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Reason May contain mild spoilers for the first two hours of Mob City.

Photo: Scott Garfield / TNT

L.A. Noir Author John Buntin Talks Mob City

He chatted with Sarah (no relation) about Frank Darabont's TV-noir take on his acclaimed book. (That's not him. That's Jon Bernthal.)

Ahead of tonight's Mob City premiere on TNT, I couldn't wait to talk to my old friend John Buntin (no relation, though the university housing department thought it would be hilarious to room us across the hall from each other freshman year) about the project. Buntin wrote L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, the book that serves as the jumping-off point for Mob City, Frank Darabont's take on the battle between cops and gangsters in the world's most famous company town.

"Cuz" and I spoke earlier this week about fictionalizations, the contradictions of Mickey Cohen, and whether film noir translates to the small screen.

Our Players

Hello, I'm Previously.TV Editor Sarah D. Bunting.
Hi, I'm L.A. Noir author John Buntin.

The Interview

Apparently Frank Darabont found the book in the airport and couldn't put it down for two days -- did you hear directly from him after that, or had someone else already gotten the rights to the property?
So, the film and TV rights had already been optioned, by Mike De Luca and Elliott Webb, and I think Frank arrived on the scene fairly soon after that had happened? So it did really happen quickly. And it really did happen in that fashion; there is literally one bookstore in LAX which always liked my book, put it in the window, I used to stop by coming and going and praise them for doing so -- so it is astonishing, that he just happened to be connecting out of the adjacent gate, walked over, picked up the enticing cover, showing City Hall, Mayor George Cryer's great 1920s creation, rising, and fell in love with the material. And it was really fun and interesting to talk with him about it, and at one point he said, very kindly and accurately, that one of the things he loved about the book is that it's just a plot machine.
There's so many craaazy developments, characters, and connections, that there was a lot to choose from. And I think it was also interesting, for him, as he decided to hone in on the year 1947, because in addition to being just a really interesting time in the history of Los Angeles, and kind of more broadly an interesting time, in the wake of the Second World War and the terrible brutality of violence it exposed so many people to, he just had the chance to play with so many different genres -- and this is exactly the moment when the police procedural is being created. This is the heyday of film noir, of the great James Cain and Raymond Chandler novels of the thirties that are being made into these incredible film noir films. So there were just a lot of narrative directions you could go with it, and I think that appealed to him too.
Tonally Mob City is similar to the book, but because it's a visual medium, it's also different. But the primary difference I think that Darabont has been talking about is that it wasn't as much of a docudrama or History Channel adaptation, and more of a fictionalized tone-poem type of thing. How soon did that come into the discussion? How soon did you start talking about, like, what has to be different about this for TV, or for an event like this?
It's my impression that that was Frank's intention from the very beginning, and he was clearly very taken with some of the real-life characters from this era -- people like Bugsy Siegel -- and less well-known figures, like Mickey Cohen, this five-foot-two featherweight boxer turned mobster, who is such a…variable character, at times menacing if not borderline psychopathic; at times cartoonish; at times charming. And Bill Parker, who was the rising police chief during this era, who was himself in actuality the one-time boss of LAPD sergeant turned Hollywood screenwriter Gene Roddenberry -- the inspiration for Mr. Spock, albeit an occasional alcoholic Spock, sort of a James Jesus Angleton of LAPD.
[laughs] Uh huh.
And he really wanted to put these characters in play. But I think the way he did that was by not only creating them as characters in the series, but also setting fictional characters in motion between major poles of action. And I think that was a great idea; one of the challenges and occasional frustrations of the non-fiction book is that, you know, people came to L.A. Noir, of course, with images of L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy novels, Raymond Chandler novels in their minds -- but it's a work of non-fiction. There were people who said, "Oh, I wanted more about this," or "I was disappointed there weren't more confrontations between these characters." And you can only say, as the author, "Well, I'm sorry about that, but: we're bound by the historical record."
These are not characters; these are actual people! So, by creating these fictional characters -- Joe Teague, a policeman with a past -- and setting them in motion between these historical figures, you know, I think that Frank got the best of both worlds. He got an interesting, little-known story; and he got the dramatic freedom of a novelist.
And was this appealing to you…you wrote all these scripts? You consulted on the scripts?
No -- the scripts are very much the handiwork of Frank and the screenwriters that he selected and worked with. So my role is that of a consultant on historical matters.
Although his team was very welcoming. So I spent a lot of time with them, we spent a lot of time exploring various parts of Los Angeles, I introduced them to some of my law enforcement/L.A.-history-buff friends, and we also spent a lot of time sort of talking through the personalities of various characters. This storyline was very much one selected by Frank. And as a magazine and book writer, it was fascinating, really interesting to see him put together a story which, you know, of course is not just about dialogue or plot but also had a strong visual component -- and really, it was pretty dazzling, actually.
Was that how you sort of envisioned this project coming to be -- a project based on L.A. Noir -- were you thinking it would be more like the Mobsters series on Bio, or did you not really have any preconception? Were you excited to explore this part of the story that, because it was non-fiction, you didn't really get to dig into?
Whenever anyone writes about this era, you of course hope that it will find a home in film or TV-land. It's just such a mythic period, it's such a stylish period, and the personalities are so amazing. The conflicts are ample. So I had hoped it would find a home, and a very similar in some ways project came out about a year ago, that was the Gangster Squad film, and so I watched that with a lot of interest -- and that crew, one of the producers had spent some time sort of tagging along on this L.A. Noir tour that I occasionally do, downtown and east L.A. and stuff like that, and I was thrilled when Frank was interested, because I'm a big fan of the films that he's done, and he's also, I think, someone who does not shy away from the big and in some ways romantic themes? I mean, clearly he does the stunts very well, witness The Walking Dead, but there's other thematic matter too, which it's appealing to me as a perhaps painfully ironic writer to see someone take on seriously. And there's a lot of ambiguity, in people like Mickey Cohen. And so the chance to see things unfold, in the more leisurely fashion that TV permits, was really appealing. And I just wanted a chance to witness a talented and very creative person working, and sort of see how he constructs the different type of story, and so, the chance to talk with him throughout the life of the project, and get to know the screenwriters, and hear them try out storylines and so forth, was a lot of fun. I was an occasional participant, but really sort of privileged to observe their creative process.
Was there anything that sticks out about watching "the sausage being made"?
Well, so, it's amazing to see these scenes or passages from the book that were the product of such solitary research and sort of reimagination, suddenly being recreated on the streets of Angelino Heights, with the kind of obsessiveness that Frank brought to the process, and I cite that as high praise. I remember the first day of the pilot; there's a scene which occurs early in the episode, and I won't give it away --
Feel free; I'm not spoilerphobic at all. I like to know the end.
To watch Frank choosing which of five wristwatches from 1927 he wanted to use; to see Frank say, "The eye color of this person doesn't match the eye color of Neal McDonough, how are we gonna fix this" -- I mean, this zealousness is really striking? And also, the enthusiasm of everyone involved. There were a lot of Walking Dead people involved in Mob City, and everyone was so appreciative of the chance to work at home, in Los Angeles, and since you have a vintage Los Angeles series in L.A., people were just visibly jazzed. One of the fun things that Frank let me and my wife Melinda do was be extras in the series, and sort of gave us a chance to spend some time circulating among the extras. And everyone was just incredibly excited, incredibly happy to be part of this very unusual large-scale recreation of 1920s, but more 1947 Los Angeles. That was fun. And then there are certain characters who, you know, were interesting in the script, but just really really pop on the screen, which is also intriguing, to see how a performance can really just be revealing.
What figure was the most surprising, or the most contrasting with the page, would you say?
God, you know, there are a lot of great performances. The Sid Rothman character is incredible, so every time he steps onto a screen, you just get a shiver, 'cause many times bad things happen. One thing L.A. Noir, the book, did not have, which Mob City the TV show definitely does have, is the femme fatale. You know, the book had…a pretty huge number of prostitutes, basically, as did the era. But the TV show really has strong female characters, so that was fun to see.
Was there any plot point or sequence or…not conflict between book and TV event, but was there any place where you were a little bit stuck, with how to portray something or how would this character convey this information -- any conflicts between the two types of material that you had to resolve?
You know, I was not in the writers' room, so I don't know what the difficult points were -- but it is my impression that Frank had a pretty strong vision of where he wanted this to go from the very beginning, and that…obviously things change in the course of writing and it's a lot of work getting it right, particularly when you have as much dialogue as Mob City has. But it's my impression that he knew where he wanted to go; he wanted to create a story with a lot of suspense. And he definitely did that.
So do you still do these tours?
I do, yes. I don't have any scheduled right now, but my good friends at Esotouric in Los Angeles, who do all kinds of true-crime, cult, and crime-writer tours, they said that I could get on a bus and put one of these together. And we spend a lot of time downtown; a lot of time in East L.A., and we have lots of fun.
Cool. What are you working on now?
Well, I have been on a major gangster streak of late. At the same time that Mob City was being made I was spending a lot of time in the Watts section of Los Angeles, working on and writing about a former Crip shot caller with the P.J. Crips; then I went into some Chicago-gang journalism; I have now finally broken out of my gang rut, and to the dismay of my spouse, I'm thinking about a New York crime story.
I love that idea. I'm not going to go against Melinda; I'm just sayin', you go up on my roof, and look south, you can see where Crazy Joe Gallo is buried.
Yeeeesss. That's an appealing proposition, I will take you up on that sometime.
Anything else you'd like to add about the project -- or anything else you'd like to shill?
I certainly will shill Mob City; I hope your readers will tune in, and enjoy a glimpse of the city as it was. The skill with which it has been summoned back into being is really, I think, quite breathtaking.
Let me just zag back to a question I completely forgot to ask about location shooting -- were they using actual L.A. locations, or did they build sets?
They shot some things on location; they shot on location in Angelino Heights; they did do a lot of backstage set-building and recreation. They also used some vintage film, shot as backdrops of Los Angeles back in this era.
Which they recreated, which is really really cool.
That is really really cool.
There were some delightfully fun touches for the L.A.-history buff; the CGI effects were really well done. Shooting in Angelino Heights, to have City Hall being built in the background courtesy of the CGI, details like that were fun, and I think reflected the fact that this is very personal material for Frank. He was a Hollywood High student; everybody who worked on this project -- well, not everybody, but many of the people grew up in L.A., so there was a definite labor-of-love element to the entire thing.
[redacted chit-chat]
Just sort of the technical skill that was brought to this is reflected in it, and it's kind of amazing! I started watching House of Cards, right after getting back from the premiere of this, and you know, it was fun to watch the premiere because I had never -- I haven't seen the entire thing; I read the entire script. Frank didn't want me to see everything until it was all completely done; he's a perfectionist, he asked if I'd be willing to wait and I said sure. So the premiere was the first time I had heard it fully scored musically, and music has a really important role in the series. The exploration of Central Avenue, which was sort of Los Angeles's Harlem during the thirties and forties, was really significant for Frank. He's someone who really loves jazz; it's a big presence in the show, so it was fun just to hear the entire orchestrated show. It's interesting how that works, there's such a history of great noir soundtracks, that that was really appealing. It's also just fascinating to see -- it is a complicated show! It's a serious ensemble cast, and a lot of the shots are just really difficult shots. Sitting around on set, watching people do this incredible amount of work, the need to just go through things for hours at a time -- it's fascinating to compare, like, House of Cards, which is shot very much kind of play-like, very frontal --
Right. And I like the asides; I think it works well. But when you compare that style to the way that Frank shot Mob City, it's incredibly active. It's really not as out there or artistic or surreal as something like Breaking Bad, but it's very kinetic, the angles shot are sometimes very unusual. One of the things that were really fun to listen to were hearing Frank set up scenes, and talk about what was gonna happen, but also how it was gonna happen and how you were gonna see it happen? And that, as a writer, was the most foreign and in many ways the most dazzling kind of thing, and just incredibly cool! Like, you're not just gonna describe someone walking into the lobby of his apartment building and finding a piece of mail; you're gonna walk in, you're gonna shoot from inside the mailbox, you're gonna focus on this -- it's really impressive.
I did like about the first hour that visually they expected you to get the references. That there were a lot of nods -- I'm by no means a noir expert, but you recognize these nods to certain visual styles, and of architecture as well, the little Art Deco detail on the mailbox.
Mm hmm.
And then there's one shot, when he sends up the flare, that I remember -- it's a little unusual to see this very cinematic, novelistic frame. And then the man is very teeny; and this light above that suggests an interrogation light, and although it's somewhat confusing to me in terms of characters and how they're inter-relating, that almost doesn't matter because it's very successful at placing them in their milieu.
Speaking of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan once said [in Brett Martin's Difficult Men] that even the worst TV show you ever saw was "miserably hard to make," and I always think of that when I'm looking at TV and being aware of how difficult it is to turn words into pictures. Shots like that are very ambitious, it's cool that people are still trying to do things like that.
I think that's really true. The intensity of the entire shooting thing was really amazing; people are just on, particularly Frank, who filmed so much of this himself, constantly. And they shot [the flare scene] at the very end of the pilot. I was not there when they shot that, but talking to some of the other folks on the crew, they just said the entire cast kind of felt like they were there. They worked so hard, it was the very end of the production, they were all involved in shooting on location, it was cold…I agree, that was a really awesome shot. It's an original.
It's a statement of purpose.
And there's great stuff to come in the second episode; it all comes together, so it'll be fun to see what the appetite is like for noir, 'cause it's definitely that. You're the target audience, true crime.
John Buntin covers law enforcement for Governing Magazine. He is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. Sarah D. Bunting works here.