How the ‘Black Mass’ authors watched their book come to life on screen
Gerard O’Neill and Dick Lehr talk what Johnny Depp was like on set, why shooting their cameo was so darn difficult, and more.
Gerard O’Neill and Dick Lehr are the authors of “Black Mass,’’ the book behind the movie of the same name that opens Friday. The story details the FBI’s corrupt relationship with Boston’s most notorious gangster, James “Whitey’’ Bulger.
The book was published in 2000 and took the former Boston Globe reporters a year to write.
“By and large, Dick did sort of the psychological aspect of it and I was more the historian about South Boston history,’’ said O’Neill.
O’Neill and Lehr, both consultants on the film, spent a considerable amount of time on the Black Mass set. Ahead of the movie’s release, the authors discussed whether Hollywood changed their story, what Johnny Depp was like on the set, and why shooting their cameo was so darn difficult.
The reviews of Black Mass have been pretty solid. What’s your review?
O’Neill: I thought it was really well done. It caught the flavor of the time and people. I think it’s dead on.
Lehr: I think it’s an amazing drama. I think it’s really intense and authentic.
What do you think Whitey Bulger would think of it?
O’Neill: Well, you know, it’s hard to say. But I don’t see where he could be critical of it because it’s fair to him, given his tortured history.
Lehr: Oh, he’d hate it. There might be some moments where he’s flattered by something we find very perverse. He might be flattered by the way he can exercise power and deadly force. But, overall, in terms of dramatic telling of his unholy alliance with the FBI, I don’t think he’d be very happy with it because he tries to deny he was an informant.
During filming, some people in Boston were concerned the movie would glorify Bulger. How do you feel Boston will react to the film?
O’Neill: It certainly doesn’t glorify him. I think Boston will embrace it.
Lehr: I, like a lot of people, had concerns that they may sanitize Whitey in order to make it palatable in Hollywood or glamorize Whitey. Yeah, I had concerns about that. But director Scott Cooper did not back away from the horror that is Whitey Bulger in any way.
Was there any fear involved while writing a book about a notorious killer who was still on the loose?
O’Neill: I never really felt like we were in danger, maybe a little naively so.
Lehr: By the time we wrote the book, no. It was more in the front end of the journalism when the Globe was first reporting the tip of this iceberg and revealing for the first time these dark truths. But 10 years into it, no. It was out. He had bigger concerns — he was a fugitive — than what was getting written about him in the Globe or the book, “Black Mass.’’
This movie was a long time in the making, right? And it was almost made into a TV movie?
O’Neill: At one point it went to a production company that specialized in making TV movies. They are incredible and were interested and so we were engaged with them for a while. But it wound up in the best of hands. We are really lucky it wound up with Scott Cooper. He’s a terrific filmmaker.
Lehr: It was almost a lot of different things [laughs]. It was years in development and went in and out and up and down, front burner, back burner — which is not atypical, I’m told.
And Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s names were once attached to the project?
O’Neill: A representative of theirs had some interest and we were kinda hopeful about that, but nothing ever came of that. Why it didn’t work out, I have no idea.
Do you think either of them could have played Whitey Bulger?
Lehr: Ben could have played Connolly, I think. And Matt could have played Whitey. I think he could have done that.
Was it hard to place your work into someone else’s hands?
O’Neill: Well, a little bit. But given the nature of the business, it’s the way it works. So you have to hand it off and hope for the best. And, happily, it wound up in very good hands.
Lehr: Yeah, in the sense that I’m a journalist — meaning facts matter. They are going to take dramatic licenses in a variety of ways. That takes getting used to, being a journalist.
So they took dramatic licenses?
Lehr: Absolutely. That’s the nature of the beast. This is a story that covers 20-something years. The movie is two hours. It has to be different. What matters is the essence and the soul of the story.
And the soul is intact?
Lehr: And that is intact, yes.
What was it like being on the set? How involved were you?
Lehr: We were consulted, but mainly I was observing. It was interesting to see how it happens. We always took phone calls and consulted in that regard, when they might have a question about a person, about an event, about a place.
O’Neill: It was fun. We’d sit there in our director’s chairs and watch it unfold. We didn’t have a hands-on role in it. There were a couple of things I thought were slightly amiss and made it known.
What was amiss? Can you give us an example?
O’Neill: Just the way somebody was saying “probably,’’ and that isn’t the way they say it in Boston — it’s “probly.’’ So they didn’t have the Boston accent down on one word. But that’s about it.
Lehr: That would have gotten by me, for sure [O’Neill’s correction]. One time, when they were shooting the scene where Whitey chokes and strangles Hussey to death, Whitey was there but Kevin Weeks wasn’t. When I told them Weeks was there [during the actual event], they stopped so Jesse Plemons [who plays Kevin Weeks], who wasn’t on the set … they delayed shooting until he could come. I was suddenly huddling with Cooper, Johnny Depp, and one of the producers, talking about how they played the scene.
And how long did that delay the scene before Plemons could get to the set?
Lehr: A couple of hours. He was in town, he just wasn’t scheduled to shoot that day.
You have a cameo in the film. Tell us about it.
O’Neill: We were in a scene where actors playing Dick Lehr and myself slide into a booth with agent John Morris. Dick and I are in the background of the movie.
You did not get to play yourself?
O’Neill: [laughs] No. But I’m sitting right behind the guy who does. It was fun. It was a little strange, but fun.
Lehr: We kept screwing up the scene.
Lehr: With sound technology, it’s so sensitive — clinking your glass or even whispering [is picked up]. I mean, we were just trying to act like two guys. Scott Cooper kept having to coach us to shut up and be quieter. He finally gave us a tip, saying you can’t even whisper, just keep mouthing the words “corn and peas, peas and corn,’’ and it looks like you’re talking.
What was Johnny Depp like on the set?
O’Neill: He stays very focused. Some of the other actors, between takes, kind of came over. But Johnny Depp stayed pretty solitary and focused.
Lehr: I didn’t know what to expect. He’s such a super star. But he was hard working. His work ethic was very impressive.
How did he do portraying Bulger?
O’Neill: I thought he’s dead on. He really nailed it.
Lehr: He really pulled it off. He’s dark and creepy and scary and charming all at once.
Discover who plays who in Black Mass:
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com