Don Winslow: The Time I Almost Made A Movie With Elmore Leonard

Don Winslow Elmore Leonard
(L-R) Don Winslow and Elmore Leonard Robert Gallagher; Shutterstock

Editors’ Note: Part of an editor’s challenge now is to hatch stories, including some that take readers’ minds off layoffs and hardship. An oft-told tale last Oscar season was how Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro nixed a green light for The Winter of Frankie Machine to make The Irishman. So I asked Don Winslow, author of that terrific novel, to write his side of that Hollywood experience. While Stephen King routinely sees his work adapted and re-adapted, most authors find futility. But imagine the heartache when those two icons spurn a major studio green light to instead spend an extra decade on another project about a regretful hit man?

Winslow’s agent/screenwriting partner Shane Salerno delivered from the author a good news/bad news scenario. Winslow would write a whole week’s worth of columns for Deadline, but here’s the catch: I’d have to wear for the entire week a shirt with the logo of the New England Patriots, the team Winslow favors and I hate, as any rabid Giants fan should. And I’d need to go full hostage photo, a fresh pic each day wearing this stupid shirt, holding the day’s newspaper, for full demoralization starting with today’s NYT (which coincidentally features a Janet Maslin rave for Winslow’s new story collection, Broken).

Perhaps it serves me right. Boston’s become a favorite city, and we’re there all the time as my daughters settled there post-college. Fenway Park is the Sistine Chapel of ballparks, and if only I could get past hating the team that plays there. The only reason I have a Pats shirt is I bought one because Tom Brady’s name is on it. I planned to get another with the Tampa Bay Bucs colors so that on our next two-day visit, I’d be able to properly taunt my son in law and my younger daughter’s boyfriend, reminding them the GOAT’s gone.

RELATED: Elmore Leonard On Movies, iPads, And Why ‘Freaky Deaky’ Is Finally Getting Made

When I got Winslow’s conditional offer and heard “the catch,” like any Giants fan my mind goes to the time David Tyree soared above Pats defenders, snared with one hand a ball he pinned to his helmet and hung onto, even as he hit the ground. This was Super Bowl XLVI, when Eli Manning followed by delivering a rainbow into the arms of Plaxico Burress to crush the perfect season dreams of smug Pats fans who didn’t give the Giants a chance in hell. I’ve had spirited conversations about this with every Pats fan I know in Hollywood, and boy can they cuss, especially Ben Affleck. Once, at the end of an interview with Matt Damon and John Krasinski for their 2012 fracking movie Promised Land, I said I was out of questions but perhaps we could finish our allotted time by reminiscing about those two Pats-Giants Super Bowl matchups. This was right after the Giants’ second upset win, and the wound was fresh. Damon went volcanic and what a mouth on that guy! I suppose I brought it up once too often with Winslow and here’s what my trash talking has wrought: a shot at five entertaining columns by one of my favorite authors at a time not much is happening, at the price of personal humiliation. Anything for Deadline readers, and if Affleck and Damon would agree to write an entertaining look back at the challenges of getting Good Will Hunting made, or if New England fan Stephen King would write anything Hollywood related, I’ll leave the shirt on until we can venture outside again, and consider shaving my head. Who doesn’t need a haircut right now? — MF


The Time I Almost Made A Movie With Elmore Leonard

By Don Winslow

Elmore Leonard was a hero of mine.

Well, he was a hero of about everyone who writes – or reads – crime fiction. Some writers are admired, Mr. Leonard was revered.

When I was still working as a PI on the streets of New York City and thinking about trying to be a writer, I was reading Elmore Leonard.

Or trying to, anyway.

I had no money. I mean, no money. Buying even a paperback book meant skipping at least one meal. There was a bookstore that specialized in crime fiction just down the block from my apartment, and I used to go in there and just look at the books, including Mr. Leonard’s. One day the lady who owned the store told me that I couldn’t come in and just look, I had to buy something.

I didn’t go back into the store until decades later, when I had a book signing there. I didn’t say a word. I just hoped that she didn’t remember me.

She didn’t.

And I bought a few books.

Anyway, when I was trying to work up the courage to write a crime fiction novel, I was reading Elmore Leonard books. I read them on stakeouts sometimes. The first one I read was Unknown Man #89, and it blew my world apart. I had been reading Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald, loving them for all the obvious reasons, but Elmore Leonard was something else altogether.

What he did that was such a revelation to me was to flip their classic, first-person noir voice to the third person, but get so close to his main character that you felt that you knew him, that he was your friend. In substituting his own unique voice for Philip Marlowe’s, Lew Archer’s and Travis McGee’s, Leonard somehow made you an intimate of the book’s protagonist, Jack Ryan. And it was something more: Marlowe, Archer and McGee – those great characters – were always a little larger than life. Leonard’s Ryan, and all his characters, were ‘merely’ and wonderfully human. They spoke in a rough-hewn, funny vernacular. They were all that guy down the bar, in the next booth at the diner, or across the fence from your yard.

Mr. Leonard broke a lot of rules – he switched location, time and place without notice or regard for convention. His characters spoke in sentence fragments, the way that real people do. And in Unknown Man # 89, he broke the cardinal rule of a thriller – nothing much happens on the first page. In fact, you spend the whole first chapter just getting to know Jack Ryan.

It was such a lesson for me. It taught me that no matter how great you make the plot, the reader isn’t going to care if he or she doesn’t care about the character first. That gave me the guts, in a book called The Winter of Frankie Machine to delay the main action until something like page 67. Mr. Leonard’s unorthodox structure also led me to a terse, two-word chapter of a book called Savages, the second word being ‘you’ and the first word being…well, read it.

I was in awe, thinking, ‘Man, if I could write books like these, if I could tell stories like Elmore Leonard, that would be a great life’.

I learned from him, not only from his novels but his famous ‘rules’, which became a textbook for me and so many like me. I especially have tried to obey his Rule #10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I finally met him.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Here’s what happened. My first novel, A Cool Breeze on the Underground, was nominated for an Edgar, and the nominees did a group signing at a bookstore in New York. Most of us were in two parallel lines along an aisle on the main floor, but Mr. Leonard was seated by himself up on the upper level. I sat there for two hours and couldn’t work up the nerve to go say hello or get a book signed. (Lawrence Block, another hero, was seated next to me, and I couldn’t get up the nerve to speak to him, either. The next day, I was signing at the Mysterious Bookstore and saw that Block was coming in next. I left my credit card number and asked if they’d get me a signed book. They did and it’s on my bookshelf.) The symbolism was deft, I literally sat looking up at Elmore Leonard.

Flash-forward a couple of more decades.

I’d published a few books by that point and had a little success.

My agent, friend and partner-in crime-fiction Shane Salerno called one day to ask if I’d be interested in co-writing a film version of Unknown Man #89.

Uhhh, yeah.

It turned out that Mr. Leonard was interested in me working on it with him. That just blew my mind, sort of like a beer-league softball player invited to play catch with Willie Mays.

Shane set up a conference call for himself, Mr. Leonard’s agent, me, and Elmore Leonard.

That was October 15, 2011.

At the time, my wife and I were living in a condo on the beach with spotty cell reception, so I’d have to go outside to the common pool and picnic table area to take phone calls. It was winter, raining in San Diego, and the pergola gave little protection against the steady drizzle.

I didn’t care.

I was more than happy to stand in the rain to talk to Elmore Leonard.

Shane, Mr. Leonard’s agent and I got on the line first and talked for a few minutes, then the man himself got on.

Elmore Leonard.

No – Elmore freaking Leonard.

His first words to me were, “Don Winslow, you were two years old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.”
It was the most charming way of putting me in my place, gently letting me know that I was going to be the junior partner in this endeavor.

Which was fine with me.

I answered, “Yes, sir, but I tried to read it.”

He laughed and then we talked.

Now, he had just turned 86 a few days earlier, but you’d have thought you were talking to a guy in his 20’s, he was so youthful and energetic. And still excited about writing – he told us about the new novel he was working on and enthused, “I’ve got a great villain, a great villain”, and as he described him, it was like he was reading one of his books out loud, and you didn’t want him to stop.

For the next hour, he regaled us with stories about his early days as a writer, his experiences in the film world (he loved Get Shorty and Out of Sight) days and nights with movie stars, that Ann-Margret (52 Pick-Up)t was just as lovely as we thought she was, dinners, lunches and breakfasts with agents, editors and publishers. He made me laugh so hard I couldn’t tell the difference between the tears running down my cheeks and the rain that by now was sluicing off my inadequate baseball cap. (Southern Californians are never prepared for rain, it’s like we can’t believe it’s actually happening.)

Mr. Leonard talked like wrote – incisive, funny, with that keen power of observation and understanding of humanity that I admired in his books. His memory was elephantine – any time I referenced a book of his he recalled it in great detail and usually had an anecdote.

He was so kind to me, so complimentary of my work. I was surprised when he specifically praised a book of mine called Savages, because it’s so radical in style and theme. I shouldn’t have been– this was the writer who busted everything loose in the crime fiction genre, who freed us all up to try different things.

This was the writer, after all, who wrote Unknown Man #89.

And he was still writing. What became so clear in that conversation was how seriously he took the writing, how he approached it as work, as a job that he loved – am ethic I share and have always tried to emulate.

I’ve heard it said that you should never meet your heroes.

That you’ll be disappointed.

That sure as hell wasn’t my experience with Elmore Leonard.

That phone conversation was one of the happiest hours of my life, a memory that I will always remember and treasure.

We didn’t make the movie. Some old contractual issue with Unknown Man # 89 made the project impossible.

I never had the chance to meet him in person or even speak with him again.

We lost Mr. Leonard in August of 2013.

Shane called me with the news.

I cried when I heard.

Just the thought that we had all the Elmore Leonard novels that we were ever going to have was tragic.

I remember Shane and I saying to each other, “Well, we had that wonderful phone call, remember?”

I miss having Elmore Leonard in this world.

But I’m so grateful for all he books that we did get. I read them and re-read them all the time. I learn so much from them. They make me a better writer, they make me want to be a better writer.

And I’m grateful that I even almost made a movie with Elmore Leonard.

That I got to spend an hour in the rain with him.

Buy Winslow’s book here.

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