It is fitting that the first story filmmaker Brian Helgeland heard about Ronnie and Reggie Kray was untrue; a whole host of myths and legends have sprung up around the notorious twin brothers who ruled London’s crime scene during the 1950s and 1960s.
Helgeland heard the story just before the turn of the century when he was approached to shoot a film with Led Zeppelin icons Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Though the project eventually faltered, Helgeland spent a considerable amount of time talking to one of the rockers’ behind-the-scenes fixers, who was, it transpires, missing one of his fingers.
Brian Thomas Helgeland is an American screenwriter, film producer, and director. He is most known for writing the screenplays for L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. With credentials like that, Who better to take on the story of The Krays?
Where did you come across the Krays?
This story began around 17 years ago when I was asked by Warner Brothers to go on tour with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Robert Plant had no interest in the whole thing, but there was a guy who was involved with them, behind the scenes that I talked a lot with, a British guy, and he was missing a finger. I asked him one day what had happened to his finger. He said, ‘The Krays took that.’ The Krays? I thought, ‘Is that some sort of an animal?’ and he told me the story about the Krays and the music business. Years later I found out he made the story up because it was just more interesting than saying it was the result of an accident! But I think that it is very telling that the first thing I heard about the Krays was not true. Subsequently, I have come across that over and over and over again. That is why they are part of a legend. They have entered into mythology, not unlike the legend of Robin Hood or the legend of King Arthur – something that is based on fact but which has taken on a life of its own. I found that very fascinating and this film is my version of the legend. I am trying to humanize them and figure out what the origin of it all is, I guess.
When did you begin thinking about the Krays as a creative endeavour?
I thought that they sounded like interesting guys and at that time I did a little reading up for my own curiosity though I didn’t think about a movie or anything like that. Then Tim Bevan of Working Title had thought about another Kray film and contacted me. He knew me from having read the script for Green Zone, a film that they made. Also, in my body of work I have done different crime-type movies but not gangster movies. Working Title asked me if I had heard of the Krays and whether I was interested in getting involved in making a film about them because they wanted an American point of view on the whole thing, or at least an American sensibility. For me, I had always wanted to do a gangster film but did not want to do a mafia movie…
Exactly, where do you go with a mafia movie when you consider what’s already been made?
Yes. You are dead. You do a great job and you are still dead. Even on television, it has been done. But I thought this was a way for me to do a gangster movie but to lose that onerous comparison [to American mob movies]. I didn’t want to force that American gangster template on the Krays, so to speak. But they seemed a natural fit for it because while in Britain it seems almost curious that they are brothers, in the States gangsters are always families. There’s the Corleone family, who are fictional, or [in real-life] the Gallo brothers, the Gambinos — they are all family-based. There is a family name to all this. Also, American crime movies are aspirational in a way. It is the American Dream, whether it’s Italians on Lower East Side; it is that immigrant avenue, it’s crime in order to get ahead in the world. There are always rags to riches to prison stories, and it feels like the Krays fit right in with the East End of London. They grew up in these dire circumstances in the War as kids rambling through the bombed-out buildings and all that stuff. Then despite the class system and the lack of education, they were still bright, smart guys and the way forward for them was crime.
When you said you’d like to make a gangster film what was it that first piqued your interest? The classic films from the 1970s, or perhaps even further back?
It was first the classic ’70s films and then the chance to tell stories about men like that, who also appear in those cop films, Bullitt, The French Connection, Dirty Harry. They have those ’70s guys in them. But with gangster films, obviously, there is The Godfather, Goodfellas. I just like how those films are with those people. They don’t look down on them. They don’t look up to them but they are with them and that’s what I try to do in my film anyway. With this film, my job is really never to judge the Krays or their morality. It is my job to be with them and to show them. That doesn’t mean to apologize for what they have done but I need people to understand Reggie, and understand Ron. It doesn’t mean that you have to think that what they did is okay. But to demonise them is easy, and why spend two years of your life doing something easy? It is much more interesting to try and humanize them, much more interesting. It makes things harder. Once you start to understand them, then it becomes more difficult to judge them, not that they should not be judged. It just makes it trickier and more fun.
Was it difficult to decide how much violence to show on screen?
It is how you do it. Film is an amazing thing. Anyone can be the hero of the film. It’s about the way you show things. The Godfather does a very neat little trick at the beginning. He says, ‘I won’t sell drugs.’ The other families all want to sell drugs and he runs prostitution and he runs loan sharking and, if you don’t pay your bills, your legs get broken. But he doesn’t sell drugs. And the same with Michael. There is a very violent scene where he kills a cop at the restaurant but he is trying to protect his dad so you understand. If that were just about a gangster walking in and shooting a cop in the head, then that’d be terrible. He is evil. Poor cop. But the movie makes you see things through that main character’s point of view. It is just a matter of being with them and not to look down or up to them. You need to just be with them. The audience will go almost anywhere if they feel like they are with the guy. The first time we see Reggie we are going out the door with him and going to see those cops with him. It is just two guys sitting in a car, not saying a word, and he is taking the piss out of them and you are with him. You think it is funny. My job is to make people out of the Krays. I think you can be violent right off the bat. The violence is brutal, because it was and it is, but within that you still shade it. You use the rival gangs. It is the guys who are going to beat the Krays up in the pub who get beaten up in the first case. And then in the second case it is the brothers going at it together, so fair enough. Then as it goes along it is violence towards Reggie’s wife. The violence is always in your face but it gets harder to look at it until it reaches the stabbing at the end. So, hopefully, we did it in the right way.
From your research, was the Richardson gang a nastier bunch? Or was that to add different shades to the violence, as you say?
I think it depends on who is telling the story. People from South London say, ‘The real gang was the Richardsons.’ It’s territorial almost, like ‘Our gang is better than your gang.’ But there’s no Richardson portrait taken by David Bailey. I sat with Barbara Windsor and she told me how she dated Charlie Kray. She didn’t tell me she dated any Richardson. The Richardsons didn’t own nightclubs that people flocked to, Judy Garland, Sonny Liston, Frank Sinatra. I have a picture of Shirley Bassey sitting on Reggie’s lap. I don’t have a picture of her sitting on Charlie Richardson’s lap! So I don’t know if they were tougher. They were in prison quicker, Charlie [Richardson] was, and subsequently he got out and resumed his life of crime. It is an impossible question to answer but I think it speaks to the legend of it all and who gets to write the history of it all. [Gangster] Freddie Foreman is still alive so he can still tell stories where he is the hero. And whoever he didn’t like at the time, he can have a go at them. But the winners write history and the Krays are not winners of their own history. They are at the mercy of people who both want to marginalize them for whatever reason.
The newspapers didn’t buy stories that humanize them…
Exactly. They buy stories that talk about how crazy they were and all these things. That’s also part of the challenge and why it is called Legend. I have probably read 25 books and I have interviewed a bunch of people who knew the Krays, and there are things that everyone agreed about, events that happened, but I can find 20 different reasons why they happened. To try to find what they were after at any given time, and to try to apply a psychology to them, and to try to make it the least legendary or mythic portrayal of them, that is what I needed to do.
There’s an awful lot that fuels the myths…
Yes. Because they were twins, everyone thinks about ESP and that they knew what each other was thinking. That becomes part of the myth. When Frances [Shea, Reggie’s wife] filed for divorce she filed for non-consummation. So, if you go online, there’s a whole world up there about how Frances and Reggie never had sex. And the proof is that she filed on the basis of non-consummation of the marriage – except in British law at the time, that was one of only two things you could get divorced over. You could not get a divorce because your husband beat you up. So she just said that the marriage was never consummated. That, therefore, becomes the myth that they never had sex. Certainly, they had sex but if she wants to get out of the marriage she has to say that. It is interesting to consider all those things. In the most lurid descriptions of them, someone said that when the twins were kids they would have sex with each other. Talk about making them ‘other’! There are only two people who would know that, and which one of them told? It is funny how much people want to believe those crazy things about them. By the same token, they did do outrageous things but it is within the world of the gangster. With Ron, it is also in the world of paranoid schizophrenia and his mental illness, which was a very unfortunate thing for him but it is very grounding in explaining where some of this outrageous behaviour came from.
Was there any heavily supported outrageous behaviour that you felt was too much for the film, or which you left out because it did not fit the narrative?
I left out some things because there was no way to know if they were true or not. In the end, you have two hours, which is very limiting. What we see in those two hours can very quickly shade one way or the other so I think the more extreme stuff I omitted. There is a story about Ron nailing someone to the floor but I don’t know if it really happened. The exact same thing is told about the Richardsons, so which one is it? They both pick up each other’s details. I have been told stories about things that happened and they were there and then someone else would tell me the exact same story with a little difference in the telling, but they were there as well. The things that really did happen were outrageous enough so I stuck to those.
People often remember a film for outrageous incidents, which is especially true of Peter Medak’s film, The Krays, with the Kemp brothers…
And the way it is shot. That face slashing is a huge moment and, as you say, that is what you take away from it.
When did you first come across that film?
When it came out I saw it, and as soon as I decided to do this I watched it again because I wanted to know if there was room for my movie. If I had watched it and thought that is exactly what I wanted to do, then there would be no point. There are things about that movie that are very good and particularly the women in that film are treated very interestingly. There is a matriarchal kind of world that they are in, not only the mom but the mom’s sister, and I knew I wasn’t interested in that for my movie. It felt they had covered that ground, and there was more of a twin connection that I wasn’t interested in. My women were going to be Frances and her mom. They had much less of a budget to spend. I think it is a worthy film. I am not going to dismiss it and say I could do mine because they hadn’t done a proper job. I just felt it had gone down a path that I wasn’t interested in, and that the two films could exist together.
Did Tom Hardy come as part of the package or did you seek out and cast him yourself?
I got hired to write and direct it and that was it. First of all, we had to get a script. Then, when I write, I always write for the characters so I am trying to make the best Reggie I can make and the best Ron I can make and the best Frances I can make, and the best love triangle between the three of them. Then the big decision is whether one guy is going to play both parts or is it going to be two guys? The risk of one guy playing both parts is that it might seem like a gimmick. Working Title was keen on that because it is a big selling point for the film but it wasn’t something they were insisting on. The other selling point was that we could get two movie stars and we can have a lot of fun with that – except then they have to be two movie stars who look like each other, which is hard to find! But I gave the script to Tom to play Reggie and I didn’t rule out that he could do both. I thought I had to get Reggie first. We met for dinner and all he talked about was Ron. Two minutes in, it was clear that he wanted to play Ron. The scary thing is you are not going to know whether it is working until you are done or you are half way through. It would be safer to have two guys but not as sexy. But Tom can pull it off. How we did it, and the technical part, very quickly became the thing we had to do together because it is very technical.
How did it work? Even rehearsals must have been hard?
Tom would come to set every morning and the two of us would just walk around and rehearse it. Sometimes, I’d play Ron. I don’t give anything as an actor but I’d read Ron’s lines and Tom would be Reg, and then we’d switch. Whatever ad libs and freedoms we took with the script we would have to sort out there and then re-regiment back into the lines again. Then the sound recordist would come in and we would record Ron and then Tom would go off to get ready to play Reg. He would wear an earpiece and we would play Ron back in his ear so that he could interact, which would get us Reggie’s performance. We would then play that back for him when he was playing Ron. So he didn’t have another actor across the room. He had him in one ear and he had to conjure that guy up in front of him to pull it off.
What were the biggest sets you had to build for the film?
The biggest builds were really the interiors of the parents’ house in Vallance Road and the clubs. We tried to change what they looked like because people had shot in them already. But it’s those clubs that give the film the real scale that it has because we crammed them full of extras and we shot as wide as we could. Oddly, it is the scale of the interiors. And then for the exteriors we had to pick our shots and do set extensions but there are not many of them, and we space them out to fool the audience. Also, the cars are enormous!
And how impressed were you by Emily Browning’s performance as Frances?
Reggie and Ron are never opposite one another on the floor when they’re shooting, but Emily is there. She is opposite both of them and hers is a quiet and very confident performance. I think that holds the movie together in a way; we see them both through her eyes. She has to hold her own against two Tom Hardys! She has to be up to both of these great performances. Tom only really has Emily to challenge him as an actor because he is never opposite himself. She does that really well. She brings a lot of the heart to the thing, by being the outsider. It’s her who is outside the gangster world and her performance really holds the movie together in a way.
And you always had Frances narrating the story?
From the moment I wrote the first draft because I knew I needed a person who wasn’t a gangster to be the audience’s conduit into the film, and she can speak for Reggie in a way that he can’t, because he would never talk like that. And if he did, it would be false. Her understanding of him allows us to understand him.