• Tom Hardy plays dual roles as the infamous Kray brothers in 'Legend' (2015). (Legend)Source: Legend
The writer-director with enviable credits to his name, shares a few secrets about his dark - and darkly funny - gangster pic.
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20 Oct 2015 - 9:56 AM  UPDATED 15 Oct 2015 - 3:53 PM

Do a search online for filmmaker Brian Helgeland and amongst the conventional bio tid bits this factoid takes undue prominence: he once won an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year.

This was 1998. The Academy Award was for his screenplay adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (1997) which seemed then, as now, richly deserved.

Helgeland’s Golden Raspberry was for the script of Kevin Costner’s The Postman (1997). The less said about that one the better. Except to say that maybe Helgeland had it coming.

Still, this bit of movie trivia says a lot about the folly in building a career in the movie business where talent and striking ideas are easy prey to ego and mismanagement, execution and profit motive.

Helgeland, still only in his early fifties, began his career over thirty years ago penning genre pics. After many years of unproduced work his first credit was on 1988’s Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.

His family were Rhode Island scallop fishers from whom he inherited a sense of humour and a powerful work ethic assets enabling survival in the Hollywood game.

He rises well before dawn every day, he told SBS, and doesn’t stop till about 8.30 at night. To date, he’s written 65 screenplays. His output has ‘slowed’ since his directing debut in 1999 with Payback starring Mel Gibson.

His latest is Legend which he wrote and directed and stars Tom Hardy and Emily Browning.

Funny, bizarre, deeply strange and very violent Legend is a mid-60s set gangster drama that deals with notorious East Enders the Kray twins: Ronnie and Reggie. Hardy plays both the brothers and Browning is Frances, Reggie’s ill-fated sweetheart.

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By turns tender and glam, Legend has aside from the odd enthusiast met only with indifferent reviews in the UK and USA, which tend to overlook the virtues typical in even the weakest of Helgeland’s pics: whip-smart dialogue and inspired storytelling that has the best genre has to offer combined with the desire to take the viewer into places both dark and emotional.

Helgeland spoke to SBS via phone from his LA home  as Legend opens around Australia. 

This a very English story. It’s certainly well known to generations of Brits. It’s been the subject of books, films, and documentaries. How did you hear about it?

Some time ago I was asked to write a script that was going to be a Led Zeppelin bio-pic. I went on tour with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. One of them wanted to make the film and the other didn’t. Which is why the film was never made. Amongst the entourage on tour was a number of East Enders of a certain age and there was a guy I talked to a lot and I noticed he had a missing finger and one day I asked him about and he held it up and said: “Dat was’dKrays.” At first I thought he was talking about a scuba diving attack where a creature had taken his finger…it took me a while to figure he was talking about people.

He then told me about Ronnie and Reggie Kray and how they controlled the East End in the mid '60s, extorting money from clubs and so on. He told me he’d refused to pay and so they lopped off his finger. Turns out he made the story up. And that happens with the Krays… The second story I heard about them was a lie. And the third.

I read about them, though, and I never thought of doing a film until Tim Bevan from Working Title called. He felt the time was right to do another telling of this story. I thought about it. I did some research and the more I learned about them the less I knew, in a way. It made me curious.

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You are a great believer in research and have often said that you try to put that one detail from life into the film so that it is alive to the viewer in a special way. What was it here?

I think it was interesting how open Ronnie was about being gay. At the time people were being gaoled in Britain for homosexuality.

Yes. In one scene Ronnie explains his sexual orientation to an American mob boss who is incredulous.

Someone told me that story. It couldn’t have made being a gangster any easier.

Indeed the film is frequently hilarious and vulgar and weird all at once and critics have been harsh about that co-mingling of dramatic registers. Still, this is a part of the Helgeland style, no?

Yes. If a scene is only sad or only funny to me it’s a huge missed opportunity – it’s like life – anything can be absurd and tragic all at the same time.

Hardy is brilliantly funny throughout.

Yes. I tried not to laugh and disturb the actors during a take but I found myself doubled over a lot of the time.

Part of the fun of Legend is its use of idiomatic dialogue that really turns back time and puts us in this very narrow, highly codified world. This is not your culture, let alone ‘tribe’ so how did you go about achieving this authenticity without falling into camp?

Well what you are talking about is part of the writer’s job; I have a lot of Brit friends so I ‘test’ out lines. Another thing was that when Reggie was in prison after a while he was always looking for a way to make some money and he put out a book called ‘Reggie Kray’s Guide to Slang' and I used that book a lot…He was like a co-writer in a way.

From L.A. Confidential to Mystic River to Knight’s Tale and 42 you’ve been drawn over and over again to stories where a character’s crisis/conflict arises from their relationship to their identity.

[Laughs] Yes…I’ve always been attracted to that theme and I’ve been able to hide it well by how different the movies are.

In Knight’s Tale Heath Ledger’s character has to pretend to be someone else to be himself. In Legend all of Reggie’s problems come from trying to not be who he is – trying to be a boyfriend or husband or normal person is where everything goes wrong for him. The irony is that Ron is much more honest about who he is.

Tell us about the casting?

Emily Browning was about the tenth person we saw for Frances and I knew straight away she was the one and she holds the movie together. I needed someone who could stand up to Tom Hardy since every scene her character has is with Reg or Ron or both. If she couldn’t do that the movie wouldn’t work and she does it tremendously.

Did you go after Tom Hardy?

I went after him to play Reg because I didn’t know whether I wanted one actor to play both and Reggie is the lead. I had dinner with him and all he talked about was on Ron and all I talked about Reg. Finally he said, ‘I’ll give you Reg, if you give me Ron.’ I said it was a deal but I don’t think either of us realised what we agreed to.

The ‘twinning’ effect works very well distinguished but just how completely different Hardy makes each of the brother’s as well as seamless digital work.

Yes. I didn’t want it to be a gimmick. Tom succeeded in making Tom Hardy disappear and leaving you with the Krays.

At the end of the day I think it’s a bit of fallacy that directors like to perpetuate that they are moulding the performance and the truth is…its like Tony Scott says ‘I work with great actors so that I can do my job! I have enough to do without telling them how to do their job.’ I feel the same way. The ringmaster doesn’t tell the knife thrower how to throw knives.

You’ve said the screenwriting is ‘architecture’. What’s directing then?

Directing is construction.

 

Legend is in cinemas now. 

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