The Vent.tv sat down with stars of the highly anticipated movie BLACK MASS. Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), RORY Cochrane (Stephen Flemmi), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Mark Mallouk (Screenwriter) & Brian Oliver (Producer) give us their thoughts on the processes of making the film.
QUESTION: Joel, I understand that you didn’t want to speak with the real John Connolly because you wanted to create a character from what you took from the script. Is that accurate?
JOEL EDGERTON: [Laughs] Yeah, to a degree. I would definitely be curious to talk to John, but it’s the delicacy of the story that we’re telling and, of course, this is our version of the story through [director] Scott [Cooper]’s vision of the script written by Mark [Mallouk] and Jez [Butterworth]. And it’s delicate as an actor, I think, when you’re playing a real person. You can never presume to know that person as well as you think you can, and I think that’s a fool’s mission to think that you can get it all right. You cobble the performance together from what you can.
But this is a particularly delicate situation, because here I am, in my case, playing a guy who’s in federal prison for a long time for things that he did or didn’t do. His version of events, I think, doesn’t line up with what our version of the story is. And knowing that at some point we have to say we’re telling our fictionalized version or our true version of a true story, however true we can be, that it might be not so nice to go visit him. It just felt a bit like it wasn’t a very genuine thing to do. Albeit, I would love to spend time with him and I’m sort of terrified of him watching the movie and saying, ‘Oh, you got that guy to be me? And he talks like what?’ [Laughs]
QUESTION: Rory, you’re in the same boat. You’re playing Stephen Flemmi, a real life character. Did you want to learn as much about him as possible, or was it on the page for you?
RORY COCHRANE: It obviously starts with the page, and the job that [Black Mass authors] Dick [Lehr] and Gerard [O’Neill] did with the book was fantastic. I loved the book. I wish they could make the movie into a six-month mini-series and get all this information. It’s so rich.
But, for me, I just kind of went full bore, almost like spy agencies are in the business of gathering intelligence. You almost have to be this individual spy and gather as much information as possible without stepping on people’s toes in the wrong way and being disingenuous and coming off not from a good place.
And you do feel a responsibility not only to the person you’re playing – obviously just on a psychological level – but to the community that these people have affected. I think the nice thing about this film is that it doesn’t portray Whitey Bulger in this Robin Hood fashion; it just shows all these characters – very well-cast, I might add – in a human way. And they just so happen to be involved in a lot of criminal activities.
QUESTION: Julianne, you play a character who hasn’t been as well documented as some of the others in the film. Did you feel a responsibility to the real person you were playing, as Rory just mentioned?
JULIANNE NICHOLSON: There is more of a responsibility when you’re trying to tell a story that actually happened. [Laughs] Actually, my character is a composite of a few different wives of the FBI agents, but Scott said to me while we were filming that she is sort of the moral compass of the story, which is something that you can’t play. I think Marianne was added for that reason – for there to be at least one voice who is recognizing the changes and seeing what’s going on and saying, ‘This is not okay.’
QUESTION: What was it like to shoot this movie in Boston, in some of the same locations where the true events you’re depicting in the film actually took place? Did it make a difference?
JOEL EDGERTON: I think shooting a movie in the place where the story is set does so many things. It saves you money with production. [Laughs] And there’s a lot of Boston that still has a resemblance to Boston in the seventies and eighties. You just have to go a little bit further into different suburbs, I think, and you can recreate that. I think this film has a marvelous array of heads of department who all collaborated and conspired to tonally land on the same page and gave us costumes and sets and things to play with that made our job really easy.
But one thing I didn’t count on was just how much the stories and the ghosts of this story were going to seep in and come knocking on our door. Oftentimes, I think, as storytellers and actors you go looking for information and looking for research, as Rory said. Rory spent a lot of time down in South Boston knocking on doors and getting to know local people. And it’s amazing the stories that were just sort of volunteered by people who come sniffing around. So the real research was almost coming to you, rather than you having to look for the research.
JULIANNE NICHOLSON: I agree. I think it’s hugely important that the story was filmed there. I think Boston is as much of a character in the story as any of the actors. And just to be surrounded by those people and that accent and that feel, informs everyone.
RORY COCHRANE: I think it was absolutely vital that we shot in Boston. As you have this journey into trying to discover and extrapolate information, you realize that these areas are sort of dying. I mean, now, instead of South Boston, they call it SoBo, which kind of infuriates some of the people that live there. If you weren’t in Boston, you wouldn’t even be able to search out the remaining fragmented sections where these nice, warm-hearted people still live and are still tremendously affected by this whole piece of history.
BRIAN OLIVER: I think Julianne pretty much nailed it – Boston is a character in our movie. From a production side, it was great to do the film there – great crews, great rebate. I don’t think we could have made the movie anywhere else, and I do feel like Scott and the screenwriters did a great job capturing the Irish aspects of Boston, and really pushed some of the characters to fit into the period and time.
MARK MALLOUK: When you go to Boston and spend any time there, you get the sense of the loyalty and the pride in the community. That’s what really stuck out for me when I went there to write the very first drafts. Boston matters to the people of Boston. The stories of Boston matter to the people of Boston. So we tried to emphasize that in the script to some degree. That’s what was important to me. And I don’t think we could have filmed it anywhere else either, but that’s above my pay grade. [Laughs]
QUESTION: Mark, one of the things challenge with Whitey Bulger was that he was a myth-maker himself. Did you watch the documentary Whitey, or do other research to cut through that?
MARK MALLOUK: The script was finished and we were going by the time that documentary came out. And, yeah, Whitey’s very concerned about myths. No doubt about that. So I was aware of that, but it’s very easy to see through most of the story he’s putting forward and we didn’t want to create more fuel for the Whitey Bulger myth. Listen, none of us wanted anybody to walk out of that theater thinking, ‘I want to be Whitey Bulger.’ You feel that way after Scarface or after Goodfellas or after The Godfather. I love those movies. But there’s a responsibility not to do that here. It feels a bit more like Donnie Brasco, actually.
QUESTION: Joel, how about for you in terms of watching documentaries or researching other sources to play John Connolly?
JOEL EDGERTON: I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people about John. We had a lot of FBI agents who are very opinionated about John. He held a very interesting place in the Bureau. In all of their minds, he was a bit of a peacock and somebody who obviously was walking the high-wire act between what they were doing and what Whitey and the guys were doing. Most of them presumed that they were all doing the right thing and that John was the one dancing on the wrong side of the line. I’m sure there were more than just John.
And I feel a bit sad for him that he’s the only one who really, really kind of fell down, particularly when you talk about guys like [FBI Agent] John Morris. He got to walk away scot-free. I think it’s a bit of a shame.
I watched all that material of documentaries and footage of John doing daytime talk shows where he was personally volunteering to kind of defend himself on the courtroom steps. And definitely the passionate jousting matches with [prosecutor] Fred Wyshak and the courtroom footage was all great material for me that helped, knowing that I wasn’t willing to try and make an excursion to go and see him personally.
QUESTION: Joel, do you think as an actor playing a real life character in a film that the actor and the film itself have a responsibility to tell the truth? And is there any such thing as “the truth” when you have story like this?
JOEL EDGERTON: No one knows the truth. I don’t, and I don’t mean to be trite about this, but I don’t even know in myself well enough. I did a number of things last week that I’m still trying to work out my motivation for. [Laughs] Seriously, I’m not going to tell you what they were. So, to think that I know another person that well or to assume that you know everything is naïve.
You’re telling a story that is, to me, like the unfurling of like a tapestry of bad events, populated by bad people – except the women, who are good but don’t get enough screen time. The women are a moral compass and the collateral damage all at the same time, but also the strong voice of dissension. Where no one else would challenge Whitey, Dakota Johnson’s character will. You can never presume to know the truth. And when there’s so many people’s opinions, everybody has an angle on a story. It’s a Rashomon effect, right?
At some point you just have to say, ‘This is our telling of these version of events.’ Some are included and others are not. As Rory pointed out, there’s a whole series waiting to be told here out of this terrible series of events. But the truth is elusive. All you can do is say, ‘We’ve got to plant our flag on our ground, so this is the angle we’re taking.’ And that’s Scott’s great charge as the leader of this story, and I think he’s framed the story very well.
QUESTION: Julianne, can you talk about the scene where Marianne has retreated to the bedroom and she opens the door and there’s Whitey. How much of that did you know was going to unfold the way it did?
JULIANNE NICHOLSON: The way it was written, I knew he was coming and I knew that he was going to be touching me. I didn’t know to what degree. Scott has said he doesn’t like rehearsal at all because he feels like things can happen the first thing you say the words and he doesn’t want to miss that.
That scene we filmed in a very dark sound stage set. I didn’t see Johnny that day until I opened the door, and there he is, right there, with those eyes. He just became that character, so before I even opened my mouth, something was already happening, and it was terrifying and thrilling and a little sexy. [Laughs] It was very much a seduction happening there, which was very confusing, and I was looking forward to that scene so much. I just left on such a high. It was very special.
JOEL EDGERTON: Can I just add something to that? I want to know why your character, in order to relax in a very tense scenario, was reading The Exorcist? [Laughs] Way to calm yourself down.
JULIANNE NICHOLSON: I learned more details about Marianne.
QUESTION: This is for Joel and Julianne. Having the told story the way you have in the film, what are your thoughts on Whitey Bulger now?
JOEL EDGERTON: He’s that chilling an individual that I’m scared to really tell you what I think. [Laughs] He did make a phone call to John Morris at one point, when their house of cards was falling down, and John hung up the phone and later that night had a heart attack. The other day I was in an interview and I said something about Jimmy Bulger, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, god. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me.’
I think he was obviously a very charismatic, powerful figure, but sociopathic in a way that he was willing to kind of back up his words with actions. When those threats of violence and the actions that back them up are the equivalent, I think he ruled with a lot of fear. Again, I’d love to know more without getting close to him. But I think Rory would probably have an opinion on this as well.
RORY COCHRANE: When you’re doing the film, everybody loves to tell you stories, whether they’re true or not. I think that’s part of the thing. He’s a mythical figure.
I heard this story that they took over this liquor store; whether they allegedly did it by legal means is up in the air. One gentleman owed them a lot of money. He kept calling this store that they took over, so they finally said to Whitey, ‘When this guy calls, you pick up the phone because you can get this guy to just stop calling.’ The guy calls. Whitey picks up the phone. The guy says, ‘I want my money.’ Whitey says, ‘Do you know who I am?’ The guy is like, ‘Yes, I do know who you are. Do you know who I am?’ And Whitey says, ‘No.’ And the guy goes, ‘Thank God.’ [Laughs]