IF A screenwriter walked into a Hollywood pitch meeting today with a fictional story that resembled that of South Boston crime kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, they’d be politely informed it was too preposterous. In the mid-1970s Bulger was a small-time gangster involved in drugs, extortion and murder, a serious guy who’d done some hard time – stints in Leavensworth and Alcatraz – but hardly someone with the clout to seize control of a criminal underworld run at that time by the Mafia. That clout came via a secret deal made with the FBI to inform on his Mafia competition – a deal he exploited to take control of the streets and swagger around “Southie” immune from prosecution, helping old ladies with their shopping one minute, committing murder the next.
So far, so Jack Nicholson in The Departed, but the incredulous-seeming dramatic stakes of Bulger’s story are amped up further by the fact that his brother, Billy Bulger, was a senator and the most powerful politician in the state of Massachusetts, and also by the fact that John Connolly, the star FBI agent who brought Whitey into the fold, had grown up with the Bulgers and subsequently found himself too seduced by the mystique Whitey cultivated for himself to enforce the law properly.
“And then you’d say: ‘And he won the lottery?’” says Scott Cooper, whose new film Black Mass, which stars Johnny Depp, tells Whitey’s story in decidedly sombre, unglamorous fashion.
Oh yeah: and he “won” $14 million on the lottery.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” continues Cooper. “Truth is often stranger than fiction, but this was also Shakespearean. I was so compelled to tell the story because I was so compelled by Whitey Bulger’s mystique. When I lived in New York, it filtered down from Boston, and then he was arrested [in 2011] a couple of miles from where I live in Los Angeles. I followed his trial and all these dark secrets were unearthed.”
Having directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar with his debut feature Crazy Heart and infused his second feature Into The Furnace, starring Christian Bale, with a seriousness of purpose that echoed the socially aware American cinema of the 1970s, Cooper seems like a natural fit to make a gangster film set in that era. As it happens, though, this was precisely the reason he hesitated when first offered the film.
“My hesitations were actually two-fold,” he says. “Fair or not, whenever you make a film in the crime genre inevitably you get compared to some of the greatest films ever made in America.” He runs off a list that includes The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Goodfellas. “It’s only my third film so I didn’t feel that was too fair. And I didn’t want to make a gangster picture either. I wanted to make a humanistic look at a monstrous set of events that took an emotional toll on the city of Boston.”
At the heart of the film – the thing that really distinguishes it – is Depp’s performance as Whitey. Gaunt and grey-skinnned, receding hair slicked back, eyes icy and blue, he moves through the film like a vampire, seducing those around him and sucking the life out of the city. It’s unlike anything he’s done before. “He never has been this dark. Never,” says Cooper. “That’s why I wanted to work with him so closely. He plays very empathetic characters. He also happens to be a very gentle man and what you see on screen is the opposite. We knew that he would make that physical transformation. But it was that psychological and emotional transformation for him that was so mesmerising.”
Both Depp and Cooper tried to get in touch with the real Whitey Bulger, who at the time of his arrest was number two on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Bulger had no interest in meeting either of them, though. “Which I understand,” says Cooper. “You’re never going to get anyone perfectly right. I’m basing it all off archival video and photographic imagery from the FBI. I wanted Whitey to be more of a mysterious figure who keeps everybody at arm’s length.”
He had more to go on with Billy Bulger, played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch, and with John Connolly, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton. Like Depp, both actors had to grapple with the difficult Boston accent with its dropped consonants and strange inflections. Edgerton may have the edge on Cumberbatch in terms of sounding – as Depp does – like he came from Southie, but as Cooper points out, Billy Bulger didn’t have the same accent as his brother. “Whitey’s accent was a little more blue collar, Billy’s was almost Kennedy-esque and patrician. He wore his erudition on his sleeve. Benedict spent a lot of time studying it over and over on video footage. It was remarkable how they both nailed it.”
What is clear is that those who know Boston and know the Bulgers and Connolly have praised Black Mass for its accuracy. Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, The Drop) and New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton (who was a Boston cop in the 1970s and 1980s) have let it be known they’re fans of the film. Then there’s William Friedkin. Having met Whitey Bulger a couple of times (he shot his 1978 film The Brink’s Job in Boston) and known Connolly well enough to serve as a character witness in his subsequent trial, the man who helped usher in a new era of filmmaking with The French Connection and The Exorcist recently told a clearly delighted Cooper that he got the characters and the performances just right. “When those guys tell you you’ve got it right,” says Cooper, “it’s pretty gratifying.”
• Black Mass is on general release from Friday