Movie Feature

On The Set: 'Black Mass'

By Jocelyn HeaneyMovies - 16 September 2015 12:00 AM | Updated 10:22 AM

On The Set: 'Black Mass'

A movie crew has set down stakes in Revere Beach, Massachusetts.  Though standing for a location 1,500 miles south of here, this quaint seaside community was chosen for its proximity to Boston – a city that was rocked to its core by the true events driving the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of one the most dangerous and notorious gangsters in U.S. history. 

This is the set of director Scott Cooper’s highly anticipated new motion picture ‘Black Mass’, which stars Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp as Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.  What sets Bulger apart from history’s rogue’s gallery of bad men is not his charisma, which was undeniable; his brutality, which was legendary; or his longevity, which was considerable. 

Johnny Depp in 'Black Mass' | Photo: Warner Bros

As a member of his own mob tells it in the film’s explosive trailer, “Jimmy started out a small time player … the next thing you know he’s a damn kingpin.  You know why?  ‘Cause the FBI let it happen.”

The riveting true-life tale surrounding Bulger was adapted for the screen by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the 2012 best seller ‘Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal’ by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill – the two reporters who originally broke the story in the The Boston Globe.  According to Lehr, “Whitey did what no other crime boss has ever done:  he brought the FBI to its knees.  Not Dillinger or anyone else can make that claim.”

‘Black Mass’spans 30 years, beginning on the eve of the “Devil’s Deal” that will enable Bulger to shoot his way to the top of Boston’s criminal food chain with the nation’s most elite law enforcement agency as both accomplice and personal shield.  It’s prime material for the versatile Depp to sink his teeth into, but by no means the only meaty role in ‘Black Mass’.  

To play the combustive mix of characters in orbit around the film’s dark star, director Cooper has assembled an impressive roster of gifted actors, led by Joel Edgerton (‘The Gift’) as Bulger’s “Handler,” FBI Agent John Connolly, and Benedict Cumberbatch (‘The Imitation Game’) as the street-smart criminal’s younger brother, Massachusetts State Senator Billy Bulger. 

The feared crime lord’s closest enforcers in his Winter Hill Gang are played by ‘Argo’s’ Rory Cochrane as Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi and Jesse Plemons (‘The Master’) as Kevin Weeks, along with WEarl Brown (‘True Detective’) as hit man Johnny Martorano.  Playing the women drawn into his web are Dakota Johnson (‘Fifty Shades of Grey’) as Bulger’s one-time girlfriend and mother of his only child; with Julianne Nicholson (‘August: Osage County’) as John Connolly’s wife, Marianne; and Juno Temple (‘Maleficent’) as Flemmi’s daughter-in-law/mistress Deborah.

Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Black Mass' | Photo: Warner Bros

In the FBI ranks are Kevin Bacon (‘Mystic River’) as FBI Agent in Charge Charles McGuire, who goes along with his deal against every instinct; David Harbour (‘End of Watch’) as John Morris, who is complicit in it; and Adam Scott (TV’s ‘Parks and Recreation’) as Robert Fitzpatrick, who is involved in ending it; with Corey Stoll (TV’s ‘The Strain’) as federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak. 

But perhaps the most critical character in ‘Black Mass’is Boston itself – specifically the city’s south side projects in the 1970s and ‘80s 

Hence, he’s shooting the entire film in and around Boston, and for today’s sequence, Revere Beach is the perfect gritty stand-in for Miami’s Little Havana, circa 1981 – complete with period cars and Cuban-inspired facades.  The illusion is completed by discretely placed screens and reflectors bathing the scene in a tropical glow.

But in spite of the colourful surroundings, dark business is being dealt here today.

Five men sit in hushed conversation around one of the sidewalk tables at the rustic La Linterna Café and Bar.  Among them is a virtually unrecognizable Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger.  Wearing dark sunglasses, his hair white and slicked back, the chameleon-like actor appears to be owning every inch the film’s mercurial central figure.

In 1981, Bulger is at the height of his power and looking to expand his empire.  He’s come to Miami – flanked by Cochrane’s Flemmi and Plemons’s Weeks – to meet with Callahan (Bill Camp), a mob-connected contact in the lucrative Jai alai industry. 

As cameras roll, extras dressed in period Miami daywear breeze past the table as Callahan details for the gangster exactly who’s blocking his piece of the racket:  the sport’s millionaire owner, Roger Wheeler, who keeps a close eye on the books and isn’t looking for partners.  For Bulger to get in, Wheeler will have to be taken out. 

'Black Mass'  | Photo: Warner Bros

Discussing a hit in front of witnesses, we learn, is Callahan’s second sin.  His first occurred earlier in the scene in the form of the gym bag stuffed with money he brought to the meeting as tribute for Bulger – a standard mob procedure that is not done in public, ever. 

As Bulger calculates his next move, the tension uncoiling in Depp’s face hypnotic to watch, even from a distance.  But as things turn out, Callahan won’t be the one to pay the price for his indiscretions.  That would be the unlucky witness sitting in on the meeting – small-time racketeer Brian Halloran, played with oily energy by Peter Sarsgaard 

It’s to this bystander that Depp quietly speaks Bulger’s next line.  “Brian, take the bag.  I want you to have it.”

As Halloran, Sarsgaard looks like a man waking up from a dream, his mouth twitching into a nervous smile.  “No.”

Over Callahan’s protestations, the mobster insists, Depp’s eyes like ice chips behind his dark sunglasses.  “Take the bag, and get out of here.”

Halloran is tentative, unsure what just happened.  “To do the hit?”

“No.  That’s $20,000 for you not to do the hit.”

“I don’t get it…”

“Take the f***ing money and keep your mouth shut about what you just heard.  Take the f***ing money… Take the f***ing money!  Take the f***ing money!” 

With each repetition, Bulger’s icy calm gives way to white hot fury until Halloran is on his feet and backing away with the bag of money in his hand … and a target on his back. 

Director Scott Cooper | Photo: Warner Bros

Between the story Cooper’s telling and the scene we just saw play out, it’s clear that Black Mass’ combustive mix of personalities andgritty mise-en-scène are in the young filmmaker’s wheelhouse.  Having cut his teeth as an actor and screenwriter, Cooper next carved out his own brand of naturalistic, character-driven storytelling with his startling 2009 debut film ‘Crazy Heart’and the compelling 2013 drama ‘Out of the Furnace’

When we get a chance to speak to the filmmaker, he tells us he was hooked from the moment he was approached to take the helm and join the heavy-hitting producing team of John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Patrick McCormick and Tyler Thompson.  “I’m always drawn to the deeply tragic and deeply human, and this was both,” he said, as cast and crew break for a reset.

Cooper uses words like “epic” and “Shakespearean” to describe the dynamics at play in ‘Black Mass’Though dramatic license was taken to shape a cinematic narrative, this film marks Cooper’s first time bringing a true story to the screen – in this case one that unfolds in ‘Rashomon’-like layers amid a minefield of deception and contradiction. 

“This particular story was sprawling,” the director confirmed, “and it had a large cast of players with many different vantage points, so the truth often seemed elusive.  It took a great deal of work to creatively tell the story as authentically as possible.”

Driving his vision for ‘Black Mass’ was his faith that an actor as intuitive and inventive as Johnny Depp could bring the film’s inscrutable central figure to life, and he tells us Depp has not disappointed. “Johnny dove into research and discussions with me and others to explore this character from the inside out,” Cooper said.  “What Johnny wanted to do was to create a full-body portrait of Whitey Bulger as a man – to show him as vicious and cunning as he is, but also as flawed as he is, and as human.” 

Which is not to say their approach was to whitewash the criminal career of a man indicted on a litany of charges, including 18 counts of murder.  “Whitey Bulger isn’t a hero in our film.  He’s a stone cold killer, someone who would just as soon kill you as look at you, and Johnny plays that to the hilt.  His ability to fully inhabit the sociopath that is Whitey Bulger – in the way he moves, in the timbre of his voice – is chilling to watch.”

To this, we can attest.  

If James Joseph Bulger, Jr. – notorious as Whitey, but Jimmy to his friends – is the film’s yin, John Connolly is its yang.  Having scored some victories against the Italian mob in New York, Connolly comes home to Boston looking to do the same on his home turf.  “John Connolly understands that to bring down the Italians in Boston, he needs Whitey Bulger,” Cooper explains. 

Joel Edgerton and director Scott Cooper | Photo: Warner Bros

“He knows that if he can bring Whitey in as an informant, the Irish-American mafia will seize power and he, John Connolly, will ascend the ranks of the Boston FBI.  He’s also always admired the Bulger clan, and has looked up to Whitey since he rescued John from a playground fight when they were kids, so to him it’s a win-win.”

Though the contract appears straightforward, the film peels away the layers of Connolly’s relationship with Bulger to explore why it consumes and ultimately destroys him.  “I see John Connolly a bit like a boy trying to impress a father who doesn’t give him enough love, but his way of impressing him is to feed him information.  As we go deeper into it, we start to see that maybe John doesn’t realize how dangerous the landscape has become for him, and how irretrievable his conscience is.”

When we catch up with the acclaimed Australian actor, he tells us that from his perspective, the only way to portray John Connolly honestly was to approach him as a character within the context of the story they’re telling with this film.  “Not a single one of us – not even the actual people involved in the whole story – knew the entire truth from every angle,” he asserted. 

Though uniting against a common enemy is a powerful motivator on both sides of the law, Edgerton sees Connolly’s own motivations as less clear – even as Bulger takes change of the terms of the contract, giving himself and his mob license to kill.  “The details of the contract are that as long as Jimmy can bring the Mafia to the FBI on a chopping block, Jimmy will be allowed to do a certain number of criminal activities and the FBI will turn a blind eye,” explained Edgerton. 

“The Bureau draws the line at murder, but Jimmy and his gang do that, and then they do a lot more.  And as this goes on, John starts to get a little intoxicated by the freedom, the seeming boundlessness in which criminals operate, and the gratuitous spending of money. 

Edgerton is particularly fascinated by this “middle ground” in the film as the body count rises and Connolly “starts to become aware that he’s taken a stroll into the dark woods,” the actor reflected. 

I think he feels that if the FBI is willing to deal with high level criminals in order to gather information, there’s already a blurring of the lineBut John is a supremely intelligent person.  He knows when he’s gone too far and that there’s no going back on the things he’s done; and he knows there’s no retracting from Whitey in that contract.  So he has to constantly justify his position in the FBI and begins to squirm under the weight of his own deceptions.  He has to keep a ledger on the lies he’s telling, and becomes a bit of an animal trapped in the corner.” 

For this reason, the director feels that Joel Edgerton’s role is among the most challenging in the film.  “Joel is essentially playing many parts because John Connolly’s wearing many different masks – for his FBI colleagues, for his wife, and also for Whitey.” 

Above the fray, but equally rooted to the community is the gangster’s distinguished politician brother, Billy.  British actor Benedict Cumberbatch tells us he felt a great responsibility in playing the character to honour the real life figure with a truthful performance.  “Billy Bulger was an extraordinary human being who kind of deserves his own biopic,” Cumberbatch smiled.  “He’s this very bright, well-read kid from Southie who elevated himself but still stood up for the people and the community he came from.” 

Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in 'Black Mass' | Photo: Warner Bros

The actor was also fascination by the relationship between them explored in the film, noting that the divergence between Billy Bulger’s own trajectory and his brother’s much darker one does not break their bond of brotherhood. 
“Billy Bulger is the embodiment of an old school, hard-edged Irish-American political era – a fiercely intelligent, articulate, funny, persuasive man who is imbued with a lot of power,” he explained.  “And as with all powerful people, it’s very much about perception.  It’s about having that air about you, so an extraordinary tension exists in that character between being a public servant and being a loyal brother.” 

He relished working alongside Depp to bring that bond to the fore in the smaller or lighter moments between brothers, “like shared jokes, things that they find funny, irritations with one another.  Those moments really helped me understand how generous Johnny is with his characterization of Whitey Bulger.  I have to draw myself back into my own head, and that’s hard to do when you’ve got something as extraordinary as Johnny’s performance happening in front of you. 

In Los Angeles, months after ‘Black Mass’has wrapped in Boston, Depp himself speaks of his character not as the gangster described in books, headlines or his own rap sheet, but through the eyes of the man. 

“First and foremost, Jimmy Bulger is—in his own mind and his own heart—a man of honour,” Depp reflected.  “He’s not going to rat on his own people, for nobody, for nothing.  But helping the FBI get the Italian Mafia is a business decision that, without question, works for him.  I mean, if you’re offered that kind of clemency, you’re going to take it, and he takes it and runs with it.”

It’s Depp’s gift to find humanity in each character he embodies, in this case a man he calls “a pretty mysterious fellow.” 

In researching the role, Depp was struck by the charisma that informs Bugler’s story at every turn.  “He had this draw that made people want to get close to him,” Depp mused.  “They wanted to understand him.  They wanted to know him.  Many people grew up kind of idolizing him; many wanted to be him because he did things his own way and, for the most part, he won.”

'Black Mass' | Photo: Warner Bros

Authentically bringing all shades of this criminal outlier to the screen, Depp mined the insights and impressions of friends and those who’d worked with Bulger over the years to tap into what forces might have driven him. 

“It’s very important, when you’re playing someone who existed or exists, to approach it with respect, no matter what.  It’s their life, so regardless of what they may have done, they deserve as close to an honest version of themselves as humanly possible.  For me, it was walking that tightrope of playing a very dangerous, unpredictable walking time bomb who could also be emotional and even sensitive.” 

Walking that tightrope with him every step of the way was his director, whom Depp calls “a rare talent.”  The actor had been impressed by Cooper’s films but was amazed to learn on set that ‘Black Mass’was just his third film out of the gate.  “I have tremendous respect for him – the strength of his vision and his passion.  He ate, drank and slept this film.  He’s a great filmmaker with an enormous future.”

Depp also praises Cooper’s decision to shoot the film in Boston, which he feels is an essential part of Bulger’s story.  “The neighbourhood of Southie plays a hugely significant part in the film in terms of Jimmy Bulger’s life, his upbringing, and the very definition of who he and the other characters are.  Scott certainly understood that.”

As Cooper sees it, the landscape itself is a window into all the film’s players and the forces at work behind their interlocking fates.  “For me, a specific location or a city allows the audience to really understand a certain place and time,” he reflected.

“With ‘Black Mass’, I wanted to explore the bonds of brotherhood and the bonds of loyalty, but also the unbridled ambition, avarice and hubris that drove these people.  It was important to me not to simply tell a story about criminals who happen to be human, but to tell a story about humans who happen to be criminals – and to reveal how in Boston in the 1970s and `80s, the line between lawmen and criminals became very thin.

'Black Mass' opens 17 September 2015

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  • Black Mass

  • Rated
    M18 /
    Action, Crime, Drama
  • Language
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