Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Dames Will Be Sultry, Faces Will Get Slapped!"

Bad Guys (Photo by Constantine Nasr)

Mob City’s Writers’ Room Gets the Third Degree
BY Gilbert Colon

Part pulp policier, part period gangster drama, and part hardboiled film noir, TNT’s short-lived series MOB CITY chronicled the LAPD’s war against East Coast organized crime. Following up on his Crimespree Magazine eulogy “Mob City Shoulda Been a Cable Contender [],” bare•bones cub reporter Gilbert Colon sent David J. Schow (writer of the episode “His Banana Majesty”) some Mob City questions… and DJS dragged in another staff writer from the show, Michael Sloane (who penned the episode “Red Light”), to add his own illuminations. 

Q: Many other series think getting the cars and clothes, maybe the music, is satisfactory. As period recreations go, Mad Men is better than most, but is still carelessly littered with contemporary phraseology. Mob City, on the other hand, brings you right back to the past. The show’s stylized dialogue had a far better period ring than Mad Men, and was much more literate.

DJS: Well, I cringed when Milo said “game over” in one show … but it wasn’t my episode. 

You and the other writers had an ear for the era that is reflected in dialogue that consistently sustained not just vocabulary, but distinct rhythms and cadences. The effort shows. How did you capture this? Was there a “show bible” you consulted? What research did you do to brush up on the patois from old movies and hardboiled fiction? 

SLOANE: We watched noir. A lot of noir. I’d say I watched something like thirty old movies before we even started the writers room. On my own, I watched everything from Gun Crazy (what a great f—ing movie!) to D.O.A., Criss Cross, Detour and The Killing. And of course, I brushed up on stuff like Postman Always Rings Twice, Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Schow even shared a copy of Shack Out on 101, which is bizarre and great in its own twisted, vaguely homoerotic way. 
You listen to the dialog in these movies—even the marginal ones—and it seeps into you. There's a cadence, a meter. It gets into your pores. It becomes a dialect; if you pick it up, you can speak it. I drove more than a few people crazy. 
John Buntin [author of the nonfiction bestseller, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, upon which Mob City is based] took us on a city tour that included the Los Angeles Police Historical Society and a few of the actual locations referenced in the book. And we played hookey on the first day of the writers room to take a field trip to the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at LACMA. 
Production handed us some stuff to be familiar with...a Mickey Cohen biography, Gangster Squad (though we were admonished to avoid the movie version until we were done working on the show), and some research materials about Bunker Hill and Chief Parker. But if there was a show bible, it was John’s book. Even though we made up a lot of stuff, we wanted to stay true to the noir ethic and the actual characters we were writing about. 
But here’s the funny thing about writing fictionalized stories using real people and events, at least from my perspective: you research the crap out of it, you internalize key facts and dates, you learn everything you can...and then the second you start breaking stories, you forget it. You throw it all away and use it only if it serves the story you want to tell. Your first duty is to tell the best possible story, while staying true to the spirit of real people and actual events. If fiction happens to align with fact, great. But the story always comes first. 

DJS: I thought it was very important to distinguish between period realism and “noirism,” because they’re not the same thing at all, and we’re all besotted with the very seductive liquor and idiom of hardboiled movies. Instead of a bible per se we had tons and tons of period reference, starting with three gigantic binders we assembled. Each writer had his own set of them. Thousands of pages, everything from the timeline of the modernization of the LAPD to the history of prostitution in the city from 1880 to 1940. We assembled our own library of true-crime and biographies on William Parker, Mickey Cohen, Benny Siegel and the rest into about a three-foot-long reference shelf that we read every word of before committing a syllable to paper. 

Writers (L-R) David Johnson, Michael Sloane, Frank Darabont, DJS (photo by Dana Renee Ashmore)

Q: It is a rare thing to see authentic period noir on screen anymore –the last time on television, before Mob City, might have been Showtime’s Fallen Angels (1994). Film noir elements are everywhere – the Sin City movies, Pulp Fiction, nods in David Lynch movies, all of it mostly homage – but film noir straight up is nowhere. HBO’s True Detective took its title from the old pulp magazine of the 1930s, but it was set in the here and now. I’d mention Broadway Empire and a few other period gangster dramas, but often they are Depression-era, and even when not they rarely possess the same 1940s and 1950s film noir aesthetic that the Coen Brothers had success with in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). A couple of Jim Thompson adaptations like The Killer Inside Me (2010) spring to mind, but the rest of the filmizations they tend to update. Almost nothing historic hardboiled in the way of feature films suggests itself besides the obvious L.A. Confidential (1997), a critical and commercial hit that didn’t even spawn a trend, let alone imitators as hits often do. And if you are talking period private eyes, A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002) on A&E was probably the last attempt, and before that only NBC’s little-seen Private Eye (1987-1988) from Miami Vice co-creator Anthony Yerkovich. Otherwise, nothing. Why do you think this is? 

SLOANE: From my perspective, the reason is pretty simple: money. Shooting a period in the recent past (like 1947) is just like shooting something in the ancient past. 
It might as well be science fiction. 
You have to build virtually everything you see in every frame, whether it's a set or a suit or a dress. If you shoot on actual locations, they must be fully set-dressed and scoured of modern trappings. If you’re fortunate, relics of the period may survive, but they’re rare and expensive to obtain. 
You have to rent every car from specialized providers, lock down every location to prevent non-period bogies from entering the frame, deliver judicious CGI corrections and additions...and that all adds up quickly, especially on a low TV budget. 
L.A. Confidential hit the jackpot, in that it was exceedingly well-written and well-made. It was also a relatively low-budget movie that had in its cast two actors on the verge of superstardom (Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey) and a breakout performance from Kim Basinger. These, and many other intangible, unquantifiable factors gave it edges that few period noir projects before or since have had.
And then there’s the problem of language. Hard-boiled noir patois has its own vocabulary, cadence and rhythm. In general, noir characters don’t converse like you and me. It’s tough to pull off — and it either hooks an audience or turns them off. (I frankly believe that Mob City captured noir lingo pretty g—dam brilliantly.)
Given these challenges, it’s hardly any wonder that popular entertainment is mostly comic-books, sequels and remakes. 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time of publication, The Playlist [] announced HBO’s intentions to launch a David Fincher-James Ellroy collaborative noir series set in the 1950s.)

Q: Besides John Buntin’s nonfiction bestseller L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, did you and the rest of the writers’ room draw story inspiration from any other specific sources? Any particular black-and-white films or pulp fiction or true crime accounts? 

DJS: Again, tons. Besides John’s book some of the others I found particularly valuable were Tere Tereba’s Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster; Jim Dawson’s Los Angeles's Bunker Hill: Pulp Fiction's Mean Streets and Film Noir’s Ground Zero!; The Images of America book on Los Angeles’s Angels Flight (also by Dawson); Red Ink White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962 by Rob Leicester Wagner; Paul Leiberman’s Gangster Squad (but not the movie!); Dean Jennings’ We Only Kill Each Other: The True Story of Mobster Bugsy Siegel, the Man Who Invented Las Vegas (breathlessly pulpy and not all “true,” but great for tone).
Then, movies. Not the usual noir suspects. I pushed heavily for stuff like Crime Wave, Rogue Cop, The Phantom Lady, Scene of the Crime, The Threat, and so on. So, thanks to my big mouth, I had to then supply most of these movies to the rest of the writers.
Also, Joan Renner, the grande dame of L.A.’s Police Historical Society, was not only invaluable, but essential. Right now she’s doing a big book of period crime scene photos with James Ellroy. She has a wonderful website called Deranged L.A. Crimes:

SLOANE: We stole / borrowed / homaged little things from here and there. Come on, it’s noir! Dames will be sultry. Faces will get slapped. Shadows will be shadowy. 

Neal McDonough & DJS (photo by Kerry Fitzmaurice)

Q.: Mob City barely scratched the surface of Buntin’s tome. What other storylines were planned for future episodes?

SLOANE: In Season Two, the story canvas would’ve become significantly broader. We’d be in the beginning of the Cold War era, with rumblings of social upheaval on the horizon.
We probably would’ve moved ahead a bit to 1949, with Mickey firmly entrenched as the head of the L.A. mob—even though there’s a target on his back as he survives several assassination attempts. 
Joe’s moved past his Jasmine experience, and would probably have been operating under a shadow of suspicion related to the murder of Bugsy Siegel. 
Bill Parker would be working the political machine in L.A. and within the L.A.P.D., and is closing in on becoming chief. 
And mob lawyer Ned would’ve become an even greater asset to Mickey, et al, even as we learned more about Joe and Ned’s wartime experiences—and how that all related to Jasmine coming into the picture. 

DJS: I tried to make getting more women into the show a big deal in the writers’ room. Sloane and I hatched lavish plans for a polarity between Aggie Underwood (the most hardboiled lady crime reporter no one’s ever heard of) and Florabel Muir, who was Bugsy’s, and later Mickey’s press factotum. I also wanted to edge in a nod to Josephine Collier-Serrano, who became the LAPD’s first uniformed Hispanic female officer around 1948—she had to wear heels and carry her gun, cuffs and gear in a special handbag.
The initial plot arc of Mob City occurs circa 1947-48, given Bugsy’s demise and a mention of the Black Dahlia murder. Given that you’re doing a TV show about largely fictional characters against a real-world backdrop, the requirements of drama allow you to play fast and loose with history and facts to keep things percolating along. (If you don’t believe me, read the book that Boardwalk Empire is based on and discover how little Nucky was involved; he’s a much richer character on the series.) 
The moment we introduced the idea of a “rat” in our own Mob Squad, we knew which character that was, and were preparing a whole arc for his downfall. (But now, we’re not telling anybody.)
You’re correct in that we barely scratched the surface. You may be able to perceive from the episodes that those six shows are, in essence, merely the introduction to the story we really wanted to tell, which was about Mickey Cohen on a collision course with Bill Parker. I wanted to begin the first episode of a Season Two with the fall of the Hollywoodland sign, as the “LAND” part was demolished because the sign itself was so decrepit. That happened in 1948. 
The first event up to bat would have been the whole Brenda Allen prostitution scandal, 1948-49, with assassins trying to kill Mickey virtually every five minutes. All true, by the way. 

Q.: In the wake of TNT’s cancellation, could Mr. Darabont shop Mob City to other networks? There is plenty of precedent for that going as far back to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and up to, in recent memory, The Hitchhiker, Matlock, Southland, JAG, Cops and, just this year, Ripper Street

DJS: If Mob City could follow, say, the Shawshank pattern and find its audience after the pressure to grab ratings has abated, then sure, why not? I’m amazed that TNT hasn’t run the six episodes again in a more conventional once-per-week format, just to see how it fares that way. It could provide useful data. 

SLOANE: (Another network is) highly doubtful, since those shows had passionate and vocal fanbases who organized campaigns to save them. As far as I know, Mob City doesn’t have that—except for us. 

Q.: Some of the most unimaginative titles have come out of the gangster genre. Besides Mob City, there is Mobsters, Casino, Vegas, etc., none of them conveying the grandeur of The Godfather, the enigmatic mystique of Miller’s Crossing, or the romanticism of Once Upon a Time in America. Were you sorry to see the original title L.A. Noir (from Buntin’s book) go? Or Lost Angels for that matter, a tentative title for a time which is the same as one of Mr. Schow’s short story collections? Besides airing the series as a miniseries, do you think the retitling hurt the series any? 

SLOANE: I think we all would’ve LOVED to called the show L.A. Noir. But since it collided with a similarly-named video game, that title was out. 
I’m gonna be brutally honest here...I was never a fan of Lost Angels. In and of itself, I think it’s a swell title—like for a collection of David Schow’s short stories, let’s say. I just didn’t think it was a good title for this show (sorry, DJS). 
I think it sent the wrong signal about what the show was about; more than one person asked me, “Who plays the angels?” 
If it had to be something like Lost Angels, I would’ve preferred Lost Angeles—but Darabont shot down the idea. He liked Lost Angels, full stop. 
However, that title tested badly. Mob City tested incredibly well—so the folks above our pay grades went with it. I came to like it a lot—and still do. 

Neon sign on Hennesy Street backlot (photo by DJS)

DJS: I may be a majority of one, but I think the title change hurt the show. I was particularly fond of Lost Angels for obvious reasons, but beyond that, it really summed up the show better. All the time we were working on it, it was Lost Angels. That title was on every script. We set up and shot the elements for a gorgeous title sequence that Frank conceived, involving the lavish neon sign you now only glimpse in the show. We shot it on Hennesy Street on the Warner backlot (in fact, if you look really close, you’ll see we put a branch office for the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company at the end of the street as a hat-tip to Double Indemnity) in a deluge of fake rain. The camera cranes up to align the sign for the Los Angeles Apartments with a church in the background as one of the “e”s on the first sign fizzles out and the neon crucifix from the church becomes the “t” in “Lost.” 
Then TNT started audience-testing titles, and Lost Angels was perceived as a documentary about runaways or prostitutes. But Mob City seems to me generic, and too dependent on crossover recognition from Boardwalk Empire. When you say Mob City I think Chicago, not L.A. 
That said, once the title was settled, TNT did a hell of a job promoting the show anywhere and everywhere. They painted the roofs of three adjacent hangars at LAX to read “Welcome to Mob City” so that every single person on an oncoming flight could see it. 

Q.: Any word on a Blu-ray and DVD release anytime soon, or will it just sit in a network vault like the FX boxing drama Lights Out and so much other quality programming prematurely cancelled? What kind of extras could we expect? Possibly a commentary from you on your episode? 

SLOANE: It would be nice to think a Blu-ray release was a possibility, mainly because it was such a gorgeous show—you only got the merest hint of how beautiful it was in the off-the-air hi-def version due to all the video compression that takes place when it’s aired. Same with the on-demand and streaming versions. Blu-ray would show it off spectacularly well. 
I think it’s highly unlikely, though. It’s damned expensive to do a Blu-ray release. Everything from remastering to rights payments to pressing costs to packaging and publicity. My guess is Mob City wasn’t successful enough to warrant that kind of outlay. 

DJS: I really think the six-episode arc would gain a more appreciative audience on video, whether it’s downloads or an actual, official DVD. There were hours of supplementary material shot and it would be nice to have that see the light of day. Commentary? Sure–bring it on! 

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At the time of this interview, TNT has still not announced a Blu-ray/DVD release date for Mob City, but for now the entire season, and even extras, can be streamed at Amazon Instant Video []. 

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GILBERT COLON has written for publications ranging from Filmfax to Cinema Retro to Crimespree Magazine. His interview with Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) for Mystery Scene’s Ed Gorman appeared in the anthology book They’re Here, and he will soon contribute to the author site Bradley on Film. Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to


John Scoleri said...

Great article on an under-appreciated show, Gilbert! I too am hoping for a Blu Ray release, and I expect after reading this a few more folks will be inspired to check out the episodes online.

Professor Flynn said...

Boy Gil, your outstanding and obviously informed questions must have made this interview a pleasure for your subjects. Yet again, another show I never watched and needed some education on.

Matthew Bradley said...

My little boy has grown up. Sniff. Seriously, dude, impressive research, impressive questions, impressive access, and (with a little help from your friends) impressive presentation. You make me proud.