We got the chance to take an early-look at Black Mass and talk to its director, Scott Cooper about the movie.
“In South Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, certain lawmen and certain criminals were virtually indistinguishable.”
Boston’s institutions of authority have received something of a cinematic flogging recently; there’s Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight (released early 2016), which tells the important tale of the Boston Globe’s efforts to uncover the Catholic Church’s child-abuse cover-up in the city, and now there’s Scott Cooper’s Black Mass – a crime biopic focusing on the FBI’s compliance in the ascent of infamous Boston gangster James Whitey Bulger (play by Johnny Depp).
Depp is certainly no charming Jack Sparrow or even weirdo Willy Wonker here: he’s an altogether scarier beast. He looks terrifyingly vampiric in all his balding, prosthetic glory and much of the film sees him staring out coldly from dead-blue eyes at pompous FBI Agent John Connolly (a strong performance by Joel Edgerton). Connolly’s ego expands at the rate of his bouffant hair and deliciously naff suit lapels as we witness him become steadily more enamoured with Bulger’s mob lifestyle and his own media-courting success. It’s a shockingly violent story (and one that’s all the more shocking because it’s true) but it avoids mob-movie-by-numbers cliche through it’s standout performances – not forgetting a star turn from ex-Wonderland cover girl Dakota Johnson, who delivers another fantastic performance as the mother of Bulger’s child.
Having loved the movie so much, we were pretty excited to be able to sit down for a chat with its director, Scott Cooper. He tells us about his casting process, why he loves his actors so much and the complexities of move violence.
What interested you most about story?
Truth is often stranger than fiction. The story was so Shakespearean that had I written this as a fictitious screenplay no one would believe it. One brother who is the most notorious criminal in a city whilst his brothers the most powerful politician in Boston and they have a childhood friend who is ascending the ranks of the FBI and brings him in as an informant you just can’t make this stuff up. I was always aware of White Bulger’s mystique even when I lived in New York his mystique filtered down the coast and he was arrested a couple of miles from where I live in LA. And then his trial and all these secrets that were unearthred: I found it intoxicating.
How did you go about casting Johnny Depp?
After he saw my first film, Crazy Heart, he reached out to me. Johnny loves playing real life characters and I like to cast actors in ways that you’ve never seen them before. He typically plays characters that are very likeable and empathetic and sometimes larger than life. I wanted to see him play someone who was extremely dangerous and violent and venal and I’d never seen that from him. And he’s an actor who takes big risks whether he’s playing Sweeney Todd or Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissor Hands.
There are plenty of strong, interesting female characters here: tell us a bit about that?
These strong women are the moral compass of the story they allow us to see these men for what they really are. And they’re the only ones who can tell these men how they really feel and not end up dead. They also allow us to empathize with someone in the film because it’s a film with no protagonists – there are no protagonists in this movie, it’s all anti-heroes.
How did you go about casting these women?
I was not aware of Daktoa Johnson before this but then I met her upon the recommendation of my casting director and thought she had a really soulful, older quality to her that I thought would bring out a tender side of Jimmy Bulger. As for Julian Nicholson, I had loved from her work on stage and she felt like a real woman rather than a movie actress and I thought she would couple nicely with Joel Edgerton. I revere actors so I remember them from other performances and see how they can fit in my world.
How do you draw from actors what you want from them?
Through a lot of investigative text work: we talk about what qualities they might share with the person they’re playing. We talk about their relationship to their family, what kind of music they listen to, those sort of things. Then you treat them not as actors but as human beings. You give them a very safe space in which to take big risks and then acting is as simple as what we’re doing here: listening and reacting and talking. I don’t like to do much rehearsing at all because it tends to make things stale. As a director you’re many things, a therapist, an administrator but most of all you’re a human.
Did it become like a family?
It always does! My movies are very intense and harrowing and whether you’re together with someone for a small amount of time – as with Juno – or for a longer period – like with Johnny – then, as long as you’re making the same movie and have mutual respect, you make very long lasting bonds.
In terms of all the actors you worked with in this film, who surprised you the most?
Almost all of them. You get surprised at Joel Edgerton, who is Australian, and managed to perfect, as did Benedict Cumberbatch, a very specific Bostonian accent. For someone as untested as Dakota Johnson, as young as her, to go to those emotional places. I found myself surprised every day.
Did you ever get desensitized to the violence on set?
No never. I know that Benedict Cumberbatch came by the set one day when he wasn’t working and said ‘Oh my god, I can’t even watch!’ You never get desensitized to it, that’s when you know you’re in trouble. Hopefully my portrayal of these violent events is so searing and realistic that you don’t get desensitized otherwise I would be trivializing these events and the victims and their families.
Black Mass is released nationwide 25th November