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Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco interview (The Black Donnellys)

Date of publishing: 7th March 2007

Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco interview (The Black Donnellys) The show follows the exploits of four young, working-class Irish-American brothers and their involvement in organized crime in New York City. The Donnelly brothers will do anything to protect each other against all odds. The ensemble cast includes Kirk Acevedo, Thomas Guiry, Billy Lush, Keith Nobbs, Michael Stahl-David, Jonathan Tucker and Olivia Wilde. The pilot was directed by Haggis, who also wrote the Academy Award-winning “Million Dollar Baby.” Haggis and Moresco are the creators and executive producers.

The series is a production of NBC Universal Television Studio in association with Blackfriars Bridge Productions. This is the full report from the NBC press conference. Media World was there to cover the event.

Having won the Academy Award, was there any reservation about going back to television where you guys started?

Paul Haggis: Well, because we figured we never won the second won, so, we should get back and the way we love it, it’s going good. Right, Bobby?

Bobby Moresco: Exactly. Here you go. Haggis isn’t planning one in case you guys haven’t figured that out. He never let me forget. You know, Paul is speaking for both us. If I may, I think both of us love this show… if ever we’re going to go back to TV, it would have been for this.

Paul Haggis: Yeah, it was something that Bobby and I really love to play and something we wrote, which in 1996, and we had the opportunity to do it. When Kevin gave that opportunity, we both jumped on it.

Bobby Moresco: Exactly, we never thought twice.

Question: So when you were watching the Oscar’s ten years ago, did you ever think you’d be up on that stage last year?

Paul Haggis: No, no.

Bobby Moresco: I thought Haggis would, but he never thought he see me with him.

Paul Haggis: No, not a chance. We never get a movie made, never mind, any sort of recognition… or that anyone would like it.

Question: Bobby, a lot of times you described having grown up in the Hell’s Kitchen, and I wonder if you just elaborate on that a little bit, because I don’t know if I should envision like Martin’s Scorsese if he talks about being like a sickly kid watching the violent thug out his window, and I don’t know if it’s that case or if it’s the case where you are very much involved, you’re a lot like the Donnelly kid. If you kind of tell me a little bit more about your childhood and what point you thought you hit this more of this story in here.

Bobby Moresco: Well, first of all, I want to make it clear that this is not a biography. This started out with Haggis and I, me sharing stories with Paul when we’re doing Easy Streets about what looks like growing up, we created a fictional world, that to be made clear too. But having said that, sure, I wasn’t the Martin’s Scorseses story, I was one of those guys who are out in the streets. I had four - five brothers growing up.
Well, my dad was a Longshoreman, my mom’s family was in construction, and all those people that you guys read about were friends and family back then. And I spent a lot of my life trying to understand how people that you love and respect and honor can do monstrous thing to become monster who then we’ll be the people that you thought you love. And that’s just a strange psychognomy to try to get hold of it. All I go is able to pull that kind of stuff out of anyone because he’s a great writer. Together, I thought we found the great fictional world and fictional setting and a lot of fictional characters that are based in real life, and things would happen.

Question: So you said before, you started writing the spec in ’96, that’s when Easy Streets was going. Was this something that was Rachel Nagus pitched the CBS?

Paul Haggis: Yeah, this is a follow-up to Easy Streets, and it was something that we’re going to do then and it was right after Easy Streets failed. And then all those guys realized to hold on, they just cancelled the show. What the hell am I - rightly so. And it was something we tried to do with CBS over the years, and it just wasn’t a fit for them, and we sort of gave up trying about five years ago.

Question: And obviously, this shares is of number of systematic elements with that. In what ways have you sort of learned from that experience that -- you know how much I love Easy Streets -- but in what ways have you - other than obviously you’re cloud now, are you trying to make it work more for mass audience?

Paul Haggis: I don’t think we learned the damn thing.

Bobby Moresco: I know that I didn’t.

Paul Haggis: I mean, I did - at the time, we were told, “Don’t you guys get it? No one wants to see a continuing story over 24 episodes.” And we said, “Okay, “and we went off, and then, of course, 24 hits, and a lot of other shows, and now, people say, “Don’t you get it? That’s the only thing people want is that this is for 24 episodes.
So we didn’t learn the damn thing, I think we just, maybe had a little more freedom, we had the freedom to cast kids who are - were relatively known now. When we manage that through time, casting actors, which we would have been ashamed because, we don’t get a lot of named actors for 21, 22 years old.

Question: Joey “Ice Cream” -- I’ve seen the five episodes… the longer it goes on, the less there is of sort of him as the unreliable narrator. Was that something you sort of eased back on after a while or just sort of hard to pull off… week in and week out?

Paul Haggis: It’s just, when you get a lot of writers working on stuff, it just sometimes that things, - some things get the forefront and some things, get pushed back. But I don’t see, it was not a plan and I think…

Bobby Moresco: …that as the series goes on, he becomes unreliable again so…

Question: It’s a very sort of cinematic television show, and I just thought maybe you could talk a little bit about, what you can do in a TV show that you can’t do in a movie and just the way in which you’re sort of blurring the lines between movie and television here in this show. It seems…

Paul Haggis: Yeah. I don’t think - I guess, I’ll talk to Bobby for a second. But I don’t think we treat them differently. I directed this thing exactly as if ever been movie or television. It’s just shot a little faster. But not that much faster, I think more time to shoot that in Crash on hour and hour basis. We’re just trying to tell a good story. And, I mean, back when I was doing, with a lot of other television shows, people in N.Y. direct them, people, could go, “You know, you really should be doing movies.
And it wasn’t a complement. They’re just trying to get rid of me. But I just sort of, - I mean, and then the nice thing is that NBC is really supportive with that. We do, a scene in the Pilot in which all shots ... It’s very important scene and these two figures in silhouette tiny figures discussing it and… never cut in, and it’s the stuff they usually they want to feature. But we did that, and I fully thought I get to see network notes in frankly where the close-ups, and they never seen those notes.

Question: It’s interesting as well because, I mean, this is kind of an R-rated movie, I mean, it isn’t… but it is. I mean, thematically and emotionally and so it has an intensity and just - and so that must be an interesting process to like, well, what can we do and how can we do it to, stay true to what we’re trying to do, and but not have, blow over into objectionable or…

Paul Haggis: Yeah, it’s a real line to walk. And Bobby learned to walk that every week in more sort of than I. I mean, because Bobby was responsible for getting a lot of the scripts going on once he got first a few done. And it’s a tough line… You - Bobby, you want to speak to that?

Bobby Moresco: No, that’s a good question, you know, before that - I think it’s the real mistake considering the fact that we sort of write. I guess it’s a huge mistake in a policy that think that you should approach the writing for television differently than you might. You approach everything the same in craft, the same amount of intensity, and the same amount of need for character and plot and story or may change a bit, but if anything else changes, that’s the big mistake.

Question: I was wondering too in that Joey “Ice Cream.” Given that he’s such a bullshit artist, is it barely possible that he’s leading us -- the audience -- incompletely wrong direction?

Paul Haggis: It’s more than barely possible. I mean that’s - what we want you to think is we want - as you go along, you want to hold on, just disguise up, a pathological liar, why are we believing him? It’s fascinating because it’s something we want to explore and that’s something you do explore a lot in movies and television. In other ways, I remember with Million Dollar Baby, the narrator who was a reliable narrator -- we - one would think -- and then at the end of that, he said that he hopes that Frankie found some piece, and then as you go on, and it go - that would at least, the movie go like, “You hope Frankie found some peace.” I go, “No, no, the narrator thought that that’s something he hoped.” And so you seem to imbue areas with a lot, of the audience instruction, so we want to really play with that idea.

Question: Okay. So my concerns are valid.

Paul Haggis: Completely valid, okay?

Bobby Moresco: Yeah. But if I may add to that, is this an emotional truth in the storytelling… that isn’t played with you decide what it might mean to you, but emotionally, we’re dealing with something truthful in both character and the story.

Paul Haggis: And that’s what we want to do exactly. We want to sometimes tell a deeper truth than what was the factual truth for the moment whether Joey “Ice Cream” was there or not. He seems to know what’s going on inside this - with this. But what are his motivations? I mean, that’s something we certainly explore to go along. And as you see - and especially since we have a menace of limbo, you never really know - and we purposely kept this, what’s the outcome of the story and what’s - how is he damning his friends, is he protecting his friends, you don’t know.

Bobby Moresco: Exactly. And, the trick was an unreliable narrator. I think that the audience should never feel cheated. They may feel lied too, but if they feel they’re mostly cheated.

Paul Haggis: Yeah. Exactly. That’s a good point, Bobby.

Question: Now, a couple of family members recently have seen sort of quick promos or heard the title, and they, of course, naturally assumed first of that it’s about the real Black Donnellys which, obviously is one of the most, gruesome members in Canadian history. I’m wondering about your decision to use that as the title. And is that lost on most of the audience down in the states?

Paul Haggis: That’s the first title should be. I mean, there was an emotional truth that, again, that we wanted to use that - when I told Bobby the story of The Black Donnellys, we thought that was intriguing. There were many themes. We want to - obviously, you want to choose the title that is not literal, and certainly, this one is. The original title of this was actually "The Truth According to Joey Ice-Cream"… that there was a one thing Kevin thought was just a tad esoteric. And so, I was like, “What else? What is it? What’s we have, it’s called the The Donnellys,” and we’d always thought of this and we’d played with themes that came out of that massacre. And so it was called The Black Donnellys. We thought that sounds great. But, we - I mean, there was something about the level of intolerance in that community… and the fact that the bad folks were easily pointed to and they said we could use the bad people and we are the good people, and then the good people then massacre the bad people that I thought, well, this speaks to what we’re doing here because we’re trying to play with - we’re asking you to empathize with murderers, drug dealers in this. And then - but then you were seeing, I think, as you go through, this is definitely a tragedy that we’re telling. This is just - you sort of have the - I think it pretty much give the sense of doing from the first frame. This will not going to end well for anybody, and so - but how is it going to turn out. And that’s, again, things we’re playing with.

Bobby Moresco: These characters are in some way trying to save - he’s trying to save that Tom is trying to save his brother; they’re all trying to save someone and they’re trying to - obviously, the community is part of that, and will the community turning against them, we’ll find out.

Question: How would you handicap your chances on Sunday night?

Bobby Moresco: Oh, I don’t. I think it’s fabulous to be nominated, and that’s it.

Question: How many of the fights are going to be booze induced? And do the brothers have a drink of choice?

Paul Haggis: Well, how many brothers are booze induced. Well, Bobby - I guess, what, all of them? No, that’s not the case. I mean, temper flare constantly in this piece, the brothers are always, beginning to fight with themselves or others. But today, the drink of choice, Bobby?

Bobby Moresco: No, I don’t think they do and I think they do, and I don’t think we can point any. But Paul is absolutely right. Sometimes booze is involved, sometimes booze isn’t involved.

Question: And also, for resource of actors, they go to Ireland or mid of Irish pub or anything?

Paul Haggis: No, they just drank a lot. (laughter) No, they - no. They talk to Bobby, and a lot. That’s what they did. And, Bobby introduced them in some of his friends and staff, and then, I mean, we create a fictional world so it was - they really have to create their own lives.

Question: It seems that you showed the hybrid of your experiences growing up in New York that - in a modern backdrop of New York. Do you ever find a created challenge that envision to era? And which generation are you aiming for, are you aiming for the good solid generation or the entourage generation in terms of your audience?

Bobby Moresco: That’s a good question. The first question was it - or even asked in earlier question in-depth, Haggis and I took a lot of the experiences in characters that I knew growing up and then turned them more inside out, and threw them into the mix to create a fictional world of characters in the story.

Paul Haggis: And for that reason, we decided to create a fictional neighborhood, and that you’ll see that, we views elements of Manhattan, views elements of Queens, and Brooklyn, and made it all look like one neighborhood. That seems very similar to what we do with Easy Streets in which we took portions in Detroit and Chicago and L.A., and made a city that you couldn’t recognize that you just want to stick to something that was dare and more interesting to anyone, particularly, the neighborhood.

Bobby Moresco: …hopefully, to the timeless piece. You shouldn't quite be sure when it takes place. You just know it's contemporary, at least, it was like epitope, but we want it to feel universal, feel it timeless also.

Question: Paul, I’m just wondering, you said you started to think about the series in '96, and obviously, since then…

Paul Haggis: We wrote it in ’96.

Question: When did you start thinking about it then?

Paul Haggis: '96. I think as I know with Bobby. I just met Bobby the year before. I done written the pilot for Easy Streets and I was looking for writers and someone recommended I look at Bobby, and Deborah and I read his work and really liked it. So he became my right hand on that series. And then, as it was failing, we wanted to do something else. And so - and I’ve been listening to his stories, and “I’m going to - how can I steal your life and would you like to do with me or not?

Bobby Moresco: I was smart enough to do with them, because I knew he’d do it without me.

Question: You’re just talking about like over the past few years, as writers, you've approached a quite a few different subject matters, whether it’s from in a racial stuff that the box seems have now and all that stuff. Can you talk a little bit about switching gears and how, as a writer, you’re able to do that or what you look for in a theme or kept you brings back to certain stories?

Paul Haggis: I think we just look for great stories, fabulous dilemmas, I mean, that - and questions that are unanswerable, and we tried to put our characters into situations where we wouldn't want to be and then help them make choices that we wouldn't ever want to make, and that’s we always do.



Question: What - and - just sort of a follow-up to present to the whole idea of the show, why is it that you think that the public that were so drawn to this mobster sort of gang-based story? What is the common denominator there?

Paul Haggis: Oh, I don't know. Bob - I mean, it’s - we're drawn to a lot of stories and this is one where crime - I think there's - the journey that these boys face, and what we like is not obviously a mobster, but we like the idea of doing of coming of age story within this sort of this world where crime is the easiest way to make a living. And that’s what appeal to us. Bobby, is there anything with you?

Bobby Moresco: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely correct. I think it’s a mistake to think that somebody wants to draw and write a mobster story. What you write about is people you care about in situation that’s exactly emotionally and they need to give you out of that, and these kids did that for us, the pattern, the surface had deepened up.

Question: Is it great to have this group of like young characters, and then you can take them so many other places because of the age and the freshness of them?

Bobby Moresco: Oh, yeah, I think that’s the most fun out of all it. Am I wrong, Paul?

Paul Haggis: I hate them. They make me feel old and so - and fat…

Bobby Moresco: Exactly.

Paul Haggis: …and bald.

Bobby Moresco: Exactly.


Paul Haggis: It really is a lot of fun because they’ll - they’re just willing to trust and the actors will just jump in and do things that anything we’re asking to do and try, and that’s what you want as director, as producer, as the writer, these people to just say, “Okay, let’s just try that.” They’re very brave.

Bobby Moresco: Yeah, it’s really cool.

Question: Now, you also have a healthy amount of more experienced actors like Kate Mulgrew and Chris Bauer. How important is that for you to counterpoint the young - the youthful stars with these more experienced supporting actors?

Bobby Moresco: Oh, I don't even think you think about that. You create a character that serves the story and then you go from there. I don't think we ever thought from the moment we saw these guys in the audition process that weren’t going to be to depend on. I mean, if they need “help” in some way. These guys are terrific and…

Paul Haggis: Yeah. I mean, in assessing - in the audition process - I mean, this is really what you’re asking, but I’d like to answer questions that weren’t asked. We were casting these guys. And from the moment that Kevin and guys involved were set to do this, I knew it was impossible, we weren’t - we’re going to find these group of kids, who were, appealing, who were good actors, and who looked like they were of this neighborhood. I just know what’s going to happen. So I went away to Italy and I let Bobby do it. And so he and Alexa Fogel and Mark Harris and Jeff King all sat down and tried to cast this thing. And they emailed me choices, and I looked at auditions over the internet. It was great. In the end, very quickly, we found one actor for each role who was just perfect, and we presented that one actor for each role to the network and take Kevin, and they’ve said "yeah" and that was it. So usually - and that’s the same thing what we’re looking for the adults. There usually have two choices, I mean, in many good actors but there’s always one actor who came in and just embodied that role and whether that one was - whether he had an - has a lot of experience or whether they were, again fresh and unknown, we just said, “That’s the person.” They’re very lucky.

Bobby Moresco: Yeah, absolutely. And to go along with that, Paul and I, we’re really lucky enough and fortunate enough to have Kevin in the Studio really supporting all the choices we’ve made creatively.

Paul Haggis: Yeah, he was fabulous.

Question: We’re talking a little bit about how this could easily be an R-Rated film as opposed to a TV series. What were some of the challenges in adapting it for a Network television where shows like Brotherhood and the Wire and the Sopranos can really go for the gust there on HBO?

Paul Haggis: I haven't seen the Brotherhood, but the Wire is a magnificent show, it’s a great show, it’s one of my favorite shows in the television. It is obviously is always a challenge with the language, but that was basically it. And we weren't even challenged that much for it, Bobby?

Bobby Moresco: I don’t think so, and that’s the case to be made that it helped. Look, when you write a good poem, if you’re writing a sonnet, you can stick to the form. If you’re writing a Haiku, you can stick to the form. It serves you to be more creative here.

Paul Haggis: Bobby, have you ever written a good poem? What would you know?

Bobby Moresco: I’ve written a lot of poems. But I think form, I’d be - being constricted to form can be helpful.

Paul Haggis: Yeah. And just that it was just a matter of - I mean, we got to tell all the emotional truth - I was worried about that, I got to tell you. I never thought that we would be introducing this on network television. They’d let us - they really gave us a lot of freedom, and we tried to be responsible with that.

Bobby Moresco: Absolutely. With the exception of curse words ...

Paul Haggis: But we used a lot of curse words too, if then they were less aware of that. It was things that, ten o'clock audience would, let’s say, with this audience maybe pushing the boundaries, but it's nothing we haven’t heard before badly.

Question: Because Tom Guiry is from New Jersey, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was that made him so right for the role of Jimmy?

Paul Haggis: He’s from New Jersey?

Question: Yeah.

Paul Haggis: Jesus, Bobby, you got to…

Question: Why? You wouldn’t hire him if you know, huh?

Paul Haggis: We got to get rid of him right now.

Bobby Moresco: Exactly. (laughter)
He was that impulsive before, he’s not really out of money. When Tom walked in the set, I mean, he was doing no issue, he was just the new every instinct, every one knew he was.

Paul Haggis: I mean, they are just wonderful, that way that they could adapt to whatever it is, that dialogue that we chose whatever we picked the point in the map and then have them - it was like, “Let’s pretend we’re here." And they were all great. I mean, we’ve got kids from Boston and then kids from Jersey and a couple of kids from Manhattan and they’re all pretty much sounds the same, so they are very skilled actors.

Question: Why do you think, for years, we really never heard so much about Irish thugs or Mobsters? And now, we have a whole - you heard mostly about Italian-American? And now, we have Brotherhood and The Departed, there was a character, and now, The Black Donnellys. So why do you think there’s this interest now?

Paul Haggis: I don’t think it’s an interest. I don’t know. Bobby - we just that - well, Bobby wrote this 1996 that we wrote out. So it’s hard to say. It was like last year wit the Oscar when people are asking us why is it that, all these films have social significance this year. It’s impossible to tell because all those projects, I mean, we created three, four, five years before. And they always happened to role in there, is there something that the consciousness or common consciousness this causing, I don’t know. Good question.

Question: I guess what I meant, why didn’t people mind this rich area before?

Bobby Moresco: I think it’s impossible to understand. And then maybe it’s not even true.

Question: Well, I just wanted Bobby to continue this a little bit when he’s talking about, as a boy, he was involved by the people around him and kind of understanding… What was the next step when you really decided to become a writer and to learn the other things and so forth? What kind of you’re heading in that direction?

Bobby Moresco: Well, there were two things. The first was, when I grew on I don't know on tenth avenue and 53rd street, we were right in the middle three blocks to the east with Broadway, two blocks from the West of the Docks. My father was a Longshoreman, everybody worked in construction. Everybody is getting involved crime or they are cops. So it was real simple choices, to become a good, you can be involved in crime, become a cop, work in the docks or to walk East of Broadway. I like that way. I started taking some acting classes when I’m 17. That changes my life, and I love my family members and a lot of friends to see that a little bit. They just totally just changed my entire outlook on everything and I had to reinvent it somehow and try to understand it.

Question: Thank you Paul, thanks Bobby

Paul Haggis: Oh, thanks for joining guys. It was really, really, really, good questions so…

Bobby Moresco: Thanks everybody.

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