Longtime crime writer Dennis Lehane’s gradual transition to TV producing has culminated in Black Birdwhich starts Friday on Apple TV+.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Writer Dennis Lehane, whose novels include “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” has a new limited series coming today to Apple TV+. Lehane says he may leave literature behind to work in TV for good. But at first, Lehane told NPR TV critic Eric Deggans he hesitated to work on what became “Black Bird.”
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Based on an autobiographical novel about real-life events, the series tells the story of charismatic criminal Jimmy Keene, who’s told he can get a 10-year sentence erased if he gets another inmate to admit committing a string of murders of young women.
DENNIS LEHANE: I was just adamant. I didn’t want to do it. I was so sick of darkness. I’d just done three Stephen King projects. And then I was like, prison? I like prison. And it’s all dudes. I don’t like things with all dudes.
DEGGANS: Then Lehane got an idea. What if a central theme of the show was how destructive men’s views of women could be?
LEHANE: I started to realize, oh, my God, this is a really interesting story about where all men fall on the misogyny line. If I can make this show about sort of weaponization of the male gaze, then I’ll do it.
DEGGANS: “Black Bird” is stacked with an impressive cast that includes Greg Kinnear as murder investigator Brian Miller and Taron Egerton, who won a Golden Globe playing Elton John in the biopic “Rocketman,” as Jimmy Keene. In one scene, an FBI handler quizzes Keene on how he’ll approach accused serial killer Larry Hall in prison.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What do you think Larry Hall doesn’t like about women?
TARON EGERTON: (As Jimmy Keene) How do I know?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So what good are you to me? You show me you can find common ground with this man, or you are wasting my time.
DEGGANS: To get Hall talking about his crimes, Keene realizes he has to learn to see women as objects the way Hall does, and he has to examine his own feelings about women. The series also featured one of the last performances by Ray Liotta, who died in his sleep on May 26. In “Black Bird,” Liotta plays Keene’s dad as a retired, corrupt, broken down cop. While visiting him in prison, Keene’s dad expresses regret over how his bad choices pulled his son into a criminal life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “BLACK BIRD”)
RAY LIOTTA: (As Big Jim Keene) I never wanted this for you. I wanted a totally different deal.
EGERTON: (As Jimmy Keene) Like what?
LIOTTA: (As Big Jim Keene) You know…
EGERTON: (As Jimmy Keene) No, I don’t.
LIOTTA: (As Big Jim Keene) A wife, kids and a steady paycheck.
EGERTON: (As Jimmy Keene) I couldn’t have helped you if I lived that life.
LIOTTA: (As Big Jim Keene) I still wanted it for you.
LEHANE: The thing I love about Ray is – which is there was a sort of core duality at the center of him. If Ray played somebody sweet, you still felt menace. There was a volatility there. And if he played somebody dangerous, you felt a sweetness.
DEGGANS: Lehane, who’s written for TV shows like “The Wire” and “Mr. Mercedes” says a novel to be published next year, called “Small Mercies,” will likely be his last for a while. In decades of novel writing, he says, the process has never gotten easier.
LEHANE: When I write a novel, I have to go into a tunnel. And it doesn’t make me the greatest person to be around. With television, I can do it anywhere. I can spend the morning with my kids. I can drive them to school, and then I can go, and I can work.
DEGGANS: Ask him about the notorious stories of TV writers working around the clock in Hollywood, and Lehane responds with a quote from his old boss on “Mr. Mercedes,” “Ally McBeal” creator David E. Kelley.
LEHANE: David said, nobody ever had a good idea after 3. All our good ideas come between, like, 10 and 1. That’s it. There you go.
DEGGANS: Judging by the expansive storytelling in “Black Bird,” Lehane won’t have to worry about coming up with strong ideas in his TV work for some time to come. I’m Eric Deggans.
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