For his most recent gig, Brian Helgeland found himself spending a lot of time with aging British gangsters with hands “like slabs of meat.”
Helgeland is an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director. His writing credits include L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, and Green Zone; on Payback, A Knight’s Tale, and 42, he also took the director’s seat. The dual role is true as well of Helgeland’s Legend, which charts the rise and fall of the notorious Kray twins, gangsters in London’s East End in the 1950s and ‘60s. (It hits theaters today.) Helgeland took research on the film seriously–which meant a number of extended rendezvous with meat-slab-handed men.
The film features a star performance from Tom Hardy, who plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the film. (Helgeland originally only wanted Hardy for the role of Reggie. “You give me Ronnie and I’ll give you Reggie,” Hardy replied, and a deal was struck.)
Fast Company caught up with Helgeland at the Austin Film Festival, where he was the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Screenwriter Award, to talk about the process of researching, writing, and shooting Legend. (Spoiler alert: If you want to avoid what could be considered the movie’s main spoiler, you might want to skip ahead to the third question.)
Fast Company: You had to sort a lot of fact from fiction in writing this.
Brian Helgeland: The book we optioned gave a great timeline of events. But the thing with the Krays is, while everyone knows what day something happened, there are 300 theories of why it happened. I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. Especially Reggie’s killing of Jack the Hat [McVitie], which was violent and brutal and made no sense. I met with people who knew him, and had to use a kind of emotional forensics to sort it all out.
You made the decision to have Reggie Kray’s wife, Frances, narrate the story.
I asked people about her, and they had no recollection of her, beyond, “She was pretty.” Then I spent a whole day with Chris Lambrianou, one of the Krays’ gangsters. I had just about given up on her, as far as finding out more, and I asked him, “Could you tell me about Frances?” He said, “Frances was the reason we went to prison.” They were all being followed by the police, but Reggie stopped putting out fires once she died. He’d drink himself into oblivion every night. When he told me that story, it all suddenly made sense why he got into that state of mind when he stabbed McVitie to death. It was almost like he wanted the police to come get him.
Have the gangsters you interviewed seen the film?
They all came to a screening in London’s Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood. The whole back two rows were mobbed up. The thing I always notice about these guys is their hands. They’re just like slabs of meat. If they grabbed your arm too tight, you’d die.
And did they find the movie accurate?
Lambrianou said, “You nailed him.” Another guy named Freddie Foreman, his big beef was that the pub where Ron kills Cornell wasn’t on a corner. He said, “Why’d you put it on a corner?” I told him I didn’t have money to control traffic on the street. He said, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve looked into it.” That was his only issue, though.
Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the extremely eccentric Ron Kray is amazing.
I think people are a little bit surprised at how funny the movie is. I’m a big believer that any movie can be all kinds of things at once: funny, poignant, violent, tender. Ron was very, very funny without knowing it. He was larger than life. Tom responded to that. He felt that Ron was kind of like the Shakespearean fools–funny, but what they say is true.
How do you prevent the Ron character from hijacking scenes?
When you’re shooting, you let him hijack the scene. When you’re shooting, you try everything, but then in the editing room, you set rules for how far to let him go. Sometimes you rein him in a bit, other times you let him go.
We celebrate failure at Fast Company. You were awarded a Razzie (for The Postman) and an Oscar (for L.A. Confidential) in the same year.
I worked really hard on The Postman. It wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m just cashing my checks.” And then at a certain point I was gone, and the director was making the movie what he wanted it to be. You try just as hard to make a good movie, as a movie that people think is no good. Movies take on their own lives.
I read you’re one of the only writers to actually accept their Razzie.
I won the Razzie on Saturday, and I won the Oscar on Sunday. When they announced it, I didn’t care; I thought it was kind of funny. The next week I called my agent and asked, “Where’s my Razzie? If they’re giving me a Razzie, I want my Razzie.” They said, “Well, we just have one Razzie that we bring out at press conferences.” I said, “If you’re gonna give me a Razzie, you have to give it to me.” They said, “Okay, we have to make one, it’ll take about two weeks.” It was a kind of raspberry made with sequins. Hey, it’s still an award! It’s hard to write the worst film of the year, too!
This interview has been condensed and edited.