In Scott Cooper’s 2015 film Black Mass, screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth delve into the true story of infamous South Boston gangster turned FBI informant, Whitey Bulger. Johnny Depp stars as Bulger with a performance that is both terrifying and mesmerizing. Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jesse Plemmons round out the film’s star studded ensemble.
In this BlueCat Exclusive, Mallouk, a Kansas City native, discusses his inspiration and experience writing Black Mass, as well as his background and creative process.
BlueCat: Kansas City is a long way from Hollywood, and I read that you have a background in Economics, Psychology, and Human Development. So, what drew you to the medium of film? Can you give us a bit of insight into your background and how you came to work in Hollywood?
Kansas isn’t that far from Hollywood, at least not for me. I’m back all the time. I moved to LA in 1995 right after graduation from the University of Kansas and completed my MBA at Pepperdine in ’97. It was at Pepperdine that I began to think of a career in writing. I eventually entered the Professional Program in Screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television. The script I wrote there was eventually optioned and there was no turning back.
BlueCat: What was the first film you wrote?
The script was called Somerset Square, a modern day On the Waterfront set in Kansas City. It was optioned by Brian Oliver the producer who would eventually hire me to adapt Black Mass.
BlueCat: What is your screenwriting process? Are there any aspects of screenwriting that you find particularly challenging?
I have a pretty simple process. On a day when I don’t have meetings I’ll generally work from midmorning until about 2:30 when I take a break to eat lunch and watch “Pardon the Interruption” on ESPN. Then back at my desk from 3:00 until 5:00. I have no problems writing actual screenplays, the format and structure is perfectly suited for me. It’s the treatments and outlines that really jam me up. I feel like my treatments read like a fifth grader’s book report.
BlueCat: What inspires you creatively? Are there any films or filmmakers that have had a notable impact on you as a filmmaker? Any that particularly inspired Black Mass?
Reading generally does the trick. Fiction or non-fiction, doesn’t matter, I’ll wind up inspired. As far as films with a notable impact, two are at the top of the list; The Shawshank Redemption and The Natural. Shawshank is the movie that made me want to be a screenwriter. Donnie Brasco was my creative North Star for Black Mass. I love the intensely personal relationship between Al Pacino’s “Lefty” Ruggiero and Johnny Depp’s Joseph Pistone as well as the huge emotional weight each was carrying from being a mid-level mobster and undercover agent respectively.
BlueCat: What attracted you to tell the story of Whitey Bulger?
Well, Brian Oliver gave me the book, I read 110 pages that night and could not believe the level of corruption and incompetence in the FBI’s Boston field office. I wasn’t too surprised that Whitey was an informant, all these mobsters talk, the code of silence is a myth perpetrated by movies. What really hooked me was the fact that the FBI was doing his bidding. That made my jaw drop.
BlueCat: There are some very emotional and powerful scenes in Black Mass. What was the hardest scene in the film for you to write? How do you overcome such challenges?
None of the scenes were particularly hard to write but some came easier than others. For instance, the “family secret recipe” scene was fun to write as well as the scene where Whitey was at the breakfast table giving his son advice. Those scenes are the most enjoyable to write and they come most naturally for me.
BlueCat: How long was the process of writing Black Mass?
It took a while. I had a ton of conversations with Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the authors of the book. I went to Boston a couple of times. Just when Oliver and I were comfortable with the draft, Whitey Bulger got arrested and it was time to dive back in.
BlueCat: You also have some impressive producing credits. Do you have a preference, screenwriting or producing?
Oh, that’s an easy one. I’m a screenwriter.
BlueCat: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for aspiring screenwriters trying to break into the industry?
Keep writing. Don’t worry about “networking”. I put the word in quotes because I’m not sure what it means. I know I’ve never done any “networking”, at least not that I know of. Listen, stay at your desk, keep writing, get better, learn your strengths and you’ll be fine.
BlueCat: What’s next for you? Any future projects you can share?
I’m writing a script based on Kurt Calabrese’s life rights for Black Label Media, who just produced Sicario. I’m very excited about that. I also wrote the graphic novel Sunflower for 451 Media Group, which I’ll be adapting into an hour-long, dramatic cable series.