a long talk

For Josh Trank, Making a Movie About Syphilitic Al Capone Was Therapy

“I felt like writing about somebody whose life is actually coming to the end was a way to remind myself every day that my life isn’t over.” Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Up until now, Josh Trank’s brief tenure in Hollywood could fairly be divided into two acts: a kiss-the-sky career ascent followed by the most precipitous of entertainment-industry falls from grace. In 2012, at 26 years old, he exploded from anonymity into the ranks of the town’s buzziest filmmakers with his directorial debut, Chronicle — a “found footage” thriller written by Max Landis that grossed an impressive $126.6 million globally — becoming the youngest person ever to open a movie at No. 1 (displacing Steven Spielberg’s standing record with Jaws, at age 27). Studio executives hailed the Beverly Hills–raised Trank as the undisputed hotness du jour, stampeding him with offers to direct megabudget event movies. He quickly signed on to direct a Star Wars spinoff plotted around Boba Fett but passed on Venom and Ready Player One (twice). For his immediate Chronicle follow-up, he fatefully chose Fox’s superhero reboot Fantastic Four, intending to take the material in a “grounded, gritty” new direction.

Regarded as one of the most legendarily troubled productions in recent Hollywood history, the $120 million movie opened to scathing reviews — Vulture called it a “confused, joyless mess” in 2015 — and flopped at the box office, earning just $56 million domestically. Trank reportedly lost control of the movie after delivering a disastrous director’s cut, prompting the studio to wrestle away final edit privileges and assign producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker to oversee some hastily rewritten reshoots. Sources close to Fantastic Four recounted the director’s “erratic behavior” on set, claiming that Trank would hole up in a black tent he’d constructed around his monitor, micromanaging actors’ breathing during scenes and nearly getting into a fistfight with actor Miles Teller (all of which Trank has disavowed). After spending two years in development on the Star Wars spinoff, Trank exited the project, his reputation in tatters and no directing opportunities on the horizon.

He never stopped writing his own material, though. Trank’s third film, Capone — which he wrote, directed and edited — arrived on video on demand this week, its planned theatrical bow in 300 to 500 theaters scrapped due to coronavirus concerns. Starring Oscar nominee Tom Hardy as Al Capone, the biographical drama focuses on a lesser-known chapter of the Prohibition-era mob boss’s storied existence: his final days in a battle with neurosyphilitic dementia at his lush Florida mansion. Buried beneath layers of heavy prostheses, Hardy chomps cigars and grunts extravagant profanities in Italian; he shits himself — repeatedly — and brandishes a gold-plated tommy gun, taking the viewer on a selective trip through Capone’s past (partially in search of a $10 million fortune the poststroke character can’t recall burying).

Speaking with Vulture from his home outside Los Angeles, Trank, now 36, displayed a kind of radical candor in acknowledging certain professional missteps and accepting responsibility for behaving like a “dick,” which ultimately landed him in career purgatory. He cut his directing fee in half and forewent any compensation as editor to mount Capone. He says he lost $150,000 of his own money filming it, and admits to having recently borrowed money from his mother because he is “behind on bills.” But Trank is quick to dismiss the idea that Capone should be viewed as a “comeback story.” As the director tells it, he simply made a movie he wanted to watch.

You have called Capone your “first movie.” It is certainly the first movie for which you receive sole screenplay credit and that you edited and directed, perhaps without interference from studio executives. But why put that kind of distance between yourself and Chronicle?
My first film, Chronicle, was a story that I originally conjured up in high school. It followed me throughout my early 20s, before I finally ended up collaborating with Jeremy Slater, who’s a brilliant writer. I felt very insecure about writing an entire script from start to finish. So we worked on that. And he eventually had to take another job. Max Landis and I didn’t really like each other. But I hit him up, told him about Chronicle. And as I was describing it to him, I could tell he was really engaged. In my original version of the story, when the characters are flying up in the clouds, Steve — the Michael B. Jordan character — gets hit by the plane and dies. When I got to that part, Max interrupted me and was like, “No, no, no! What you want to do is to have Andrew save him. And then that brings them closer together.” And I was like, “Oh, shit!” Look, [Max] is not a good person by any means. But he had a good idea.

Then he called me up a few days later and told me that he had pitched the movie to some producers. So after that, we were kind of married together on this project. He’s very loud. He likes to get ahead of everybody. And essentially, for years, he was doing whatever he could to tell everybody that he came up with this whole thing. I’m not the kind of person to spend my energy to just be like, “That’s not true.” So everybody ended up giving Max Landis complete credit for Chronicle. Every time I’d go into meetings after the movie came out, these executives who had met with him were like, “It’s so cool that Max let you direct his script.”

So while I feel as connected to Chronicle as I feel to Capone, Capone feels like truly my first movie because it’s right there on the screen — it says who made it.

So why a movie about Al Capone?
I’m not like an Al Capone fanboy by any means. I’m a fan of the history. But it was never some bucket-list [item] to make a movie about Al Capone. It all really just came out of this organic, emotional moment that I had in my backyard a couple of months after Fantastic Four came out. I was very down on myself. I was having a lot of issues just looking in the mirror. I just didn’t like me. I was so disappointed with how everything turned out. It was only a few years before, in a particular period in the summer of 2015, where I had all my dreams come true. I was working on all of the most spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime, bigger-than-life projects, like Star Wars and Fantastic Four and Venom. Just all these big studio projects, and having meetings all the time with all the big movers and shakers of the business and icons on a daily basis.

It was such a big life. And there I was, like, nobody’s calling me anymore. There’s nothing incoming. Every day that passed felt quieter and quieter, to the point where I was having trouble sleeping. All of the stuff that I had experienced at my peak felt like this weird dream that never really happened. I was back to zero, back to square one.

I started to think about Al Capone after he was released from Alcatraz. Him sitting there in his backyard, puffing on a cigar. That was the end of his life. All he could have done was just sit there and maybe, or maybe not, reflect on his glory days. Plagued by mental deterioration from neurosyphilis, physically falling apart and haunted by displaced memories. I started writing it as this experiential story where there were no flashbacks. Everything would materialize around him in a way where even the movie wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t real.

Prior to Fantastic Four, Hollywood had been in a huge rush to anoint you the next J.J. Abrams. You had your pick of projects. It’s almost like a station of success these days to get offered a Star Wars movie — and you got one. In retrospect, do you feel like after the success of Chronicle that you were given too much, too soon?
It was like I was knighted before I slayed the dragon. What would any one of us do if they were in my shoes? After their first movie came out under those circumstances and then they’re being offered the kind of high-level, mind-blowingly dreamlike projects that I was being offered? It’s hard to turn those down out of, like, “Well, wait a second, I’m not sure if I’m mature enough yet to engage with this.” I thought it was some version of destiny: that this is what I was meant to do.

I’ve always been a pretty self-loathing, self-deprecating, work-obsessed person, where the one missing equation for my life was self-worth. I’d always been very confident in my ability to just work from four in the morning until two at night, and just do that every day. But once all of that turned into being “knighted” in a way, it felt like, Okay, I’ve earned it. This is exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I’m the chosen one. I don’t want the “chosen one” thing to be taken out of context. I know how a lot of the tweets of the article will put it out there. Then people are going to be like, “He’s a dick!”

Josh Trank on the set of Capone. Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Help me understand your selection process with Fantastic Four. Before boarding that project, you did some development with Venom and Shadow of the Colossus. You turned down Ready Player One twice. These are all big projects. Why were you determined to do a big comic-book property or a video-game adaptation rather than, let’s say, by contrast, something like what the Safdie brothers have done? Why did you want to jump right into the deep end of the pool?
The deep end of the pool jumped into me. I don’t personally know the Safdie brothers. I’m a huge fan of them. I’m sure they’ve been offered some pretty incredible things, and they could have been offered a Star Wars movie, too. Maybe they were able to talk it through with each other and be like, “No, let’s keep it gritty and grimy and do what we do.” If they have been offered a Star Wars movie, I’m glad that they were smart enough, wise enough, and bold enough to turn it down and just do what they’re doing right now. Because the world needs more films that are coming from that authentic place in that way.

Everybody has a different place where they make sense of what they’re contributing to cinema. Because of the whirlwind that started to happen a few weeks before Chronicle came out, I got a phone call from the president of the studio about Fantastic Four. And I started meeting with other studio heads around town: Warner Bros., Universal, Sony, and Disney. There was nobody at that moment that — it’s hard to say this for myself without sounding insanely full of myself — in a way, I was sort of the first of people my age who was getting those kinds of incoming offers. So I just assumed that I needed to be the person to go for it.

There was nothing to suggest you were going to do anything other than follow success with another success. But heading into Fantastic Four, you wanted to go in the opposite direction of many, if not all, other sort of superhero-movie origin stories. You were actively trying to sort of subvert the tropes of the genre. Then, as I understand it, you went into the movie without a third act nailed down, which is a lot like building a skyscraper without a finished blueprint.
We went into the movie without a third act having been fully approved by the heads of the studio. So on all ends, everything was mismanaged. I mismanaged it. They mismanaged it. I’m more to blame than anybody else — the tenor of my interactions with the heads of the studio and me negotiating for what I wanted. I was steamrolling for what I wanted.

Such as refusing to take creative advisories from the executives during preproduction.
Yeah. I felt bitterly stubborn. Here’s a property that it seemed like nobody in Hollywood wanted to touch. And I stepped in to do it, and I felt — incorrectly so, on every level, just to make that clear; this isn’t a justification— but in my head, I felt that they kind of owed it to me to let me do my thing because nobody else wanted this movie. Simultaneously, I could have been doing a lot of other different movies. So I was trying to pressure them in a way they weren’t used to into giving up creative control to me. It got ugly. And I lost.

Then there’s the reshoots. The studio didn’t like your cut and was determined to do things its way. Your producers were on set effectively directing the enactment of script pages you hadn’t approved. You’re there nominally as the director, and yet things are totally out of your control.
I was resigned to walking into an already moving machine. There’s not much I could do about it. My compliance and compromise toward what was going on was too little, too late. I just didn’t realize until too late in the game that the best way for me to get what I wanted was to negotiate. Which was the tactic I had never, never used before that point.

It wasn’t so much I’m looking around going like, This is horseshit. I was just going like, God, I really fucked up, man! I felt like shit. Most of my memories of being on the soundstages where we were reshooting are standing by the catering table and just eating pastries. Just being really numb.

My ex-wife is a really, really good friend of Quentin Tarantino’s. And during the time of those reshoots, Quentin invited us to visit the set of the L.A. unit of The Hateful Eight. Quentin was so nice to me. He knew what was going on, but he didn’t bring it up. He went out of his way on that day to introduce me to everybody on his set, like, “This is my friend Josh. He’s a great filmmaker.” It’s emotional looking back at that. This was at the height of all the worst of what was happening, a few months before Fantastic Four came out. He had me sit with him on his camera for the close-up shot of Channing Tatum getting his head blown off. If it weren’t for that day, God, I don’t know what I would’ve done. At least for a moment, it pulled me out of the darkness.

Are you at liberty to discuss your Star Wars spinoff? Was it plotted around Boba Fett? 
I’m not at any legal liberty to discuss any plot because I don’t own it. I’ve signed a lot of NDAs, and I respect those NDAs. I also have a great deal of respect for everybody at Lucasfilm and Disney.

Why did you decide to quit that project rather than get the ax from Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy?
As far as why I quit — Fantastic Four had basically overflowed into the energy of how I was perceived over at Disney. People were talking like, “This movie is probably not going to be good.” I had a meeting with Kathy where it seemed likely I wasn’t going to proceed. But she was nice enough to leave the ball in my court. “Well, let’s sleep on it” type of a thing. It took two days for me to be like, I think they’re being kind enough and like waiting for me to ax myself. Which was actually really respectful of them. They’re giving me a professional courtesy by allowing me to walk.

It was sad because we had just so much fun for two years collaborating on this. So we put out that piece for Deadline. And then, wildly enough, like an hour later, there was a massive story that came out. I can’t remember if it was Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, but the big story that came out saying no, actually, I was fired. At that point, I had no control over that narrative. Objectively, if I didn’t know me, I would probably have thought, Oh yeah, of course he got fired.

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone. Photo: Vertical Entertainment

You achieved a great deal of success very quickly and then, when that momentum shifted in the opposite direction, there seemed to be a great deal of glee in the idea of you getting a kind of comeuppance for being too grandiose. What was it like to go through that?
To speak to the Schadenfreude element, I wouldn’t find it fair for me to say that everybody else is a bad person for having that attitude toward me while I was falling from the clouds. In that time period, I did make some good friends. But I was very, very, very closed off to most people. I signed so many NDAs. I was involved with the biggest projects that everybody wanted to know what was going on with. So there was that pressure.

But I wasn’t going around being Mr. Nice Guy either. I wasn’t being very political. To me, J.J. Abrams is incredible because he’s able to work on all these high-profile, massive things, and at the same time he’s very open and sweet and manages to juggle it. I didn’t have those tools yet to know how to really do that. There were certain folks, like, for instance, Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, who wrote a terrific script of Fantastic Four prior to me coming onboard. They were really, really excited when I came on the project. And rather than me read their script and then meet with them, I just immediately said, “The only way I’m coming on to this project is if I start from scratch.” I was a dick about that.

It sounds like it’s important to you to really own what you did. To own the behavior that caused your predicament.
How could it not? That would be, I think, the true marking of a sociopath.

In the years following Fantastic Four, you refused to accept the hired-gun directing work that came your way. You got divorced, suffered depression. You were overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Tell me about that place that you found yourself in.
It was just being in the void. I felt immobile. I had a breakthrough therapeutic realization: I realized that I wouldn’t want to be friends with me if I knew me. When that came into my head, I stopped blaming everybody else. Prior to that, before I started writing FonzoCapone — I was very much blaming other people. Who’s the bad guy? I think it’s very natural for all of us to anoint ourselves as the good guy in all of our situations.

Once I realized, Well, wait, I wouldn’t even want to be friends with me, that’s when I looked into my heart and realized that there really weren’t any good guys in that situation. I’ve always wanted to view characters in my movies and in cinema — from Chronicle to my love for Stanley Kubrick — as not pitting good guys versus bad guys, or dealing with that kind of morality. But then, suddenly, I realized that in real life I had been doing that with myself versus everybody. So I faced myself, in that sense. I started going back into therapy with that in mind. And my main question to my new therapist was, “Is it okay to start over? Can I become the person who I do like? Or is this just who I am? Am I just going to be this bitter, self-righteous, manic, steamrolling person? Or is this something I can work on?” And he was like, “You can walk out of this room and be exactly who you would want to be, and that’s — that’s on you.”

When it comes to Capone, he’s a character whose glory days are behind him. He’s in a kind of exile. He’s paid his debt to society. He’s befuddled. He’s trying to make some sense of the events of his life. Where’s the Josh Trank experience in there?
The reason why it felt therapeutic for me to write that story in that way, knowing the bulk of the story itself is very gloomy and dark and it doesn’t end well, is that I knew that, by the time I finished the script or finished making this movie, if I was lucky enough to go out and make it, it wasn’t the end of my story. The end of the Al Capone story could just be the beginning of my new story. I felt, at the very least, like writing about somebody whose life is actually coming to the end was a way to remind myself every day that my life isn’t over. And that was the inner encouragement that I needed to have. To find a way to continue to believe in myself every day. To not give up.

For Josh Trank, Making a Movie About Al Capone Was Therapy