Josh Trank on Putting ‘Fantastic Four’ Behind Him and Returning to the Director’s Chair With ‘Capone’

Josh Trank is putting the past behind him. The director’s latest film, “Capone,” imagines the final days of the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone (Tom Hardy) as he wanders his Florida mansion, wrecked by neurosyphilis, dementia and the ghosts of past crimes. But in every frame of this well-produced, although fractured narrative of a movie, you sense something quite personal that goes beyond the subject. Trank had reached great success after his 2012 found footage superhero movie “Chronicle” became a hit and the young filmmaker was tapped with making the big budget adaptation of Marvel Comics’ “Fantastic Four.” The result has joined the annals of recent box office infamy as the movie bombed when released in 2015 and stories came out about friction between Trank and Fox over the final cut of the movie. Soon after, the director was let go from a “Star Wars” project with Disney. 

By his own admission Trank wandered the wilderness of Hollywood pariah status. Now he is back with “Capone,” which is his most assured directing effort, made with rich attention to period detail and a memorable, snarling performance by Tom Hardy. Trank shared with Entertainment Voice about his experience of overcoming a failure and getting back on a solid creative footing.

“Capone” is a completely different genre and setting from your previous two films, “Chronicle” and “Fantastic Four.” Why choose Al Capone? What drew you to this story?

I’d always known about Al Capone’s life from just reading books about him growing up. I wouldn’t describe myself as any more of an “Al Capone fanatic” as anyone else who’s just interested in history, interested in reading biographies of historical figures. I knew he’d been to Alcatraz for a minute and his condition of neurosyphilis had worsened to the point where the prison deemed him as no longer a threat, so they released him to live in isolation basically with his family. I knew about that but it had never been a story that felt relevant to me, at no point did I highlight that in my head as “I’m going to get to that story someday.” It had instead come to me naturally a few months after the fallout of the release of “Fantastic Four.” I was left in this, what I would describe as my own sort of vegetative state, just sitting in my backyard feeling lifeless and disappointed in myself. I had a lot of anger at myself for just what I felt was just ruining so many opportunities that I had. I had been working on a “Star Wars” movie and all these huge movies. Through the success of my first film “Chronicle” it had afforded me the, you know, all of my dreams came true. I was working at the highest levels of the movie industry for a good period of time, about four or five years and then all of a sudden I’m sitting in my backyard alone in a chair, smoking two packs of cigarettes, in terrible physical shape. There’s nobody calling me anymore, no incoming work offers. I was pretty much viewed as unemployable and as toxic as you could get, professionally speaking. So at one point in my head I started to think about Al Capone sitting alone puffing on his cigar, with nothing left to do with his life but be haunted by the memories of his own heyday. I knew that especially in the last two years of his life he’d become increasingly paranoid and unstable. His wife Mae would overhear him scream names of different guys she wasn’t immediately familiar with. That also led me to think about what things he kept from her. He was a guy who never wrote anything down. He just kept it all in his head. In the tiniest way I felt I could step inside of that and resolve some feelings that I was having about my own life, feeling like I was haunted by memories of my heyday. 

In the film, Capone is constantly paranoid about FBI agents snooping around his mansion, still keeping an eye on him. Was that a metaphor for your own dealings with the Hollywood system, the producers, the studios, etc.?

Yeah, yeah. The paranoia of all of these backroom alliances that are happening and just knowing you’re in everybody’s crosshairs for reasons that you don’t even really remember or relate to anymore. There’s just so much of that felt like fertile ground for me to dig into, as a way to resolve the feelings that I was having that to me I didn’t know how to talk about. It felt sort of out of body. As I was writing I realized this was a script that was less about Al Capone, this was an experiential film about a character who has dementia and the film has dementia along with the main character. We would be able to lean on the family members who were serving as caretakers. 

However, it is impressive that after that experience with “Fantastic Four” you have returned with a movie that boasts a great cast and production values. You have Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini and Kyle MacLachlan working in this film. How were you able to overcome the fallout of the previous movie to make this one and was there any pushback while trying to get support?

When I finished the script I read it back and it was immediately clear to me that there’s no actor who could actually play this role other than Tom Hardy. I couldn’t imagine anyone else embodying this role which is, in many ways, about deconstructing masculinity — for someone to be imposing and intimidating and then just unravel into something meek and feeble. His performance in “Bronson” is one of my all-time favorites. I kept thinking how powerful he is but also how powerless he’s willing to make himself. I was lucky enough to have these two incredible producers I was working with who came on board when I was halfway through writing the script. They sent it to Tom Hardy’s agent who said he thought Tom would really dig it. So he passed it along to Tom who read it that day and got on the phone with me the day after that. We were on the phone for upwards to 6 hours, just instantaneously friends. We connected on every level. He was such a sweet guy. It was interesting talking to Tom because there’s a lot of myth to his reputation. I’ve heard he’s tough and acerbic, and that’s not remotely the person I was talking to for an entire day on the phone. He’s a gentleman, just sweet and smart, funny, really respectable. There was no mention in our conversation of “Fantastic Four.” But I was wondering after that, does he know about it? At some point down the line I did bring it up to him and he was like, “eh, I don’t know anything about that and I don’t care. Who cares?” He hadn’t even seen “Chronicle,” he just loved the script and loved our conversations and the bond that we had right away. I flew out to London to meet him and we sat down and were rounding out the cast, we had Linda Cardellini and Kyle MacLachlan, Matt Dillon, everybody. Nobody cared about the “Fantastic Four” thing. It dawned on me that the more you get to know people, everyone in this business longer than ten years has had their own “Fantastic Four.” What made my situation more unique than others was how publicized it was. Everybody has had their disaster movie and walked away from a project wondering if they’ll ever work again. 

Tom Hardy’s performance is quite memorable. He completely becomes this snarling, decaying former power player. If you could share about the shoot and crafting this performance.

One thing I realized right away is that he’s not a method actor, he’s the complete opposite of a method actor. I’d been hearing a lot of stories and reviews claiming he’s doing method acting. But Tom’s not that. Method acting is very specific. That’s when you’re embodying the character on and off camera. That’s what Jim Carrey did on “Man on the Moon.” He drove everybody nuts running around thinking he’s Andy Kaufman (laughs). Tom is one of these uniquely gifted performers where he can turn it on and turn it off like a light switch. When you witness him do that it’s incredible. You’re witnessing a human being who has a level of talent that’s almost inhuman. What he can do with his body and go from sweet Tommy to scary monster with the snap of a finger, there’s no sense of danger when you’re around him on set. He’s very literal and metaphorical in all the right ways. He’s very collaborative and always wants feedback. He doesn’t try to wrap his acting technique in some mystique. It’s very refreshing to work with someone like that. Often you’ll work with some very talented people who keep their process a secret, and he doesn’t. 

Now that you have finished “Capone,” is there a sense of having moved on from what happened with “Fantastic Four” and leaving the past behind, and what’s next in terms of projects?

For the last couple of years one of the main things in my head is to just get away from this “Fantastic Four” thing. It’s not something I want lingering around me. This movie was the only way to put that behind me. I think that anytime a filmmaker releases a movie it’s immediately behind them, whether it’s good or bad. I love “Capone” with all my heart. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done and am just connected to every frame of it. I can watch it every day… but now that it’s out, in a way, it’s behind me. I can only focus on what I’m doing next. I try to stick to my gut no matter what while using the tools I’ve gathered with all my experiences. I started pretty early. I sold my first movie, “Chronicle,” when I was 25 so I was definitely still growing and learning. I didn’t quite feel like an adult yet. Now, going forward, I have some intense and exciting creative projects I’ve been collaborating on with Tom. None of which I can really talk about because I like to be done with the first draft of something before knowing, “ok this is it.” But there’s this one project I’m working on with Tom, it’s a limited series of ten episodes focusing from the immediate aftermath of World War II to the creation of the CIA. It’s about this never really explored area of the CIA’s activities in Cuba, in Russia, in that time period from 1945 to the end of the ‘60s. It’s stuff I’ve been fascinated by for years. “Capone” wasn’t on a bucket list, but this I’ve been thinking about for about ten years.

For what it’s worth many things can be said about “Fantastic Four,” but as a director you did do an important part of the job which is that the movie was never boring.

(Laughs) Thank you! I appreciate that!

Capone” premieres May 12 on VOD.