Brian Helgeland’s career began in horror, as he wrote the scripts for such genre pieces as A Nightmare On Elm Sreet 4 and 976-EVIL. But it was his adapted screenplay for the 1997 thriller LA Confidential that really put Helgeland on the Hollywood map; netting him an Oscar and receiving rave reviews, its success paved the way for his more recent career, which included the hit thriller Payback (1999), Helgeland’s big-screen debut as a director, and his script for the acclaimed drama Mystic River (2003).
Helgeland’s latest film is Legend, a British gangster thriller about the exploits of the Kray twins. Rising from London’s underworld to become unlikely celebrities at the height of the swinging 60s, Ron and Reggie Kray were more famous as nightclub owners than for their murderous gangland exploits. Through the eyes of young Londoner Francis (Emily Browning), who falls under the charming Ron’s spell, Legend digs beneath the twins’ self-mythologising, revealing the violent, even sociopathic streak that lay beneath the sharp suits and glitzy clubs. It’s also another showcase for Tom Hardy, who dominates the film in his dual role as both twins; the suave, witty Ron and his grandiose, terrifyingly unpredictable sibling.
We sat down with Mr Helgeland to talk about that towering performance, getting a violent gangster movie made in the current filmmaking environment, and why Legend had to be a feature film and not a TV show. Oh, and be sure to stick around for a sterling anecdote about how he met the famed director Richard Donner completely by chance…
I wondered how important it was for you to write a masculine story from a female perspective.
I thought seeing it from Francis’s point of view would take you into the film in a way you couldn’t otherwise. And I think, oddly – not even oddly, intentionally – she loves Reggie, and she forgives him, in a sense. She won’t forgive him, but she understands him. I thought that was an important way in, for the audience to understand him also. Because I don’t want to judge him. He’s my character, you know? He’s the guy I’m making a movie with, in a way.
So to be in judgement of him, looking down on him, is really a wrong way to do it. To be down looking up at him is also wrong. So I want to be with him, and she allows me to do that. She can say things about him that he can’t say himself, because of the kind of guy he is. So yeah, I thought it was crucial to the whole thing.
What was it like coming to this story as an American? You’re coming to a British gangster story, a British way of life.
It’s still gangsters, and the British have a history of gangster films. The Americans have gangster films. Our gangster films are all family films, and the Krays are a family like the Gambinos or the Gallo Brothers. That is more curious here [in the UK], in a way – coming at it from a US point of view, gangsters are usually related. You can trust your brother. So I didn’t really think about it all that much, other than I knew I had to get the language right.
A lot of American gangster movies are very much about the dark side of the American dream. About rising up. Scarface, all those movies, are about ascendancy, and starting from lowly beginnings with not a lot of avenues to take advantage of. I thought the Krays fit right into that, in a sense. I think British crime films, a lot of the time, are more about a particular job – getting a gang together to rob a train, that kind of thing. But I thought the Krays fit into that almost Horatio Alger, American dream storyline without me having to force it that way. So I recognised that as an easier story to tell.
It has a universality, I suppose.
Obviously, there was a lot of self-mythologising with the Krays. Was it important for you not to put them on a pedestal, to show the violence for what it was?
Yes. I have to have empathy for Reggie. I’m not a violent person, so I don’t have empathy that way, but it was important to show. I had empathy in the sense that he was a man who felt stuck doing his duty to his brother, stuck not being able to be himself. I could empathise with that. But yeah, I didn’t want to apologise for them, and I don’t want to sanitise them, either. Showing the violence as realistically as we could was important, especially as you’re progressing along. You know, the first pub fight – it’s violent, and we don’t hide that it’s violent, but it’s more fun. So you slowly strip away the fun until you get to McVitie, which is not fun at all.
That pub scene’s really interesting. Did you conceive it that way from the very beginning, with that line, “It’s like a western…”? Was that on the page?
Yeah, because of who Ron was. He was enamoured with Al Capone, and he used to talk about cowboys and Indians and those kinds of things. So that’s how he saw it – he’s all geared up for a proper gangland event, but it’s not turning out how he wants it to. It was fun, because Reggie was very straight – he’s witty and funny, but he’s also very straight. Ron’s this outrageous character, so he’s fun to write. I didn’t have to invent it – it was how they were.
How important was it to get Tom Hardy in this, because he has the right intensity for Ron, but he brings out his absurdity as well.
I don’t know who else could have pulled it off, really. I started out by saying, I’m going to cast Reggie. When I write, I don’t think of an actor, I just think of the characters. But as soon as you’re done and there’s a reality to who’s going to do it, having one guy play both characters was attractive on some levels, but on another level, it could be a gimmick that sinks the movie, because if you can’t get it out of your head, you can’t get lost in the film. At the same time, if you get two guys to do it, you need two guys who look like each other. I knew I had to get Reggie first, regardless. And that’s a less attractive part, in a way, especially for somebody like Tom, who’s a movie star who’s always trying to hide that he’s a movie star by playing character parts.
When we met, all he would talk about was Ron. So I knew he wanted to play Ron, I wanted him to play Reggie, and at the end of the meeting, at dinner, he said, “I’ll play Reggie if I can play Ron.” And we decided right there, so the movie was going to be made or broken at that early stage, in a way. Then there’s all the work of how we pull all that off.
But nobody’s really seen this movie star Tom Hardy. The really pure, great-looking, groomed – he can stand there like James Bond a lot of the time. Having Ron to play made it okay for him to go straight movie star on Reg, which I’m excited about – I’m really excited for people to see that version of Tom. Because they’ve seen him play Ron [before], in a way, you know?
Yes, it’s really interesting to see both sides of his ability in one movie. So obviously, you’re shooting the performances separately and compositing those sequences. Was there a point, looking at the footage, where you thought, “Yeah, this is really going to work”?
Yeah, because the split screen you can put together on set, even. You can put them together, not perfectly, but we had a monitor for eye-lines and things, so we knew a week in that, at least technically, it was going to work. It was an odd thing; they were so separate, and everyone, the DP, the first AD, myself, at some point, said, “Okay, Ron’s in make-up, We’ll shoot Reggie.” Then everyone’s like, “Ah, it’s the same guy!” [Laughs]
Because that’s how different they were. We’d forget ourselves, sometimes. And Tom had to do it from hour to hour. We’d start with Reggie in the morning and then we’d do Ron in the afternoon. So he had to just [clicks fingers] flick a switch, really.
It’s a great performance. Going back to the start of your career, where you started in horror. You wrote Nightmare On Elm Street 4, 976-Evil. Back then, did you think you’d get into directing? Did you write thinking that would be your way in?
To me, I never thought of it as anything other than making movies. I mean, I was a writer, but I didn’t think, “I’m a writer, so where’s that going to go?” I always just thought it was all part of making movies. And those things were great back then, because there was a lot of opportunities – no one established wanted to dirty their hands with horror movies. They’re very cinematic – it’s almost the most cinematic story, horror. Anyways, it was fun to start that way. And as I progressed out of that, and a few things got made and I thought, “That’s not how it should’ve been made,” and those kinds of things… I was working with Dick [Richard] Donner, I did a couple of things with him.
Yeah, you did Assassins.
Yeah! And we were on Conspiracy Theory. And he knew I wasn’t happy with how he was doing things. Very nicely – he wasn’t threatened by it – he just said, “I can only make this movie the way I see it. Based on how I live my life and what I think a movie should be. If you want it to be how you want it to be, you have to direct.”
I’d thought about it, it wasn’t an alien thought, but that’s what got me into directing. And he actually produced the TV show Tales From The Crypt, and he gave me an episode of that to direct. That was the very first thing I did. Which in his own kind of graciousness, was, “You’re unhappy with what I’m doing? Well go and learn how to do it [yourself], then you’ll see.”
I remember, it was on Payback, on day four, when I just saw my own differences as a director than a writer, I called him and apologised for all the times I was stomping my feet on different things when I worked for him.
Is it true you met him by complete coincidence?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I was crossing a parking lot at Warner Bros. I had a writer’s deal there, an old-fashioned writer’s deal. I went to pick up a fax at my office there, and my son, who was three at the time, had a pair of binoculars. He was always walking around like this [mimics a short kid peering around with binoculars clamped to his face]. On the drive in, every time I’d say, “What are you lookin’ at?” He’d say, “I see gold!” Because he’d just watched Treasure Island. So we’re going through the parking lot, and I knew who Dick was, because he was a god, especially at Warner Bros. He was getting out of his Rolls Royce, of course, and getting something out of the trunk, and I’m just walking, thinking, [in reverential tone], “There’s Dick Donner! There he is!”
He turned around and so my son – he didn’t see me, he just saw my son. And he was looking at him as he was walkin’ along, and he goes, “Hey!”, looking down at him, thinking he was funny. He goes, “What are you lookin’ at?” And my son literally looked up and said, “I see gold!”
And Dick says, “You’re goddamn right you do!” [Laughs]
Then he looked at me and said, “So what do you do? What are you doing here at Warner Bros?” And I said, “I’m a screenwriter. I have an office here.”
Three days later, I was rewriting a script for him, which turned out to be Assassins. People always want to know, how do you go about finding your way in Hollywood. Well, I say, just give your kid a pair of binoculars and start walking through parking lots! [Laughs] See what happens, you know? So that’s how I met him!
That’s fantastic! What do you think about the state of filmmaking now? Because I was thinking while I was sitting there watching Legend, we don’t get enough really great gangster films and crime films these days. That genre seems to be falling away a little bit.
I think everything goes in cycles so, you know, in 20 years’ time it might be wall-to-wall gangster films. But films right now have gotten to be such a big event, and the bigger they get and the more money they spend on them, the morality of the characters gets very thinned out. It’s just, he’s good and he’s fighting evil. Which is fun in a comic book movie, when you get to something like this, the studios get very nervous about the prospect of a movie like that. The financial rewards from a movie like that, they assume are going to be limited. Making movies like this, it’s always hard to make a good movie, but it’s really hard now. And I don’t want to do this on television. I don’t want to do the 10-part series about the Krays – I want a proper film. When people say, “Isn’t that a great avenue,” I say no. Why do I want to do a 10-hour TV thing that people are gonna watch on their iPad?
So you think that cinema should sit apart from TV?
I really do. And the gangland of 1960s London is a world that you can’t… movies should be a world you can go and lose yourself in. If it’s Thor, or Spider-Man or The Fast And The Furious, they create a world that you visit, that you couldn’t ever see in real life. But this is that same thing – it’s no different. That’s what you go to the movies for. To take it all apart and minimise that experience, and put it on TV where it’s people talking to each other, it’s not how you want to tell that story. It’s still a big movie story that you’ve got to sit in a theatre and [watch] – to look at all those old clubs on this enormous screen, and think, “I’d love to go to a place like this. I won’t be able to go to some 60s nightclub, but I can by going to see this film.”
What do you think about the way London’s changed? It’s become this gentrified place. There are very different kinds of crime here now, really.
Yeah, in the city itself, it’s hard to find those locations. I’d imagine in another 10 years it’ll be almost impossible. But yeah, crime [these days] is always scams and money laundering. Things that happen on a banking level, that aren’t considered crimes, but really are.
So what are you working on next?
I don’t know. We just finished [Legend]. But I’m attached to a remake of the old western, The Professionals, the one with Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. I’m telling it as a modern story. But I don’t know if I’m going to do that next or not.
With that, our time is sadly up. Brian Helgeland, thank you very much.
Legend is out in UK cinemas on the 9th September.
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