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Los Angeles on view in 'Gangster Squad'

Production designer Maher Ahmad and his crew scoped out locations for an authentic taste of 'Gangster' L.A. Among the sites: City Hall and Clifton's Cafeteria.

January 12, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

When mobster Mickey Cohen ruled Los Angeles in the late 1940s, his favorite hangout was the legendary Slapsy Maxie's nightclub on Wilshire Boulevard. It's long gone now of course, so to re-create it for the new film "Gangster Squad" the filmmakers had to be creative.

Production designer Maher Ahmad found the right spot for Slapsy Maxie's almost by accident, while driving around with the film's first location manager. They had been looking for a vintage house in a suburban neighborhood when they passed an Art Deco-inspired block of empty businesses in Bellflower.

What caught their attention was a large empty store that had been built as a J.C. Penney in 1952 and had last housed a supermarket. "It was a great find," said Ahmad. "The whole block was built at the same time."

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The exterior and interior were perfect so Ahmad went to work building the floor of the nightclub as well as its backstage area. He even built a replica of the office of Cohen's bookie business in the old department store.

Instead of relying on sound stages and studio back lots, "Gangster Squad" took advantage of many real locations in Los Angeles to bring a vivid authenticity to the crime thriller set in 1949 Los Angeles. The film opened on Friday to mixed reviews. Among the recognizable locations used in the film are Los Angeles City Hall, the Park Plaza Hotel near MacArthur Park, Union Station, Olvera Street and Clifton's Cafeteria.

Once a location was secured, it generally went through a massive transformation. "Any exterior that we were doing we had to remove the parking meters," said location manager Robin Citrin, who came on board the film while it was in production. "We had to change out the street lights, remove stop signals, take off the traffic signals."

Even parking lines had to be changed, "because they didn't have diagonal lines," said Citrin. "We had to change the red curbs because they didn't have red curbs in 1949."

Based on the book "Gangster Squad" by former Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman, the thriller revolves around a crew of brave LAPD officers who form a secret squad to rid the City of Angels of Mickey Cohen, the Brooklyn-born mobster who struck fear in the hearts of his rivals and had politicians and policemen in his pocket.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland"), the ensemble film features Sean Penn as Cohen, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie as the members of the squad, Emma Stone as Cohen's mistress who falls for Gosling and Nick Nolte as legendary police chief William H. Parker, who wants to rid L.A. of the heinous Cohen.

"There were about 50 or 60 location where we actually shot," said Ahmad, who has worked with Fleischer on his previous two films. Mary Zophres designed the costumes and Oscar-winning Dion Beebe was the cinematographer.

Ahmad did an enormous amount of research, such as looking into the vintage locations and personalities of the era, as well as viewing motion pictures that were shot on location in L.A., including the 1949 film noir classic "D.O.A."

"I and my assistants pulled about 20,000 stills for over 40 period films," said Ahmad. "Not just crime films — I also looked at a lot of musicals because musicals from that period all had nightclubs in them and we had four different nightclubs in our movies."

The vintage downtown movie palace the Tower was the site of Club Figaro, a Mocambo-inspired nightclub owned by an Italian don who is Cohen's rival.

"The theater had been converted into a venue and the seats were taken out and a flat floor was put in," said Ahmad. "We built a bar and did quite an elaborate re-dress job."

The popular Hollywood eatery Lucy's El Adobe was the location for Cafe Caliente, where some of the officers hung out.

"We repainted it and re-dressed it and hung new fixtures and put in a stained glass window," Ahmad said. "There are very few places in Los Angeles that at one point or another haven't been shot [in a movie]. What is unique for us is that a lot of those places haven't been shot as period."

susan.king@latimes.com

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