Dennis Lehane on infamous failure of Ben Affleck’s Live by Night, working with late Ray Liotta on Apple’s Black Bird

Dennis Lehane, who serves as the showrunner on the new Apple TV+ miniseries Black Bird, spoke about working with the late Ray Liotta, and reflected on the critical and commercial failure of the 2016 crime drama Live by Night.

Writer Dennis Lehane has had a pretty terrific track record when it comes to film adaptations of his popular novels. He’s worked with some of the best directors around — Martin Scorsese adapted his book Shutter Island; Clint Eastwood directed Mystic River. But there’s one sore spot in his filmography that he still can’t wrap his head around, more than half-a-decade after it first came out.
Live by Night was supposed to be director Ben Affleck’s carte blanche follow-up to his Oscar-winning drama Argo. He also wrote, co-produced and starred in the picture. It was supposed to reignite interest in period gangster movies and potentially earn Affleck the respect as a filmmaker that he publicly said he didn’t get after directing Argo to massive critical and commercial success. But upon release in 2016, it tanked with both critics and audiences, derailing Affleck’s career as a director — he hasn’t made a film since — and reportedly losing Warner Bros around $75 million. That’s the entire budget for RRR.
Live by Night reunited Affleck with Lehane. Their first collaboration, Gone Baby Gone, was based on Lehane’s novel and served as Affleck’s directorial debut. The small-scale thriller was everything that the sweeping Live by Night wasn’t. In an interview with the Indian Express ahead of his latest project — the Apple TV+ miniseries Black Bird — Lehane said that he still doesn’t know what went wrong with Live by Night, but respects the honest intentions with which it was made.
“We’re not in denial, we all know it ultimately did not work,” he said. “But it was extremely well-intentioned. It captured the spirit of the book. So, sometimes it just becomes this weird question mark, like ‘Why, what happened?’ We don’t know. I can’t point to it.”
He added, “And I say that about all my work, all my film adaptations. I always say, ‘I’ll take it on faith that it’s good or bad, because I can’t judge it. I’m too close to it. When I saw Live by Night in the first screening, I thought, ‘Ah! We got a hit!’ And then the reviews started coming out, and then I thought, ‘Oh, no we don’t’. So, you just never know. All I care about is that there is honest intention when you make a film, and that’s exactly what I’ve gotten, five out of five times.”
Black Bird marks the first time that he’s re-collaborating with a director after the Live by Night fiasco. The first three episodes of the six-episode show have been directed by Belgian filmmaker Michaël R Roskam, who previously worked with Lehane on The Drop, a 2014 crime-drama starring Tom Hardy in the lead role. Lehane said that he was juggling jobs while making The Drop — he was also writing on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire at the time — but this time around, he was ‘in charge’.
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“I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “Michaël has a unique vision, and we had to make our two visions for the piece work together that tension shows up beautifully in the pilot. There’s a beautiful artistic tension between myself, Michaël and Natalie Kingston, the director of photography. I mean tension in the best way, not the bad way. I don’t mean conflict, I mean tension.”
Starring Taron Egerton as a convicted drug smuggler who is given the opportunity to earn an early release for himself by helping aid the FBI in a murder investigation, Black Bird will also serve as one of the final screen appearances by the legendary Ray Liotta, who died earlier this year. Lehane said that he wrote the part of the protagonist’s grizzled father with ‘him in mind’, and with the intention of showing a different side to the Goodfellas star’s abilities as a performer.