Black Bird boss on the finale's killer improv, fact vs. fiction, and what didn't make the cut
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the series finale of Black Bird.
It may come as a surprise to fans of novelist and film and TV writer Dennis Lehane, whose works often deal with crime and the pitch-black sides to humanity, that he initially had no interest in adapting Black Bird.
After all, the Apple TV+ limited series, which is based on true-crime memoir In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption, follows the story of Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), a man who is sent off to a maximum-security institution to elicit a confession from suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), in a chance to get himself out of a 10-year sentence. If you think that sounds right up Lehane's alley, you'd be wrong.
"I don't like serial killers and I don't like prisons," Lehane admits to EW. "So that was two strikes against this material before I went and did it. And it was only when I was getting near the end of it that I thought, 'Oh, wait a minute, what if we went a different journey here? What if we looked at this through the prism of the male gaze?' Then all of a sudden I was excited."
He then set out to create, write, and executive produce Black Bird, which coincidentally had both a serial killer and a prison, but ultimately allowed him to trek through Jimmy's journey of confronting his own humanity and misogyny.
The heart-pumping final episode of the series, which just started streaming on Apple TV+, concludes that journey, with Jimmy finally confronting Larry once and for all. And while he doesn't quite get the full confession they were hoping for, Jimmy does manage to get enough — details only the killer could have known about the crimes — to keep Larry behind bars forever, securing Jimmy's sweet, hard-earned freedom in the process.
Lehane breaks it all down — plus, which shocking moments were improvised, what's fact and what's fiction, and the "absolutely beautiful scene" it killed him to cut from the finale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we dive into the finale, I'm curious about the real James Keene, who is an executive producer on the series, and how accessible he was to you when you set out to adapt his book.
DENNIS LEHANE: He was very accessible. The less accessible of the two of us was me. I reached out to Jimmy early, confirmed a bunch of stuff from the book, asked for some anecdotal stuff that wasn't in the book. He gave me all that. And then I went off and did the show because I needed to think of my Jimmy as my Jimmy. This isn't a documentary, that's the easiest way to put it, so I wanted my Jimmy to go on a psychological and emotional journey that the real Jimmy to the best of my knowledge never went on. So the facts of the case are the same, but the interpersonal journey that happens is not the same.
I read that you actually initially weren't interested in this material until you realized you could make it about the weaponization of the male gaze. Is that accurate?
Without a doubt. I don't like serial killers and I don't like prisons. So that was two strikes against this material before I went and did it. And it was only when I was getting near the end of it that I thought, "Oh, wait a minute, what if we went a different journey here? What if we looked at this through the prism of the male gaze?" Then all of a sudden I was excited.
So then, that moment in the finale between the flight attendant and Jimmy, where he takes special care to remember her name, is meant to show his growth in that way?
Well, it's both. It's his growth, but it's also, we can't help ourselves. We didn't want to make it too overt, but the last thing he does with that woman is he checks out her ass.
So it's like, we can only grow so much, is where I wanted to put it. But then after, he looks out that window and he's once again reminded. So it's this idea that he's just never going to be quite the same guy. He looks out at those fields and he's thinking about what Larry said about fields. He's a male, and he's a male of a certain type, so he's never going to stop — his male gaze is never going to end — but now he understands what happens if it's weaponized. That's where we're going at the end.
Crafting the finale, what did you feel the need to dramatize vs. pull straight from what actually happened? I'm particularly curious about the map of the burial sites of Larry's alleged victims — did that actually exist?
There was a map. Jimmy tried to keep it in his head and he couldn't, so that's where I had to fill that time. Jimmy was in that hole [in solitary confinement] for two weeks. Nobody to this day can explain how that happened.
Nobody will go on record but he was in there for two weeks. And his handler was calling the prison, looking for him, the real Lauren McCauley — Lauren is an amalgam of two different agents — and the real handler was calling the prison. And they were saying, "We have no idea who this guy is. We have no record of this guy." It was nuts. And because it was so nuts, nobody will go on record as to explain it. And so we can't get the facts. So I had to surmise, what's he doing with that time? And that's where I kind of came up with, "Oh, he's trying to think of the map. How do I visualize that?" And that's when I came up with him drawing the map on the wall, [so that part] is the embellishment.
Another standout moment from the finale, of course, is the final showdown between Jimmy and Larry. There's a number of ways that could have been portrayed, but for you in creating that moment, what was the most important thing to convey?
I was after this idea of Jimmy undergoing a really inconvenient attack of humanity. When Lauren [in the beginning] says, "You could help us stop this guy from killing people," he's like, "I don't know them. I won't know the ones he kills. It'll have nothing to do with me." That's his out. In the end, he realizes he's part of a continuum of the human race. And you are your brother's keeper. You do owe other people who you don't know a basic morality. And that's what happens to him in that moment when he is saying to Larry, "Hey, maybe you could just tell people where they're buried." And that, in reality, is not what triggered Jimmy to blow his cover with Larry. [The real] Jimmy just got so fed up with Larry's lies and his sickness that he just snapped and showed him his real face. And I thought, "Yeah. I mean, that's great, but it's not dramatically the story I want to tell." That's what I'm saying: [The real] Jimmy didn't go to this journey of confronting his own humanity or confronting his own misogyny. That didn't happen. So I built the show to drive to that confrontation, to drive to the moment when Jimmy wanted something that is illogical. It's totally irrational, and he blows it because he's human. He blows it because he has a heart.
I love the moment when he does blow it, and just the way he says there's "no f—ing way" Larry will get out of prison now — it's so satisfying in that moment.
Oh, thank you. That was something that we were fist-pumping in the air when Taron was doing that. That was fun for me too, [to write]. You pop. I was popping along with Jimmy. I was Jimmy by that point when I was writing the scripts. And so then it was just when he finally snaps, he can say what he really feels, and he's like, "You demented f—ing … " You know? It was worse actually. They got me to dial it back. It was just me saying, "You kill children who cry for their mothers. You demented f—." So that was fun. And then Paul, Paul went off the reservation improv-wise, which we let him do, I let him do.
All that stuff he's screaming at Jimmy when they're holding him back, that was all improv.
That whole last encounter is so cathartic for Jimmy, and for us as the audience. Part of what makes it so satisfying, to me at least, is that it gives us that ending we need, because what really happened to Larry likely wasn't full justice. We later learn that Gary convinced his brother to confess to 15 murders, and in true Larry fashion, he later recanted. And though he won't be eligible for parole in his lifetime, he's also not been convicted of the dozens of murders and crimes he's been accused of.
No, and we don't suggest that either. All we did was say what Jimmy did killed his appeal, that it shut down his appeal. Larry Hall has never been convicted of anything except for the kidnapping of Jessica Roach. He hasn't even been convicted of killing her. But Beaumont, the real Larry Beaumont, knew that if he could get a conviction across state lines, that's a mandatory life sentence. And he went for it. He was just like, "I'm going to get him for what I can get him for."
Did you find it difficult to dramatize all of that, and Larry's constant back-and-forth serial lying, in a compelling way?
No, I live for these types of stories. I mean, just two people in a room is my favorite thing to do. It's like, Jimmy has this big, huge key ring and he keeps going through it to find the right key for this really obstinate lock. And he can't find it. And that's the story. It's him searching for the right key. And then when he gets that key, Larry's going to open up. Larry's the door and Larry's brain is going to open up. And I just found all of that cat and mouse stuff, that chess game stuff, so much fun.
That makes sense as a way in for you, given your aversion to serial killer stories.
Yeah. I mean, it's that subgenre. When it's done like The Silence of the Lambs, sure, it's great. But the vast majority of it is really bad and hypocritical. It's like you're supposed to shake your finger at it while you're also supposed to be titillated by it. And I find that just really annoying. So I thought, "What's cool about this story is the relationship. You go into a cave to face off against a monster and that monster turns out to be quite human." And that's horrifying. He's still a monster, he's still irredeemable. He's still repellent, but he's also very much a human being. And that's creepy, that's hard to live with. That's hard to get your head around.
The finale packs a lot in, but was there anything that didn't make the cut?
We had a beautiful scene, an absolutely beautiful scene between Taron and Sepideh [Moafi], so between Jimmy and Lauren, at Big Jim's [Ray Liotta] memorial service. And it was beautiful and it was Taron's best acting in the show. It killed me when I had to tell him we cut it. It dragged it down. I have a habit of dragging my storylines out at the end. I come in too fast and I go out too slow, and it's my weakness as a writer, and I always have to deal with it. And we were in editing and we were like, "Not this scene, not this scene." And then Apple was like, "Cut that scene, cut that scene." And then we cut it and we were like, "Oh, it's so much better now." That was the scene. It was a beautiful scene between the two of them and a culmination to their relationship. And you could see how much he changed, but then we get it all in the plane scene, so we didn't need it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.