‘Black Mass’ Director Scott Cooper Salutes Artisan Team for Capturing Menace

When preparing “Black Mass,” director Scott Cooper emphasized that his team of artisans must tell the story, not draw attention to their work. As he told Variety, “The 1970s and ’80s are hard to get right; they’re often garishly costumed and photographed. My first edict to the crew was, ‘Approach this as if it’s 1975 and we’re making a contemporary film.’ They really understood that.”

Cooper surrounded himself with experienced pros, “people who will challenge you, open your eyes, make everybody’s work better. When all the technical aspects are taken care of, I can work with the actors and fine-tune the performance, as opposed to finding it on the day.”

Here, Cooper talks about some key below-the-line contributions.

Cinematography, Masanobu Takayanagi
Masa’s not afraid to shoot a scene so darkly that his light meter almost doesn’t get a reading. We do long takes, and like to underexpose a couple of stops, to get the darkness we wanted, with milky blacks. I want the audience to not feel the hand of the director or cinematographer. When we shot exteriors, we always wanted an undercurrent of menace, so the city at times feels claustrophobic. The environment becomes a character in the film. Masa’s framing and composition are great. There’s always the question, “How much do you want to show?” Less is better, because that allows the audience to do work. He really understands when to move the camera — or not — without trying to give the film a dominant “photographic look.” Masa is a great artist who pushes against the dominant aesthetic that prevails in cinema: He’s always wary of making things too beautiful.

Editing, David Rosenbloom
David understands rhythm: when to reveal character, when to hold back. He’s a real storyteller. For “Black Mass,” David would come to the set and watch. I think it’s important to have your editor on location, so we could discuss the day’s work, what’s coming up, if you feel you’re missing something narratively or in terms of character. We would also discuss if he thought we didn’t have enough coverage. For example, the scene when we hear Juno Temple’s character being killed. We held on the face of her stepfather, Rory Cochrane; hearing it is so much more powerful than seeing it. Otherwise, you can manipulate it and lose emotional impact.

Production design, Stefania Cella
I thought her work in “The Great Beauty” was masterful. I like a messy reality. Re-creating 1970s-’80s Boston was difficult, so we built some sets; I was terrified that sets would feel less real. But her sets for the FBI office, for Mom Bulger’s apartment and the Triple O bar and backroom, Johnny Depp’s hangout, were beautifully rendered. She found a place in Chicago that stocked wallpaper from the ’50s, when Mom Bulger would have bought it. No detail was too small for her.

Costume design, Kasia Walicka-Maimone
She worked with Stefania and Masa for a muted color palette, with a pop of color when needed. Kasia’s work allowed characters to flourish. The real-life Whitey Bulger fashioned himself as Steve McQueen; we had archival footage, and she built Whitey’s look almost exactly, even down to his cowboy boots. I want to feel period detail but I don’t want costumes wearing the actors. Joel Edgerton’s clothes start out ill-fitting, but as he receives money, the suits have a better fit, more tailored, finer fabrics. Kasia had all of the suits for Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon and the whole gang, made by Barack Obama’s tailor in Brooklyn.

Supervising sound editors, Mark Mangini, Byron Wilson; sound mixer, Tom Williams; composer, Tom Holkenborg
I spent an inordinate amount of time in post on sound; sound is as important as anything in a film. Our mixer, Tom Williams, said recording this was a challenge, because a lot was exterior work that was tricky — for example, shooting next to Mystic River and the bridge. Recording and mixing were difficult. Mark Mangini and Byron Wilson worked with composer Tom Holkenborg, so it all feels part of the same world, with a sense of menace coming from the river. The underscore felt like it was coming out of the Boston environment. I wanted the audience to always feel that sense of danger, with a sense of menace that hovered, with low sounds of distant sirens, for example, and with a soundtrack that was lifelike and eerie.

One in a series of interviews with 2015 directors about their artisans.

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