The unexpected success of Zombieland in 2009 not only made stars of its young leads Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone, but also its rookie director, Ruben Fleischer, who became an in-demand, if still unproven, filmmaker. To select his follow-up effort, Fleischer met with some of Hollywood’s biggest players to discuss franchises and reboots, but ultimately went with 30 Minutes or Less, an original, nitro-fueled action comedy about a pizza delivery boy (Jesse Eisenberg) who, along with his best friend (Aziz Ansari), is forced to rob a bank by two bottom-rung criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson).
Next up, Fleischer will make Gangster Squad, a period mob drama starring Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone (but not Bryan Cranston). We recently sat down with the director to talk about the opportunities he passed up, directing the first two episodes of Zach Galifianakis’ talk show Between Two Ferns, and making his first movie without Jesse Eisenberg.
After Zombieland was a hit, did you have your pick of scripts? Without sounding like too much of a jerk, yeah, I got a lot of opportunities. For eight years, I was trying to be a director before I got to make my first film, so the fact that I got to make the movie was incredibly satisfying, and the fact that it was well-received was even more exciting, and the fact that people wanted me to make another one was unbelievable. But yeah, it was a pretty hard thing to decide, because I had opportunities to work with some of my favorite actors, and to take over these big franchises.
Such as? None of these were offers, but I had conversations to do movies with Will Ferrell, and Mission: Impossible, X-Men. I was having conversations with Tom Cruise in a room. It was completely overwhelming. I didn’t feel totally up to the task of making something on that scale. I applaud Marc Webb for making the leap from (500) Days of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man. I didn’t have the confidence to do that. So I was really psyched when I read the 30 Minutes or Less script, because it was so original, so fresh, and really funny. It felt like I knew how to make this movie and was very excited to do it.
When Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari are cast, do you need to rethink the characters to fit those actors’ very distinct personalities? We didn’t have to make too many adjustments to the script, but by definition, when Aziz was cast, he being South Asian, we had to make the love interest South Asian too, because the whole premise is that Jesse is in love with Aziz’s sister. Until then we’d been auditioning white girls.
Did Freida Pinto’s name come up at all? She’s rad, and we actually inquired, but apparently she isn’t comfortable doing an American accent. But other than her and Mindy Kaling, there aren’t any Indian actresses I can name, so it was actually a really cool process auditioning all these super-talented South Asian women. And then finding Dilshad Vadsaria was awesome because she really delivers in the role. And then as far as casting Jesse, I think he has certain connotations as an actor and the types of roles that he’s played, and so for him it was fun to play someone more conventional—the dude who sits on his couch and smokes weed.
After you made Zombieland, did it feel like you penetrated a wall that previously felt impenetrable, in terms of making it as a successful filmmaker in Hollywood? No, I can say it was encouraging, but it still feels pretty impenetrable.
Do you see yourself as an auteur? No, not at all. I don’t even know what that word means, but I would assume it means that you write your films, like Woody Allen, or Tarantino, or the Coen brothers. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in conversation, but it implies author to me. There are no “film by” credits on my movies and there never will be, because I feel like it’s such a collaborative process. It’s never “A Ruben Fleischer film.” It’s a film that a lot of people made and contributed to. Tarantino can say that because nobody else can make the movies that he makes. I see two versions of it. One is the Coen brothers who can do any genre and it’s specifically a Coen brothers movie. Another version is Ang Lee, who can make Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Hulk, different movies that if you were to ask an audience wouldn’t know they were made by the same person.
You’ve directed some episodes of Between Two Ferns. What was that like? The guys who did Comedy Death Ray got their own pilot for Fox, where there was an audience section and there was short films. I did all the short films. The Michael Cera one was the first Between Two Ferns, and it was just this little piece we did for the pilot which never happened, but we all loved that thing so much that we got Fox to let us put it online. The Jimmy Kimmel one was the second one, which I think we did because Zach was going on Jimmy Kimmel as a guest, and he thought it would be funny if he had his own talk show. The ones they’ve done since then I haven’t been involved with because I was off shooting Zombieland and stuff. Originally it wasn’t intended to be a series.
Is it scripted? I think Zach knows what he wants to do and beats that he wants to play, but there’s no script whatsoever. You talked before about not having the confidence to do a huge studio picture. So how do you feel now that your’re taking on Gangster Squad, which seems like a big deal for Warner Bros. I’m ready, but maybe I overstated it before. It wasn’t because of a lack confidence, it’s more like I wanted creative control. I knew that for my second film, where I’m still trying to figure out my voice as a director, that as soon as it becomes a franchise, the studio is going to be all over you. Or if you’re dealing with a huge movie star and it’s his franchise, you’re at best a facilitator because they know it better than you do. But what’s exciting about Gangster Squad is that they hired me, and I’m casting the movie. It’s my job to define the film, whereas a franchise movie, or a superhero movie there’s less room for interpretation. So while I definitely didn’t feel prepared to do a huge movie at that point, it was also the terms on which I wanted to do that movie. And what’s cool about Gangster Squad is that it’s not beholden to anything other than being a great film. And they’ve given me the reins to the best job I can making the movie. IT’s really a chance for me to make a movie on my terms.
Are you excited about making a period film? I’m so psyched. The other day we had our prop show-and-tell, and there was a table full of Tommy guns, and I almost lost it. It was like, Holy shit, I’m making a fucking gangster movie. I was so, so psyched, I can’t even tell you. Are you ready to do a feature film without Jesse Eisenberg? (Laughs) It honestly will be hard. You can’t ask for a better actor. He’s so talented, so generous, so easygoing, and has no ego. He just wants what’s best for the film.