THE RED BULLETIN: Why did you cast Johnny Depp as Boston crime kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger?
Scott Cooper: Johnny and I had first discussed working together after he’d seen [my first movie] Crazy Heart and we could never really align on what story it was we both wanted to tell. Johnny has always loved gangster movies – of course, he starred in Public Enemies and Donnie Brasco. I thought he’d be an excellent choice. I wanted that strong sense of danger that you don’t often see from Johnny onscreen because he often plays very likeable characters. Whitey is an extremely unlikeable character, but one who’s very human – people sometimes find themselves drawn to those types of people and I think you certainly do with thanks to Johnny’s performance, which is mesmerizing.
How was he to work with?
Johnny is one of our great actors. A lot of movie stars like to play within a narrow band – that way you tend to play the same character over and over and give the audience what they expect. Johnny will give you Jack Sparrow or Sweeney Todd or Hunter S Thompson or John Dillinger, all with a great deal of range. He takes big risks with his career. And like anybody who takes big risks, some pay off and some don’t. But for Johnny it isn’t so much about what the movie does for his career because he’s not a careerist, but what he takes from it as a human being – the experience of playing a certain character. I think he knew it was going to be a challenge taking on Whitey, a real-life character who had so many different facets to his personality – someone who can be very cunning, chilling, deadly and also very tender, as we see with his son in the movie.
You have Joel Edgerton playing Whitey’s family friend/FBI contact John Connolly and Benedict Cumberbatch playing his brother, Billy Bulger. How did the Aussie/Brit contingent handle the thick Boston accents?
Any time I would visit them in their apartments or in their trailers on set, they were always studying footage of the characters they were portraying – both visual and audio. They were working with dialect coaches – too often you hear Boston dialects mangled or overdone but in this case they had such attuned ears that their accents were spot on. In fact, the real-life federal prosecutor Fred Wyshack [played by Ant-Man’s Corey Stoll] came by the set one day and said, “Who is that guy playing John Connolly? Is he from Boston?” I said, “No, he’s from Australia.” And he said, “He sounds just like John, he moves just like him…” That guy tried to prosecute John for 30 years and he said it was uncanny. The same with Benedict. Even though Whitey and Billy came from the same family in the projects of south Boston, Billy was a politician and wore his erudition on his sleeve. He had almost a Kennedy-esque clipped dialect whereas his brother was much more blue-collar, and Benedict got it spot-on. It’s a very different role for him but he really walked that razor’s edge perfectly. All the guys worked very hard. Whether they’re English or Australian, it doesn’t matter to me – these actors are so attuned with their instrument they’re able to give remarkable performances.
You shot the film on location in Boston – how important was that to you?
It was critical. Location for me is as important as the lead character and Boston’s no different. It’s the quintessential American city – a cradle of the revolution. It’s rich with history and it has taken on its own lore in cinema history. I wanted people to feel like they were truly in Boston in the 70s and 80s and I shot in almost every corner of the city. It’s very much a character in the movie.
Despite his crimes, Whitey Bulger was a big part of the community. Were you accepted by the locals?
Oh yeah we were heartily embraced in Boston. Because its such a small city, everybody had a story about Whitey Bulger and everyone was always seemingly within arms length of either whitey or someone who knew him. For many people he was a mythical figure – for some he was a kind of Robin Hood type, for others who were on the deadly end of the barrel of his gun he was certainly not that. I met all kinds. It was an extremely rich experience shooting the film there. Many people in the movie are not actors – they’re locals from south Boston and they knew Whitey.
How do you approach telling a story based on real-life events and distilling someone’s life into two hours?
Whitey’s story is so sprawling it could be a six-part series! It’s about really telling a particular part of a story. Audiences don’t come to movies – or they shouldn’t – for absolute fact, unless they’re watching a documentary. But they should come for psychological truth, for emotion, for humanity… and that’s what I wanted to deliver. We show a very accurate portrayal of the events that took place in the 70s and 80s and I worked closely with the FBI’s Boston office and with Fred Wyshack. In the end I hope that what audiences take away is a full-bodied portrait of south Boston of that time and this particularly fascinating character.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when making the movie?
The challenges were several fold. The first big one is that when you’re making a gangster movie, many of the best American films reside in this genre – The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, Goodfellas… So you’re trying to bring something that doesn’t feel too derivative or overly familiar. Then you’re trying to get the story as psychologically and emotionally accurate as it can be and that’s a whole different set of pressures. Another challenge was shooting in the very place where these things took place – when you see Whitey’s men burying bodies – the ‘Bulger burial ground’ underneath the bridge by the river – that’s where a lot of his victims were exhumed. That added a whole level of tension and danger that you don’t often find on film sets, but I think it ultimately infected the shoot in a very positive way.
What are the main themes you were trying to explore with the film?
The bonds of brotherhood, loyalty… John Connolly of course was the only one who didn’t turn in evidence and he’s in prison for it - and he didn’t murder anybody! But also the fact you can’t outrun your past – it always catches up to you. And this notion that in south Boston in this era lawmen and criminals were virtually indistinguishable – it’s hard to tell who’s who.
You’ve worked with actors like Jeff Bridges, Christian Bale [in Out Of The Furnace] and now Johnny – and it’s only your third film. Do you ever get intimated by working with these big stars?
Not really. I’m very selective about actors and you won’t find me working with an actor who is known to be a plant that needs a lot of water. I like to work with actors who are all rowing in the same direction – it’s not about their private life, it’s just about characterization. I like to work with actors you don’t know much about, so you can really buy them in different roles. This will be the first of many for Johnny and me. I really think this is one of the finest dramatic performances of his career.
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