Painting LA "Gangster Squad" Style
Sunday, January 6, 2013 - 19:06 Updated 19 weeks ago Special to HuntingtonNews.Net"Gangster Squad" was filmed entirely in and around Los Angeles, utilizing a number of historic locations and transforming others to recreate memorable hotspots popular during Mickey Cohen's reign.
Discussions on the look and feel of the film began early. Cinematographer Dion Beebe recounts, "When Ruben and I first started to speak about the project, the noir reference immediately came up. As much as we both love this approach, neither of us wanted to pursue what can be a very composed genre that also tends to be quite stylized. We wanted to keep it more contemporary, despite the period. A way to bring the worlds together was by choosing to shoot digital, but combine the cameras with anamorphic lenses. This, along with a very dynamic approach to camera movement, shifted us towards a more contemporary aesthetic, but hopefully maintained a sense of the period and the genre. It was a little daunting to take the digital format and apply it to such a classic period, but it was exciting, too."
Once the style of filming was decided upon, the filmmakers turned their attention to the practical details in order to achieve a high level of authenticity. "On a film set in the present, if you're looking five blocks down the street, you can probably leave four of those blocks as they are," production designer Maher Ahmad says. "But in a period film, absolutely everything needs to be adjusted or hidden or removed or added to."
"All period movies are a challenge," Michael Tadross attests. "Every street sign, fire hydrant, lamppost and even the line down the middle of the street was different in 1949. This was a huge undertaking for Maher's team."
"Because we shot outside quite a lot, and those years right after World War II had such a particular, if fleeting, look, this was a very ambitious project for me," Ahmad relates. "Things were about to change radically with the '50s ushering in what we now regard as Mid-Century Modern style, so I really threw myself into the visual research."
Ahmad sifted through at least 30,000 different images, including stills he pulled from period movies as a secondary source. "Gangster films and musicals at that time tended to feature a lot of nightclubs in them, so I was able to see what the nightlife was like then," he says.
Kevin McCormick remarks "Having lived in L.A. for a number of years, I've often looked at the strip malls here and there and wondered what it used to be like. During the months we were in production, I was able to see the city transformed. Starting with the script and all through the shoot, Will and Ruben and Maher and his crew really infused the locations with their love for Los Angeles, and it showed."
An early scene in the film features a shot of one of the city's most iconic sites: Union Station. "It's a great place," Ahmad remarks. So great, in fact, that although there was nothing originally written for the exterior, the production designer says that "Ruben and I discussed that we really shouldn't pass up an outside shot of it, so he moved one of the interior scenes to the exterior."
Inside and out, one of the film's most important sets is Slapsy Maxie's, the nightclub where Mickey Cohen spends his evenings dining with the public officials he keeps in his pocket, just as the real Cohen did. An empty retail space in Bellflower was transformed into the spot, and was conveniently large enough to also house part of Cohen's business, as it was outlined in the script.
"We were originally going to build the interior of Slapsy Maxie's on a set and shoot the exterior someplace else," Fleischer elaborates. "But Maher found this amazing, empty storefront on a completely intact art deco block that became our hero location. As soon as Dion and I saw it, we looked at each other and knew we'd have to come up with a tracking shot that would acknowledge the terrific qualities of the site."
"We had the exterior, the club and the bookie operation all connected together and able to be shot continuously, which was a big advantage," Ahmad says. "It was a fun set, too, because it needed to telegraph to the audience how Cohen's operation worked, which was on a pretty grand scale, and the space easily accomplished that."
According to Ryan Gosling, the setting and the action were right on the money. During filming there, he overheard a conversation between the script supervisor and the fire inspector, an older gentleman. "The inspector told her he'd been at the real Slapsy Maxie's one night and saw Mickey sitting at a table with all of his friends," Gosling relates. "He said it was exactly like this, that Mickey used to sit right there, just like Sean was. She asked him if he remembered anything specific, and he said, 'Yeah, he was telling a lot of jokes and none of them were funny, but everyone would laugh.'"
While Slapsy Maxie's is Cohen's turf, Mickey's rival, Dragna, an Italian don who is losing control to Cohen but who still abides by Old World rules, holds court at Club Figaro. Filmed in the historic Tower Theater on Broadway in Downtown L.A., the club's look was inspired by the Mocambo nightclub of the '40s.
When the production came in, the theater was just a shell of its former self. "We built the bar from scratch and redid the flooring, brought in the lights, the chandeliers, ornate patterns and heavy, damask draperies," he says. "We used deep, warm reds to create a dark, cave-like feel, in direct contrast to the green tones, sleek architecture and art deco detailing that help to evoke the hip, more contemporary vibe of Cohen's realm at Slapsy Maxie's."
In addition to building sets that reflect the era, Fleischer sought to film in and around as many L.A. mainstays as possible in order to showcase the city's history. "It was a big priority for me to try to use our landmarks," the director attests. "Places like the Hollywood sign—which was Hollywoodland then—is one of the spots that everyone thinks of first when they think of L.A."
To that end, historic City Hall in Downtown Los Angeles served as itself in the film, and the mayor's conference room there was used for Chief Bill Parker's office. The Highland Park Police Station—the oldest surviving station in the city and now the Los Angeles Police Museum—doubled as the Burbank Police Station. The Park Plaza Hotel, which dates back to 1925, neighboring MacArthur Park, and Clifton's Cafeteria, around since the '30s, are each featured as backdrops in pivotal scenes in the film.
A critical sequence in the story takes place in Chinatown and was filmed there over three days. Shop facades were refaced, streetlights swapped out, and colorful orange and red lanterns were added for additional flair. Fittingly, the lighting crew incorporated decorative China Balls into the lighting scheme for some of the shots.
Ascot Park stood in for Chavez Ravine, long since the site of Dodger Stadium but, in the '40s, an area in flux, with an eye toward being redeveloped for public housing. The Mariposa Horse Stables are the site of a shootout outside a private casino run by Cohen and targeted by the squad. Catch One on West Pico was used for Coleman's haunt, Club Alabam, and a favorite of locals in the Larchmont area, Lucy's El Adobe Café on Melrose Avenue, became Café Caliente, a hangout for officers Kennard and Ramirez.
The squad's field office was shot on a large plot in Sylmar, in part because it needed to appear remote, since the characters are working under the radar; the site also allowed the cameras to capture the cops driving to and from the place. John and Connie O'Mara's modest house, located in the Mid-Wilshire district, is meant to suggest, as Ahmad puts it, "a warm, womblike, loving environment." Conversely, Mickey Cohen's palatial Spanish-Mediterranean-style home in the heart of Beverly Hills is everything elegant and expensive.
"The team created a world we don't see anymore," Dan Lin says. "Lush environments, sexy costumes... A world that still feels really glamorous and one that I think we all wish we could live in for just a moment."
SUITING UP AND DRESSING DOWN
Costume designer Mary Zophres was eager to dig into the period styles. "I think it's an attraction for actors to sink their teeth into this kind of material, dialogue-wise and action-wise, but also because of the way it all looked. It's hard to make somebody look bad in those clothes."
To distinguish between the cops and the mob, Zophres started at the top: Mickey Cohen. "Textured wool was very popular at the time, but Ruben and I thought it would be interesting to have Mickey go against the grain, so his clothing is all very slick, like you could slide right off of it. And while the Gangster Squad is in warm tones and browns, he's always in cool tones, blues and grays, or a sort of maroon color."
Zophres strayed a bit from her research on the real man. "We took cues from him, naturally—the long collars that he wore, having his initials on things—but in the photographs we saw that even when he'd have on a new suit, he always looked a bit of a mess. Nevertheless, we wanted Sean to appear fierce and striking and always put together." With respect to those initials, she adds, "You don't necessarily see them on camera, but they're in his pockets or on his boxers or his cufflinks. In a subtle way, he's broadcasting who he is in that world he lives in. Also, the real Cohen never wore the same suit twice, and neither does Sean." To create a contrast with Mickey's lighter-colored shirts, the designer put his crew in all dark colors, so Cohen would stand apart even more.
Arguably the most eye-catching accessory Mickey Cohen wears is the dame on his arm, Grace Faraday. "Obviously, Grace has a very rich boyfriend who buys her gowns," Zophres smiles. "I felt like her everyday dresses were things she had before she met him, and they were simpler, but her eveningwear and jewelry are things he got for her."
For Emma Stone, those gowns came at a price, so to speak. "Emma's got a great structure to begin with, but in order to give her the hourglass figure of a Vargas girl, as described in the script and very much in vogue at the time, we manipulated her a bit," Zophres reveals. "We added a more prominent bust line to make her curvier, and put her in a corset that shrank her waist by about three inches. I think she was very happy to take those costumes off at the end of the day."
When Stone first appears in the movie, she's resplendent in Zophres' favorite piece. "I love that red gown; it's a showstopper. Nobody is as glamorous in this movie as Grace, and it was so much fun to see this dress go from the sketch to the finished piece. And Emma truly does it justice."
"That red dress that Mary made from scratch is so beautiful and elegant, and Emma looked so striking in it," Fleischer agrees. "When she first walked across the set, with the slit showing her leg and the dramatic scarf around her neck... And then there's a two-shot of her and Wooters at the bar, where we cut to the back and you see this sort of portrait of her. She just looked absolutely stunning."
Stone credits Zophres, as well as her hair and makeup team, with her transformation. "We all brainstormed, and came up with a hodgepodge of a lot of '40s movie stars. She has the teeth of Vivien Leigh, the hair of Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall's makeup and, well, all of it is Rita Hayworth," Stone laughs. "But I think that's what Grace did, too. A lot of those ingénues did it. And since Grace wanted to be a star, I think she pieced together all the women she found beautiful and tried to be all of them at once. Unfortunately, it didn't work out, career-wise, because she's not all of them...or any of them."
For the cops, Zophres immediately distinguished them from the mobsters by one simple factor: "The gangsters are mostly in double-breasted jackets and the good guys are in single-breasted cuts." She and her team also strove to give each member of the squad a distinct look, starting with O'Mara. "He's a war veteran and comes from being a uniformed cop, so, to my mind, he doesn't care about how he looks; he's just there to do a job. He knows that as a detective he needs to be in a suit, and we gave him five or six, but nothing fancy that draws attention. As he goes through the movie, you can hardly tell the difference between them."
Unlike Jerry Wooters, whom Zophres describes as "a total clothes horse who spends all of his disposable income on his wardrobe. He definitely cares about how he looks."
"I loved the way Mary contrasted the two," Fleischer says. "O'Mara's suits are utilitarian, evocative of his past as a soldier, in greens, olives and browns. Wooters is much more stylish; he's the only member of the squad with pinstripes. He's a dashing guy and Ryan really looked the part."
To play gunslinger Max Kennard, Robert Patrick was dressed in a three-piece suit, but with a Western vibe, and instead of wearing the jacket over his vest, he dons a long overcoat. As his young protégé, Navidad Ramirez, Michael Peña wore a cobbled-together wardrobe intended to look as if the recent academy graduate had borrowed items from his dad. Giovanni Ribisi was dressed as part suburban family man, part nerd, to play Conwell Keeler.
For Anthony Mackie's character, Coleman Harris, Zophres found inspiration in an unexpected source: baseball legend Jackie Robinson. "Going through the research, it struck me that there were not a lot of African Americans in the police force in 1949, and that made me think of Robinson and his early days in major league baseball. Out of uniform, he was conservatively dressed but always looked nice, which is what I decided to do with Harris."
One of Zophres' greatest delights was designing the looks for the extras. "I love dressing the background," she says. "You come up with a palette for the movie and a concept for each scene, pull the right stock for every set piece, and when each face walks in the door, you instantly know what to do with them. I have an amazing crew who work their butts off, and by the time the fittings and the alterations and the dyeing and tweaking are done and they've gone through hair and makeup, you have this wonderful tableau of complete characters." In all, Zophres and her department created more than 3,500 costumes.
Fleischer raves, "The level of detail and authenticity, the way the characters are expressed through their clothes and every single extra was brought to life, was just perfect. The work that Mary and her team did was unparalleled."