‘Mass’ effect: How a KU graduate wrote a gangster film starring Johnny Depp

Mark Mallouk, who wrote the screenplay for the Johnny Depp-starring Black

Kansas University graduate Mark Mallouk is having quite a week.

On Monday, he attended the North American premiere (at the Toronto International Film Festival) of the movie he wrote, bringing along family members, as well as his best friends from his days as a Jayhawk. On Friday, that movie — “Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp as notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger — opened in over 3,500 theaters nationwide.

It’s been a long journey to get his adaptation of the 2001 true-crime book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” to the screen, and the tale is filled with almost as many unlikely twists as Bulger’s story.

Mallouk grew up in Prairie Village and graduated from KU in 1995 with bachelor’s degrees in economics, psychology, and human development. The latter two would prove to be quite useful as he made a sudden career change after moving to Los Angeles. In the City of Angels to get an MBA, Mallouk had a moment of clarity after consecutive showings of two modern classics at a local theater: “The Natural” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” The next day he began the enrollment process to get into UCLA’s professional screenwriting program.

“Something about seeing those movies consecutively connected with me,” Mallouk says, adding, “I’m the first to admit that it was a poorly thought out plan.”

Screenwriter Mark Mallouk seen at Warner Bros. 'Black Mass' Premiere at 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 14, 2015, in Toronto, CAN. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Warner Bros./AP Images)

Not knowing anybody in L.A. meant he had more time to focus on pursuing concurrent degrees, while an academic background in human development and psychology might have been positive influences on his screenwriting. After all, both involve understanding people’s motivation — and making those motivations clear to other people.

“Some of the best movies you’ll ever see involve people doing something against their best interests,” says Mallouk, “or going for a goal they know will be unachievable.”

His first script, a crime drama set in Kansas City called “Somerset Square,” was optioned in 2003 by producer Brian Oliver. That film never got made, but Mallouk formed a solid working partnership with Oliver, who he says “appreciated my work ethic.” His trips to the producer’s office became more frequent.

“I was there one day and [Brian] waved me in,” Mallouk says. “He was wrapping up a call he was excited about. He got off the phone and I said, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘Have you ever heard of Whitey Bulger?’ and pushed the book across his desk. ‘This is going to be my next thing,’ he says. ‘Read this book and let me know what you think.'”

By then, Bulger was in the wind — one of the FBI’s most wanted. Mallouk made trips to Boston– Bulger’s stomping grounds. He met the book’s authors; the cops involved in the investigation; and family members of Bulger’s victims. He turned in draft after draft. The script started to get a reputation around Hollywood. It’s getting heat, even though everyone knows it’s a tough one, because there’s no “good guy.”

“Nobody — not one person — said, ‘We’re going to catch him.’ It was: ‘Whitey Bulger is gone and he’s either going to die and we’re not going to know [about it], or he’s in South America … or he’s in Europe,” Mallouk says. “But it was an assumed fact by all parties that he was gone for good. And then he gets arrested… right down the road from me.”

Bulger’s apprehension was the most bizarre thing about the screenwriting process, but it wasn’t the biggest challenge. The book was 450 pages; full of detail about the 19 murders for which Bulger would later be indicted. (He was eventually convicted of 11.) There was the corrupt federal and state officials; his younger brother the state senator. The neighborhood of Southie. The exploitation of the FBI. The bribes. But there was also Whitey, the son, the brother, the father: laid bare by his ambition and sense of self-preservation.

“The difficult part was coming to that now seemingly obvious realization: I needed to distill it down and get it as close to the dinner table as possible,” Mallouk says. “There’s so much in the book that you wouldn’t believe… that you’re compelled to put it in the first draft of the screenplay. That’s what was difficult for me, realizing that you show how bad Whitey is, by making it clear how he treats the people closest to him.”

From directors Jim Sheridan (“In the Name of the Father”) to Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), a host of talent was attached to “Black Mass” over the years, but when Depp signed on, the Warner Bros. machine kicked into high gear. Accomplished screenwriter Jez Butterworth was hired to close out Mallouk’s script, adding a crucial narration-flashback structure, and director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) was hired.

Soon after, actor-writer-director Joel Edgerton, Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch, and Kevin Bacon had signed on as actors. Shooting took place from May to July last year, and Mallouk isn’t shy about his enthusiasm for the way everything turned out, especially since he was able to be on set for most of the filming.

“Edgerton, Cooper, Depp, and Cumberbatch — they’re very savvy. They bend a word here, drop a line,” he says. “The beauty of screenwriting is that other people have their hands on it — and it’s a collaboration.”

Meanwhile, Mallouk has been keeping busy in Hollywood as a producer, with his name appearing on notable films like “Rush,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” and “Everest,” which was also released Friday along with “Black Mass.” Just last week, he was called out by Indiewire.com as one of 20 screenwriters to watch and he has two more screenplays on the way. Right now, though, he’s just going to enjoy the absurdity of the moment.

“It’s impossible to comprehend some of the turns that it took the fact that we got to this point and got to make it — it feels that much more rewarding.”

— Eric Melin is the editor-in-chief of Scene-Stealers. He’s a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and vice president of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.