A Family. Murder. Revenge. The Mob.
Bad Blood was a Canadian mafia tale waiting to be told. How writers Michael Konyves and Simon Barry turned the epic true crime story into a hit series.
By Matthew Hays
It’s not every day that a writer wakes up to learn that Snoop Dogg has tweeted high praise for their show. Bad Blood scribe Michael Konyves says he’ll never forget it. “I couldn’t quite believe it,” he recalls, sounding like he might still be in shock. “We were certainly glad for the additional attention it brought the show.”
That social media hit led to more attention for Bad Blood, the series about Montreal’s legendary Rizzuto Family and the evolution of the city’s 1990s mob scene, with all its associated assassinations and incarcerations. The show, currently in its second season, has proven to be a slow burn, launching in 2017 on Citytv in Canada and FX in the U.S. to solid reviews and respectable numbers. The Toronto Star’s Tony Wong even went as far as to liken it to Cardinal and The Sopranos. That’s definitely not shabby company to keep, but it wasn’t until Netflix began streaming it last December that Bad Blood started gaining real momentum — the aforementioned Snoop Dogg-attracting momentum, to be exact.
Simon Barry knew the Rizzuto Family story was meant for the screen when production company New Metric Media approached him with the idea. It had purchased the rights to the acclaimed book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War, penned by journalists Antonio Nicaso and Peter Edwards. The pair had covered the trials and investigations into Montreal’s extensive mob violence and activity.
Barry loved the idea of bringing the epic mafia saga to the screen, but he didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to get it going as he was occupied by writing duties on sci-fi series Van Helsing at the time. He turned to Konyves for help, who also immediately recognized the incredible possibilities such a concept presented. As Konyves points out, any Montrealer who lived in the city during the reign of the Rizzutos knew it was an astonishing story. And the book provided a crucial roadmap to the first season. Barry scripted the pilot and then handed the reins over to Konyves, who served as showrunner on both seasons.
“Bad Blood needed to be done, and it needed to be done in Canada by Canadians — and I’m really glad [Rogers and Citytv] took the chance.” - Simon Barry
“A lot of the critics have thrown around the word Shakespearean when describing the show,” says Konyves. “Everything is Shakespearean! And frankly, everything is a soap opera. You’re writing drama, and that’s what you have: Everyone needs something. Everyone wants something. Someone and something is standing in their way. This story provided plenty of conflict like that to work with and build on.”
The writers set about breaking down the key events of the saga — Vito’s arrest, the murder of his son, the murder of his father, the collapse of the gangland truce in Montreal and the fallout from that. Those key historical markers were all there in the book, and they provided the structure for the first six hours. Vito’s arrest and his death were the key focal points. It also led Konyves and Barry to stray from a strict linear storyline, as there was a lot of room for flashbacks.
Barry met with the book’s authors early on and listened to the various anecdotes they had left out of it, omissions made in many cases for legal reasons. “I wanted to get more anecdotes from them,” says Barry, “knowing full well that we would probably never use them. But those stories can often give you a greater idea of how that world works. We didn’t have that spicy flavour of how that world worked yet. I knew they had a wealth of knowledge. I asked them to share these stories. The details were not event-based, but they gave us a much greater idea of who these characters were.”
For example, the authors told them about Vito having one of his bodyguards spy on one of his mistresses, in an effort to confirm that she wasn’t fooling around on him. That’s something that never came up in court, but it gave Barry and Konyves a better understanding of how the characters actually operated in their business and personal lives, and how the two intersected. It was about behaviour, they point out, not just facts.
Writing about true crime was fascinating, but it presented unique challenges. “When you’re writing about that, you have to comply with the law in the place where you’re producing the show,” explains Konyves. “The American laws are actually much looser. In a U.S. show, the writers have more license. We had a lot of stuff we had to pay close attention to. Things had to be vetted by lawyers. And that was sometimes tricky — I was actually making changes to some scripts the day before production for legal reasons.”
Konyves notes that you have more dramatic license with dead subjects. They’re not going to come after you, after all. But they couldn’t talk about Vito’s still very much living wife, for example. “You can’t make any implications,” he says. “It is on the record that he had mistresses. There’s a woman sitting next to him that you assume is his wife, but other than that, we didn’t depict her.”
As they mapped out the various plot points, Konyves and Barry realized Bad Blood wouldn’t just be a show about the mafia. Indeed, the gangsters were hardly the only bad guys. The show features a world rife with corruption. The police, the government, the mafia — everyone manipulates everyone else if they can, making the lines between bad and good extra blurry.
As Barry and Konyves exchanged ideas and possible scenarios, one question hung over the creative process: Since Vito spends an extended period in an American prison and out of the action, from whose perspective would they tell the story? The solution was to create a fictional character, Declan, who was placed high up in the Rizzuto clan, but was not actually a blood relation — like Robert Duvall’s character in the first two Godfather movies. Declan became a composite of several real-world characters that evolves into the observer. For the writers, Vito is the headliner, but Declan is the tour guide for the story.
“Obviously, I was very excited to write a really entertaining gangster show,” says Konyves. “There are all the expectations around shows like that, which I thought would be challenging and fun to meet. But I also wanted it to have a lot of heart and emotion.” He refers to a scene that takes place later in the first season, where Declan meets his father in a trailer and the audience learns that dear old dad is a junkie who abandoned his kids to foster care. “And Declan says, ‘I’m here to make you suffer,’” recalls Konyves. “That was a scene I envisioned right from the beginning,” he adds. The show is about Declan’s pain and suffering and it’s why he can do the things he does. “This is why he can betray his father figure, Vito, because of the pain of his own story,” says Konyves. “That’s what the whole first season is about. Even when you reveal things much later in the story, it covers everything in hindsight. Once I could tap into that, many other things fell into place.”
Writing for a traditional TV network created a couple of immediate challenges. It meant that the language used by the series’ characters had to be much, much cleaner than that of their real-life counterparts. “These guys use the F-word a lot,” says Konyves. “We couldn’t have them speak that way.” And as a Canadian series, Bad Blood’s budget was extremely tight. “In Canada, you’re always writing around budget,” he contends. “The average hour in Canada is shot for significantly less than in the U.S., so you’re always factoring that in. But I find that kind of enjoyable. If you have too many characters, you have to cut that down. Location is always a big thing. We had to limit the number of locations and we were telling the story through characters more than action.”
"You’re fleshing out those scenes quite literally with the actors. I’ve said to them on set, ‘You are the ones who own these characters now.’ If they read the lines with a different rhythm than you’d imagined, that might bring something new to a character..." - Michael Konyves
In fact, writing dialogue-heavy scenes was part of the challenge and fun for Konyves. “I love great dialogue, and what I write tends to be very talky. Scenes are often short in TV, but I like shows like The West Wing that are dialogue heavy. I like scenes where they’re going about their business, but also talking about three different things at the same time. That’s action. That’s movement. And you get to know a lot about character through that.”
Konyves says conversations with actors during rehearsals and on set also really helped with the writing process. “What a brilliant cast we had!” he exclaims, which included Anthony LaPaglia (Vito), Kim Coates (Declan) and Paul Sorvino. “I needed to know the characters’ psychology,” Konyves continues. “And that is helped along by talking it through with the actors. For Declan to turn on Vito is a big fucking deal. So it’s got to be something I can believe in. You’re fleshing out those scenes quite literally with the actors. I’ve said to them on set, ‘You are the ones who own these characters now.’ If they read the lines with a different rhythm than you’d imagined, that might bring something new to a character you hadn’t originally thought of. Then you get on set with them and might even end up rewriting things a bit. They may have a question for you about motivation and you have to figure it out. I love that part — it’s part of working with great actors.”
As someone who got thrown into writing a series in season one and then showrunning for the first time on both seasons, Konyves does have advice for fellow writers. “I know taking network notes can be frustrating,” he concedes. “But take a big breath before receiving them and try not to take it personally. As writers, we’re getting criticism all the time. Read the notes and try to find a point. Even if you don’t agree with it. Maybe they don’t know how to properly articulate it, but they are pointing to something that they find problematic. Try to see it as another person giving you a perspective. A good idea can come from anyone.”
And in technical terms, Konyves is blunt — get a second camera and make sure you have rehearsal time booked prior to shooting. “I’ll never do a show without two cameras again. You will get into a budget argument over the second camera, but it saves you so much time and headache in the editing room. If you’ve got six days instead of eight to do an hour-long episode, the second camera gives you that extra coverage.” He also insists upon rehearsal time to get the actors comfortable with the rhythms of the dialogue and main scene points, and it also provides the opportunity to answer any questions that come up. “You have to set the table so the actors can do their best work.”
Ultimately, Konyves describes running a writers’ room as a lot of fun. “Working with Simon, Patrick Moss and Alison Lea Bingeman, we were exchanging ideas, throwing around dialogue, it was a blast,” he says. “The fact that Snoop Dogg liked us was an unexpected bonus.”
Barry recognizes that Rogers and Citytv took a leap of faith in commissioning the show, but he thinks it’s paid off. “They don’t do a lot of dramatic shows, and they took a risk,” he admits. “Bad Blood needed to be done, and it needed to be done in Canada by Canadians — and I’m really glad they took the chance.”