Interview: Eytan Rockaway on Piecing Together a Legacy in “Lansky”

“I like making movies where you have the movie, but there are different layers and the more you peel the layers, the more you understand,” Eytan Rockaway told me on the eve of the debut of his latest film “Lansky.” “My first one, ‘The Abandoned’ was a horror movie, this one is a gangster movie and I’m working on another thriller and a sci-fi movie, so I’m all over the place. I just like compelling stories and compelling worlds.”

Rockaway may like taking audiences to realms unknown, but he always keeps things grounded in questions of morality, ones he has long been grappling with in the case of the famed mobster Meyer Lansky. One of the founding fathers of Las Vegas and an organizer who had the ear of Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, both of whom he knew before turning 20, Lansky had an unparalleled knowledge of the dirty business he was in, yet knew better than to boast about it, creating a mystique around himself that captured the public’s imagination, even as he left a body count in his wake as he became a connective tissue for criminal activity from Nevada to Cuba with more than a little offshore banking in Switzerland.

As it happened, Rockaway’s father Robert was among the few to get Lansky to speak on record, for his book “But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters,” and nearly 40 years later, the director has been entrusted with his wild life story that sees a Brooklyn kid learning how to make money on dice games come to negotiate multinational money laundering operations. Not all of his networking was done in self-interest when during World War II, he helped fight Nazis and home and abroad, and Rockaway reckons with his complicated legacy with a bifurcated narrative that imagines Lansky telling his story to a biographer (Sam Worthington) after retiring to Florida and revisiting his exploits as a young man (John Magaro) as he was keen to take over the world.

With Lansky occasionally wondering about the sacrifices he made and the roads he didn’t take, it is only natural for his biographer to wonder what he’s doing sitting in a booth with a old gangster rather than being at home with his young kids, and Rockaway uses “Lansky” to not only recount gangster’s rise to infamy, but probe the public’s ongoing fascination with him when he’s committed such awful deeds. As the film starts to roll out to theaters and VOD, Rockaway spoke about how he was able to tell a story of such great scale with limited resources and time, as well as working with a legendary actor such as Keitel and how he found depth in a subject known for keeping his cards close to his vest.

How did this come about?

My father is a history professor and he wrote a book about gangsters, and the protagonist in the movie, the reporter played by Sam Worthington is actually based on my father and his interviews with Meyer Lansky before he passed away. I did take creative liberties — my father wasn’t a broke, down-on-his-luck novelist, going to meet Lansky — but everything in the movie is historically accurate with that interview, the research and their talks and what my father observed from him was the way it was, and the FBI because the FBI was after him until the day that he died and growing up with a father, talking about gangsters, telling me their stories when I was young, they always sounded like mythical characters with these exciting, adventurous and dangerous lives, so I always had that gangster bug in me.

Obviously he was such a complicated man with such an eventful life, was it difficult to decide what to hold onto as a central thread?

It was very difficult because let’s be honest, a guy with his life, moving on such an epic scale, I could’ve made five movies covering this period, so I tried condensing and it was very hard in two hours to find key moments that I thought really are important, not only in his business, but to his personal life. You have to pick and choose when you get to that time. I could’ve made a miniseries about him, he has so many intricacies in his life.

When I wrote the screenplay, I didn’t have any budgetary constraints then and then it ended up being 125 pages and when we shot the movie, it was a small budget, so we shot the movie for $5 million in 20 days in Alabama, which was tough under any standard, let alone a period piece that takes place in the 1980s in Miami and the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, but we managed to get a lot. I had an amazing production team with me throughout the entire time, from the DP, the gaffers, the editors, so we managed to pull it off.

You’re able to recreate the Colonial Hotel from Havana and all these unique locales – and is it true you found all of it in Alabama?

Well, the unique thing about Alabama and the reason that we shot there is because they have a place called Gulf Shores, which borders with the beaches in Florida, so it looks like Miami in the 1980s. Then we shot most of the film in Mobile, where they have these old buildings from the 1930s and ‘40s that were untouched, so they were perfect for some interiors and exteriors, so in Alabama, we got both 1980s Miami and New York in the 1930s and ‘40s. I had a great production designer April Lasky, who managed to pull it off.

Did filming the two time periods feel like different shoots?

Yeah, completely. I looked at it as two separate movies, so the first two weeks was the 1980s in Miami and then it completely shifted to the 1930s and ‘40s and not only was the look of the film different – it was a different cast and a different style of shooting — so I just switched from one movie, which was dealing with an old man with his morality and a young reporter learning what’s important in life, then we go back and it becomes this action-packed ruthless gangster movie in the 1930s and ‘40s. We wove them together, but shooting that scale in 20 days is very hard and I was working sometimes 17- 18-hour days there just to get it done. When you do independent movies, you have to make a lot of sacrifices, but also the best creativity comes when you have your back to the wall.

Could you play out the Keitel and Worthington scenes in long takes? It feels like they have a real rhythm to them.

The major concern for us was making everything in the diner very interesting, so we used different lenses, different framing and also different color grading, so when you see the movie, it always looks a bit different. Peter Flinckenberg, my DP is phenomenal, and Jim Plannette, the gaffer was the gaffer on “E.T.” and “Braveheart” – he is in his eighties, so having him was a privilege. The dynamic [between the actors] was interesting — they’re both great actors and Harvey, obviously, is a legend. I’ve been directing a few years, but suddenly I’m on set the first day, having to direct Harvey Keitel and telling him if the takes were good or bad or to continue. It was intense. [laughs] But he’s such an amazing man in and out that we just became such good friends and I learned through directing him how to direct a guy like him and that’s an experience I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Since you shot that part first, did it set the tone for the second half?

Yeah, once we shot the first half, I showed John Magaro [the Keitel scenes from the] dailies and he tried to emulate as much as possible — the way Harvey talks, the way he walks and the way he says the lines, so we looked at those dailies and then we leaned that over. But in general, I tried keeping that apart because I wanted to keep the audience kind of confused whether they loved Lansky or hated him, because they see these evil acts when he’s younger — and he also did a lot of good things when he was younger — but then when he’s older, somebody who is 82 years old, just before his death, is very different than he was when he was in his thirties, so I wanted the audience to get an idea of both men and make their own judgment whether they like him or not.

It’s a redemption story for the reporter as well, who has a strained relationship with his wife and kids — when you could create that character, what led you to pursue that thread?

What was important for Lansky was at the end of the day, he realized that with everything that he did, life is the most important. Because Sam’s character didn’t have a father in the movie, he took [Lansky] as a father figure and through him, learned what’s important in life. For me, it’s personal. I love my dad and that conversation between them, the father and the son is kind of a portrayal between me and my father to a certain extent.

Your father has a story credit — was he actually involved much beyond that in the production?

He helped me with the research and he wasn’t on set, just because he’s older now, so it’s hard for him to travel. He hasn’t seen the movie yet because I want him to see it on the big screen, but he’s very proud and he just saw the trailer, and I think he liked what he saw.

What’s it like for you to get to the finish line with this?

It’s exciting. I’m starting to enjoy it now that things are winding down a bit, but a month-and-a-half ago, it was still in post production. Everything on this movie was hard. The financing fell apart three times the last year before we went into production, then we fly to Alabama and shoot the movie in 20 days and we didn’t have enough money, we had to scramble and I was cutting scenes and rewriting new scenes and then finally I said, “Okay, the movie’s in the can, I can enjoy myself, I can start editing the movie.” Then the pandemic hit and I was quarantined with my editor for two months. He had to fly, so a large chunk of the post-production we did over laptops. I didn’t see the movie on the big screen yet and last night was the first time I got to see it with the audience. I couldn’t sit the entire time because of the actors outside, and when you finally finish it, you’re so tired by the time that you get there, you have to remind yourself what you’ve done and usually, you realize what you did through other people because by the time you get there, you’re so beat down by the process, especially making independent cinema, you’re constantly a pauper — a pauper and a king at the same time.

“Lansky” opens on June 25th in select theaters and is available to watch on Apple TV.