Slapsy Maxie's has risen, like a Hollywood phoenix, inside an abandoned grocery store in Bellflower. The store was so cavernous that the production was able to use the downstairs area as its 1949-era night club set, while transforming the second floor into the locus of Cohen's bookmaking operations, including a wire room with a floor-to-ceiling blackboard charting the results at every race track in the US, from Del Mar and Churchill Downs to Saratoga and Hialeah Park.
My tour guide was Maher Ahmad, the film's production designer. "I must have watched every Warners gangster movie from the 40's, which were a real inspiration, since they all had nightclub scenes in them," he explained as we walked out the back of the club set, ducking into a men's room that looked so authentic that the urinals were taped off so no one would be tempted to use them.
To say that I felt like I'd died and gone to movie heaven would be an understatement. No city has a more mythic grip on history than Los Angeles, in large part because for the past century, it has served as a sprawling outdoor movie set, forever preserving the changing styles and shapes of the city on celluloid. Of all the time periods captured on film, none is more striking than late 1940s and early 1950s gangland LA, immortalized in such movies as “Bugsy” and “LA Confidential.”
"The Gangster Squad," due to open next October, hopes to join that exclusive club. The $70-plus million movie, filming here at such iconic locations as Griffith Park Observatory, City Hall and Olivera Street, is something of a throwback. In today’s Hollywood, studios are focused on global conquest, churning out a stream of superhero fantasy films, nearly all scrubbed clean of any specific references to American culture. So “The Gangster Squad” is something of a commercial gamble. It's a hero story, but one where the heroes, a bunch of hardball-playing 1940s cops, bend all the rules, acting a lot like gangsters to oust the worst gangster of them all.
"I pitched the story to the studio by saying--this isn't a film noir, it's an action movie," says producer Dan Lin, a former Warners production executive. "We'd just done something very similar with 'Sherlock Holmes,' where we got a great cast, brought in a contemporary filmmaker and made a story people had felt was dusty and dated feel relevant to today's audience. And the studio has a long tradition of making gangsters films, so it felt like it was time to do it again."
Lin has followed his "Holmes" playbook with "Gangster Squad," which is directed by Ruben Fleischer, best known for the 2009 cult comedy favorite, "Zombieland." "We like taking gambles on young filmmakers," says Warners studio chief Jeff Robinov. "Ruben wasn't the obvious choice, but we're a filmmaker driven studio and Ruben is a really gifted filmmaker. Hearing his take on the story, you knew it wasn't going to end up looking like a period gangster film."
The project came into being when Lin read a series of stories in 2008 by then Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman centering on the audacious deeds of the Gangster Squad. Linn auditioned a slew of writers to work on the script. He eventually hired Will Beall, a neophyte screenwriter who had an ace up his sleeve—he’d spent a decade as a member of the LAPD, most of his time spent in the 77th Division in South Central LA.
"When I went in to pitch, it was basically me versus another guy, who was quite famous and expensive, so I think it helped me get the job that I came cheap," Beall told me. "My take was pretty simple--this is a Western. It's 'The Magnificent Seven or 'Rio Bravo,' but set in mid-20th century LA. Micky Cohen is the cattle baron who has the town in his grip and it's up to our heroes to find a way to get rid of him."
In 1949, with a host of cops and judges on his payroll, Cohen was so much of an LA kingpin that he was making $160,000 a month from his bookmaking operations alone. Some of his loot went into Slapsy Maxie’s, a club named after a prominent prizefighter that was a popular pit stop for both Hollywood celebs and local hoods.
Mary Zophres, the film's costume designer, spent untold hours researching the look of the period. Working with Fleischer, she came up with a subtle visual clue to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. "Look at our guys," she says, pointing to the Gangster Squad, preparing to shoot a new take. "They're all wearing single-breasted suits. The bad guys wear double-breasted suits, which I think makes them look a little meaner."
With a sawed-off shot gun at his side, Josh Brolin looks pretty formidable himself, relaxing between takes behind the nightclub set. He's been wanting to work with Penn again after they co-starred in "Milk."
"We got really close, so when I heard about this project, I went to Sean, almost in an adolescent kind of way and said--wouldn't it be great for us to go at it, you and me," he explained. "You just don't get to see that alot in the movies these days. He's the boss of LA and I'm playing the Serpico of his time, someone who wasn't on the take and had a real code about doing the right thing."
One day Brolin's father, James Brolin, visited the set to see his son his work. "It was pretty amazing, because he told me things he'd never told me before, describing what Sunset Blvd. was like when he was a kid in the 40's. You could see it in his face that it was a great time to be in LA."
Roaming around the Slapsy Maxie's set, it felt exhilarating to see Hollywood's creative imagination up close and personal, funneled into recreating 1949-era LA. After Brolin walked away, Zophres eyed the Gangster Squad, at the ready. "We lucked out," she says. "All our principals really look good in a fedora."
Photo: The scene on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' "The Gangster Squad." Credit: Wilson Webb