Where better to screen Brian Helgeland’s new take on the Kray twins – Legend – than in the cinema of the Shoreditch-based cultural centre Rich Mix? The film stars Tom Hardy in a CGI-assisted double role as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the London gangsters who rose to power in the 1950s-60s East End and rubbed shoulders with celebrities and politicians before finally being jailed for murder. Following the special screening of the film at Rich Mix, director Brian Helgeland (writer of L.A. Confidential and director of 42 and Payback) and Chris Lambrianu discussed the making of the film and the history of the notorious crime brothers.
The Lambrianou brothers were junior associates of the Kray twins, with both Tony and Chris Lambrianou serving 15 years each for being involved in the murder of Jack “The Hat” McVitie in 1967. Chris Lambrianu, having long since renounced the Kray’s after serving his sentence, served as an advisor on Legend.
Q: Can you tell us about the prep work you did for the film? Did you shoot around here?
Brian Helgeland: Our production office who we prepped with were in Bethnal Green, so we were here every day for months. But before that I spent a lot of time in Bethnal Green and the areas around the East End, shot a lot in the area, though a lot of it isn’t there any more – Vallance Road for example was torn down and rebuilt in the 1960s. But we shot in E Pellici’s cafe, for example, and Cedra Court; we didn’t have to change anything there. Chris took me on a tour of all the places where they were buried, where they went to school, where they boxed.
Q: How has the area changed since then?
Chris Lambrianu: I think the more it changes the more it strays the same. If you look at the East End as was, it was Jewish craftsman, who really brought something to the area, then you had other people move in, like black people in Cable Street, or Maltese in Aldgate. Now its changed again. The East End can absorb the pressure of immigration.
Q: How did you get involved with the Krays?
CL: In the East End you were either a boxer, a footballer or a thief. I wasn’t that good at football, I wasn’t good as a boxer either, though I had a bit of bottle I was never going to be a champion. So I became a thief. You could learn that in the East End; starting out nicking things from the markets. And at the end of the day, you finished up in trouble like that, it was like a university. You learned, then moved on up to something else.
Q: Brian, how much did you rely on people like Chris to create the film, and did you look at other sources?
BH: Well, there are at least 50 books on the Krays, and that is probably underestimating it. A lot of them are poorly done, really. Then there is a tabloid history from over the years, and other unreliable sources. I relied on all of it, but I also met people who knew the Krays , primary sources, as they say. The truth was very elusive in a way. How I tried to approach it was almost forensically; to get rid of the extremes on both end and focus on the middle, and try to find where people agreed on things. I was actually disappointed when I started, as I felt I really couldn’t grasp them and I couldn’t get to the heart of Reggie in particular. But I had to be with them, they are my protagonists, though that is not to make excuses for them.
So I ended up spending a day with Chris, and I had been trying to find out something about Frances (Reggie Kray’s wife). Freddie Foreman, for example, I had already asked about Frances, and I had a photo of Barbara Windsor and Frances at a nightclub sat together. I showed her the photo and asked her about Frances, and she couldn’t really remember outside of remembering her as pleasant and fun to talk to. So she to me was the ghost that haunted the Kray story, in a way. And at the end of that day with Chris, we went to the Carpenter’s Arms to have a pint, and it was closed. It was cold and twilight and Chris was waiting for his ride home, but before that I asked him “Can you remember anything about Frances?” He immediately said; “Frances is the reason we all went to prison”. And I knew that I had arrived at something, as Chris went on to point out that Reggie used to be the one to sort out any investigation, if someone in the neighbourhood was seen talking to police Reggie would go knock on the door, etc. But when Frances died, he stopped doing that, and they could feel the police get closer.
CL: He went to pieces. I saw the saddest man I’ve ever seen walking away from the Carpenters Arms. Off into the night, he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s that saying ; “A man reaching up his hands to gather the stars, sometimes ignores the flowers that grow around his feet.” I think Reggie did that, I think they squeezed the life out of her. I think it’s evident on screen; he [Brian] gives Frances a voice. Frances was a nice girl; that’s how I will always remember her.
Q: Chris, what are your memories of the Krays? Were they really legends?
CL: No, the legends in the Kray framework were, for example, my brother Tony’s wife Pat, bringing up two children on her own waiting for 15 years. That is love, that is dedication, all on her own while her husband rots in prison.
People got caught up in the Krays; they lost control, they went totally crazy. At the end of the day they brought everybody down. They could be charming, kind, generous, caring, but they could be very, very ruthless. Without a thought they would harm people. Walk into a pub and shoot a man stone cold dead. They had that killer instinct and lost all control over it, enjoyed it. We all paid a very heavy price, but the wives and loved ones, fathers and mothers, paid a greater price.They, to me, are the legends. The Krays lived in darkness, I don’t think they learned anything frankly. They could’ve been legends, but became something else.
BH: I think at the end of the day, the truth of them is elusive still. This is my version, my go at it. Trying to get to a more human part of it. As far as the glamour goes, there is a glamour element to gangsters, certainly to the Krays, but that is not the same thing as being good. There was a mystique to it, a glamour to it that I think is undeniable. But I wanted to show that and poke a hole in it at the same time.
Q: The film is quite funny…
BH: I’m a big believer that any moment can be funny and sad and poignant all at the same time, that’s how life is to me. That’s how this world seemed to me. When I hear bad news my first instinct is typically to try to joke about it. Also, in terms of the structure of the film, I wanted it to be funny to start and then strip that slowly away. When Ronnie says; “who’s laughing now?” when he shoots McVitie, it is almost like he is addressing the audience.
Q: How did you end up work with Tom Hardy? Was he your first choice, and did you always intend for him to play both twins?
BH: I wrote the script without thinking of anyone, that’s what I do. In movies with twins there is a tradition of one actor playing both roles, like in The Parent Trap, or twins playing the roles. I knew I needed a Reggie first, but I had no idea if the actor playing him would want both roles. Tom was the first actor I went to; I had seen him in a film called Warrior and I thought that film featured quite a Reggie-like character. Tom had read the script, but when he sat down with me all he wanted to talk about was Ronnie, where all I wanted to talk about was Reggie. At the end of our dinner Tom said; “I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron”. That was the deal, and we kind of held our breath and jumped in, knowing we would have to make that go away, the fact that Tom was playing both parts.
It is a very technical performance, to the point where even his body double, who we shot over, would have to learn Ronnie’s physical movements before Tom even did them, so Tom would have to work that out in his head, how he was going to physically react to another actor, teaching another actor how to do it. The discipline was really good for the performance.
Legend is in UK cinemas now.