Legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard began publishing Westerns in the early 50s, and has watched more than a dozen of his books get turned into movies that span the good, the bad, and the ugly. Leonard feels the best–Jackie Brown, Get Shorty and Out of Sight–stuck close to his plots and dialogue. Now, he’s excited that one of his faves, Freaky Deaky, will finally get movie treatment. Leonard’s happy, even though the script by director Charlie Matthau takes major dramatic liberties in changing the time period from late 80s to 1974. Matthau, who’s in Cannes this week with the film’s rep Tom Ortenberg to finalize private financing for a late summer start, said it was Leonard who suggested the time change, which solved a host of problems that haunted past attempts to film the drama about 60s radicals who use their bomb-making skills to become capitalists.
Said Matthau: “We could have left it in 1988, where the characters are kind of old and the period boring. Or we could have contemporized it, made them eco-terrorists, cast out of AARP and made a cross between Easy Rider and Cocoon. Elmore, who read all the other scripts, came up with 1974. It made the cast younger, which made the film an easier sell. And the period was exciting, because it was when these 60s political radicals rejoined society, and there was Patty Hearst and the SLA, and Nixon resigning.”
Said Leonard: “I figured all you would really need is a bunch of older cars. And nobody wants to see a bunch of old fogies.”
Leonard’s happy to lend such practical problem-solving advice to projects as exec producer–he has the same role on the FX series Justified, and is now writing a 60-page Raylon Givens novella that exec producer Graham Yost will likely turn into an episode–but he likes keeping a bit of distance and has been burned enough to hold a love-hate relationship with the film business. On one hand, it’s good pay for a writer whose first movie check was $4000 for 3:10 to Yuma, a haul compared to the 2 cents a word–$90 total–he got when the story was published in a pulp magazine. And while his script work included the Charles Bronson drama Mr. Majestyk, Leonard was so tortured by meddling suits that he swore off ever writing screenplays again.
“I stopped writing scripts in 1993.” he said. “It was just too much work, and there were too many people you had to please. You’d go to an office, and there were always a couple of executives and producers, and they all had something to say. You back to the hotel room, you’re looking at the wall. This was at a time when I needed the money, so I would adapt the scenes according to what they wanted. And the result would be a bad picture, or it wouldn’t be made. No more screenplays for me.”
He hasn’t liked all of the movie adaptations but wouldn’t say exactly which most displeased him. Said Leonard: “There was one book that got done twice and both times badly (The Big Bounce, 52 Pick-Up and 3:10 to Yuma were each turned into multiple films). The movies that worked best stayed fairly close to the books. I’ve seen writers show off in the scripts, even had some come talk to me because they said they wanted to get to know the lead character better. I’d say, everything you need to know is right there on the page. Whenever a movie comes up, I am an eternal optimist who always thinks, ‘well, it’s a good book, it should be easy to adapt.’ There’s nothing you can do when they screw up, except say, ‘oh well,’ and then write another book. That’s the way to do it.”
Leonard, who turns 85 this fall, continues to write every day from 10-6, cranking out his customary three to four pages. He only betrays his age when asked his opinion about the iPad, Kindle, Nook and other devices that are slowly transforming publishing into a paper-less enterprise.
“To me, a book is a book, an electronic device is not, and love of books was the reason I started writing,” Leonard said. “I don’t have a word processor, e-mail, any of that stuff. I write in longhand mostly, then put it on my typewriter as I go along. I don’t have any interest in any of that electronic stuff, but I’m going on 85, and won’t have to worry about it too much longer.”