Everybody says, bring back those great, gritty 70s adult thrillers. Scott Frank makes one with Liam Neeson in A Walk Among The Tombstones, and not enough people show up to launch it into a franchise. With $13 million in ticket sales so far, it’s $5 million short of what it is needed to trigger more films based on the Matthew Scudder character from Lawrence Block’s mystery novels. I can sit here and wonder if the results would have been better had Universal opened it after Denzel Washington’s turn in The Equalizer this Friday, when appetites will be whetted for challenging adult films and heroes without capes. Or I can point to the squeamishness of some critics who blasted Frank for faithfully adapting a novel about Scudder’s hunt for two serial killers preying on the girlfriends and daughters of drug dealers. It is hard to pretty that up, but one normally smart, prominent reviewer called it Eli Roth-style torture porn, which perhaps colored the audience perception even though the assertion was flat out false. I wonder if these critics damned the Oscar winning Silence Of The Lambs, or David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac, or True Detective or Luther, which dealt with the hunt for similarly gruesome killers and the toll taken on the lawmen. Frank, one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters, deserved better here in my opinion, and hopefully more adults will find his film. We spoke Sunday night, about everything from turning books into good movies, to channeling the spirit of Steve McQueen and handling violent subject matter.
DEADLINE: Lawrence Block’s serial killer subject matter is tricky terrain. I recall reading the ending of an early Ted Tally script version of The Silence Of The Lambs. Instead of Hannibal Lecter congratulating Clarice from the tropics for her FBI Academy graduation and jokingly telling her he was having a friend for dinner, Lecter hangs up the phone, and the camera begins to pull away from his face. We see him sitting at a desk in a study, slowly paring a piece of fruit with a small sharp blade. Then you see the psych books behind him, a bodyguard on the floor pooled in blood. Dr. Lecter stands, with his little gleaming knife and says, shall we begin? Then you see that squirrelly Dr. Chilton guy, who tormented Lecter in the asylum, trussed up in a chair, terrified. I once asked Jonathan Demme why not that ending and he said they felt they’d had scared the audience enough, and felt a humorous touch might at least have allowed people to have the courage to drive home. What concessions did you make in depicting the lurid subject matter of A Walk Among The Tombstones?
FRANK: I was so careful not to show women being abused. The only people you see actually killed in this movie are men; one gets his throat cut, another gets shot in the head. Bad guys. I cut away before anything happens to these women and there is no display of their dead bodies. The purpose was, when there is the hint of violence, you feel it. There is also humor, to let some of the air out of the bag.
DEADLINE: Some reviewers didn’t seem to notice the restraint.
FRANK: I was caught off guard by that, but then again, maybe not. One journalist asked why I hate women so much.
DEADLINE: Did he realize you were adapting someone’s novel? How does that make you feel?
FRANK: I’ve got 30 years of doing this and if you look back on my movies, Little Man Tate, Dead Again, Out Of Sight, Get Shorty. Jodie Foster, Emma Thompson, Jennifer Lopez, Rene Russo, Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter. Very strong women. I knew I’d get some flack. It’s a dark disturbing story, and bad things happen. I found myself apologizing ahead to friends for the grimness before they saw the movie. But I also think there’s humor, emotion, and complexity.
DEADLINE: If this was a time when Hollywood valued adult thrillers, they would see enough quality here to want to tell more Scudder stories, particularly with a bankable action star like Liam Neeson. Did you hit the number you needed to justify more?
FRANK: I don’t know, but I love Block’s Scudder stories When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, and A Long Line Of Dead Men. Those are great mysteries and potentially good movies. This was the dark book of the series. Not all of them are that way.
DEADLINE: There is complexity in all the scenes that feels like a throwback to those 70s films people say they pine for. Those complexities range from having the victims be drug dealers to Scudder’s relationship to this young homeless kid who helps him, but who has a potentially fatal condition. There is a shot at the end, after Scudder comes through this horrible climax, and sits there looking at this kid sleeping on his couch. You focus on Neeson’s weathered face and on his eyes, and you can see his pain, knowing this kid has a short painful future because of sickle cell anemia, but that Scudder won’t let him suffer alone because this kid has given the detective a shot of life in his otherwise empty existence.
FRANK: This was exactly my intent. Liam’s face, the emotion in his face, is just incredible. He’s a man who accidentally gets this redemption that he is not looking for. I don’t know if you noticed, but we go from there to the window, where you see the World Trade Center, which was not a cynical shot, and more about how during that Y2K period there were a lot more important things to worry about than getting stuck in an elevator on midnight on New Year’s Eve.
DEADLINE: It seems unusual for an in-demand writer to go back to material he wrote 15 years ago for another director. How long ago was when Harrison Ford going to do this?
FRANK: That was in 2001. With Jersey Films, we sold the book in 1998, right after Out of Sight and Get Shorty.
DEADLINE: You would think you had the momentum then to punch this through. Didn’t Harrison Ford find it too grim?
FRANK: I don’t remember why he dropped but first, we lost the director, Joe Carnahan. Then the movie just came apart after that and entered this netherworld.
DEADLINE: You are one of those writers who doesn’t have time to write all the offers you get. Why revisit this?
FRANK: I don’t really have an answer, other than that my stories stay with me. The Lookout was an 8-year long haul of directors in and out, before I did it. From the beginning of my career, nothing has happened quickly. I re-read Tombstones after it had fallen apart with another director. Liam had said he wanted to do it, and my agent Beth Swofford said, you want to direct another movie, why aren’t you making this one? I went back and read the script and found I still really cared about it and that the dark subject matter would be a challenge for me. I’m still trying to get made things I did write to direct, but this was the same as The Lookout. I tend to direct movies by default.
DEADLINE: You improve as a writer, and become more decisive. How much of the old script did you change?
FRANK: The surprise was how little it changed. The risk was you will look back on something and it feels like a high school term paper and you don’t recognize the guy who wrote it. That didn’t happen with this or The Lookout. I still connected to the material, still cared, and here, I loved the time period. I didn’t want to modernize it. I don’t like the aesthetic of cell phones, laptops, iPads, in mysteries. It makes everything so easy and I don’t know how to shoot that stuff in a way that’s interesting to me. I wanted a context that was thematically interesting and not random. This happens just before Y2K, and what I liked was, as one of the characters says, people were afraid of all the wrong things. Those fears turned out to be quaint compared to what happened in New York a year and a half later. At that time in the city, crime was down, people were making money and under Giuliani, crime had been cleaned up. Yet there were things out there to fear that we didn’t know about. I looked at these two murderers as a harbinger of that. It seemed like a great context for the movie.
DEADLINE: I don’t even know if there are payphones in NYC, anymore. I don’t miss them.
FRANK: I loved how in the novel, all the business was done on payphones, and you had this guy running from payphone to payphone waiting for a ransom demand. There’s no way to make that work with cell phones. I liked the feel and also that, even though the story takes place in the mid-90s, it felt like it could have happened in 1974.
DEADLINE: You’ve got this other dilemma. When you first wrote the script, not only was Taken not a glimmer in Liam Neeson’s eye, he wasn’t an action hero. He was Oskar Schindler.
FRANK: Part of the reason we struggled to get the movie made is, people stopped making these kinds of movies. The adult thriller had gone dormant after 9/11, when superheroes began taking most of the real estate on every studio’s schedule. It was very difficult to do anything. Then there became a model where you could do it, especially with the different companies with foreign sales financing or equity financing, like Cross Creek, where you could make those kinds of movies again in the $25 million to $30 million range. And Taken made Liam a giant movie star and he’s the reason this movie gets made, pure and simple.
DEADLINE: The rub here is, he has to be on the phone talking to kidnappers.
FRANK: We both worried about that, even though this movie was written 10 years before Taken or the sequel. I was mindful in keeping that stuff to a minimum, and in making sure this movie had a different feel. The phone stuff was my favorite part of the book, when he started talking to the kidnappers. It was a challenge. He never spoke in that ‘I’ve got a particular set of skills’ tone. It’s more about whether this girl is alive or dead and he doesn’t threaten until the last phone call but it’s brief. Here, the tension involved us not knowing if this girl was alive or not.
DEADLINE: Scudder was a recovering alcoholic, and you work the 12 Steps of the AA program into the climax in a very cinematic way. Where did that inspiration come from?
FRANK: I liked that nobody was all good or all bad. Everybody lives in the grey and the most interesting thing about Scudder is he has to be the worst part of his old self in order to do right thing at the end of this story. He is wrestling with all the things he has been avoiding in order to get to the other side of all this. I never had him struggle with alcoholism, you never see him tempted by alcohol or anything like that. He repeated his story over and over at AA meetings, but didn’t get at the truth of it until he tells the story to the kid. I needed him to be at war for himself and for the violence to not be the kind you cheer. I thought using the 12 Steps would serve that. The moment he walks into that house at the end, he really is at the truth of what he’d done while drinking. All this made it impossible to celebrate the violence the way you might with other superhero and action figure movies. He does what he has to do and when he emerges, the look on his face tells you he is not happy and doesn’t feel good about it.
DEADLINE: You’ve adapted many memorable books, including Get Shorty and Out of Sight with the late great Elmore Leonard. What do you as the screenwriter owe the author?
FRANK: That’s a very tricky question. It’s what you owe the movie, more than what you owe the author. You owe the author respect, certainly, first and foremost. But a movie is a very different thing than a book. Your hope is that the movie doesn’t leave a bad aftertaste in the mouth of fans of the book and that you haven’t ruined the memory of the separate entity that is the book by making a bad movie. Your opinion of a book can sour because of a really bad movie adaptation which is why certain authors won’t want to sell their books to the movies. They don’t want people to think about their books through the lens of the movie. What you owe the author is, you really hope that you can make someone want to seek out the book and not avoid it.
DEADLINE: That must be intimidating with a great author like Elmore Leonard, who had many bad films made from his books and swore off screenwriting because he tired of taking notes from executives whose creative instincts were inferior to his.
FRANK: I remember when I did Get Shorty, and got these hi-lighter markers with different colors for different parts of the movie. I so loved that book and was so faithful to it that I wrote a long stupid movie the first time I put it through the movie machine as they call it. When I looked at that book, I had highlighted the whole damn thing. There was no more white space left in my copy of Get Shorty.
DEADLINE: I recall Elmore saying yours were two of the most pleasant experiences he had, especially compared to when he took notes from those inferior to him.
FRANK: The challenge with Elmore Leonard is that we are all inferior to him.
DEADLINE: You once told me when you write, you see Steve McQueen delivering the lines you write for your heroes. Did you do that for Scudder?
FRANK: I did that a lot earlier in my career, and I still think of Steve McQueen for just about every character I write. I love how still, and quiet he is, and I love that man in stories. It isn’t a conscious thing now, other than maybe I wish I was Steve McQueen.