Charlestown was baptized in bloodshed. Since the Battle of Bunker Hill (on Breed's Hill) in 1775, the fiercely independent tract has been popularly characterized by violent undertones and bold tribal pride. Notorious for harboring lawless, red-faced rogues, Charlestown, equal parts volcanic geography and hoodlum mystique, has fueled countless poignant tributes, both factual and fictional. It doesn't matter that the majority of Townies (as Charlestown residents are best known), then and now, have never highjacked armored trucks or dealt dope. Charlestown's population has long been a source of ribald, degenerate mythology.
And yet this unique, fertile turf has been generally overlooked by Hollywood, which has preferred instead its old rival South Boston, the primary backdrop for Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed. Now, however, there are signs that the movie industry is falling for Boston's most notorious square mile. This month alone, two feature-length movies are being filmed in Charlestown: Ben Affleck's The Town (slated to be released next year), which is based on Boston writer Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, and Oxy-Morons, an independent project written, produced by, and starring Bunker Hill housing projects native Johnny Hickey.
Charlestown in the Movies
Though Charlestown is only now realizing its moment in the cinematic sun, the neighborhood has lured Hollywood location scouts for at least 40 years. The proof is in this list of films that were partially filmed in and/or based on Charlestown.
The Brink’s Job (1978)
The Bostonians (1984)
Common Ground (1990; made for TV)
Once Around (1991)
Blown Away (1994)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Monument Ave (1998)
What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (2001)
Mystic River (2003)
Irish Eyes (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Townies (2007; short film)
"Southie has gentrified over the years," says Sam Baltrusis, editor of the Jamaica Plain–based loadedgunboston.com, who keeps close tabs on the budding Boston film industry, "so filmmakers were scrambling to locations like East Boston, Lowell, and Charlestown to capture the grittier side of things. Charlestown still has that blue-collar aesthetic, coupled with camera-friendly scenery that still has an industrial edge to it — filmmakers eat it up." (Baltrusis credits Dorchester native Donnie Wahlberg's in-the-works TNT drama Bunker Hill with catalyzing the Charlestown rush.)
Though both new films are inspired by the locale's troubled past and storied code of silence — and both are set in contemporary Charlestown — Oxy-Morons and The Town are reflective of two significantly different moments, as the headlines and memories from which they're culled occurred about five years apart. Prince of Thieves is a swan song for the foul old days of heroic mid-'90s bank takes, when Irish mobsters publicly assassinated adversaries without fear of retribution. The book's main characters are the last of a now mostly incarcerated underbelly of dust-smoking safe crackers; even the FBI protagonist (portrayed in the Affleck film by Mad Men star John Hamm) fancies himself a relic of the cops-and-robbers age. Oxy-Morons, on the other hand, which is based on Hickey's felonious endeavors with OxyContin at the turn of the millennium, better resembles the lower-class Charlestown of today: frozen with opiate addiction, its toxic citizens even more isolated from across the river than were their proudly territorial ancestors.
Each saga puts a lens on one of America's most prolific criminal demographics: one banking on Charlestown's infamous former pastime, the other suggesting that pharmacy heists are the new armored-car jobs. And both tap into the maniacal spirit of the once independent peninsula (Charlestown joined Boston only in 1874). If, as scores of writers have suggested, the Bunker Hill monument is a massive metaphorical phallus, it pumps enough testosterone to keep this whole metropolis on edge.
Conquering demonsFour years ago, Hickey assumed that getting tossed 80 feet into the Quincy quarries after a bad OxyContin deal would be the toughest trial of his life. A close second, he thought, would be recovering from the ensuing dislocated hip, separated pelvis, torn bladder and urethra, and seven-day coma he suffered, all while confined to a walker at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton. As it turned out, making an autobiographical film about his crooked past proved to be more challenging than detoxing on cold prison floors.
TOWER OF POWER: The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown is a massive metaphorical phallus, pumping enough testosterone to keep all of Boston on edge.
"This has been an extremely personal adventure," says Hickey, who drafted his screenplay as a student at Bunker Hill Community College soon after his 2004 prison release. "I've worked on movies where the budget was a hundred bucks and a Snickers bar, and I didn't want that to be the case with Oxy-Morons. This movie is about — and dedicated to — the dozens of people I know who have overdosed from heroin and OxyContin. It's too important to shoot on a Handycam, like I was prepared to do at first."