Dennis Lehane (not pictured) and Paul Walter Hauser (left)—of the true-crime miniseries Black Bird—speak to the challenges in adapting and performing nonfiction true-crime for TV.

Dennis Lehane and Paul Walter Hauser on Black Bird 

Film Interviews

Dennis Lehane adapted the six-part, true-crime miniseries Black Bird for AppleTV+.
Photo Courtesy of EDEN Productions

The true-crime genre has become one of the most prolific staples of modern media, with hits ranging from Tiger King to The Staircase dominating streaming television in recent years. The latest must-see release is Black Bird, a six-part miniseries from AppleTV+. This fact-based drama is inspired by the story of serial killer Larry Hall, played by Paul Walter Hauser, and it has been adapted for the screen by Edgar Award-winning novelist Dennis Lehane.

In Black Bird, Jimmy Keene (Taron Edgerton), a high school football star-turned drug dealer, is sentenced to 10 years in a minimum-security prison. Jimmy is given a chance at redemption and freedom when he is recruited by the FBI to enter a maximum-security prison and befriend Larry Hall. bars. 

“If you don’t commit fully, the audience … going to be able to tell. And then it’s not creepy or threatening. It’s just kind of watching an actor act,” Hauser says.

“You have some ethical questions that you don’t have when you’re doing [fiction] novel adaptations,” Lehane says. The best-selling author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island had never adapted a nonfiction novel before developing Keene’s story for television, and he discovered that it came with some serious responsibilities. “The biggest one is, ‘Are you being faithful to the essence of the people you’re writing about?’ You wouldn’t want to paint anybody in a light that they don’t deserve to be painted in for your convenience.” 

Black Bird isn’t Paul Walker Hauser’s first experience playing a real person, there is a world of difference between Richard Jewell, the mild-mannered security guard who discovered a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the cold, calculating killer, Larry Hall.
Photo Courtesy of EDEN Productions

Black Bird is based on the memoir In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption by James Keene and Hillel Levin. Lehane worked with Keene, as well as other key figures in the real-life events he was depicting, to ensure that he remained true to the people and their experiences. Keene’s deep cover assignment was to find where Hall buried the bodies of the young girls that he brutally raped and murdered, thereby gaining enough evidence to keep Hall behind bars, and it was vital to Lehane that there be a certain sensitivity in regard to the way these gruesome crimes were portrayed. “These victims of Larry Hall, they left behind loved ones,” Lehane says. “I decided to depict it offscreen, to give their lives dignity and not focus on their deaths or their method of death.”

Paul Walter Hauser has been a rising star in Hollywood since his breakthrough performance as bodyguard Shawn Eckardt in the 2017 biopic I, Tonya. Since then, Hauser hass gone on to play major roles in projects ranging from Cobra Kai to Cruella, and he starred as the titular character  in Richard Jewell director and Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. While Black Bird isn’t Hauser’s first experience playing a real person, there is a world of difference between Richard Jewell, the mild-mannered security guard who discovered a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the cold, calculating killer, Larry Hall.

“He’s somebody I understand in the sense that I have also been lonely and wanted companionship,” Hauser says of Hall. “I’ve felt outcast or … misunderstood, so I can connect with those things.” What Hauser couldn’t relate to was Hall’s violent tendencies, his deep-seated misogyny and other disturbing beliefs and actions depicted in the series. The actor found that the only way to believably portray the character was to fully commit to embodying him and being in the moment. “You just have to believe that you believe it and say it,” Hauser says. “If you don’t commit fully, the audience … going to be able to tell. And then it’s not creepy or threatening. It’s just kind of watching an actor act.”

” … ‘Are you being faithful to the essence of the people you’re writing about?’ You wouldn’t want to paint anybody in a light that they don’t deserve to be painted in for your convenience,” says Lehane. 

Even with over four decades of great films and television under his belt, Ray Liotta was an actor whom Dennis Lehane felt was too often underutilized, and Lehane was eager to give him more chances to showcase his range in Black Bird.
Photo Courtesy of EDEN Productions

One of the most significant characters in Black Bird—and one which required a strong screen presence—is James “Big Jim” Keene, the decorated policeman father of Jimmy Keene. Lehane wrote the role with only one actor in mind: Ray Liotta, the Emmy Winner and Golden Globe nominee who is remembered for his brilliant performances in Goodfellas, Field of Dreams, Copland, Narc, The Many Saints of Newark and more. Liotta unexpectedly passed away in his sleep on May 26, 2022 at the age of 67. The chance to work with the actor was an experience that Lehane will hold dear forever. “It was simply a dream come true,” Lehane says. “We had a Vulcan mind-meld when it came to our creative process.” Even with over four decades of great films and television under his belt, Liotta was an actor whom Lehane felt was too often underutilized, and Lehane was eager to give him more chances to showcase his range. 

Black Bird premieres on AppleTV+ on Friday, July 8, with new episodes dropping every Friday through August 5. As anyone who has ever read a novel by Dennis Lehane could predict, this gripping and intense story will leave you hanging on every word, breathlessly transfixed from beginning to end.

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