Why Mark Wahlberg revived a beloved private eye for Netflix with ‘Spenser Confidential’
Growing up in South Boston in the ’70s and ’80s, long before films like “Good Will Hunting” and “Mystic River” came along, Mark Wahlberg didn’t see many authentic depictions of his hometown on the big or small screen. Sure, “Cheers” gave the city a friendly, feel-good sheen. But there weren’t many movies or series that captured the real tough, gritty flavor of Southie. So what few there were tended to stick out.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of Boston stories being told,” Wahlberg says. “The only things I can really remember shooting in our neighborhood and familiar surroundings were [the 1978 heist film] ‘The Brink’s Job’ and ‘Spenser: For Hire.’ ”
Airing on ABC from 1985 to 1988, the crime drama “Spenser: For Hire” centered on author Robert B. Parker’s private eye Spenser — a former Boston cop and boxer who’s as quick with a quip as he is with his fists — and his best friend, Hawk, played respectively by Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. Though the show was never a massive hit, it helped propel Spenser, whom Parker had first introduced in 1973, to a wider audience, one that Parker would continue to nurture and build over 40 Spenser bestselling novels right up until his death in 2010.
Now, in his latest collaboration with director Peter Berg, with whom he has made films including “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day,” Wahlberg is bringing a fresh take to one of modern crime fiction’s most beloved detectives — and potentially launching a new franchise around him — with the Netflix film “Spenser Confidential.” In the film, Spenser (whose first name has never been revealed) comes out of prison after five years and teams up with a UFC fighter named Hawk, played by “Black Panther” and “Us” star Winston Duke, to uncover a conspiracy tied to the deaths of two Boston cops.
Loosely based on the 2013 novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins, who has taken up the Spenser mantle since Parker’s death, “Spenser Confidential” takes significant liberties with the character and his world as fans have come to know them while striving to preserve their essence.
In the novels, for example, Spenser never served time in prison, as he does in “Spenser Confidential” after beating up a corrupt police captain. The Hawk of the film is not a suave mob enforcer but rather a UFC fighter with a predilection for New Age spirituality and health food. Spenser’s girlfriend is not the sensible psychiatrist Susan of the books but a feisty dog boarder named Cissy, played by comedian Iliza Shlesinger.
Mucking around with a property with a passionate fan base can be tricky business, as many a filmmaker has discovered. But in bringing the script by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) to life, Berg said he sought to balance a respect for what came before with a fresh approach.
“I am certainly respectful of what [‘Spenser: For Hire’] did, but I thought we could do something completely different,” Berg says. “I liked the idea of an ex-cop-slash-vigilante-slash-justice addict who’s trying to do the right thing. But I didn’t really set out and think, ‘Oh, we’re going to make it harder and more violent or funnier.’ I just set out to follow my own instincts to make something that felt right to me.”
“When it comes to something like this, you can’t be held to staying too close to the source material,” says Wahlberg, who avoided delving too deeply into the Spenser books. “It was one of those things where I looked but I didn’t want to start nitpicking. You want to stay true to the source material, but it has to be contemporary. You don’t want it to feel dated.”
Producer Neal Moritz (“The Fast and the Furious,” “21 Jump Street”), whose Original Film developed the project with an eye toward a potential new franchise, says Parker’s estate gave them fairly wide latitude to deviate from the Spenser canon. When asked once how how his books would be viewed in 50 years, Parker is reported to have replied, “Don’t know, don’t care.”
“We had guidelines on what it could and couldn’t be — just organically what it was thematically and like [including] Hawk, who was beloved from the books,” Moritz says. “But honestly we bought that material because we liked it so much. It wasn’t like we were saying, ‘Oh, we want to change everything.’ We wanted to make it a great experience for the moviegoer who knew about Spenser from the past but also for somebody who didn’t know anything about him.”
He likens it to the tack he took as a producer of Paramount’s recent “Sonic the Hedgehog,” based on the Sega video game franchise, which has grossed $131 million domestically to date. “Obviously there’s a lot of people who love the video game, but there’s also a lot of people that knew nothing really except for some name recognition,” Moritz says. “In a certain way, it’s the same way we approached Spenser.”
For his part, before being approached about the film, Duke was completely unfamiliar with the Parker books or with the ’80s series, which spawned a short-lived Hawk spinoff along with a number of made-for-TV films. But going back and watching old episodes of “Spenser: For Hire” deepened his respect for Brooks, who he had grown up watching on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
“Avery Brooks’ turn as Hawk was so meaningful for black viewers who got to see this cool, debonair black brother who was doing an unorthodox job at the time and just killing it,” Duke says. “It was really great when it came to representation onscreen. It’s such an honor now to be picking up the baton in this relay, to have my own version of Hawk that’s very much a product of the present.”
Moritz first brought the project to Sony Pictures, where he had a production deal at the time, but the studio passed. For Netflix, which has rushed in to fill the void of mid-range adult-oriented films that the studios have largely abandoned, the project offers the potential to build out out the type of film franchise that the streaming giant is largely lacking.
For Wahlberg, starring in a movie that is going straight to streaming is uncharted territory and, while he says he’s open to seeing where Spenser could go in further installments, he will wait to see how the audience responds to this one.
“I always like to find the next new thing to do, and I always want to do the complete opposite of the last thing I did,” he says. “But if audiences really love it and they want to see another one, and we get a guy like Brian Helgeland to write something really cool that can kind of stand on its own, then I’d be open to exploring that.”
For his part, Berg has conflicted feelings about joining the streaming revolution. While he has nothing but good things to say about the experience of working with Netflix, which continues to bring more and more top filmmakers into its fold, he still cherishes the big screen.
“It is obviously a slightly confusing reality I think for all filmmakers,” says Berg, who is working on a limited series about the opioid crisis for Netflix. “I’d be lying if I said there’s not something nice about the fact that you don’t have to have this two-week anxiety attack that generally happens among filmmakers, producers and actors leading up to the release of a film. Then the fact that you won’t be able to go to a theater on Friday and watch it doesn’t feel as good. But there’s no getting away from the fact that this is the world we live in today.”
The fact is, Wahlberg says, with coronavirus fears spreading, prompting MGM to delay the release of the latest James Bond film, this feels like a particularly opportune moment to be putting out a movie that audiences can watch without leaving the house. “You look at what’s going on right now and people are starting to get panicked about going outside and congregating in public places and all that,” Wahlberg says. “So yeah, it’s nice to know that you don’t have the pressure of opening a movie.”
Mostly, though, Wahlberg is excited to be giving a new lease on life to a character who has a strict moral code and never backs down from a fight but is hardly the type of indomitable superhero who has come to dominate the Hollywood landscape.
“Spenser is getting beaten up more than he’s beating somebody up, that’s for sure,” Wahlberg says. “He’s more of a reluctant hero. He’s not doing what he does for the pats on the back. He’s doing it because he feels like it’s the right thing to do. And sometimes that means literally taking it on the chin.”
The mean streets of Boston are the setting for this entertaining genre item from director Peter Berg and frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg.
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