Josh Trank knows what it’s like to lose everything.
In 2015, the filmmaker’s red hot career flamed out with the release of “Fantastic Four,” an ill-conceived superhero reboot that was eviscerated by critics and went on to lose tens of millions of dollars at the box office. Blame for the failure fell squarely on Trank, who was at the center of a series of articles that claimed he oversaw a chaotic set, riven by friction and competing creative visions. Trank compounded the problem by tweeting that the studio version of “Fantastic Four” differed dramatically from his own.
“A year ago I had a fantastic version of this,” Trank tweeted. “And it would’ve recieved [sic] great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”
In short order Trank, whose 2012 found-footage comic book movie “Chronicle,” had propelled him to the A-list, was virtually unemployable. He was fired from the Star Wars spinoff movie he was supposed to direct and saw other big movie offers dry up.
But Trank is battling back from ruin with “Capone,” an off-beat look at the final year of Al Capone’s life. It was an ignominious coda to the gangster’s stint as the most notorious force in organized crime, one that found him suffering from syphilis and dementia, beset by money troubles, while waiting to die at his compound in Palm Island, Florida. It’s the kind of reversal of fortune with which Trank can identify.
“Capone,” which stars a virtually unrecognizable Tom Hardy as the rum-runner in winter, will be released on-demand on May 12. Trank spoke with Variety about trying to shake-off the fallout from “Fantastic Four” and why he thinks “Capone” is the best film he’s ever made.
Why did you want to focus on the end of Al Capone’s life instead of dramatizing his glory years in Chicago?
I didn’t set out initially to make a movie about Al Capone at all. This came at a time when I had just experienced the most disastrous professional experience of my life. ‘Fantastic Four’ had just been released. My life was upended. I’d gone from being in a place where I was extremely successful professionally. For a good four-year period, I had experienced what it feels like to have the world at your fingertips. It was obviously a very surreal experience. It’s kind of like being granted superpowers for a period of time. I was working with the most powerful corporations in the world and dealing with all the movers and shakers. I was in the pilot seat of the most expensive world class jet one can imagine. I’d gone from that to broke and sitting in my backyard chain smoking and not knowing what was going to happen in a few months when my bank account ran out. I had no professional opportunities coming my way in the near future.
In the five months leading up to the release of ‘Fantastic Four’ there were numerous stories in the press that described a person who had the same name as me — Josh Trank — who was allegedly a mess of a person, just destroying these movie sets and getting involved in all sorts of embarrassing situations. I’m reading about this person, who has my name, except I didn’t remember any of these stories the way that they were being told to the public. My first reaction at the beginning was to feel very defensive and to want to defend myself. When I realized I couldn’t defend myself against the way I was being characterized, I had to just sit there and spectate. I ended up with this very warped sense of my own identity. I felt I had no control over and no authorship of my own life. Once the movie was out and it was the disaster it seemed like it was going to be to everybody, I was kind of left with no story to tell of myself.
So how did the failure of ‘Fantastic Four’ lead to ‘Capone’?
While I was sitting out there with a few months of just no activity and just being immobile and doing a lot of therapy, this seed of an idea popped into my head based on all of my own reading about Al Capone from when I was a kid. I knew about that time in his life after he was released from Alcatraz when he was suffering from neurosyphilis. He was just in his own backyard in Palm Island smoking cigars and not really interacting with other people. He was so far away from being the reigning king of Chicago and one of the most powerful and feared men in the world. In my head, I just wondered what would it have been like for Al Capone to end his life being so far removed from the Al Capone that he got to be for awhile. What would it be like if he flipped on the radio and heard a fictionalized radio play about Al Capone? How would he have felt about that? That’s where it came from. I realized it was an important story for me to engage in as a human being and as a writer, because I had so much I wanted to explore with it. The more I started writing it, the more I realized that this is a story about an iconic figure in history, seen through a completely different window.
Did you identify with Al Capone?
Not as a gangster or a bootlegger. What I identified with was being a public figure and having stories spun about you in a fashion that was sort of out of your control. That theme of losing connection with one’s identity was one I related to. For Al Capone, he was going through a lack of ownership of his own identity because his life experience had been turned into a myth for American culture to create stories out of. He was also at a point in his life where his mental faculties were deceiving him and he was plagued with physical impairments. I understood that. I felt powerless where at one point I felt very powerful. I felt that I had lost my own sense of connection to my identity. I felt alienated from a lot of people who I once called friends. These were all things I was synthesizing in a human way and that allowed me to create this script.
You’re very candid about what it was like to be involved with a debacle like ‘Fantastic Four.’ Do you feel responsible for the issues that plagued ‘Fantastic Four’? Do you accept blame for the failure of the finished film?
I felt that there was a deep level of mischaracterization in the media about what was going on with the film. But as far as my own level of responsibility in the film turning out to be a disaster and not working, I was absolutely responsible. But so was everybody else. When I was in the middle of the situation, it was very clear that everybody was doing the wrong thing. When the stories started to come out, I was the designated fall guy.
For me, it was unfair because the perception publicly was that there was one person responsible for this not going the way it should have gone, which is an easy thing to believe. You’ve got all of these professional adults who worked on a lot of movies and all these well-established industry insiders who have been making these types of movies for a long time, and here’s this young, relatively inexperienced filmmaker being described as in over his head. They said I wasn’t communicating with people and didn’t want to play by the rules. I was described as working against everybody else’s wishes in a way that was destructive. When I read that, I thought, ‘OK, well I would believe that story if I didn’t know me because it sounds plausible.’ But that’s not what I remembered. What I remembered was I was being overly communicative. I have no problem communicating, and I’ve never had a problem communicating. That’s why I got ‘Chronicle’ greenlit when I didn’t have much work to my name. The problem was I was communicating ideas that didn’t mesh well with everybody else’s. That’s not their fault and it’s not my fault. It was the wrong combination of people to get together and make something creative. ‘Capone’ was the polar opposite. It was the right combination of all of the right people working on something creative.
‘Capone’ hasn’t come out yet. I don’t know what any of the reviews are going to be, but regardless of how it is received, to me it feels like the greatest success of my life. I love the film and it’s exactly the movie I always dreamt of making.
‘Capone’ was being shot before ‘The Irishman’ had come out, but there’s a strong thematic connection between the movies. Both films are about gangsters who don’t die in a gunfight, but who, in some respects, live past their natural expiration points. Do you agree?
I watched ‘The Irishman’ after I finished editing my cut of ‘Capone,’ and it was really interesting to watch. That melancholy, reflective aspects of the film — the idea of guilt and how it’s handled in the movie is similar to ‘Capone.’ In ‘Capone’ I’m dealing with a character who has done a lot of naughty things to a lot of people and has gotten away with murder many times. His ability to do that is because he can suppress the normal feelings of guilt that somebody else might feel. When you get to the end of your life and you’re not out there in the field making money, having fun, and doing the things you were doing, the residual guilt rises back up.
Why did you cast Tom Hardy?
Tom is one of my favorite actors. He has this level of power that’s very unique. He has a ton of humanity and humility in him. It’s very brave what he does on screen, because he’s not afraid to do something that many other actors might think makes them look silly or weird. He embraces those things.
Are you disappointed that ‘Capone’ won’t get a full theatrical release because of cinemas are closed due to coronavirus?
This is a film that I put over four-and-a-half years of my life into. We always had the intention of showing it in a big theater. There’s a level of disappointment, but at the same time, in March when it became obvious that [coronavirus] was a serious thing. When the lockdowns from city to city began to be put in place, something changed in my head.
There’s a good chance the world will look totally different when this is over. The fact that I’m lucky enough to have this movie released in a wide way so people can see it is great. I’m happy with that, and I’m happy to give people something new to watch. It’s a movie that has a different kind of relevance now because it’s about somebody who’s in isolation the same way that everybody else is in isolation. To me, the whole point of going to see movies is to feel a little less lonely and a little less crazy about existing. Hopefully this movie can help people feel a little less lonely and a little less crazy while they’re trapped inside their homes.