Opening in limited release this weekend is writer/director Brian Helgeland’s Legend. The film features Tom Hardy co-starring with himself as real-life twin gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray, who ruled London’s criminal underworld in the 1950s and 60s. Legend follows the Krays on their quest for power in the London crime scene, with a little help from the American mafia, as British authorities hunt them down. Meanwhile, Reggie, the more stable of the two, also has to attempt to manage his unhinged brother while maintaining his marriage. Legend also stars Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Tara Fitzgerald, and Taron Egerton.
Recently I landed an exclusive interview with Brian Helgeland. During our wide-ranging conversation we talked about how he got involved in the project, balancing fact and fiction, his thoughts on why the gangster genre is so popular, how the film changed in post-production, what he learned from test screenings, his writing process, if he has a lot of scripts ready to go, how he won an Oscar and Razzie in the same weekend, and a lot more.
COLLIDER: Something interesting that I did not know until researching last night getting ready for this was that you won an Oscar (for L.A. Confidential‘s screenplay) and a Razzie (for The Postman’s screenplay) in the same year.
BRIAN HELGELAND: Yeah, in the same weekend.
Right, which is amazing. I heard that you accepted both, because I heard people go after Oscars. I heard those are popular.
HELGELAND: I had to go after my Razzie because they gave me one but they didn’t give me one, so they just announced it and they said ‘you won the Razzie’, and Monday I called and said ‘I want my Razzie’ and they said ‘we don’t have one’, we have the one we bring out on stage and hold up but we don’t have one, and I said ‘well if you’re going to give me a Razzie, I want my Razzie, you’re saying I won a Razzie but I don’t have one’. And they were laughing but they said ‘we have to make one, we don’t have one’, and I said okay and two weeks later they said they made the Razzie. At the time, I had an office at Warner Bros. and they came to Warner Bros. and they presented my Razzie and I got my Razzie and photographed it.
All kidding aside, Hollywood reviewers, critics, audiences, you never know what people are gonna love, you never know what people are gonna hate, and I think that’s so perfect because that’s both sides. Has that impacted you a little bit where when you read reviews and you hear what people think?
HELGELAND: Yeah. I worked as hard to write the worst film of the year as I did to write the best film of the year [laughs]. It wasn’t like we were sitting around wasting time, we had endless drafts…not that I agree, I’m working for two different directors, one I’m on a rail with, and the other is kind of a mad experience, but my own attempt at writing a good script, I worked just as hard on both of them.
So you still have the Razzie?
HELGELAND: I have the Razzie, yeah.
Is it near the Oscar?
HELGELAND: The Oscar’s wrapped in a towel in the closet. It’s just too much to look at, but the Razzie’s out.
HELGELAND: It’s falling apart because they didn’t do a great job.
No comment. There are a number of people who have gone there to accept it and done the parade and things like that.
HELGELAND: I know Sandra Bullock did and…Paul Verhoeven. That’s the only ones I know.
I have to get off this subject because I could really stay on it for a while. Regarding Legend, how long was your first cut versus the final release?
HELGELAND: I think the first cut’s always long, I think it was about three hours, the first cut.
Was that like an assembly cut?
HELGELAND: Assembly, yeah.
So how long was your first cut that you thought ‘I could maybe release this’?
HELGELAND: About 2:25.
And what’s the final?
Okay, so there’s about 15 minutes.
HELGELAND: Yeah, well with credits, so twenty minutes probably.
What were some of those sequences that you came close to putting in but ultimately you were like these have to go?
HELGELAND: It’s mostly trimming, it’s just cutting scenes down, ending sooner. For me in a film, almost every scene you end up cutting a bit of the start of it out, and some of the end of it out because there’s always…once you’ve rehearsed it and shot it, it feels like a couple of times and you can always get out sooner. So some of it is just ten minutes of twenty seconds from every scene. We had a very funny scene after they see the mafia where they’re leaving the hotel where they’re all talking, Ron and Reg, and David Thewlis’s character that I liked a lot, but we just didn’t have the budget to really pull it off. We’re doing a hotel lobby, interior and exterior in London in the 60s, and it just didn’t…it looked cheap. We didn’t have the money to really do it, so I cut it out. It wasn’t adding to the story really but it was a fun scene, so there’s things like that that you shoot and there’s always…there’s a great thing in the editing room where you realize the collateral you’ve built up from the way the scenes are flowing and you start to realize that I don’t need this scene, this scene’s been covered in these two scenes, so there’s a natural windowing down of things. There’s nothing I took out that I have any regret over or anything like that time wise. I think we had three montages of things that were going on in the film and we took one of them out but spread some stuff out to the other two…things like that.
What did you learn from friends and family screenings or any test screenings that impacted the final release?
HELGELAND: We didn’t have any friends and family screenings because I don’t…they’re just a waste of time [laughs]. You usually have people that the producers, not on this film because we didn’t have any, have briefed on what to say so they can drive their point.
HELGELAND: Or you have your own friends there that weren’t going to say anything negative to you. I think test screenings with an audience are useful because they have no dog in the fight, they just say how they feel. But every version we tested with audiences tested really well.
Is that because of Tom [Hardy] or your writing? I’m just kidding.
HELGELAND: I guess they just enjoyed it.
I’m just teasing.
HELGELAND: I know, both. It was always just that kind of battle to get some time out of it and stuff like that.
I am curious about the genesis and how you got involved. Was this a story that you had been kicking around for a while?
HELGELAND: I had heard about them in 1998 I think it was and I had been working at Warner Bros. for several years, only at Warner Bros. They own Atlantic Records and they wanted to do a Led Zeppelin biopic. The producer had sold them on that idea, and they asked me if I would be interested, which I was wildly interested to do that and so they sent me to the [Jimmy] Paige [Robert] Plant tour, which was in New Jersey at the time and I would go every night to the concert and be in the green room and in the…whatever the room they would all each lunch or dinner in…the deli room. Anyways I was starting to interview them to gather information and it turned out Jimmy Paige wanted to do a biopic movie and Robert Plant had no interest in it. He was very polite, but he wouldn’t speak to me, and obviously you couldn’t do it without the two of them, so it was immediately a waste of time by the third night.
But they had a gentleman in their management group who was missing a finger and he was an East London guy, an older guy, and since I was a kid if someone’s missing something, I gotta know what happened to it. I had breakfast with him and I asked him what happened to his finger and he held up his hand and he said ‘that was the Krays’, and I had never heard the name even, and I said ‘what, you were scuba diving and a Kray bit you? What’s a Kray?’ And he told me this story about the music business and London in the 60s and they came to shake down a club where The Who were playing that he was managing and he refused to pay and they cut his finger off and asked him what he thought then, and then he started to pay. I immediately thought that’s a great…I want to see that. I’d love to see the music world through that guy’s eyes rather than through the band’s eyes but I never did anything with it, and subsequently Working Title decided that they thought as producers that the time was right for another Kray movie.
I had worked for them on another project, on Green Zone with Paul Greengrass and had done gangster type films, crime films and so it seemed like a natural thing to bring me in. And I included that scene in the film and we got a letter from the guy threatening to sue us, saying it never happened and proving that it never happened, saying that he wasn’t the manager of The Who at the time and that he had been in prison and that he had lost it in an accident. But it turned out that it was just too good a story to pass up so that’s what he had been saying for years to people that the Krays had cut his finger off but they hadn’t. But what I thought was very interesting was that the very first story I heard about them was a lie and the second story I heard about them was a lie and the third story I heard about them was a lie and the fifth story I heard about them was a lie and everyone has a story about them and everyone claims a connection, or one degree removed or two degrees removed or my aunt or my cousin or…I found that very fascinating, I had never come across people that so much was written about and so little was known about and I didn’t know how I was gonna do it but I said let me try to write the script and see where it goes from there and that’s how it started.
Well I am curious about the balance, and a lot of people lose track of this, but the balance of trying to be accurate to the time, to the characters, while still telling the movie. You’re making a movie, so that line is not clear.
HELGELAND: I think if I knew the truth about Ronnie and Rich Kray, I’d be the first person to know it and I’m too far away from the events to know and no one’s ever…with all the fifty books written about them, most of them are very tabloid-y and lurid and trying to sell copies at stands at the airport, so there is no way to tell the truth about them because no one knows what it is exactly, but there’s things that people agree about and what I wanted to do was round off the two extremes of it which is that they’re angels on the one hand and devils on the other hand and the truth as much as you can track it down is in between some place. But at the same time, it’s my version of the stories and it always struck me as a little bit of an urban fairytale almost so there’s an element of that as a prince and princess, all of those things that are appealing about the story that keep the story alive in a way. It’s just very funny. Fifty years from now that story is still gonna be in London but it will have squirreled off in one way or another until they’re Robin Hood a hundred years from now. There are already…some of the stories are of them delivering Christmas presents to orphans.
It’s weird how every gangster has those stories. You wonder how much those are true and how much those are legit anyway. What do you think it is about the gangster and criminal genre that people just love to watch?
HELGELAND: Yeah, I think it goes along with other cop movies which they don’t make anymore or westerns, but it’s seen characters that first of all live by some code that’s particular to their world. It doesn’t mean that it’s good or bad, but there’s a set of rules that gangsters have that they live by that the average person doesn’t and they don’t follow the rules of polite society so to speak, but in return they get to live this large life but they accept that it’s gonna end badly. So in exchange for ten years of being on top, I’m gonna end up in prison or I’m gonna end up dead, and there’s something fascinating about that. They’re shooting stars in a way, and that doesn’t mean that they’re good but they made a choice that they’re gonna live life not that you agree with this life as a person who’s trying to be a good member of society and be a positive part of that society, but there’s a price to be paid for that and they’ve decided not to pay that, they’re gonna pay a different price. It’s very wish fulfillment too for the audience. You watch them and whether it’s Al Pacino or Edward G. Robinson, wow what a fascinating and interesting guy, they’re anti heroes and bad boys and all of those things that people are attracted to on some level as entertainment. You’re not attracted to it if it’s there in front of you.
I’ve had this conversation with people. Would you rather a crazy, unbelievably amazing five or ten years where you have money, power, and you can just do what you want, and that’s it, or would you rather have a normal, grounded, struggling life for fifty years? What do you want?
HELGELAND: Yeah, that is the attraction. But at the end of it you can go, I’m glad I’m not dead, I’m glad I didn’t spend thirty-five years in prison.
I am curious about the writing process. A lot of writers I speak to have a golden period where they’ll write from when they wake up for about four or five hours, and then that’s it, they’re done. And then other people I’ve spoken to can go 9-5, it’s like a job, they can just do it. What are you?
HELGELAND: Everyone’s different. Well not everyone’s different but I don’t have any ‘my way is the right way’, it’s just the way I function. I get up really early. I go to bed really early and get up really early, because I find that I’m the best and clearest in my head in the morning so I try to be at my desk by 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning and 80% of what I do is by 11:00, but I stay at my desk until about 4:00, and the second half of the day produces about 20% of the day. But I always do it. I know that returns are diminishing, I don’t give myself a break, so to speak. I found that in the next day, I pay a price for it. I think there’s a part of the day that you’re very good and that you can’t get away with just easy writing. I think writing is a difficult thing and you need to suffer a little bit, even if it’s just to sit there and think what an idiot you are and how anyone else could do this better than you can.
I’ve never heard that from any writer before. How many scripts you might have sitting in the desk that you’ve written that are just waiting there. Do you have a lot?
HELGELAND: Because I’ve been at it so long and very steadily, I have a lot of credits, but I probably have twice as many scripts that were never made for whatever reason. In my own experience, the scripts that I wrote, if they didn’t go within two years and become a film, they never went and no one ever came looking for them. I try to not forget them, but at first I always think ‘well some day they’re gonna make this and some day they’re gonna make that’, and it never happens. It’s always once the script’s done in the first two years if it doesn’t get going somehow or another, I’ve never had an old script that someone’s made later on.
Is there one that secretly you’re thinking ‘this is still timeless, we can do this’?
HELGELAND: Yeah, yeah, there’s a few. I wrote a script of Cortez and Montezuma that I really liked, but I’m not the only person. There’s a bunch of them out there and none of them have ever been made, really.
Do you think it’s because the subject matter maybe is better suited for a mini-series or a ten-episode thing on FX or HBO?
HELGELAND: Not necessarily. And that’s only come up recently. It’s only in the last four or five years that that’s become an option, but I’m not interested in TV. I want to make movies so I’m going to die with my boots on. There’s one script I wrote called Finestkind which I wrote a long time ago and I keep rewriting it to try to give it a new life but nothing’s ever happened with that either, so it’s like whatever it’s gonna be I haven’t written it yet. That’s just the way it goes.
My last question: what are you writing now? What are you thinking about doing in the future?
HELGELAND: I honestly don’t know. I know a lot of directors have a whole staff of people trying to find their next film for them. I always just end up writing mine and I’ve been on this for two years and I’m cut off from my supply line which is my salt. I don’t know, but it’s out there somewhere I hope.
I’m confident you’ll land on your feet, I’m pretty sure.
HELGELAND: We’ll see, but yeah.
Legend will see limited release in theaters nationwide on November 20th.