Interview: Giovanni Ribisi on GANGSTER SQUAD
Gangster Squad has had a bit of a rough time of it, getting caught up in events well outside its control. Originally scheduled to be released last September, it was delayed due to the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Not only is GS a Warner release like The Dark Knight Rises, with sensitivities for the studio already high, but there was a sequence where an audience became fodder at a gun battle in the famed Mann's Chinese theatre.
The delay allowed the filmmakers to revisit that sequence, resulting in what I think was one of the better moments of the film. Still, the fact that the LA junket took place around the same time as the recent gun violence in Connecticut meant that once again the focus of the "based on true events" violence of the film was under scrutiny.
I did not attend said junket, but I did get a chance to sit down at a roundtable discussion with one of the film's stars. Giovanni Ribisi has been in dozens of films, from Saving Pt. Ryan to Ted. In Gangster Squad, he plays the nebbishy Conway Keeler, the techy of the troupe who helps with the surveillance of crime boss Mickey Cohen.
The film itself is a kind of retread of De Palma's Untouchables, which itself was a retread of innumerable gangster flick tropes. Twitch's Eric Snider faulted the film for "Flitting between over-the-top violence, grim moral posturing, matinee thrills, and slow-motion...maneuvers", and felt it to be "a broad, two-dimensional crime noir that thinks it's deeper and smarter than it is."
I didn't despise the film nearly this much (nor do I effusively laud DePalma's overrated earlier mashup), and kind of enjoyed how director Fleischer ticked off his references one by one. The performers seemed perfectly content to be iconographic, with Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling being particularly charismatic, playing a kind of Gangster pairing that a decade ago would have seen Clooney and Pitt nail convincingly.
Sitting down to chat, Ribisi was fascinated by one of the digital recorders brandished by a reporter, fitting given his character's passions ("Does this have timecode on it?"). Asked a general question about the role that Hollywood plays in the spectrum of violence, he answered in what seemed a well-rehearsed way: "On one hand...[Hollywood] has to recognize a certain responsibility. [The scene in the theatre] was so close to what happened in Colorado that I completely agree with Ruben's sentiments in changing things out of respect for the victims. On the other hand, since the beginning of storytelling you have the use of violence and weapons in telling those stories, and I think it's a shame when the film industry becomes a scapegoat for that sort of thing"
He was asked about how he reacted to the story of the film as a native of the city: "Being a native Angelino, I think that LA does have a heartbeat and a soul, that it's the city of Angels, [it's] nostalgic, romantic...it does have a rich history (go figure). There is pride in that, and it's a rare thing growing up to be a native because it was a destination spot for the city of dreams, the stars and all that."
When asked about the noir elements of the film, Ribisi noted that the whole aesthetic can be tied to the gangster genre in general, the "chiaroscuro thing, what hides in the shadows" that helped set the tone for that era. "It was the time when the Actor's studio, and the notion of subtext was really coming to the forefront in acting and filmmaking technique. [Those films] are the reasons I wanted to become an actor."
The film isn't slavish to the look of the 40s and 50s: "It was shot with anamorphic lenses, so you get all those lens flares, and the phantom [digital high speed camera], with all those slow motion shots...It was so great, so effective, so it bridges into a modern universe as well stylistically."
Describing his character, Ribisi feels that "Keeler is the moral compass of the group. Because you have a film very much in the tradition of noir, the heroes aren't black and white...there's a grey area here. This is where the notion of an anti-hero comes from. In our case the good has to become the evil, and I question that in the film. It speaks to the notion in a broader sense about a time when there were values, a different set of values, when people went to war, they signed up because they wanted to beat the bad guy. He wanted to create a better city for his family."
I asked him how much of this backstory shaped his performance: "Every project is different, and everybody's process has to evolve." He talked about watching the Vivienne Kubrick documentary on the making of The Shining, where Nicholson talks about how being an actor "is all about realism, the experience, so that an audience can experience what they're going through from an almost voyeuristic perspective. [Nicholson] was talking to Kubrick about this, who said, 'yeah, but is it interesting?'"
I pushed a bit farther, pointing out that this film is more than just a history of Los Angeles, it also incorporates the history of movies about Los Angeles. As such, did he draw from the character's motivation on the page, or the archetype from other films for this type of role? "I think it was absolutely both. It's about understanding what the archetype was, because the film noir and ganster stories are based on simple, fundamental values. They grew into this thing which became a lot more complex which culminates in one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, Chinatown."
He continued, "ultimately you have to go, 'what story are we telling, regardless of genre'. There's this technical aspect, of 'is the scene working?' We know the script is good, we respond to that, we know we have a good director, and we have a sexy beast in Ryan Gosling!"
He talked about enjoying the style of the era: "When people got dressed they presented themselves to the world... I guess it was [with] Streetcar Named Desire and they saw Marlon [Brando] that T-shirts became prominent. Before that people wore ties, hats, the whole thing. And [nightclub] Slapsie's Maxies, my God! And what's her name, with the hate[Carmine Miranda] on stage, just amazing."
This is the fourth film with both Brolin and Ribisi, but the first for working with Gosling. Ribisi said of Gosling, "He's a guy who has endless ideas and inspiration, I think he can do anything. He's directing a movie in Detroit now, right? (Or so he says!) [laughs]. He's one of those guys you can't take your eyes off of."
I asked him explicitly about the scene that had been removed - for me no part of the film felt tacked-on (I was unaware until after which segment had been reshot). I was wondering how someone who saw both versions felt about the change? Ribisi concluded that "I think the film was improved upon, absolutely".
I personally like that the "Chinatown" sequence was added to the film, it in some ways echoes what happened to Polanski's film, where the studio wouldn't allow the title of the film to be strictly metaphorical, and pushed Towne to make the ending take place in the actual Chinatown. Sure, it makes things a bit more explicit, but by adding that scene the filmmakers found a way of showing that they are certainly aware in which rivers their film draws its waters from. Ribisi talked of the area in modern LA, "I don't know if you've been there, it's really interesting. There's such a great, diverse world that the film goes into from that."
As we were packing up, I told Ribisi about the connection to the Polanksi original about that location. He seemed really excited: "WOW! Are you going to write about that!"
Yeah, I guess I will.