Terminator Salvation. Sherlock Holmes 1,2, and 3. Lego: The Piece of Resistance. Godzilla. Stephen King’s It. Death Note. Justice League. What do all these disparate movies past, present, and future have in common? One amazing Taiwanese American producer, Dan Lin. And you might have heard of his latest film Gangster Squad, an LAPD period movie about a battle to take back LA from the mafia. Named back in 2008 by Variety as one of top 10 producers to watch, Lin has definitely lived up to the title, and with all the classic blockbusters being tacked to his name, he and everything he does will be worth watching for long after Gangster Squad hits the streets this Friday. Here are 8Questions with Dan Lin about his new film and more from a roundtable press interview:
LA’s Chinatown was featured in the Gangster Squad trailer. Was that the real LA Chinatown or a set? How much needed to be done to make a period/appropriate Chinatown?
[Note: This answer was paraphrased from Lin’s actual answer due to audio tech problems.] It was the real Chinatown. Not a whole lot needed to be done to make it period appropriate. That’s what’s so great about LA’s Chinatown. It’s nicely preserved and looked much like it did during that time. We filmed onsite as much as possible. This film was our “love letter to Los Angeles”, and we were so fortunate to be able to film onsite, a film about Los Angeles in LA. I know that sounds strange, but often times today, because of budget, we rarely have the luxury to film movies in the locations where they are actually set. You’ll have a movie in New York that’s actually filmed in Toronto and CG-ed to make it look like New York. Chinatown made us felt very welcome. The shop owners would open later. The lanterns were up with the neon lights, and it is just so well preserved. We had a lot of Chinese extras in the background, and what was really cool was seeing them in Western garb. You know, often times we see Chinese Americans in period movies wearing traditional Chinese garb, but it was really cool to see Chinese Americans wearing what people just wore at that time period, looking really nice in slick suits and fedoras.
How did this idea come up for this movie?
The city that we love today is relatively safe. It’s a beautiful city, something for everyone. You know, the city has a lot of ethnic diversity, people that really get along. But back then, the mob was dominant and taking over New York, they were taking over Chicago. Bugsy Siegel, the mob boss, had sent over Mickey Cohen to take over LA, the next target. And I just love the idea that these guys [Gangster Squad] were unsung heroes. The focus of my company is to make hero stories. We did that with Sherlock Holmes, we did that with [Terminator] Salvation. Those were different kinds of hero stories. These heroes, if they succeeded, Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) was going to get all the glory. If they failed, no one would know who they were, but yet these guys still stepped up and decided to take on one of the most dangerous mobsters of all time, and I thought that was a very noble choice making for a very great hero story.
What is the Asian American presence in the story aside from the Chinatown aspect?
That’s really it in terms of like literal presence. Certainly, when I first looked at the movie, I was influenced by all the cops, gangster movies that I grew up with in Asian and Taiwan watching the Hong Kong movies. But really the only specific visual reference is in the Chinatown shoot scene. That’s for a reason. You guys may know this, but the real gangster squad was all Caucasian. At the time, LAPD was a very closed unit. And especially this secret squad was all Caucasian. Even if you were, uh, you know, Italian, it was going to be difficult for you to join the squad. So, we made some fictional choices, but they were loosely based on kind of like real life characters. Specifically with Anthony Mackie’s character Harris, O’Mara, Josh Brolin’s character in real life was good friends with Tom Bradley, later became very famous obviously, and so he had a close African American friend who’s also in the police force, so we know we have some justification here for adding an African American onto the squad. You know, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and Latino culture is such a big part of Los Angeles culture, and we felt like we needed to create a Latino character in Michael Pena’s character Ramirez. We talked a bit about whether we should create an Asian American character for the squad, but it just felt like, it may have, it would have pushed it too far, it would have gotten too much like a movie ’cause the reality during that time is they were totally, when the secret squad exists, the gangster squad would have been totally closed to a Asian American on the team.
Who do you think would win a brawl between Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling?
I don’t know who would win, but you wouldn’t want to watch it. It would be brutal. You guys have seen Josh and how strong he is, and that final fight sequence between him and Sean Penn, that boxing, that’s all done practical. Those guys were practicing for a long time, and they, Josh had a gym, a portable gym that we had on set. I know those guys are all dressed very nicely, wearing dress shirts and ties, but underneath, those guys are ripped. You can really even tell with Sean Penn. He’s completely ripped. Both guys took it very seriously, and Ruben Fleischer had always said from the beginning I wanna play this very visceral guys. We’re not using stuntmen. We’re using you guys. And so, Josh is physically very imposing, but you can’t count out Ryan as well. He’s, even in his character, he’s very clever, very wiley. He knows he might not be the best shooter, but he knows other ways to take down the bad guys. It’s hard to say who wins, their fighting styles are so different. But I know no matter what, you wouldn’t want to see those two go at it because they’re both fiery personalities.
What was it like to have the real people, the relatives who inspired the movie and the LA Times series to be a part of the movie making process?
It was really exciting and really an honor because we were able to have, as you probably know…there was only one character left in the squad who was still alive by the time we were shooting the movie, and that was Con Keeler. Giovanni would be his character. All the other squad members had passed away, and part of the reason that Paul Lieberman had written this series of articles in the LA Times was really to honor the Gangster Squad, that these guys were all passing away, and he didn’t want their story not to be told because they were all going to be gone. So he wrote this story. Con Keeler, by the time we were making the movie, was I believe in his 90s and also too old so he could not come up to the set. And when we tried to have Giovanni visit him, his family said he wasn’t in good enough physical shape to see Giovanni, so we weren’t able to make that happen. But as a result, we had the kids of the Squad come visit of each of the characters that were based on real life characters. So O’Mara’s family visited. Numerous kids and grand kids visited. We had the Wooters family, who’s based on Ryan Gosling’s character, kids and grand kids visited. I think the actors got a lot out of it, with each character. I know Josh and Ryan spent a lot of time with the kids of the real Gangster Squad characters. It helped inform their performance. It helped learn about the different relationships that the characters had both with love interests and also within the squad. I think it was very informative and helpful from an acting standpoint as well, but I think most importantly we wanted to honor the people that the story was based on and as a result we wanted to bring them in to as much of the process as we could. We invited them all on set. Even members of the Gangster Squad that weren’t part of the original first squad but the second squad, Burt Phillips, who was at the premier last night, he was somebody who helped Giovanni’s character in real life…last night, at the premier we had all the children of the Gangster Squad come to the premier. I think it was a big honor for everybody.
Was there ever a time in your life where you had to fight anyone or anything to get something back?
I think every day. Every day, as a producer in this business, you hear no every day. And part of that is how do you get past no to succeed. Because I think these days it’s very very difficult. There are fewer movies being made, and it’s really competitive at the box office. So you hear no a lot, so for me it’s always how do I get past no. To share your vision with somebody, you have to help the person on the other side see your vision whether it’s myself as a producer trying to convince the studio to buy Gangster Squad as a newspaper article so I can explain to them what the movie is or even if, you know, Ruben Fleischer and myself, trying to get an actor to play the move. You have to have them understand what your vision of the movie is. And so I think the fight is always, it’s really easy for people to say no. People are really busy. Sometimes people don’t want to take risks. Sometimes they just don’t get what your vision is. So the fight every day is how do you get past, how do you get past no.
If you could transform into any character from any of the movies that you’ve worked on or are working on, who would you be and why?
You know, I worked on Justice League a few years ago. I’m not working on it right now, but obviously because of that experience, I love Batman. He’d be my fantasy character to play because he saved his city of Gotham but also he goes away and lives his own life. He really doesn’t want to take the glory. He wants the police chief and the city of Gotham to be safe, but he doesn’t want to take the glory. He wants to go away and live his own life. So for me it’s Batman.
What is your favorite Asian comfort food?
Oh my gosh, where do I start? Um, favorite Asian comfort food. Uh probably beef noodle soup. I just went to Taiwan and was on a search for the best beef noodle soup. Totally unhealthy for you. That’s what I love, a warm bowl of beef noodle soup that’s just slightly salty with the right hopefully handmade noodles and the beef that’s you know slightly tender and only slightly fatty.