EXCLUSIVE: Like so many directors with Toronto-bound films, writer/director Daniel Schechter has been in a race to finish Life Of Crime, his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch. Schechter was particularly in a hurry because the 87-year old Leonard’s health was shaky and he was eager to see the movie after giving a free option to a relative newcomer who was crazy enough to adapt the novel on spec and then clean up rights issues that led all the way to France. Sadly, Schechter didn’t get done in time to show his literary idol the film that will be the closing night Gala Premiere at Toronto, starring Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Mos Def, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher and Will Forte.

“I would read his novels and to me it was like sheet music, where I would say, I know I can play that piece,” Schechter told me. “So I did a foolish thing. I adapted his book on spec, even though the only research I did was that I didn’t find it on IMDB. I transcribed a very good book into a script, felt I’d made some clever editorial decisions, and sent it in a Hail Mary pass to Elmore’s manager Michael Siegel. He took a shining to it, but didn’t know who owned the rights because it predated him.”

Siegel and Leonard invited him to unravel the rights chain. “It took me and a buddy two years of getting the runaround from studios like Paramount and Fox to track down who owned it,” Schechter said. “We finally discovered Gaumont in France had a 30-year option, but that it had just lapsed in 2010. By then, I think I’d won over Elmore and Michael with the feeling I knew how to honor the book. That I knew why some of his books had been very poorly in the past. More than just another deal, they wanted another good movie, one like Get Shorty, Out Of Sight and Jackie Brown, which were Elmore’s top three. Since I’d found the rights, it was a bit like found money to them. It was a handshake deal, they gave me a year to put it together.”

Schechter said he tried to soak up as much influence as the author was willing to give, and he understood when Leonard was initially wary. “He’d claim he wanted a lot of distance from the adaptation, that he’d been burned too many times,” Schechter said. “But he loved movies so much and so wanted a good adaptation that he couldn’t resist giving his input, feeling me out and seeing what my tastes were. At the same time, he tried to keep an emotional distance because his heart had been broken too many times.”

The highlight for Schechter was a trip to Detroit and Bloomfield Hills for a weekend with his idol.

“We drove around and he showed me every location he used in the book,” Schechter said. “I got to hang out with him, talk with him and drink beer with him. I probably knew his material better than he did, having recently read books of his he hadn’t thought about in 30 years, and quoting his interviews like some geeky fan. The thing he stressed most was subtlety. He saw too many people take the eccentricities of his characters and create a very broad tone. I frankly didn’t need to hear it; I knew that and felt I needed to reassure him that I knew that.” Unfortunately, Schechter didn’t get to show Leonard.

“A week before his stroke, I wrote him a letter because he wanted to see the film and I asked for three weeks,” Schechter said. “By then, I’d have the score, the sound we be mixed, all the effects would be done. I showed him the sizzle reel I made for the crew and he got a kick out of that. I re-read the letter this morning and it made me want to cry.

“That night in Toronto was always going to be dedicated to him because his book brought us together and he was such a massive influence on me,” Schechter said. “It will be a very bittersweet evening. We were ready to fly him out, get him a nice seat and let him see the audience respond to 35-year-old jokes that really hold up and characters that really touch people. It’s heartbreaking to not get to do that.”