Entering the Brotherhood
By Declan O'Kelly, Contributor
August / September 2006
Declan O’Kelly discusses Showtime’s new series Brotherhood with writer/creator Blake Masters. The series, starring Fionnula Flanagan and Jason Clarke, airs on Sundays at 10p.m.
“Brotherhood explores the landscape always been fascinated with all things infamous criminal in the top-ten most Irish. “Since the origin of the series is the death of an Irish neighborhood, having it be Irish, playing on those operatic qualities that Irish characters embody with such grace and glory was very important.”
The dynamic of the show is based on the good/bad brothers and immediately brings the real life Irish-American Bulger family story to mind. James Bulger is an of a dying Irish-American community through the experiences of the Caffee family, one of whose brothers is a local ward boss and another who is a play- er in the local criminal underworld,” explains 35-year-old writer/creator Blake Masters on the phone from Los Angeles. The Stanford graduate in quantitative economics has no Irish roots himself but has wanted list by the FBI since 1995, and his brother is former state senator and head of the University of Massachusetts, William Bulger. While Masters concedes that such comparisons are inevitable, the influences and sources he drew inspiration from are far removed from South Boston. “The real origins of the series lie in a combination of All the King’s Men and The Godfather. That the Bulgers existed told me that this dynamic could happen, but the tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law goes back to a great old movie called Force of Evil, done in 1948, and is the Bulgers come to life. I have gone out of my way to say that we are not doing a series on the Bulgers. Personally I have a lot of respect for Senator Bulger and what he managed to accomplish in his career and did for his constituents.”
Having seen the pilot, it is fair to say that a lot of the Irish-American characters in the show aren’t portrayed as model citizens. Racial slurs and shots of whiskey fly around like there is no tomorrow. “I think I would say most of the major characters are fully rounded human beings with admirable and potentially despicable characteristics,” Masters says. “In the end what we are trying to talk about is human nature. I don’t think people are going to say we are portraying negative Irish-American stereotypes. I think what they will say is that we are trying to show Irish- Americans who are in difficult times. We are not trying to say ‘oh look, he is an alcoholic,’ or ‘oh, she’s a racist.’ It can’t be that simple, because then it is not interesting. It is only interesting if you get into the complexities of it.” Masters supports this argument by making two very interesting points. The first is that when writing the series and bringing it to the small screen, a process that took three years, he was adamant that no Catholic priest character would appear in the script. “I insisted on that because it had been done to death, and there was no way to do it without either being offensive or being untrue.” The second is that he chose to base the show in the political world, where, especially in the Northeast part of the country, the Irish have had a huge influence. In this respect, Masters is extremely thankful to the people and public representatives of Providence and Rhode Island. During filming, the capitol building was open to the crew, and William Murphy, Speaker of the House in Providence, allowed actor Jason Clarke to spend numerous hours with him for research purposes.
Providence and Rhode Island provide the perfect backdrop for how the Irish-American community has developed over the past 30-40 years. “The Irish community inside Providence is quite small, but within the state it is still powerful. They basically ruled Providence until 1970 after which they completed the American dream; they assimilated, they got up out of the neighborhoods and wards; then the Italians took over and now the Italians are moving out, it’s a cyclical thing.” The question Masters probes and develops in this series: What hap- pens to the Irish left behind?
If some of the series’ characters are a little crude, then so too is the level of violence in the pilot. When I put it to Masters that this might be a little off-putting, he is philosophical in his answer. “If you portray violence too much like Quentin Tarantino it becomes silly; if you portray it too lightly it doesn’t have any impact because it is pretty and people can write it off. My goal is to portray violence in an honest naked way that makes you recoil, because that is what violence should be: repugnant.” Casting the hard-hitting show was key and Masters had no doubt about who would play the lead female role. “Fionnula (Flanagan) walked into the room and as soon as I shook her hand I knew she was Rose.”
Casting politician brother Tommy Caffee was a rather funny situation. Australian director Philip Noyce (director of movies like Rabbit Proof Fence and Clear and Present Danger) was returning from Australia to cast the co-lead character, Tommy Caffee, and got a shock when his fellow countryman Jason Clarke was mentioned.
“When I said Jason Clarke he thought I was kidding because Jason was living in Philip’s basement at the time! He said, ‘Seriously, who are you casting?’ I brought Jason back in and even Philip was surprised at how good Jason was. He was born to play the part.”
Does Masters have a favorite between the brothers Tommy and Michael? The question takes him a lit- tle by surprise, but he does give an interesting insight. “You are asking me which one of my children I love best! I will say this: one of the things that was very palpable and very impor- tant to me was that I wanted the char- acters to be Irish-American. There is something in the Irish character that does tragedy beautifully, there is a nobility with which the Irish face tragedy. They do it with style.” ♦