Dennis Lehane has had a more charmed run that most authors, watching his superb novels Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island get turned into fine movies. Now he’s adapted one of his short stories into the Fox Searchlight drama The Drop, with Bullhead helmer Michael R. Roskam launching the film at Toronto last night and a cast led by Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Bullhead‘s Matthias Schoenarts and John Ortiz. Here, Lehane discusses what it’s like to have his dialogue made better by great actors, and what Hollywood owes authors in turning their books into films.
DEADLINE: You have this gift for creating memorably desperate tough guy characters on the fringes of the criminal world. Where did the inspiration for Animal Rescue come from?
LEHANE: It started just with an image. A guy walking in the snow, down a street, and he hears a noise. I wanted to write about loneliness, and so he’s this lonely guy who hears a noise. It’s this pit bull puppy that has been abused and left in a trash can. He lifts him out, and it suddenly makes him one tick less lonely and it’s a progression from there. I don’t map out my stuff too much, it’s organic and usually it blows up in my face midway through the project. In this case, it worked out alright.
DEADLINE: Your modest criminal characters have a ring of authenticity. Did you grow up in a tough part of Boston, absorbing the tough people in your orbit, or do you have a great imagination like Mario Puzo, who said he never met a mobster while writing The Godfather?
LEHANE: It’s not that I’m thinking about gangsters, or even whether these people are criminals or not. I write about the have-nots. And the have-nots don’t have any power. They can’t express themselves like the powerful can, through the stroke of a pen, or the ability to buy out the Supreme Court. The way these people express themselves when they’re dissatisfied is violence. That’s what you saw in Ferguson a couple of weeks ago and it has been repeated down through history. That’s who I write about and the world I did grow up in. Until the well runs dry that’s what I’m going to continue to write about. It’s been a good well, so far.
DEADLINE: I’ve read some of these festival reviews about The Drop, and came away thinking that if you’re not detailing the Lufthansa heist like Goodfellas did, you’re not being grand enough for these critics. Tell me what they are missing about the appeal of using a modest crime backdrop to launch the subtle layered characters that make this movie so fascinating?
LEHANE: I like mustard but I don’t like ketchup, and I can’t tell you why. I just don’t like ketchup. I can’t tell you why some people don’t like the world I write about, and others do. I just know that by choosing to write about the world, and these types of people, I lose some, and that’s fine with me because they were never meant to be at the party anyway. For me, it’s about did I, through the characters in the film, stay authentic and was the film true to what it wanted to be? Yes, and yes. By that metric, the only question left is, will it appeal to all types of people? No it won’t, and I’m really good with that. The stuff that appeals to all types of people, Disney World, for example, is stuff I’m not really into.
DEADLINE: Dennis Lehane is not a four quadrant type of guy?
LEHANE: Yeah, no, it’s not really my thing.
DEADLINE: There is one kind of gratification in writing books and having the final word. Explain the appeal of The Drop, having your characters interpreted by actors like Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, the latter in a final performance?
LEHANE: It’s endlessly gratifying, and this movie in particular has a really deep bench with Matthias Schoenaerts, Noomi Rapace, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez. As a character actor aficionado, this was seventh heaven for me. I had a great director in Michael Roskam, great cinematographer. I had it all and sat back and watched it happen.
DEADLINE: From Warrior to Locke, Hardy is endlessly surprising and Gandolfini had this kind of role down cold. What did those guys bring to these characters that surprised you, the guy who created those characters?
LEHANE: When I knew Tom was cast, I went back through the script and I began to cut his lines. Tom does so much with stillness, and this sense of the water is running deep beneath the character. What you do with Tom is not hand him too much dialogue because he does so much without it. Gandolfini, on the other hand, turns dialogue into a feast. When he was cast, I went back through the script, and I beefed up his dialogue. My dialogue is deceptively hard to say. People think that, because it sounds like the street, it must be natural. It’s not. It’s only from people who are from that world. Gandolfini’s from that world. The stuff that was left on the cutting room floor just killed us. Some of the dialogue that he had, it just didn’t advance the story enough and the movie needed to be tight. But it was so good. What surprised me about what Tom did was, he took the character in a darker direction that I envisioned and he did it beautifully. We had so many conversations on the set that made me think, wow, you’re taking this further than I did. And he was right, and it’s beautiful.
DEADLINE: What about his Tony Soprano do you think made Gandolfini’s portrayal one of the great underworld performances?
LEHANE: With Tony, it was the everyman aspect, and not the Don aspect. Harried by his mother, his electrical equipment, his TV doesn’t work when he wants it to. He’s got boys who are just idiots. Things we can all identify with in the day to day mendacity of our lives.
DEADLINE: What are the crime films that meant the most to you as you developed your own voice as a writer?
LEHANE: Mona Lisa is probably my favorite. Just a beautiful film, and very similar to this. It’s about a very lonely, inarticulate man who is trying to live again but the world is against him. Now that I’m looking at it, maybe I was paying more homage to that film than I knew. On the Waterfront, and I like a lot of neo noir new stuff like Sexy Beast, One False Move, and I love the old classic noirs like The Sweet Smell of Success, Out Of The Past and Shadow Of A Doubt. I don’t think when I’m writing that I’m writing towards genre. I’m writing about characters, and then ultimately they gotta do something. That comes to me late in the process, these guys should probably do something now or we don’t have a story. I build these characters and at some point, send them out for a story and if they’re good they oblige and come back with one.
DEADLINE: You have the final say as the author of your books. Explain the appeal or the drawbacks of this world, where the final arbiter is the director? What is the author owed?
LEHANE: Here’s exactly what I control. I ultimately control 99%, and that’s who I sell my work to. That’s what I control. After that, I don’t control anything and I have no illusions about it. When I sell something, I get involved with highly talented people whose aesthetic I respect. That’s it. That’s as simple as it can get, in terms of my theory for how I deal with Hollywood. The director does have the final say, as he should. I am there to service that vision, which is servicing my own. It has worked out pretty good, but that’s because I’ve insisted, even to the point where I’ve left plenty of money on the table, that I only get involved with people whose decisions I will respect. And that has worked out.
DEADLINE: For an author, you’ve had a charmed run from Mystic River with Clint Eastwood to Gone Baby Gone with Ben Affleck, to Shutter Island with Martin Scorsese, and now Live By Night again with Affleck.
LEHANE: I certainly have. I’m due for a real bomb.
DEADLINE: Was there one example where the filmmaker was most collaborative in giving you a voice?
LEHANE: To be honest, they’ve all been that way. I expected by this point to have all these terrible Hollywood stories. I don’t have them. Get involved with people whose work you respect and there’s a good chance you’re going to be treated good.
DEADLINE: The Given Day is your most wonderfully ambitious novel, a period that encapsulates the police strike in Boston, the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and this complex multi-generational law enforcement family. What has been the biggest obstacle in bringing it to the screen and how frustrating is that?
LEHANE: It’s not frustrating. It can’t be a movie. I did sell it to the movies. We tried it for two years, and it didn’t work because we were trying to do something that’s not possible. It’s not meant to be a movie. It may ultimately meant to be a miniseries, but it is too much story for two hours. I own the rights. I will not sell them until I figure out the perfect deal, and also collaborating with the right people. So that’s it.
DEADLINE: What made you want to expand the world of Shutter Island into an HBO series? That’s new territory for you.
LEHANE: It was just the world of Ashecliffe, and not Shutter Island is the best way to put it. That was attractive to me. American psychiatry in the first half of the 20th Century, that was my desire. It seemed like a cool thing to roll with me. They came to me with the idea of a Shutter Island TV series and I wasn’t interested. I thought, well, what am I interested in? I came up with this idea, ran it by Scorsese and we said, wow, let’s go have some fun with this.’