INTERVIEW: Writer-Director Jonathan Hensleigh on Cracking the ‘Irishman’

Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2011.

Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script.

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It begins with a thug in his car, suddenly intuiting that a bomb has been installed. He jumps out just in time as there’s a tremendous EXPLOSION … and lives to fight another day.

This homage, intentional or inadvertent, to Casino is a signal that Jonathan Hensleigh—best known as the scribe of action epics like Armageddon, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and The Saint—is taking a segue into Scorsese Country as he writes and directs the hard-hitting Kill the Irishman, the dramatization of one of the most extraordinary, yet little-known, underworld careers of the past century. (Jeremy Walters also receives screenplay credit on the film.)

The titular son of Erin is Danny Greene, played by Ray Stevenson with the same no-holds-barred brutality he brought to the mini-series Rome and comic book-based Punisher: War Zone. And his supporting cast, not a slouch in the bunch, includes Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Robert Davi, Fionnula Flanagan, Vinnie Jones, and The Sopranos’ Steve Schirripa.

INTERVIEW: Writer-Director Jonathan Hensleigh on Cracking the 'Irishman' by Bob Verini | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Ray Stevenson stars as Danny Greene in Kill the Irishman

A quick review of the yarn reveals what attracted such a distinguished murderers’ row of character actors. Originally a longshoreman who battled his way to become a powerful and later-disgraced union boss, Greene began to work with the Cleveland Mafia—among the nation’s wealthiest and most feared crime organizations—until the relationship soured. Then he formed his own crew, the “Celtic Club,” and engaged in years of open warfare with the Mob, boasting of surviving numerous assassination attempts. The Cleveland area, as anyone who lived through the 1970s is likely to remember, rocked with bombs and bombing attempts for years.

Oh, yeah—and Greene was a confidential FBI informant as well.

This story has jaw-dropping stuff. Says the writer-director, “It was one of those true-life stories that is so startling in its uniqueness, really quite bizarre, that I almost wondered whether the audience would believe it. There are some true stories that are stranger than fiction. It’s ironic that way: that some things, the truer they are, the more fake they seem.”

He became fascinated by the fact that the Midwest brought the Mafia “more profit margin than all the rest of their territories combined … and as soon as I realized that, I realized the stakes involved in the Danny Greene story. He wasn’t trying to take over a popsicle stand; he was trying to take over the most profitable business the Italian Mafia had—and that includes the Five Families in New York.”

The very audacity of the story, not to mention its scope of time, place and characters, put a strain on its adapter to craft a version that would be affordable and plausible, while staying true to history. He had solid source material to work with, journalist and law-enforcement officer Rick Porrello’s definitive book To Kill the Irishman (as well as Walters’ screenplay). But not every crucial aspect of Greene’s career was part of the agreed-upon record.

“Regardless of this insider information that Rick Porrello had,” Hensleigh says, “there were still holes in the story. For instance, it’s never been proven that Danny Greene killed his former associate Art Sneperger (Jason Butler Harner in the film). The crime was investigated, but there were no arrests or indictments and no one went to trial. But, it’s the belief of many insiders in Cleveland that this was the case—that Danny killed Art when he found out that he was going to give the organization over to the prosecutorial authorities.” The truth behind another murder depicted in the movie is equally cloudy. “So, like many of these crime stories where all of the people involved are long dead and forgotten and went to their grave with their secrets, my first task was to try to come to grips with what I thought really happened.”

Hensleigh defends his decisions on the basis of dramatic interest, quick to point out that his new movie is hardly alone in taking liberties. “I could give countless, endless examples of biopics that feature somebody’s inaccuracies. I would be hard-pressed to find a Hollywood biopic that doesn’t have any of these stretches.” As an arbitrary example, solely because he happened to see it one night ago, he mentions Paramount’s 1953 Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. “The climax features Houdini dying in his submersion chamber. It’s not implied; it’s explicitly shown. Yet Houdini actually died over a burst appendix, over a bet that he could sustain the hardest punch thrown by this tough guy! And believe me, if we stayed on the phone another 24 hours, I could continue without pause to give you examples.”

Val Kilmer as Joe Manditski

In that context, Hensleigh says, “I think we were fairly scrupulous about not veering off wildly into complete fiction.” The choices of where speculation would become concrete dramatization in the screenplay were “based on real sources,” including a good deal that was (and remains) widely rumored on the Cleveland street as recorded by Porrello. “And if I’ve stretched, I’ve tried to stretch an inch rather than a mile.”

The filmmaker cites an incident early in the movie: “Danny Greene had a dispute with the former president of the longshoremen’s association of Cleveland. The president resigned abruptly and left town, and it was long rumored, very heavily rumored, that Danny Greene muscled him out. So our sequence is based on a longstanding rumor on the docks that Greene muscled his way in and forced this guy out through extortion tactics.” (The scene in question, involving the bitch-slapping of the boss played by Bob Gunton, is a highlight, and it feels “true” even if the events didn’t exactly play out just that way.)

Hensleigh volunteers another aspect of the movie in which invention was called for. “There are times when your cast of characters in the actual historical record is so numerous that it becomes unwieldy. You just can’t do justice to all the characters. So, what you end up doing is going through the process of character consolidation: You’ll take 10 characters and turn them into five or what have you.” In Kill the Irishman, Danny’s crew is reduced to his two closest allies. “Otherwise, you’d end up with a three-hour screenplay.”

Christopher Walken (as Shondor Birns) and writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh on the set of Kill the Irishman

Beyond consolidation, the screenwriter of a touchy true story may feel constrained to literally remove one or more key figures. There was a child in the biography, Danny Jr., who had actually started to take a part in papa’s organization. Today, Hensleigh says, “I believe [he] has changed his name; he did not cooperate with the writing of Rick’s book; and, furthermore, [his role] seemed to complicate things unnecessarily: There wasn’t a lot of source material on the son. I felt uncomfortable including him in the screenplay since he wasn’t featured in the book, so we only depict Danny’s son as a child and not in his teenage years … that’s a fairly major factual omission.” Hensleigh also points out that “Porrello was trying for the longest time to contact and locate Danny Greene’s girlfriend, who was in fact younger in real life than the young woman we portrayed in the movie. Neither Rick Porrello nor anyone else could find her. People don’t know if she is dead or alive.”

Hensleigh clearly does not take the matter of historical accuracy lightly, especially since many of the journalists who reported at the time, including current ABC News investigative correspondent Brian Ross, are still very much with us and serve to keep a screenwriter honest. “I would be the last person to try to claim that we have had 100% fidelity to the historical record, because clearly we have not. But we’ve tried to stay really, really close to the major events, and if we filled in holes, we did so in the way we honestly think the events played out. If we’ve omitted things, we’ve done so for streamlining of the story, or [the aspects] we didn’t have time to fully treat.”

Vincent D’Onofrio (front) as John Nardi

He saw no need to “retrace the steps of Rick Porrello; I relied on the book heavily … but I have to say, I read just about everything there is to read on the Internet and in hardto- get print on the Midwestern Mafia, or I should say the Italian Mafia in the Midwest, and then I just relied on my own memory. I did live through that period, and I remember reading about it in national news publications.” He and his team also studied “a couple of pictures about Midwestern organized crime that I just loved.” Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick and Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut, he says, “always intrigued me because they were Mob movies that weren’t on the mean streets of Chicago; they were in cow country.” As a result, he and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub sought “to achieve a look where the audience not only believed that they were looking at events from the 1970s, but that they were looking at a movie that might have been made in the 1970s.”

So, what did he learn from researching and scripting the Danny Greene saga that others might take into account when approaching a true story of their own? He promptly cites the power of immersion: “Look at as many photographs as you can, as much videotape as you can, and try to live it and breathe it, to get as much realism and verisimilitude as you can possibly muster.”

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