I recently spoke with actor Paul Walter Hauser and author Dennis Lehane about their Apple TV+ series Black Bird. The show premiered over the summer and is inspired by actual events. When high school football hero and decorated policeman’s son Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) is sentenced to 10 years in a minimum security prison, he is given the choice of a lifetime — enter a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane and befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Hauser), or stay where he is and serve his full sentence with no possibility of parole. Keene quickly realizes his only way out is to elicit a confession and find out where the bodies of several young girls are buried before Hall’s appeal goes through. But is this suspected killer telling the truth? Or is it just another tale from a serial liar?
I first noticed Paul Walter Hauser in I, Tonya playing Shawn Eckhardt and then his breakthrough came as Richard Jewell in Richard Jewell. In Black Bird he plays Larry Hall, another real life person. I asked him if characters based on real people is his preference or just luck that drew him to these roles. Paul Walter Hauser, “I, Tonya was like a mass audition where every white dude in LA was auditioning for Shawn Eckhardt from me to Neil Casey to Haley Joel Osment. The cool thing when the Richard Jewell thing came around, I was like ‘I look just like him. I could be his brother or his son’. I think that’s been the real thing. I, Tonya, Richard Jewell they were like ‘You look enough like him, oh you can act too’. Then this, I looked a little bit like him, but not exactly like Larry Hall so this was more me trying to bring the chops. I’m far from the most famous person they could have cast.”
When it came to researching Larry Hall, a convicted serial killer, “Researching this one was just about honoring the page. I didn’t have to do a deep dive on Google or YouTube. It was all about Dennis’ writing. It was all already there, you just had to extract from it. There were moments in the script where it says Larry stares off for a beat then comes back to reality. That was literally on the page. It’s a testament to Dennis’ writing. On the page there are lines like ‘I peaked in the womb’. There are moments that I think are uproariously funny that are intelligently woven because you have to cut the tension. That was fun to play.”
Dennis Lehane is an award winning and New York Times best selling author who has written for some TV in the past, but this is his first real time developing and becoming a show runner for TV. Many of his works have been adapted for film (Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, Mystic River) so he talked about his process of adapting someone else’s work for Black Bird. Dennis Lehane, “When my work was first being adapted I came up with a plan which was to only sell your work to people who you respect and you’ll probably be ok. When it came to the writers, the first adaptor I got was Brian Helgeland, one of the best in the business. My take was, here’s my phone number, if you need me, call me otherwise I will not bother you. You don’t need me breathing down your neck. Same thing for Laeta Kalogridis for Shutter Island. Same thing for Ben (Affleck) and Aaron Stockard for Gone Baby Gone. If you need me, call me, I’m here. If I was willing to do that, that meant by the time I was adapting I was expecting the same out of them. First adaptation I ever did was Stephen King and I called Stephen and said ‘I’m doing Mr. Mercedes and this will be the last you’re gonna hear from me unless you have something specific you want to say or see’. I know Stephen’s work, I know this book. I know what it is to be a writer so as long as I honor the intent then I’m going to break bad in other places because I’m telling a ten episode story.
Same thing you do with non-fiction. Obviously I wasn’t privy to Jimmy and Larry’s conversations and in the book itself there is very little dialogue, but am I keeping to the spirit of the story I want to tell? Am I being authentic? The big thing was, could I look the parents of the victims in the eyes? I felt like I could. The first directive I set if I was going to do this, you were never going to see the murders. I don’t want to exploit it. These are daughters. I have daughters. Did I make everybody happen? No, I bumped heads a lot with the real Jimmy Keene. He asked if he could see the show and I said no. He was like ‘It’s my life’ and I was like ‘It’s my show’ (laughing). I said ‘Jimmy I’m going to take care of you, I promise, but I can’t let you see it’. Then I finally let him see it and he was really happy with it.”
Lehane about the show, “I didn’t want to do a show about serial killers. I hate serial killers. I don’t want to glorify them. I’m one of those people, if you do a school shooting, I don’t think your name should ever be posted. Ever. If you are doing it for fame I don’t want to give it to you. So if Larry is doing this for some sort of fame, I didn’t want to give him the fame essentially. I don’t want the victims known simply as Victim #1, Victim #2. There’s horrifyingly graphic stuff I came across reading the book. I tried to turn this job down, but then I said ‘Can I do it in a way that fits my obsessions?’ and one of them would be, by the end, Larry Hall would be a monster. Larry Hall should never see the light of day or walk out of prison. Having said that, he’s also a human being. He’s a human monster so what does that look like? Jimmy Keene goes in thinking I’m gonna saddle up to a monster and get him to tell me things, but then all of sudden he finds himself telling jokes with the guy, sharing stories about their upbringing, talking about their attitudes towards women. That to me is very deliberate.”
Talking about the human side of Larry, I asked Paul what it took to find that human side of the character, “I didn’t approach him like a murderer, I approached him like a human. Going into that, it’s very unhelpful to look at the crimes before looking at the person. Day to day there are things I regret, not to the extent of homeboy, or things I struggle with. Some days I’m able to block everything out and just talk to Dennis about movies. The same holds true for Larry. He’s not always twirling his mustache, he’s just living. He’s been in that mode for a while. Sometimes when you’re playing a character of that ilk you feel the need to amplify certain things and show people look at what I’m doing, but the audience is catching them mid-life. There’s no beginning, we’re catching them in the middle so there had to be a grounded-ness to it. Then, bringing it back to Dennis’ writing, there are these great turns where we reveal little pieces of information. Then he starts scratching at it and you find out it’s way worse than you think. When I was doing Richard Jewell we talked half a dozen times about when to cry. What’s the most effective? Obviously we know if we hold it until the very end the audience gets to release with me at the same time. Similarly to this, we’re holding it and holding it then the dam breaks in episode five. It cracks then it bursts in six and I was really grateful to see that rather than play with devil horns the entire show.”
The series was shot in two prisons which adds to its grounded and authentic feel. Lehane, “You should have seen the place where we shot. It’s been out of commission since (Hurricane) Katrina. It was flooded during Katrina.” Hauser, “We were shooting summer in New Orleans, we’re in a jumpsuit, a wig, fake beard, they are mucking up my fingers so it looks like I wiped my ass with my hand and I’m playing a serial killer. It’s not hard when you don all that stuff to really feel like you’re in a prison.” Lehane, “We shot in two different prisons. One was the primary set and just to walk into it took a while. You had to walk the whole prison to get where we were shooting.”
The series takes place in the 1990s and I asked Dennis if there was any music he was unable to get for the series. “We got everything we wanted. There was one we flirted with and it would have been a bad idea so I’m glad we didn’t, we were priced out of Blackbird by Nina Simone. That was one I wanted. We found out Paul McCartney said to somebody why didn’t they use The Beatles’ Blackbird? And I was like, ‘Sir Paul knows this?’ Then we got this great theme from Mogwai and I was very happy with it.”
Paul Walter Hauser has already worked with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Dennis Lehane, Taron Egerton, Margot Robbie and more so I asked him who he’s dying to work with. Hauser, “The names I’ve been coming to lately are Spike Jonze, Martin McDonagh and the Coen Brothers. I like people who can compel me emotionally and make me laugh. I think the most attractive thing in entertainment is that duality. If I look at who I am in this business, John Goodman was doing Roseanne while doing Barton Fink. I think that’s the closest thing I can compare myself to in our industry. At the same time you want to make money (laughing). Do you want to play the techie guy in Fast & Furious and join the cast of Vin Diesel and Helen Mirren? I would be like ‘Yeah tell me about this techie guy’.”
Black Bird is a fantastic series with great performances and is available on Apple TV+.