'Black Mass' co-authors share experiences with taking book to Hollywood

'Black Mass' co-authors share experiences with taking book to Hollywood
Authors Dick Lehrand GerardO'Neill on the set of the drama “Black Mass,” a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Cross Creek Pictures and RatPac-Dune Entertainment, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. on Sept. 18, 2015. (Claire Folger)

It isn't every day that a journalist gets to walk the red carpet with the stars.

But at the Boston premiere of "Black Mass" on Tuesday, former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill were among the list of A-listers, including Johnny Depp and Dakota Johnson, walking the carpet.


The Warner Bros. movie, which follows the rise of notorious South Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, is based on the nonfiction book "Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob" by Lehr and O'Neill. The movie, directed by Scott Cooper, opened Friday to strong critical acclaim. (Full disclosure: Lehr was my journalism professor at Boston University.)

Though the writing duo didn't tackle the film's screenplay, they spent a good chunk of time helping the cast and crew behind the scenes. Lehr and O'Neill are also portrayed in a scene in the movie.

I chatted with the former Globe journalists about their book and the upcoming film's release. Here's an excerpt of our talk:

The film was officially announced in February of 2013, but when were you guys first approached about turning the book into a movie?

Lehr: The book was originally published in 2000, and even before it was published, our editor had auctioned the movie rights to Harvey Weinstein. Really one way or another ever since the book came out, it's been [optioned] by someone.

O'Neill: [Eventually] a young producer, Brian Oliver, reached out. My son knew him in a very vague way. Brian read the book and liked it. We talked ... and we finally got there. He's been very faithful to the whole idea of Whitey Bulger's story.

Do you feel like Bulger's capture in 2011 sort of gave the studio a push to continue the project?

Lehr: It re-energized it, that's for sure. On one level, they felt they had an ending because he was captured. But on another track, I think the story of "Black Mass" and the heart of "Black Mass" is about the unholy alliance between Whitey and the FBI. That's a movie that could have been made without his capture. But it was I guess what was necessary for Brian Oliver to get it over the hump.

What did you feel were the most critical parts of the book that screenwriters absolutely needed to keep in the film?

O'Neill: I think the strong personal relationship between Bulger and the FBI -- and that the core of this relationship was South Boston loyalty.

Lehr: For me, what was most important was not to romanticize anything about the corruption or holy alliance and to convey the horror and the darkness of it all. That was I think really important to us as in any adaptation--you might change characters or re-arrange things because it's a movie, but I think the dark essence had to be intact because that's the story.

Did you give any notes while they were working on the script?

Lehr: One of the things I learned is that scripts seem to be a constant work in progress. Over the years, it's not like we took notes or anything, but we took plenty of phone calls from different writers. We would be available to consult but we didn't really have any hands on in the writing. It changed a lot. It changed on the set when they were making it a year ago in Boston, with people sometimes tinkering with dialogue.


How much involvement did both of you have on the film overall? 

O'Neill: My strategy I think while they were filming it was to try and time visits to the set when it changed locations because I found that the most interesting. I know the story but how they treated each of the locations I was very impressed by that ... they really made the sets come alive.

Lehr: I think we went both went down there a few times a week. It was interesting to follow. I think it was weird to interact with Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton during breaks because they were always in a place between themselves and their characters. Joel would continue to talk in [his character's] accent even though he's Australian and another time he'd talk in Aussie.

Following Bulger's recent trial, how do you think Bostonians will react to the movie?

O'Neill: I think Boston is embracing the Bulger story.

Lehr: The movie shows Whitey to be the monster that he is. I think Boston has all gotten well past the Robin Hood nostalgia thing that he was a good bad guy. Boston knows that about Whitey now and the movie reflects that.

Was it eerie to see Johnny Depp and other actors portray these gangsters?

O'Neill: I thought they had the accents down; I was impressed by that.

Lehr: I think Depp nailed it. At first you go, 'Oh ,there's Johnny Depp." But somehow the drama takes over. I forgot I was watching Johnny Depp; I was just watching Whitey.

There's a scene in which you two appear. Was it surreal to see movie versions of yourselves?

Lehr: Did you happen to see the men dining behind the actors? We were behind them.

O'Neill: It was disorienting briefly but it was interesting to see them re-create that scene. The movie is pretty faithful to that moment. It was an Alfred Hitchcock moment.

The film does a beautiful job of capturing this old Boston, which is actually mapped out in the beginning of your book. How does Boston sort of take on a character itself in both your book and in the movie?

Lehr: I think they did a great job -- the set designer wanted to film it here even though Boston has changed a lot since [in the] 30 years or more. They put a lot of effort into the nooks and crannies or recasting Boston in the '70s and '80s, and it shows. You can still find those nooks and crannies, even though in so many ways -- especially in Southie -- it's a different and new place.

So do you like the movie?

O'Neill: It's gratifying in every way.

Lehr: I think it's a strong drama that captures what was so horribly wrong with the Boston office of the FBI and its partnership with a killer. That's the important message in the journalism we were after way back when.

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