Sun. Sep 27th, 2020

Interview: ‘Capone’ director Josh Trank is finally able to take everything in stride

Josh Trank (Chronicle, Fantastic Four) tells us he’s not the guy he’s made out to be in the press. “I think one thing that really never came across during my time working on Fantastic Four and  leading up to this is I have a pretty solid sense of humor about everything,” said Trank in our conversation about his third movie, Capone. The movie stars Tom Hardy as Fonzo (the movie’s original title) in the final year of his life. Riddled with early onset dementia from neurosyphilis, Hardy does his thing and plays the gangster as a weakened, bed shitting, hallucinating old man. 

Earlier this week in my AwardsWatch review, ‘Capone’ is a flaming pile of shit, I talk about the most recurring characters in cinema: Australia’s Ned Kelly, America’s Al Capone and world cinema’s auteurs. Josh Trank’s Capone happens to be about two of those characters, including Trank as the auteur. Despite Trank’s feelings about the auteur theory, Capone is inspired by his grandfather’s last days—more on that below—along with humanizing a figure that’s widely understood as a bad guy; it’s very much the director’s own story. More than a good Rotten Tomatoes score, Trank needed Capone to resuscitate his career by showing his good attitude and sense of humor, which our conversation does.

Great conversation with Trank or not, I still think Capone‘s biggest weakness is the project and the finished product means a whole lot to Josh, but the images he creates do not lend themselves to the creation of meaning or inspiring audience imagination; outside of those who know the director’s backstory. He’s quietly inviting the industry to read him into the movie—to humanize and forgive him. 

I think the scene where Capone sings with the Cowardly Lion while watching The Wizard of Oz was one of the most moving parts of the film.

I always love when movies are referenced in movies, because it’s the most relatable thing while you’re watching a movie to understand that the world that these characters inhabit is one where they also share their love for the same movies that we have, and The Wizard of Oz is such a touchstone of, I think, most people’s childhoods. It’s like the O.G. fantasy movie. I always  envisioned while I was writing this—which was an experiential writing process putting this together—as I got  closer to the middle of the movie, I felt like my heart was telling me I need to put them in a movie theater in the house and that they’re watching something. And as soon as I got to that moment after the scene on the boat, I thought about the FBI plane circling the horizon, I just saw the Wicked Witch on her broomstick in that scene, and then it just organically fell into place. As far as the other metaphors that are pretty apt for the rest of the film; follow the yellow brick road, the golden balloon, the cowardly lions. The story in general is an interesting anecdote to the gangster mindset. But then also the metaphor falls really deeply into a lot of different levels for myself personally and for the film, of seeing behind the curtain, and know that it’s just a stinky old man hiding there that’s the true identity of the wizard. So I felt that that was an appropriate metaphor for the movie. Having the window into the latter years of one of the most bombastic, iconic, feared gangsters in history and experience this small part of his life where he is feeble and confused.

In a newer film by Jean-Luc Godard, one characters says “The only time we’re equal is when we poop,” and that came to mind during the scene where Fonzo shits the bed. Is that what you were going for in that scene, to humanize him?

At first it just came from when my grandfather was towards the end of his life, he had issues controlling his bowels. And that was just a normal thing that unfortunately happens. I felt that it’s gross, but I felt that it’s respectful to just stay honest to what that’s like for anybody. It’s a thing that does truly connect us. Also from a storytelling standpoint and what always interests me is the deconstruction of mythic figures in our history. When I think about somebody like George Washington or Julius Caesar, I’m far more interested in the moment of… George Washington taking a shit is more interesting than him riding on a boat, holding the colony’s flag because that’s something we all do. 

There isn’t a ton of movement in the movie. Most of the time we’re watching Capone rot on screen. What was your aesthetic idea with that? Because we really see him physically deteriorate over the course of a year.

I knew that would be an uncomfortable experience and the first feature film that I ever worked on was with my friend Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, The Founder), who’s an amazing writer, great guy. He used to be the editor-in-chief of The Onion. He’s like one of my mentors. The movie is called Big Fan with Patton Oswalt. It’s a great film and the script was very influential for me. It’s also a movie where you’re just with this character with very stationary scenes, not a lot of movement. He’s a fairly a immobile character, he works in a ticket booth at a hospital. When he’s not there, he’s at home, sitting in his bedroom, ranting on sports radio on his phone. Halfway through the movie, he gets the shit kicked out of him by a football player, and he ends up in a coma. For the rest of the film he’s just laying there. That was the first movie I edited myself and when I was writing the script for Capone, I had Big Fan on my mind a lot, as a bit of an homage to that film, and to my creative kinship with Robert Siegel. It’s also just the fact that organically, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot of movement to Capone in general during that time.

While I was writing the script, it was a good two, three months after Fantastic Four (2015) came out, and I was just going through a lot of bouts of depression, I was having a hard time finding really any enthusiasm to go exercise or go do anything and I just felt like I hated myself. I hated my life. I was angry at myself. So I wasn’t moving for months, I was just sitting on a chair outside and chain smoking smoking cigarettes. That’s not by any means woe is me, that’s just what was happening. I wasn’t moving a lot. I was just sitting there writing and so a lot of that was just me  being in the movie, so to speak.

By the time I started editing the movie, because it was very much like this three stage personal process of making the film where it was writing on my own, then making the movie with this wonderful crew, and then the third phase was me being alone again, this time in upstate New York, in the woods, editing the movie, and by the time I got through the end of my first cut I mean, I was like “shit, this motherfucker is sitting there the whole time.” [Laughs.] I was like, well, it is what it is, because of the nature of the narrative of the film, which is experiential, it’s not a flashback. It’s about being with this character during this period. Time moves forward in a linear way in this film, this story is a linear narrative. There wouldn’t have been any way for me to justify more spontaneity and movement from Capone. 

The way that I feel about film in general, like you mentioned Godard, he was one of my huge influences growing up. Truffaut and a lot of the French New Wave. One of the qualities of those films that I always connect to is a commitment to sitting down and watching these films; they’re not always going to be filled with entertainment, so to speak, but there’s art that you’re watching, and there’s something that’s being said. While it is a bit of a hard pill to swallow in terms of what a lot of us are used to with a little bit more liveliness in our movies. I think there’s a little bit of a false premise in the package of this being like a movie called Capone about Al Capone as a gangster. So their expectation of being able to see something a little bit more lively is just ultimately not there. The general title for the film was never Capone. The name Capone only came into play about two months ago when the film was picked up for distribution by Vertical Entertainment. There were times when the name Capone was brought up to me by various producers and I always fought against it because to me, this movie’s Fonzo, it’s not a movie about Al Capone, it’s a movie about this person who was Al Capone, and this is where he’s at in his life. And this is where it ends for him. It’s a movie about identity and lack of connection to one’s identity. The title is one of those things where there’s always some kind of a compromise that you’re going to make as a filmmaker. Not everybody is in Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg’s position. But obviously, those two guys have earned their success and changed our industry. They get to call it whatever they want to call the movie and they have final cut. With this I was so lucky that Vertical and Bron Studios embraced my final cut. The only compromise they asked for me was to change the name to Capone. Keep in mind that the original intent of the filmmaker was this a film that came out called Fonzo. I think the expectation going into it would be a little bit different when you’re engaging in this film that has a more subdued energy as opposed to what imagery is conjured in one’s mind for a film called Capone

Why did you revisit your Fantastic Four last November?

It was something that I avoided for a really long time and I’d gotten to the cut before my last cut of Capone. I finished after maybe about three or four straight months of editing, and I was rewatching the movie, and it was in a state where it felt the most completed to me. And I felt really good about it. I thought on some therapeutic level, it would be good to sit down and actually watch the Fantastic Four. I hadn’t seen it since it was shown to me by the studio a few weeks before it came out in 2015. It was a weird experience, but it was also very healing in a lot of ways because it’s not good. At all. But it wasn’t as offensive to me as I was expecting it to be. It was just kind of meh. Again, it’s subjective, but by the time I got to the end of it, I thought it would be interesting for whoever is interested in the process and the experience and journey of filmmaking to read my Letterbox review, to just give my candid thoughts about it. That’s the way I look at this experience of talking about Capone the movie. I don’t have scripted answers to anything. I’m just being candid as I can about any of this because I know that it’s more helpful for people who are also looking to the stars and wanting to do this for a living to understand the thought process of other people who do it. 

It seems like your approach to the press and reviews for Capone is “all press is good press.” You’re taking everything in stride.

The way I look at it is I’m not mad if somebody has a bad review of the movie. I’m not mad at that because that’s a real reaction. One thing that I noticed about all the reviews that made me feel really good about all of them is that the good and the bad, everybody is talking about substance in the movie, like actual things in the movie. For instance, Fantastic Four reviews received critiques based on a lack of substance and a confusion as to what the movie was and who was trying to make it. But with this, it’s very clear and it’s something that you either like or you don’t like. All of my favorite movies have always been very divisive movies. So it makes sense that Capone would be divisive. So I’m very happy with that. I think it’s a good thing because if somebody is interested in seeing this movie, they’re going to see it no matter what and everybody is totally entitled to their own opinion on it. 

I think one thing that really never came across during my time working on Fantastic Four and leading up to this is I have a pretty solid sense of humor about everything. Like I’m not just this ultra serious, super serious AFI grad type of person. I find it all fun and funny. I’m laughing along with everybody else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joshua is an entertainment journalist with bylines at The Film Stage, Out Magazine, Indiewire, and The Playlist. He is based in New York City and is a voting member of GALECA. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshencinias.

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