TORONTO — Even without the hair product that gives him a stiff, stylish 4-inch pompadour, Scott Cooper seems like a man whose nerves are on high alert. His new film, “Black Mass,” about Boston criminal Whitey Bulger’s decades-long rule, was about to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and here was a reporter for Boston’s paper of record asking him questions about civic and historic responsibility, about whether a movie owes anything and to whom. And, yes, what it was like to work with Johnny Depp. Nattily attired and seated against a high-rise hotel window that rendered him in Corleone-esque silhouette, Cooper gave as good as he got.
Q. Like it or not, we often go to movies for the bad guys. How does Whitey Bulger fit into that tradition and how does he remain outside it?
A. It’s easier to make a story about Capone or about Dillinger because of how much time has passed. This is a story that is still very fresh for people in Boston, so it’s about not mythologizing a man who would take the life of a young woman and place her under the floorboards of a house and remove her teeth. That’s why I chose to shoot the film in a very unflinching manner and not glamorize it; not move the camera too much, not have an overuse of music. All the sorts of things that, when Stephen Hussey, Deborah Hussey’s brother, sees the movie, he doesn’t say, “What is that?”
Q. How did you work with Depp to get a performance that’s as scary as it needs to be without mythologizing the character?
A. I said to Johnny, “This man is sociopathic, he’s diabolical, I need to see a man who is cold and chilling and calculating.” Is he charismatic to some people? Perhaps. There were people I met in South Boston who said to me they didn’t want to be bothered with the movie because they revered him. I said, “Johnny, we have to be very economical with our movements. This is a man who doesn’t blink much, because that shows weakness. He’s always in control. This is a man who, when he comes into a room, he disturbs the molecules in ways that are frightening and unnerving.”
Q. How did you and he work on a scene together? Is he a third-take guy, a 15th-take guy?
A. I don’t do a lot of rehearsal. Virtually none. We do a lot of investigative text work before, and I work very long hours with my cinematographer, who’s remarkable, to craft the scene so that by the time I get to the set, everybody knows where the camera’s supposed to be so that I can only work with the actors. And where we do most of our work is between “Cut” and “Action.” If you over-rehearse, the performances become stale and actors are making choices in their trailers or in their hotel rooms. If you give them freedom to take big risks, that’s really where the magic is.
So, for instance, the scene with Julianne Nicholson [as Marianne Connolly, wife of FBI agent John Connolly], where Whitey comes up to her room. I don’t need to shoot that in a wide master. I want to constrict the audience; I want you to feel like you’re Marianne Connolly, because she’s the moral compass of the film. It’s through her eyes that we see everybody for who they are. So: Didn’t rehearse that scene, she had no idea that I was going to have Johnny caress her face the way that he did. And I wanted to shoot her coverage first, because I knew that over time her reaction would become less authentic, just by human nature. And then when I turn around on Johnny, he and I together will craft a performance that we know will approximate what has just elicited this reaction from her. And you do that for every scene. And then it’s the high wire that they’re walking on, because I’m shooting on film [as opposed to digitally], and they understand that time is money and that this is where we’re going to really capture the performance.
Q. Why did you shoot on film?
A. It gives me a sense of realism and grain and texture that you don’t get digitally. Warmth. Emotion that works on a conscious and subconscious level. Shooting on film allows me to capture that world not in a nostalgic way, but in a way that makes you feel like what I said to all of my cast and my crew: We’re not making a film about the 1970s. We are making a contemporary film, and it’s 1975.
Q. So you’re making “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
A. That’s a great film.
Q. But that’s the head you’re getting into.
A. One hundred percent. I had no interest in making a stylized version of this film, because there are so many people who were affected by these men and what they did to the city of Boston. Would I make the film any other way?
Q. I heard that [Bulger associate] Kevin Weeks came on set?
A. He was around [pause].
Q. Who did you go to for local flavor?
A. Well, geez, everybody seemed to be local flavor. We spent a lot of time in South Boston. One of the fellows you see as a snitch in the end, with the gold teeth, he worked for Whitey, he used to start Whitey’s car for a C-note a week. I asked him, “Why would you do that?” And he said, “Because I knew it’d be ovah quick.”
Q. Last question. People are going to approach this movie with a certain trepidation. What do you want them to know to put them at ease?
A. People don’t come to narrative features for facts. They go to documentaries for facts. They come for psychological truth, they come for humanity, they come for emotion. This is a story that the filmmaker understands has left a deep emotional scar on the city of Boston and many of its denizens, and I wanted to make the story with the utmost respect, with the victims and the victims’ families in mind, and not tell it in a stylized manner that would trivialize the events that took place for three decades.
Q. And do you think it does?
A. You tell me.