UPDATE, 12:04 PM: By Warner Bros jumping aboard the high-profile Johnny Depp-Joel Edgerton pic Black Mass, it means the studio won’t be taking on another Whitey Bulger project in its own backyard: the one that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had been developing for a couple of years as a starring vehicle for Damon via their Warners-based Pearl Street Films. I’m hearing that Affleck and Damon were given a day or two advance notice that the studio was putting its eggs in the Black Mass basket, but that news came just a day before the latest rewrite was turned in by Aaron Stockard, who worked with Affleck on The Town and Gone Baby Gone and who rewrote the script by Oscar nominated The Wolf Of Wall Street scribe Terence Winter. There was much enthusiasm, then radio silence, and then…Naturally there are bruised feelings that Warners will have to repair with two of its most valuable players, as this was the first project pitched for Affleck to direct and Damon to star after Pearl Street inked its overall deal there, and I’m told the studio assured the pair it wanted to make their movie.
This is all a part of the big rough and tumble game of studios needing to fill slates, and clearly someone was going to come out first with a Bulger biopic. But there are plenty of reasons to smooth any ruffles here. Affleck is directing and starring in Warner Bros’ Live By Night, an epic period crime drama that he adapted from the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane, author of Affleck’s first directorial outing Gone Baby Gone. It’s the follow-up to the Best Picture Oscar winner Argo he made for the studio. He also is playing Batman in Warner Bros’ Batman Vs. Superman.
This has happened at Warners recently with dueling King Arthur projects, with it looking like the studio will zero in on Guy Ritchie version after getting close to production on David Dobkin’s Arthur & Lancelot. Warner Bros paid $2 million to acquire Dobkin’s script but unplugged the film the first time because its $130 million budget was $20 million too high, with Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington to play Arthur and Robocop‘s Joel Kinnaman to play Lancelot. Those young upstarts were unproven screen commodities. They let Dobkin shop it but that momentum is hard to recapture. Other projects previously considered by Warners was a remake of the 1981 John Boorman pic Excalibur that had X-Men helmer Bryan Singer attached; there is also a Harry Potter-style take being produced by Donald DeLine.
PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE, THURSDAY PM: Warner Bros is signing on to co-finance and do the worldwide release of Black Mass, the Scott Cooper-directed crime drama that will star Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston mob boss suspected of using his status as FBI informant to eliminate criminal competition. He also apparently used a tip from a childhood friend-turned-FBI agent that the Feds were closing in as a reason to go on the lam, and spent a decade atop the Most Wanted List until he was finally caught in California in 2011, convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life. I’m told that it looks like Joel Edgerton will play that disgraced FBI agent, John Connolly. He had been in the mix in the film’s first incarnation with Depp, the latter of whom departed the film over money at one point.
Warner Bros will co-finance the film with Cross Creek Pictures. Out of the equation is Exclusive Media, which was selling foreign territories at Berlin, but I’m told isn’t in the mix now after the company imploded with the impending exits of chiefs Nigel Sinclair and Guy East, and Warner Bros signed on for the whole world. I’m told that production will begin in eight weeks in Boston, and that Warner Bros is eyeing an October 2015 release slot.
Depp was originally expected to play Bulger when Barry Levinson was attached to direct, but the deal fell through over money even though the deal was near $20 million. Deadline revealed in January that talks had rekindled with Depp, along with Cooper, who so far has helmed Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace. The script is by Mark Mallouk, who adapted the 2001 Dick Lehr/Gerald O’Neill New York Times bestseller Black Mass: The True Story Of An Unholy Alliance Between The FBI And The Irish Mob.
Even as Bulger became the model for onscreen mobsters in films that included The Departed and The Town, there have been several attempts to turn his life into a dramatic feature. A big part of the feature will be the relationship between Bulger and Connolly, who was sentenced to 40 years despite maintaining his innocence. Connolly was tasked with bringing down the Italian mob, and he was aided by Bulger, who burnished his own position as Boston crime kingpin by getting rid of the competition for his Winter Hill gang. Connolly was lauded for his work before things went south for him. He eventually was convicted of racketeering and obstruction of justice for aiding Bulger, who is currently in an Arizona federal prison for second-degree murder. Meanwhile, Bulger was alleged to have participated in 19 murders and nobody really put much pressure on him. When the Feds finally had enough, Bulger got a tip and he fled, vanishing until he was finally apprehended.
Black Mass is being produced by Cross Creek’s Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson; John Lesher and his LeGrisbi banner; and Christi Dembrowski, Depp’s partner in Infinitum Nihil. Cross Creek Pictures SVP Production Adam Kassan will oversee production. Courtenay Valenti will oversee for Warner Bros. UTA reps Depp and Edgerton is repped by CAA and Shanahan Management.