Capone is the last movie you’d ever brand as a “traditional gangster pic.” While the infamous mobster’s seven-year reign of terror as head of the Chicago rackets in the 1920s has been chronicled in movies like The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and The Untouchables (1987), the final stages of Capone’s life — addled by dementia and neurosyphilis at his Palm Island, Florida estate after his release from prison — have been explored less than his earlier, more colorful exploits.
Enter Josh Trank. After bursting onto the Hollywood radar in 2012 with his found-footage deconstruction of superhero and comic book tropes, Chronicle, Trank was heavily courted for various projects and ended up directing 20th Century Fox’s 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, which was sabotaged — and ultimately sunk with both audiences and critics — by studio interference, bad press surrounding the production and Trank’s alleged on-set behavior, as well as the filmmaker’s own creatively ambitious if arguably presumptuous approach to the material.
Already signed before the Fantastic Four debacle to direct one of the eventually scuttled Star Wars standalone films — which later turned out to be a movie based around the Boba Fett character — Trank stepped away from that franchise (press at the time said he was dismissed; he maintains that it was his choice, although he thinks he might have ultimately been let go) and went into what is often referred to as “director jail”: an unofficial career limbo or pause from which many talented (and not so talented) filmmakers often never return.
But Trank has returned with the independently produced Capone (formerly titled Fonzo), in which British star Tom Hardy (Venom) plays the title crime boss in the year before his death in 1947 at the age of 48. Trank and Hardy’s version of Alphonse Capone is not the swaggering bully and psychopath of previous incarnations: their disease-racked Capone can no longer control his bodily functions (which is made all too messily apparent in several scenes), can barely get complete sentences out and constantly flickers in and out of reality as his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini), his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan), and others struggle to keep him alive and shielded from the FBI agents who still want to question him.
“I’ve always been just interested in Al Capone the same way that I’ve been interested in so many other characters in history,” says Trank when we get on the phone for the first of two conversations. “I’ve always been fascinated by iconic figures in the past and specifically in the deconstruction of hero worship. I always think to myself what is the least intuitive or least seemingly interesting aspect of somebody like Julius Caesar or somebody like that. What’s the most human part of their experience because for one of us, if we look at Al Capone, how is he relatable at all in that sense?”
In a way, Trank’s approach to the character of Al Capone mirrors his view of the characters in Chronicle — three teen boys who find themselves imbued with superpowers and don’t exactly act like Captain America once they’ve got them. “If you’re making a movie about Al Capone as a straight up gangster genre movie, it amounts to some wish fulfillment or an emulation of masculinity,” acknowledges Trank. “For me with Chronicle I was very much interested in a window into characters in a way that would be unusual but revealing at the same time of their humanity in a way you wouldn’t expect.”
But perhaps a larger factor in Trank’s decision to create an impressionistic portrait of Capone’s final days was the turmoil that had happened in his own life during the months before and after the release of Fantastic Four: regardless of whether you believe the stories that came out about the director’s on-set behavior during the making of that film, Trank says that the portrayal of him by the entertainment media was not accurate, with the result that the experience “really changed my psyche in a lot of ways.”
“There were all of these stories about me in the press and in the trades and describing a person who had my name, who was involved in all of these situations,” he says now. “There was a lot of destructive behavior and lack of communication, and the way that this Josh Trank person was characterized, in situations that were very detailed in their own right, were not in any way, shape or form what I remember from my experiences as Josh Trank in those situations.”
He continues, “There were a lot of these massive exaggerations of situations that were so far-fetched that it was quite comical. But to just see everybody relish it and laugh it up, I felt slowly every single day I was just having my own identity stripped away from me and at a certain point I just felt I have no connection to myself. It was just this myth of this other person.”
The “myth vs. reality” narrative is ultimately what led Trank down the path to Capone: “Once (Fantastic Four) was out, months later I was sitting in eerie silence in my backyard chain-smoking cigarettes and not having anything to really do with my life and my bank account was dwindling,” he says. “While I’m sitting out there, this seed of an idea popped in the back of my head…just something that I felt I related to, based on what I knew about Al Capone years after he was released from Alcatraz and he was sitting in eerie silence in his own backyard in Palm Island: what would it have been like for Al Capone to flip on the radio after all those years and to hear those Edward G. Robinson-style radio plays about himself?”
It required a distinction between the legend of Al Capone that grew while he still lived, and the sad reality of the man in his final days.
“There’s the character of Capone being involved in all of these shenanigans,” Trank explains, “As opposed to a broken-down soul who has lost his own sense of identity through his incarceration and all of these other experiences that had put him in a place where he was so far away from being not just the Al Capone of myth, but the Al Capone of his own experience of being himself. It was just an idea that I had and I didn’t really think of this as a great script that I’m going to go write and sell. I just started writing it as a way to deal with what I was feeling at the time.”
Trank worked on various drafts of the Capone screenplay throughout late 2015 and into 2016, with producers Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction), John Schoenfelder, and Russell Ackerman coming aboard the project and BRON Studios agreeing to finance it. Hardy’s enthusiastic involvement was the next key piece in the puzzle, although the actor’s busy schedule meant that it would be another two years until production on the film began in the early months of 2018.
Although the circumstances of Capone’s production were a far cry from those of Fantastic Four and Star Wars — an independent production as opposed to cogs in massive corporate franchises — Trank said that he had less anxiety about stepping behind the camera than he did about shooting the movie in Louisiana, where much of Fantastic Four was filmed.
“We got there for prep in January 2018 and at that time I had a good two and a half years, almost three years, since everything had happened,” he recalls. “The one thing about me is there’s nowhere in the world that I feel more comfortable and at ease and at home than being on a movie set. It was something that I was really looking forward to, just getting back there and working and then making a movie again. But there were a lot of factors that I was nervous about in my return to Louisiana which is where we shot Fantastic Four.”
But Trank says that his return to the state was as pleasant as he could have possibly hoped for. “From the first day I got to the office, there were a few people there who had worked on Fantastic Four and they were so kind, and warm, and sweet and just any amount of anxiety that I had of just being embarrassed about what Fantastic Four turned into just melted away instantaneously,” he says. “We just all had a laugh together and they were really excited to be there because of the script, and the movie and working with Tom Hardy.”
As for his star, Trank is nothing but effusive about the British actor, who buries himself not just in makeup but in a performance that is as vivid in its surreal strangeness as in its often raw body horror. “I had more fun working with him than I’ve ever had in my life,” says Trank about his leading man. “He’s just hilarious, he’s funny, he’s just boisterous, and filled with energy, and he’s so intellectual, and he inspires everybody else around him with confidence. He feels that the best thing to do creatively is to go for the biggest risks and not hold back.”
Of course, Hardy has experience in the comic book movie realm himself, having played the muscle-bound Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and the even more monstrous mix of Eddie Brock and an alien symbiote in 2018’s Venom — a movie as misguided in its way as Fantastic Four but which had the advantage of making a shitload of money. Yet Trank insists that the two did not share war stories from the superhero movie trenches.
“Surprisingly we didn’t, because there’s so much more to talk about in life,” he says. “Whenever we talk, and we talk every day, we always have so much we want to talk about, as if maybe this is the last time we could ever speak and there’s so many more interesting things to talk about.” Trank adds, “(Hardy) has the healthiest way of looking at any bad experience that you’ve ever had, which is to keep your chin up and believe in yourself, and just keep marching forward with your hand over your heart and not dwell on whatever happened behind you.”
What happened behind Trank — the crash and burn of Fantastic Four and his aborted brush with the Star Wars universe — will be our topics here over the next few days.
Capone is on VOD now, courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.