“To some the Krays were sinners, to some they were saints, there’s so much myth” - hmv.com talks to Legend director Brian Helgeland
When you think of legendary gangsters your first thoughts probably head to the US and to either Al Capone or Al Pacino’s Tony Montana spraying bullets in Scarface, but here in the UK we have two of the most notorious in twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
The pair have been put on film many times, but the latest and finest is Legend, which sees Tom Hardy take the role of both Krays as we follow them from their roots as East End thugs and chancers to become hugely wealthy gangsters and two of the most infamous men in Britain.
Starring alongside Hardy are Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, Taron Egerton and David Thelwis in a movie written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who’s also been responsible for A Knight’s Tale and 42 as well as writing the scripts for classics like L.A Confidential and Mystic River.
It comes to DVD on Monday and you can pre-order it on the right-hand side of the page, so to celebrate we chatted with Helgeland about why his interest in the Kray brothers was sparked by Led Zeppelin, how he convinced Tom Hardy to play both roles and how he tried to separate fact from fiction when it came to the brothers...
How did you first get involved in the project?
“It took me about two years from starting the script to getting the cameras to roll. I first heard of the Krays a long time ago, but I didn’t grow up knowing about them. I actually heard about them because Warner Brothers wanted to do a Led Zeppelin biopic and they sent me to interview Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and maybe write a script for the movie.”
“It didn’t work out with the movie, but a member of their entourage, an older guy, was there and he was missing a finger and I asked him how it happened and he said the Krays had taken it. I had no idea what that meant, I thought it was some kind of animal! But then he explained that they used to shake down clubs and demand protection money and he’d refused to pay and so they’d taken his finger. I was fascinated, but it turned out he’d made the whole thing up, just because it sounded better than saying I lost it in an accident!”
But that sparked your interest?
“I looked into them a bit, but I didn’t plan on doing a film or anything. Years went by and then Working Title got in touch. I knew they were keen to have an American take it on to free it up from the British sensibility and I was very interested. I read all the books, interviewed people who knew them and worked on the script, I was quite invested from early on.”
What was it about the Krays that made you want to get involved?
“It was how little truth was known about them. I never came across two real people that lived in recent history that have already moved so much into the world of myth. To some people they were sinners, to some people they were saints, there’s so much myth to the Krays, the whole thing is fascinating and I can’t say I know more truth than anybody else. I tried to ignore the extremes with the script and aim for the middle.”
How did you establish what you’d use when so much of the information about them is so dubious?
“Everything is contradictory, if you ask people who lived in their community they’ll compare them to Robin Hood, but if you speak to anyone in authority they’ll say they’re just criminals who do what criminals do, there are also plenty of people who are keen for you to know that there were better and more powerful gangs around, but I don’t think anyone caught the public’s eye like the Krays did. David Daly, a photographer I met with who knew them, was very good and he made it very clear that both they and he couldn’t have existed without the type of London that existed in the 1960s. Same as prohibition in Chicago with Al Capone, you wouldn’t know of him otherwise.”
Were you always going to direct it as well as write? And when did Tom Hardy get involved?
“I was going to direct it, but I didn’t write it with anybody in mind, I just wanted to make the characters as good as they could be. But once I’d settled on the script a new reality sets in and I thought about casting. I had Reggie as the lead character and I knew I had to get him first, once I’d have him I’d go from there. I was always interested in having one guy play two parts, but I was worried that the audience would think it was a gimmick and not get past it, just a theatre full of people looking for the joins in the screen and not taking in the story. But then if you do go for separate actors once you’ve cast one you’re limited to getting someone who looks like them.”
When did you approach Tom Hardy?
“I sent him the script and we had dinner and at dinner all he wanted to talk about was Ron and all I wanted to talk about was Reggie so at the end of the meal Tom said to me “I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron” and that was the deal we made. He was the first person I went to for Reggie and I ended up getting Ron too.”
When it came to capturing both performances were there other films you looked to for how it could be done?
“I did, but I did end up getting discouraged because I couldn’t get away from the fact that one guy would be playing two parts, I just tried to do my version and really to make it good anyway if I could. They did it quite well in The Social Network, but they had a lot more money than we did and they did a lot of face replacement, which is very expensive. We did a little of it, it was more old fashioned split screens, it suits the movie well I think. The main sequence of face replacement is when the brothers fight each other.”
How was it shooting the scene where the brothers fight each other? It must have been difficult to pull off?
“It was exciting to shoot it, but there was a lot of pressure, we knew if we didn’t pull that off we’d lose the audience and so we rehearsed it a lot. On the morning of that scene Tom came in and asked me how many takes I was going to do. He’d never asked me that before, not once, so I asked why and he said “Well me and the stunt man are going to really hit each other”, so I said “Okay, three takes then” and he agreed, but as he was walking out I reminded him that it was three takes of Reggie getting hit and three takes of Ron getting hit, so six in all. He was okay with that though and I think that’s part of why it works so well, you can really feel it, you don’t have to sell the hits.”
How did you find it working with Tom? What’s he like?
“I really enjoyed working with him, he’s very serious and very committed in a way that I haven’t seen before. When he was Ron he was a lot of fun to be around, but when he was Reggie he was very distant. He’s incredibly dedicated and he doesn’t care about his future, and by that I mean everything’s in the moment, you never feel like you’re a calculated step.”
How did you go about getting the rest of the cast?
“Pretty much everybody said yes, I think it was a combination of the pull of the Krays and working with Tom. I knew for the rival gangster Eddie Richardson I needed someone special so I called Paul Bettany, who I’d done A Knight’s Tale with and we found a day when he wasn’t working on Avengers for him to take the part. I saw five or six actresses for Emily Browning’s role, but I knew pretty early on that she was right for the role. I think she had the most difficult role of all, as hard as it was for Tom to play two parts, she has to act up against two Tom’s…”
How was it putting together the soundtrack? You’ve got The Righteous Brothers, Booker T, a lot of great songs...
“It was a lot of fun, I like a lot in the a film, especially a period piece, it helps to capture the time and the spirit of when you’re making.”
Were there any tracks you wanted, but couldn’t get?
“I wanted a couple of Rolling Stones and Beatles’ track to be in them, but we ended up just not being able to afford them.”
Has the movie really taken out of you? Two years is a long time to spend on one movie...
“It is! I’m not exhausted from it, but I do feel a little bit empty, usually I’ve got a lot of ideas for what to do next, but this movie has left me a bit empty.”
Legend is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday (January 25th).