Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Anyone expecting to see Johnny Depp as some kind of modern antihero in the new film Black Mass, about Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, will be in for a shock: Depp plays the silver-haired criminal as appropriately dark and violent. As Dick Lehr, coauthor of the book the movie is based on, told the audience at a special screening on September 17, “the film is a horror story.”
Former Boston Globe reporters Lehr, a College of Communication professor of journalism, and coauthor Gerard O’Neill (COM’70) were fielding questions after the film was shown to an audience of COM students and professors at the AMC Loews Boston Common. The event was the kickoff of COM’s annual Cinematheque series, which brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.
For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger was the city’s reigning crime kingpin, presiding over the Irish mob known as the Winter Hill Gang. The brother of longtime Democratic politician and former Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger (Hon.’96), Whitey Bulger was also an FBI informant, supplying his childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly with information about his rivals in exchange for free rein for his own criminal activities. In 1995, Connolly tipped Bulger off that he was about to be indicted by the feds. Bulger fled Boston and remained at large for the next 16 years, despite heading the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The 81-year-old mobster was finally captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011, and after being convicted in 2013 of federal racketeering, extortion, and conspiracy, and for his role in 11 murders, is now serving two consecutive life terms.
Lehr and O’Neill began reporting on the South Boston gangster in the late 1980s for a four-part Globe series. They went on to publish The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family, Whitey: the Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss, and Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, which won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Depp has received some of the best reviews of his career and early Oscar buzz for his performance. The film, directed by Scott Cooper, also stars Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch as William Bulger, and Jesse Plemons as Bulger’s henchman Kevin Weeks. It has received a 76 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
When the credits rolled after the screening, Lehr and O’Neill sat at the front of the theater taking questions, many from students who weren’t even alive during the years Bulger ran Southie. The audience wondered why the reporters were drawn to Bulger’s story. “For my part, I was after the FBI, the public institution,” Lehr said. “It was about the abuse of power and the corruption in the nation’s top law enforcement agency, by this gangster Whitey Bulger….It was a culture of corruption that was embedded by the FBI that to this day still frightens me.”
“It was inherent in the informant system,” O’Neill said. “It was basically unsupervised.”
“The key thing when we reported this story was that we kept hearing from others in law enforcement that there was something weird going on between Whitey Bulger and the FBI, and in particular, John Connolly,” Lehr said. The reporters confirmed the relationship with two FBI sources before publishing their initial Globe series.
O’Neill and Lehr were consulted throughout the years it took to develop the film. Lehr said his only worry was that a Hollywood adaptation would “blink at the darkness…and try to soften it and sugarcoat it.” But “when we saw the first screening, it was very reassuring.”
Hollywood took a few liberties with the story, the authors told the audience, but since “the events in this movie played out over two decades, and Scott Cooper had two hours,” they understood, Lehr said. “He compressed characters, some of the chronology was moved around, and dialogue was invented.” In the end, both O’Neill and Lehr felt the script was consistent with the book.
Asked how they came up with the book title, which is also the film’s title, Lehr explained that the book’s editor, Geoff Shandler, had suggested it. Catholics are familiar with the term, he said—it’s a satanic ritual, where the devil takes over the mass—and “it’s like a metaphor for this unholy alliance between the institution, the FBI, and Whitey, the devil.”
“We resisted it for a while,” O’Neill added. “But we came to love it.”
Lehr and O’Neill offered a couple of final tidbits as they wrapped up their Q&A. In the film’s climatic scene, FBI agent John Morris (played by actor David Harbour) meets with both reporters in a diner to confirm the Bulger-FBI relationship (in reality, only O’Neill attended the meeting).
Professional actors played the two reporters, but the authors were invited to appear in the scene as diner patrons. “They kept having to cut the shot because we were making noise,” Lehr said. “We never realized the sound system was so sensitive, and Gerry and I would clink our glasses, and they’d yell, ‘Cut!’ We’d whisper to each other to act like we were talking, and we’d get yelled at. We were slowing everything down just for this short cameo.”
“Scott Cooper finally told us to just mouth the words peas and corn,” O’Neill said with a laugh. “It looks like you’re talking. That’s the actor’s secret.”
The Cinematheque screening wasn’t the only time last week that BU students were caught up in Black Mass fever. BUTV10 reported from the red carpet in front of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline when Black Mass premiered on September 15—an event that drew many of the film’s principals, including Depp.
And be sure to look closely during the film’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade scene: the band marching in the parade is none other than the Boston University Band.