Giovanni Ribisi talks Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad, a film noir inspired take on secret law and order in Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s pits a clandestine police squad against Mickey Cohen, leader of the Jewish mafia. 

Cohen was determined to take the state over, on orders of the East Coast mob.  His was a huge threat to public safety as he steamrolled his way power protected by an army of foot soldiers and working out of numerous locations.  He was succeeding leaving bodies and blood in his wake until the secret formation of The Gangster Squad.

Enlisted cops were on orders to squash Cohen and his empire.  The squad members are played by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick and Giovanni Ribisi. 

We spoke with Ribisi who plays Officer Conway Keeler, the only family man in the bunch, about the film and its new ending.

M&C: The film’s shootout ending was changed in light of the Colorado shooting.  How did you react to that?

Ribisi: I saw the first incarnation of it with the scene at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and given the fact that the film industry on the whole is so global and specifically a film from WB like this reaches out to the whole world, I think to that extent you have to recognize a certain responsibility.

This was an instance where it was so close to what happened in Colorado that I completely agree with their sentiments and in changing things out of respect to the victims.

That said on the other hand I think that since the beginning of film making, since the beginning of storytelling, you have the use of weapons and violence in the telling of those stories and I think that it’s a shame when Hollywood or the film industry becomes a scapegoat for that sort of thing.

There’s a recent rise in heinous acts of violence and I think that it would be again a shame to overlook other factors that might or might not be contributing to that.

M&C: Was the squad real?

Ribisi: This is based on a real group and real life events that occurred, but obviously not everything was factual.  I personally hadn’t ever heard of it.  I know that Robert Patrick mentioned that there was a little bit out there, but they had pretty much kept everything under wraps for quite some time. 

I don’t even know why they did.  Will Beall, the writer, actually worked on the police force and I think that’s how he came across the story.

M&C: What kind of a man was Keeler?

Ribisi: Keeler is more or less the moral compass of the group, the conscience of the group.  Because you have a film here where, much like in the tradition of film noir, the heroes of the film are not black and white. There’s a grey area there. And a lot of times this is where the notion of antihero came from. 

In our case, the good versus the evil, this is where the good has to become the evil and I question that in the film. That was what I thought was great because it speaks to a time when there was a different set of values. 

When people went to war, they signed up because they wanted to beat the bad guy.  And that’s where my character was coming from.  He legitimately wanted to create a better city for his progeny.

M&C: Did he exist?

Ribisi: The writing of my character was based on two different guys and one of them actually came down to the set. I think he was in his 90s. He had all these stories about doing audio surveillance on gangsters, like across the hall in another room and they’re living there for three months.  And they bugged the room.  He had all these crazy stories about using bubble gum to attach a bug and having to get out of the room.  That was interesting.

M&C: How did you get ready for Keeler?

Ribisi: The initial spark, that’s the biggest question an actor faces.  Where do you start? You just have to start running.  It began with this person being the moral conscience and talking about the broader picture of values within the society, especially in contrast to today’s day and age.  It started with that and it was really about the relationship with the rest of the guys. 

You get into the history and read books and the context of Los Angeles at the time and the LAPD around WWII and around the Great Depression, which is so interesting.  But I think what was most important was what they wanted to do and those relationships.

M&C: Did Warner’s rich history of gangster noirs inspire you?

Ribisi: It was about understanding what that archetype was because film noir and gangster stories are based on archetypes, and those simple, fundamental values, again good versus evil.  Then they grew into this thing that became a lot more complex which culminates in one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, which is Chinatown. 

There’s that but then ultimately you do have to go “OK, what story are we telling” regardless of genre.  There’s this technical aspect of “Is this scene working? We know the script is good” and we respond to that. 

We have a good director and we have this sexy beast in Ryan Gosling, but is the scene working?  Is it feeling right?  Is it interesting?

M&C: And the lead character, Los Angeles of the 40s and 50s!

Ribisi: It was steeped in the style of that era.  It was just fantastic.  When people got dressed, they presented themselves to the world.  I guess it was Streetcar Named Desire when they saw Marlon in that t-shirt and the notion of t-shirts really became prominent. 

But before that, people wore ties and hats and the whole thing.  And then there were the cars like the 1947 Chrysler Windsor and the Studebaker that I drove.  And (the nightclub) Slapsy Maxies’.  My God! You walked in and saw everybody dressed to the nines.  Just amazing.  

This movie has those elements of course but it was also shot with anamorphic lenses so you get all those lens flares and the action sequences of course have the phantom slow motion camera stuff.  It is so great, so effective. It definitely bridges into a modern universe as well.

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