Resurrecting the Kray twins
Oscar-winning writer/director Brian Helgeland has re-invented the gangster movie with his biopic of the notorious Kray brothers
Growing up in a fishing town in New England, there was little early indication that Brian Helgeland would become an Oscar-winning scriptwriter and director. Or that his name would be attached to some of the most era-defining films of his generation.
His father was a commercial fisherman, and Brian, despite being an English major, seemed fated to follow in his footsteps. He spent 18 months working the seas. "But the winters were really, really cold, and my second winter I remember I wanted to go and do something different," he says. His first thought was that he would join a friend in Florida and bum around. "But I ended up in a book store, and I saw a book which was a guide to film schools, which I didn't even know existed." Crucially, film school promised the sun. "It was all LA, they were all there." He had "always loved the idea of California, and had never been," so it seemed a good idea to go, to apply.
Later, he got an agent almost as accidentally. "You had to write half a script for the class, and at the end, I had written the whole thing," he explains, of how he then entered his finished script into a writing contest. "I won second place. But I had gone home to go fishing for the summer, and you go out 10 days at a time. My dad tracked me down and said, 'You're a finalist in some contest.'"
Now, when people ask him "how do you get an agent?", the only answer he can offer is; "go to film school and write a script that wins a contest. That's the only way I know how to do it."
Helgeland thinks that his own backround story has, naturally enough, shaped his interests as a writer. "I grew up in a world in which where I ended up wasn't possible really," he explains. Thus, in his film projects, he has always been preoccupied with characters experiencing conflicts of identity. LA Confidential, for example, one of his most famous credits, was "a novel, but what I immediately found relate-able about it was that everybody wanted to be somebody that no-one thought they were," he explains. The story A Knight's Tale, starring Heath Ledger, has a similar theme, he explains. "It's a peasant who wants to be a knight. I don't just mean getting out of your class, but his identity - he always has to hide who he really is."
It's territory which he is "endlessly fascinated by ... It's hard to really know anybody, even people you've known a long time. But you hopefully know yourself ... It's like I get to be my own psychiatrist in a way, writing-wise, anyway."
For his latest project, Legend, he has achieved something audacious on two counts. First as an American, he's taken on, as writer and director, one of the most quintessentially British stories of all - that of the Kray Twins, the notorious East End gangsters whose reputation and influence remains one of the defining features of 1960s London. And second, he has pulled off with aplomb the daring and risky decision to cast one actor (Tom Hardy) to play both identical twin brothers Ron and Reggie Kray.
Legend seems a remarkable achievement to anyone who has even a glancing familiarity with the East End milieu which produced the Krays. Everything about the piece - the language, the visuals, the tone, the characterisations, seems note-perfect. But Hegeland insists this is just "the writer's job. To sort that out."
"The first thing I do, he says, "is I read novels that were written at the time, just to see how people talk to each other. I watched a lot of films set in the 1960s. It's still movie dialogue, but you can get a sense of how people talk to each other." Another valuable reference was Reggie Kray's own Book of Slang, which he wrote while in prison. "I got a lot of words I could take out of that and stick in the dialogue," Helgeland says.
He has, conveniently, "a lot of British friends," whom he got to read the script to ruthlessly edit for language and tone. "I make mistakes and I'd always be calling different people and saying "How would you say this?" One particularly valuable reader in this case, he says, was the actor Paul Bettany. Regarding the second big risk, casting Hardy as both Kray twins, the smooth, seductive Reggie and his psychopathic brother, Helgeland says it was actually the actor's idea. He had him in mind to play Reggie and gave Tom the script "just to read ... We had dinner and all he talked about was Ron, to the point that he already had a version of Ron's voice and was using it to ask me to pass the potatoes, just to be funny - not like he was crazy or anything. But very obviously he wanted to play Ron."
He was aware from the outset the potential for error. "Before you start prepping almost, you've either made or broken the film. The horrible thing is you're not going to know it, until maybe you're done, or even worse until halfway through and there's no turning back, and you can just see that it doesn't work ... A film can be almost like an avalanche - there's no way to stop it."
It would have been "safer to cast two separate guys. Although for the second guy you're limited, because you've got to find a great actor but also one who looks like the first guy you cast. But it's a safer limit in a way."
His faith ultimately, was in Hardy, his lead actor. "He's a movie star, but his heart is a character actor. He gravitates to all these characters and then turns them into the lead - kind of like Dustin Hoffman. He's so great and has so much charisma he's a movie star character actor in a way," he says.
An early indication that the plan was working came on set when the two characters soon became "so separate that we would get confused sometimes. Reggie would be gone to hair and make-up and we'd be trying to move things along and somebody would say 'Ok, well, let's get Ron out here.'"
As a writer, Helgeland searched for some time for a fresh perspective on a story that has already been well told. His light-bulb moment came when investigating the character of Frances Kray, Reggie's childhood sweetheart - a vulnerable young woman who married and divorced him before finally committing suicide. "There's not much written about her,'" he says. "And the things that are written about her, it's very tabloidy. Like you'll read they never had sex because when she filed for divorce it was for non-consummation. So everyone says they never had sex. Except when you look at the divorce laws at the time, there's only two ways to get divorced and one of them is non-consummation." Suspecting the enigmatic Frances might be his key in, he began digging. He asked the actress Barbara Windsor about her. "I had a photograph of the two of them in a nightclub, both looking great. She couldn't remember too much about her. She said she was quiet, very pretty."
He had "almost given up on trying to find anything out about her," when he came across an associate of the Krays who told him, "Frances is the reason why we all went to prison." Helgeland knew straight away he "had found what I was looking for. He told me 'when she killed herself, Reggie stopped functioning.'"
Helgeland discovered that after his wife's death, Reggie's efforts to protect his interests; squashing investigations and bribing police floundered.
His crew "could feel the police getting closer and closer ... it was almost like he was waiting to get arrested," he says. With this key revelation, Helgeland had found his way in, and knew immediately he was going to do the film. "I knew now how to tell the story."
Legend is now showing.
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