BOSTON — Before he put pen to paper and gave us violent sagas of lowlife P.I.s and desperate criminals, Dennis Lehane used to deliver flowers to a hospital next door to the Liberty Hotel. Now the novelist, who acted as writer and showrunner for the brilliant Apple TV+ miniseries Black Bird, is sitting here in the Liberty, so named because of its former vocation: a prison.
It’s an appropriate setting. Black Bird tells the true story of Jimmy Keene, a prison informant who risked his life to nail a serial killer. (The series is based on Keene’s autobiographical novel, In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption.)
Lehane and his chilling Black Bird star Paul Walter Hauser sat down with Cult of Mac and other journalists recently to discuss their critically acclaimed Apple TV+ show, which is racking up nominations as awards season gets underway. If Black Bird’s outstanding cast and crew receive the recognition they deserve, the show stands a good chance of picking up a handful of awards — and adding to the growing glow of prestige programming on Apple TV+. (Update: Hauser won the Golden Globe on Tuesday night for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.)
In the group interview, Lehane and Hauser talked motivation, working conditions and seeing into the mind of a psychopath, among other things.
Interview: Black Bird writer Dennis Lehane and star Paul Walter Hauser
In Black Bird, the six-part Apple TV+ series that aired this summer, Hauser plays Larry Hall, a cunning convict suspected of being a serial killer. But Lehane refused to depict the murders on screen.
“I don’t wanna see that shit,” he said. “It’s exploitative. These are daughters. I have daughters.”
Instead, Lehane set out to humanize the killer’s victims.
“That was my absolute middle finger to Larry Hall,” said Lehane. “It was. You can kill people, but you can’t make them un-live their lives. What produces a Larry Hall is an unhappy life. What created a Jessica Roach [one of Hall’s victims] was a good life. Her parents loved her very much.”
In fact, Lehane says he initially didn’t want to take on Black Bird due to the nature of the story he would tell.
“I hate serial killers,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this for that reason. I don’t want the victims known as ‘Victim Number One,’ ‘Victim Number Two.’ I tried to turn this job down. But I started to think about it from my own perspective…. Larry Hall is irredeemable, he’s a monster, he should never leave prison … but he’s a human being. The monster isn’t the other, the monster is us.”
Portraying a monster
Actor Paul Walter Hauser rose to the task of bringing the particular monster known as Larry Hall to life in Black Bird. He did such an excellent job, I felt a little ridiculous asking Hauser about his process — I almost don’t want to know. It works. Who cares why? Why spoil the magic?
Hauser credited Lehane’s script for the quality of the show.
“It was about Dennis’ writing. You just had to extract from it and be cognizant of it,” Hauser said about the material he was given to work with.
Hauser’s played a number of real-life figures at this point in his career. And luckily, Lehane’s novels are all populated by people the writer understood, people he grew up with. I asked Hauser whether the reality of a situation is something you have to contend with while preparing for such a role.
The actor said that, while he may have known Hall was a psychopath, approaching the character that way wouldn’t have been very productive for the creative process.
Hauser says he does as much research as possible before stepping on set. He mentions engaging in an hour-long chat with an old friend of Tonya Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhart when he went looking for footage of Eckhart and came up skint. (Hauser played Eckhart in I, Tonya.)
For Black Bird, Hauser says he didn’t start by looking at Hall’s crimes. He started by looking at the man himself — what little actual footage there was of the convict.
“He’s not twirling his mustache,” Hauser said.
Black Bird shows the power of a great creative team
All that work shows. Hall in Hauser’s hands becomes a pitiful figure, and a funny one at times. Only when you break through the walls do you get to glimpse the darkness of the situation.
Hauser says Black Bird’s final take, which depicts Hall screaming at Keene and trying to kill him, was his way of getting the killer character out of his system. The scene proves as upsetting as you might imagine, seeing Hauser exorcising the demon of this character.
It’s a world-class performance from one of the best U.S. actors under 40. Not that Hauser conducts himself like a movie star. Despite being well-dressed and charismatic in the interview (to say nothing of enormously talented when cameras roll), you’d mistake him for just another guy if you were walking by him.
For me, anyway, that was definitely true before I saw him act in movies like Richard Jewell and BlacKKKlansman. Hauser’s incredibly talented, and yet he’s so friendly and so humble that his presence disarms you.
When asked who he most wants to work with, Hauser mentioned the Coen brothers, and Lehane and I almost in unison said to him, “You were born to be in a Coen brothers movie.” It’s exciting thinking about what the actor will do next.
The story of Jimmy Keene
As mentioned, Black Bird tells the story of Jimmy Keene. Busted for selling drugs, Keene bargained his way out of jail after helping authorities nail Hall, who had killed dozens of young women. (Hall later recanted his confession, making an exact number difficult to calculate — just one of a hundred horrifying details about the case.)
Taron Egerton plays Keene and, though he’s a magnetic presence in many ways, it isn’t until I saw him square up with Hauser that I saw that he really could rise to the occasion and be a great actor. Working opposite great actors made him better. I don’t dare say this to Hauser, as it becomes clear that loyalty to his collaborators is the only currency that really goes anywhere in his world.
The key to successful collaboration
Lehane’s approach to collaboration sounds a little more cavalier.
“When my work was first being adapted I came up with a plan — only sell the work to people you respect and you’ll be OK,” Lehane said. “The first adapter I got was Brian Helgeland, who’s one of the best in the business. My take was, ‘Here’s my phone number. If you need me, call me.’ Otherwise you don’t need me breathing down your neck. Same with Laeta Kalogridis on Shutter Island and Ben [Affleck] and Aaron Stockard on Gone Baby Gone. You need me? Call me. I’m here.”
“What that gave me then was that when I started adapting people, I expected the same outta them,” Lehane said. “The first thing I did was a Stephen King [novel]. I called him and said, ‘I’m adapting Mr. Mercedes.‘ He said, ‘Oh that’s great.’ And then I said, ‘And that’s the last you’re gonna hear from me. Unless you need to tell me something specific or see something in the show.’ He said, ‘No, go with god.’ ‘Cause I know Stephen’s work, I know this book, and as long as I honor the intent and the soul of the book, I’m gonna break bad in other places.”
Screenwriting versus writing novels
For Lehane, it’s about crafting the finest possible version of a story for the screen.
“You can’t fear changes,” he said. “When Brian Helgeland did L.A. Confidential, that book took place over the course of five years, had about 20 subplots, and Brian cut out about 80% of them and made the movie take place over four months, changed the ending, changed the death of a major character, and yet that is James Ellroy’s vision on the screen. He got the spirit! Same thing with nonfiction. I wasn’t privy to James and Larry’s conversations, there’s very little dialogue in Keene’s book, but am I being true to the spirit of this? Am I being authentic? And the other big thing was: Can I look the parents of the victims in the eyes if I had to? I felt like I could.”
Despite the dark nature of the shows he’s worked on (on top of Black Bird and Mr. Mercedes, he also created The Outsider for HBO), Lehane says he loves his new line of work as a TV showrunner. And he especially enjoys casting and hiring the other creatives types who make a series like Black Bird sing.
“Cast great actors and you don’t have to worry about anything,” Lehane said. “Paul was cast because he’s a great actor but also because he’s got an inherent likability! Even when he’s being creepy and weird … you go, ‘But he’s Larry!.'”
And the writer says he felt quite at home during the editing process.
“Where I feel like a novelist is in editing,” he said. “I’ve been editing my novels for 25 years! Cut that, get there quicker. I don’t have trouble cutting. It’s about a feel issue.”
A call from Apple TV+ HQ
And that came up at least once during the production of Black Bird, when Lehane took a call from Apple TV+ execs.
“Taron’s best piece of acting, he probably hates that I tell this story, is at his father’s character memorial,” Lehane said. “It was the best acting he did in the whole series, but Apple TV called me, terrified. ‘So … you know the penultimate scene … t really drags the show down.’ I could hear them ducking on the phone when they told me. And I said [grimacing, holding his breath], ‘OK, we’ll cut it…’ I can feel it dragging.”
I ask about what interests Lehane, what he wants to do now that he’s proven himself as a showrunner.
“John Lee Hancock and I are talking about doing something based on a really primal nonfiction book from about 30 years ago. My next novel is also very primal — it’s set during the busing crisis in Boston, in 1974 just before the federal desegregation of the Boston public schools. I’m dyin’ to come back and shoot that.”
No matter what comes next, Lehane says he loves the freedom that being a showrunner gives him.
“Writing prose requires such focus from me that it was taking me away from being a father,” he said. “Being a screenwriter requires none of that.”
He recalls struggling with a scene in his novel Live By Night, when a character walks into a hotel and looks for somebody.
“It took me two weeks to write that,” Lehane said. “You write about what he sees in the room, but you have to keep it moving. What did people look like? What music was playing? In a script? That’s ‘INTERIOR — BALLROOM — NIGHT.'”
The room erupts in laughter, not for the first time today. No wonder these guys took to telling stories.
Watch Black Bird on Apple TV+
You can stream all six episodes of Black Bird now on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.