Mob City: Frank Darabont Talks Why Post-War LA is His Favorite Era

We sit down with Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont to discuss his newest TNT series, Mob City.

As the writer and director of this week’s highly anticipated new TNT series, Mob City, Showrunner Frank Darabont is as big a draw as the series’ noir tone. A creator who got his starts, in of all places, by writing A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Darabont quickly graduated from horror movies and television (including The Young Adventures of Indiana Jones) into making full-blown cinema classics. He adapted a little known Stephen King story into his first feature length film: The Shawshank Redemption and followed that up with another King prison yarn turned epic, The Green Mile. More recently, Darabont has returned to his television roots when he created the most popular scripted series currently in the medium with The Walking Dead. Yet, after his abrupt and bizarre departure from that hit and AMC, he soon landed on his feet with an even more seductive genre within film noir. And he brought The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal along to be the star of Mob City (who we interviewed here last month). It was in promotion of this series that Darabont was kind enough to briefly sit down for a conference call with us in November. Here is that discussion. I know this is based on true events, but I was wondering how did you sort of frame it? It’s fictional drama, but how did you position what’s true and what is not? Frank Darabont: It’s an excellent, excellent question, because this is honestly the loosest adaptation I’ve ever done. It’s not in any way to disregard John Buntin’s book, because it really is the inspiration for everything. It’s really a good book, definitely our touchstone. I gave myself license very early on to just make up as much of what I felt we needed to tell the most entertaining, good sort of meaty mob story. Good, pulpy, noir stuff. I mean that’s the promise that I wanted to deliver on, and not turn it into sort of Masterpiece Theater docudrama version of events. So, yeah we’ve thrown caution to the wind on this one. Bless his heart John is abundant; he seems to be definitely enjoying the fact that we’ve done that. So we’re weaving fictional elements very much into the non-fictional historical elements and having a blast doing it. What initially got you interested in that book, and how did you ultimately decide to flip that interest into this series? It was one of those “book by its cover” kind of deals. I was in the newsstand at LAX before jumping on a plane. I poked my head in and I saw this book called L.A. Noir. Noir being right up my alley, and L.A. being a great component of noir, I grabbed the book thinking that it actually might be some fictional thing, and then wound up realizing as I was flying that it was a non-fiction history of this, which actually made the book even cooler to me. I couldn’t put it down for a two days. Once I had read it, I immediately made a call to find out if the rights were available. …So, yeah so I checked into the rights only to discover that my friend Michael De Luca, whom I’ve known since gosh, 1986 when we were–I was on my first produced credit as a writer in Nightmare on Elm Street 3. I met him. He was a young executive just hired by New Line, so we got to be friends on the set of Nightmare 3. I’ve known him all these years. I call him up to find out what he wanted to do with it, and he was excited about my interest. So we decided to partner up on it. It was a real pleasure. It’s been a real pleasure to work with Mike after all these years.  What can you say about this time of 1947, the time of the gangster? I’ve always had a tremendous appreciation for past eras. I’ve always had specifically a very keen appreciation for this era in the ‘40s. There was something very sexy and dangerous about it. Plus, it was a much more–what’s the word I’m looking for? It’s in a much more put together era. It’s a much more elegant, and people would dress a certain way. They didn’t just walk out of the house wearing their underwear, or whatever people, you know, wear these days. They had to put thought into it. They presented themselves well. That’s a wonderful thing to put on film because everyone just winds up looking so of the era, but also just of a different world. It’s as unique; visually it’s as unique as a science fiction movie because it is such a different world then. I’ve always loved it. I love the clothes. I love the cars. I love the music. It’s a wonderful period to depict. Challenging of course, because LA has changed so much, but we’re finding those little corners and those little pockets of the old stuff. Then, you know, thankfully with some digital—some careful digital trickery, digital effects—we can enhance the era and make it ever more convincing. I love it, and I’ve always loved the noir genre, because it’s always got an air of dangerous stakes and desperation and everybody’s got an angle, and there’s the dangerous women. You know, you don’t know if they’re on your side or not. I always have loved that kind of storytelling that kind of—that genre and it’s just a pleasure to just roll around in it. I just love it. One of the things that I really love about television shows like this, is the time period it’s set in. As a filmmaker and television fan, I really like this time period for shows and movies, because of the business and the movies that came out at the time. I’m curious as a show creator and a filmmaker, what’s an aspect from that time period that you wish you could’ve experienced? Oh, I wish I could’ve experienced the time period firsthand. You know, I’m glad I’m not 100 years old, but if I had a time machine, and I could punch in a year, it would be post-war [America]. It would be the 1940s. You know, during the war and post-war. It’s just so remarkable what happened and to Los Angeles specifically is so amazing post-war, because the city just started to grow and expand in a way that was unprecedented. It’s still growing and expanding. [It was also a] great opportunity for corruption and mobs and that’s basically what the story is dealing with, that post-war influx of growth and money, and influence, and all that stuff.  Can you talk about casting Jon Bernthal in this? You know, when I first started working with Jon some years ago, the first time I worked with him I had the thought in my head, if I ever get to do a noir project, I’m going to want him to play my noir hero. I’m going to want him to play my lead, because he’s got that very period feel to me. He doesn’t come off like a contemporary guy. Plus, he’s got this tremendously quiet, masculinity. It’s not forced; it’s not showboat. But he’s got this very testosterone kind of masculinity that’s quiet, and it’s genuine, and it feels like such a throwback to me to Robert Mitchum and John Garfield. You know, an earlier era of actor, of men, who came up in tougher circumstances during the Great Depression, and fought in those wars, and just had to get through life as best they could without making a big deal out of it. It’s just such a throwback aspect to it. He so reminds me of those guys and those generations. So, for me it was just a self-evident marriage of a certain kind of story that I wanted to tell and this actor who would be so perfect to tell that story. Even though this is a fictional telling of the story, were there any particular elements that you really wanted to make sure to keep historically accurate? Well, even in our historical accuracy we’re taking liberties. So, I always say,  “Thank God it’s not a documentary.” Certainly on the very basic level, on a core level of what [John Buntin] wrote, and what we’re going to be telling is really the focus of the mob versus the police—it really came down to the story of Mickey Cohen versus William Parker. John did a brilliant job of detailing; distilling everything to that dynamic, because it really was the fulcrum point of so many events and the entire power struggle, those two men butting heads. So that’s very much in the long game of the show. I wanted to be very accurate with the fact that Mickey Cohen rises to prominence as the head of the LA mob very much around the time or not too long later William Parker rises to the head of the LAPD. Suddenly, you’ve got these two guys who are running their shops, top of the show in their worlds, and their worlds conflict. Really fascinating set up for storytelling and John Buntin really delineated that so beautifully in his book.


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