Black Bird showrunner Dennis Lehane doesn’t micromanage.
It was, truth be told, a major concern of his as he made the leaps from novelist to screenwriter, screenwriter to producer, and producer to showrunner.
“You’ve heard a lot of people who are good showrunners are micromanagers,” Lehane told Below the Line during a recent Zoom call. “I’m not a micromanager. When I came on [Black Bird], I started to hire, and my Production Designer [Charisse Cardenas] said, ‘What do you see for the look of the show?’ I said, ‘On one hand, I see it as very sweet and dark. That’s the Jimmy world. In a natural world that our monster comes and destroys, I see it as very bucolic. I see it very much like Terrence Malick’s early films, like Days of Heaven.’ She ran off to the races, and that’s what I got.”
Lehane first exploded onto the entertainment scene as an author, with several of his books adapted into major movies by Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), and Ben Affleck (Live by Night). He also served as a writer on The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Mrs. Mercedes, and The Outsider, and was a producer on all of those shows as well except for The Wire.
His latest project is Black Bird, an Apple TV+ series based on the memoir In with the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption by James Keene (with Hillel Levin). It’s a six-episode miniseries starring Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene, who pled guilty to a cocaine drug bust and expected a light sentence, only to be slapped with 10 years of jail time. Fortunately for Jimmy, the FBI and the prosecutor who put him behind bars are willing to grant him his freedom much sooner if he agrees to enter a high-security prison and coerce a confession from a man (Paul Walter Hauser) they believe to be a serial killer, one who could walk due to a technicality.
The chilling prison series co-stars Greg Kinnear, Sepideh Moafi, and, in one of his final roles, Ray Liotta as Jimmy’s father. The first two episodes dropped on July 8, and they’re terrific, so be sure to check out the show, as well as our conversation with Lehane below:
Below the Line: Some people think books are totally different from movies and television, while others think – for lack of a better term – that they’re kissing cousins. Others think it’s all under the umbrella of entertainment. What’s your take?
Dennis Lehane: They share narrative DNA and that’s about it. A book is very much active entertainment. You have to engage a book. You have to pick it up. You have to put in the work. You have to sit there, and you have to chew your way through it, if you will. With a film or TV show, you can sit. It’s more passive and it flows at you. That’s one of the first differences I see.
As a writer, I find them completely different. One’s an apple and the other is a banana. I don’t find them all that connected.
A script is a template; it’s like a guidebook. It’s saying to the 200 other people who are going to work on this film, “This is what we’re doing. We will interpret this through various ways.”
A novel? You’re in it. You are completely in control. You are God from beginning to end, and when it’s over nobody interprets it except the reader. You’re done. You just handed it in. It’s a finite thing.
BTL: So, why not continue to play God with books?
Lehane: It’s lonely being God. You’re sitting up on the mountain. It’s boring. I just got tired of it. It takes too much out of me, and I’m a better father when I’m not running it all. I love being a father, so I thought, ‘If I can make just as much money doing this over here and actually have a social life now, meeting people and making friends, I’m going to do this.’ When my kids go to college, I might go back to writing novels. I don’t know.
BTL: I read an old interview you did, from before Eastwood turned Mystic River into a movie. Your quote about a book of yours being made into a movie by others was, “You just have to hope.” How did that first successful experience with Hollywood influence what you’ve gone on to do, which includes books by other authors?
Lehane: The thing is, I only get involved with people whose taste I admire. That’s it. You’ve got to be on the same page that way. Once you do that, the worst you’re going to get is an honest failure, and I have no problem with that. Absolutely none. A well-intended failure is fine. You can’t bat 1,000. Nobody can. I feel as long as you respect my work and respect the spirit of my work, the final result is whatever it is. It’s okay. I approach all my adaptations the same way. I will not be giving you exactly what was in the book, but I will be giving you the spirit and the essence of the book. That’s what I owe you.
BTL: Why Black Bird? What did you see in Keene’s story that interested you?
Lehane: One, it exists on a clear mythological line, and I love that. It’s a story as old as time. It’s the young man who was sent out of his village to fight the monster that is threatening it. He goes into a dark forest and down into a dark cave, where he does battle and comes back out of it a changed man. That’s this story. There’s no real big difference between the two. I liked investigating what it said about the male psyche and what it said about performative maleness versus actual maleness; what it said about toxic masculinity versus manhood, and being an actual man. There’s a lot of testosterone around right now and not enough integrity, and I wanted to look at that.
BTL: What input did you get from Keene?
Lehane: Jimmy was great at the very beginning. We were constantly in contact… phone calls, emails, etc. Then, once I went off to do my thing, I asked everybody to step away. I need to be unfettered. I can’t have the sense that anybody’s looking over my shoulder, and I treat all the people who have ever adapted my books the exact same way. “Here’s my phone number. If you need me, call me. If you don’t need me, I’ll see you at the premiere.”
BTL: And was he ever needed?
Lehane: I reached out a couple of times to ask him some specific questions. And then we had him… he’s in the show. He’s a guard who drags Jimmy down a hallway.
BTL: What were the specific questions?
Lehane: I thought everybody in the room was creating a serial killer who was way too precious, so I said, ‘Tell me a couple of things about Hall that aren’t in the book.’ He told me one that was great, which was when he got really emphatic or excited about something, his eyes would bug out of his skull. I used to know a guy like that, and that’s when I knew he couldn’t be reached. He was unreachable. And then I noticed how all the writers — when we were early on trying to build the story — kept approaching Larry Hall’s dialogue as if he was Professor Moriarty. He would never swear. I said to Jimmy, ‘Did Larry swear? Did he say the F-bomb?’ He said, ‘All the time.’ That helped me turn him into a natural human being, not ‘How are you, James?’ Which was how [it] felt like [we were] writing. It was weird. Hannibal Lecter meets Moriarty, and that’s not the guy.
BTL: This is one of Ray Liotta’s last roles. How much time did you get to spend with him, and what does it mean to you to have one of his final performances in your show?
Lehane: I’m so pleased, and I wrote this part specifically for him. He knew that and was very flattered. We had a great working relationship. We got this guy. There was a day when Ray was supposed to come over for a cookout, and he got the time wrong; he and his fiance came over 45 minutes early. My wife and I got to know them that way. It became a nice relationship. We were determined to work on everything. I said, ‘You’re my good luck charm. You’re going to work with me on everything from here on out.’ He was like, ‘Just write me bigger parts!’
The first three episodes of Black Bird are now streaming on Apple TV+.