Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” encompasses so many facets of Whitey Bulger’s legendary rise and fall as crime lord of South Boston. But of course it began with creating the right look for Johnny Depp, and it’s not surprising that the hair and makeup of Gloria Casny and Joel Harlow (Depp’s long-time collaborator) have been shortlisted for an Oscar.
“Initially, Johnny wanted to look exactly like Jimmy Bulger, so that’s what I started sculpting,” Harlow explained. “And we went through five tests. What was interesting was, we planned two tests on the same day during our last round. The first test was the full transformation into Whitey, but the second actually showed more merit [revealing both Bulger and Depp] and that’s what we went with. Five days before they started filming, we did the camera test and got everyone on board. It was not a forgiving schedule, so we worked round the clock.”
A forehead piece was created from his cheekbones to the back of his skull. His eyebrows also need to be punched and he had a nose prosthetic to further resemble Bulger. There were three eras: ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and then a mere glimpse when he was arrested in Santa Monica in 2011.
“While Joel was sculpting the head, I started figuring out the shape of the hairline, the size of the bald spot,” added Casny. “We knew we were going to punch the hairline and the eyebrows, which was all punched strictly into silicone one hair at a time. We used one silicone piece a day and it took 22 hours a day to punch. And Johnny’s head shape is very different from Bulger’s. I had two wigs (for ’85 and ’95) and we shot it so dark that it was hard to see the difference.”
Speaking of lighting, although the gritty period look of the cinematography was inspired by a host of ’70s movies (including “The Godfather” and “The Conversation”), the actual approach was motivated by the real source, and period lamps had to replace modern LEDs. “We tried to capture how they behaved in the ’70s, that particular masculinity, not how we view the ’70s from a modern perspective,” explained cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who shot on film with the Panavision Millennium XL2 and anamorphic lenses. “If anything, we also went for a little harsher lighting. And Scott likes the shadow and that is a great drive to explore in the darkness.”
When costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone read the script, it scared the hell out of her, which was Cooper’s intended effect. “Examining those gangsters, I quickly discovered that they had a very specific language of dressing,” she revealed. This code for dressing characters worked for her with “Bridge of Spies” as well. “The line between the politicians and the mobsters was very thin. Whitey Bulger and the head of the Italian mob wore blazers and polos and khakis. Some of them looked like they were about to go on a yacht. At the same time, Whitey exercised a lot and wore super tight jeans and T-shirts. But he also had a fondness for black leather jackets and so I played with the idea of the jacket as uniform, changing styles in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”
When it came to Tom Holkenborg’s operatic score, it was important to create an atmosphere that emphasized the strong bond between Bulger and childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the FBI agent who makes an unholy alliance with him. “I came up with themes so that I could swap instruments,” said Holkenborg, who also scored “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “Either theme would be played on a treated piano or a solo cello and it would go back and forth between them. Jimmy’s theme is quite dark and sets the tone that this is a troubled character but, like all of the characters, he had to be humanized. Both themes start low and make their way up. Jimmy’s stays very dark and goes down whereas Connolly’s has some hope in it when it starts. It wants to go high and then goes down again. And that theme gave me the opportunity to get very emotional at the end with all the carnage and suffering and disaster that they leave behind.”