‘Black Mass’ is the true life story of Whitey Bulger, one of the most notorious criminals in recent American history. His connections with the FBI effectively gave him a license to operate the Irish Mob in Boston and commit multiple crimes for years without even getting a parking ticket. Movies Plus magazine caught up with director Scott Cooper to talk about Bulger’s Irish connection and how Johnny Depp transformed himself into one of the most wanted men in the World.
There have been plans for a movie about Whitey Bulger for years, even while he was on the run, it interested people like Harvey Weinstein and Irish director Jim Sheridan, what was it about this man that people find so fascinating?
He’s an extremely complex man, very cold, calculating and violent but also extremely intelligent. He’s tender with his young girlfriend and son, humorous with his mom and playful with his brother. But what really drew me to the story was the fact that you have the most notorious and violent criminal in the city of Boston’s history while his brother was the most powerful politician in the city. Then you have the young childhood friend who rises in the ranks of the FBI who gives this criminal a license to kill, you can’t make that stuff up! It’s Shakespearean. I think it makes for compelling cinema and its true life.
This summer we had ‘Legend’ about the Kray twins and this month ‘Black Mass’… they join a long line of classics like ‘Untouchables’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘American Gangster’ all based on real life gangsters,why do you think audiences have a passion for true-life crime stories?
It started when Warner Brothers were the gangster studio, they had films like ‘The Public Enemy’, ‘Little Caesar’, ‘Angels with dirty faces’ all of those great films from the 1930s. America was suffering through the Great Depression, Warner brothers were apposed to using really handsome movie stars instead using actors like Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart who looked like real people, people with great real faces, so audiences were able to better relate and identify with them.
While audiences were struggling putting food on the table and raising a family during the great depression, for two hours they could escape by watching these men give the U.S. Government what for, living out their fantasies, but they don’t have to pay the consequence of their actions.
In certain gangster movies because the subject matter has been glamourized you tend to see these figures as living aspirational lifestyles, but I wanted to take the opposite tact, which was not to romanticize or glamourize these men because they left such an emotional toll on the city of Boston. You see Whitey Bulger as full bodied human but one who had sociopathic tendencies, and hopefully you don’t feel the hand of the director in any way or my camera, so it doesn’t feel like I’m showing these men in a aspirational way.
Whitey Bulger’s career spanned many years and many crimes. How tough was it to condense a lot of his story down to a 90 minute film? At one stage there was so much material that a TV series was in development for the USA network. Was it tough deciding what to include and what had to go?
The biggest challenge for me was how do you tell this story in two hours, for me it was about Whiteys rise and fall, his relationship with John Connolly and the FBI and how they figured into this. I could go make another film and focus just on his brother Billy Bulger or any of the characters.
Whitey was second generation Irish, with very loyal ties to the country. Did he ever visit? We see him smuggling guns and ammo over to the IRA in the film, something that became a huge story in the press, were these events a turning point that brought him too much attention?
Indeed it was, it really lead to his downfall, many people still admire Whitey for supporting the cause and supporting their fight with those back home. I can’t imagine he didn’t visit Ireland, the truth is often elusive, it would be difficult for me to believe that he never spent time in Ireland. His connections to Ireland were so strong, I know that the ties were bound so tightly in the Irish community, there was a sense of honour and loyalty. Which you see in the film with John Connolly, who is in prison today because of his loyalty.
The truth of the events are so elusive, Whiteys story was different to the FBI story, which was different to the reporters story, so I hope I portrayed it as accurate as I could. I couldn’t quite tell the Whitey Bulger story and not tell the story of Valhalla because it was a big part of his life.
The Irishness in the movie is kept very subtle, were you ever tempted to add in some Dropkick Murphys or diddly-eye music or did you want to avoid those stereotypes?
There always is the temptation.. but I don’t want people to feel like they’re watching a movie, this is more like surveillance. Because the 70s and 80s is a difficult era to get right, they had garish costumes and garish hairstyles, the music is front and center, I like to use a much more subtle hand so you don’t consciously think this is the 70s but on a sub conscious level you’ll realize it is. I did countless hours of research on the neighborhoods, watched archived news stories and video footage of the Saint Patrick’s day parades and pancake breakfast houses.
Johnny Depp is almost unrecognizable in the role of crime lord Whitely Bulger, How tough was it for him to get into character?
Johnny really is a kind and soulful man, really gentle natured and what you see on screen could not be further than how he truly is, living in that characters skin tends to take an emotional and psychological toll on you but with Johnny the prostetics helped to have a exterior change from his impossibly handsome visage.
To get to know the character we had interviews with John Connolly, and hours upon hours of conversations with the real players but we had no access to Whitey Bulger himself. I reached out to Billy Bulger to see if I could better understand him but Whitey had no interest in meeting with me or with Johnny Depp.
Johnny’s up for many challenges, he’s never played anyone with this sense of danger, he always transforms but I really wanted to see him play someone cold, calculating and violent, I never seen that from him. He’s a very bold and daring actor. Actors know I’m looking for a real emotional truth and that means the characters and actors have to go to some very dark places.