Mike Fleming

I’m starting a week off today, and woke up to the depressing news that the great Detroit author Elmore Leonard has died at 87. Like so many who push words around for a living, even if it is in a much inferior fashion, I was in awe of Leonard’s ability to write as only he could. He just made you want to try harder, no matter what kind of writing you did. You could go back to the likes of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler, but I’m hard pressed to think of a crime fiction author who influenced so many. I swear that after a Leonard book came out, I could feel the influence even on daily journalists who read him. For instance, I read sports columnist Mike Lupica all the time and noticed after every Leonard book came out, Lupica would temporarily incorporate Leonard’s penchant for starting sentences in odd places, and clipping the quotes of his subjects to liven up the dialogue like Leonard did.

His influence on Hollywood is profound and I think he helped make dialogue in crime dramas better. Great dialogue screenwriters like Quentin Tarantino drew from his well, and not just when Quentin turned Leonard’s book Rum Punch into Jackie Brown. Hollywood used to screw up his novels all the time when studio guys, screenwriters and directors thought they knew better than the master. They borrowed his plots but made them super-serious, not understanding that it wasn’t the plots as much as the dialogue and interplay between those great characters that made his books memorable. It got so bad that Leonard stopped writing scripts because he tired of taking orders from inferiors, and preferred to focus on books, where final cut belonged to him.

But then things started to get better for Leonard after the release of Get Shorty, which celebrated the cool wit and humor that was present in all of Leonard’s work. Barry Sonnenfeld’s movie didn’t paint the bad guys with black hats, but let them reveal themselves slowly and playfully. That made it possible to sympathize not only with John Travolta’s loanshark-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer character, but also a stuntman hired as a thug (James Gandolfini), who, after being demoralized by a beating from Palmer, caught his breath and started excitedly describing to his film nut nemesis all the movies he did stunts in. I remember Scott Frank telling me that when he first tried to adapt that Leonard novel as a script, he went through the book and underlined what he felt was vital, in green hi-light marker. By the time he finished, Frank had underlined pretty much the entire book. But Frank and his cohorts managed to start a trend, where filmmakers began to realize that Leonard’s dialogue was pure gold and didn’t need a rewrite.

Frank and Jersey Films producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher nailed it yet again when they collaborated with Steven Soderbergh to make Out Of Sight. That film had trademark flawed heroes and tremendous badasses, and for my money the sexiest courtship scene (between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez) that I’d seen in a film since Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe formed their bond in Michael Mann’s The Last Of The Mohicans. And both those films had Dennis Farina. More recently, Graham Yost captured Leonard’s spirit in the FX series Justified, based on the gunslinging deputy U.S. marshal Raylan Givens whom Leonard hatched as a secondary character in the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap. The dialogue written for Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens, Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder, Nick Searcy’s Chief Deputy Marshal Art Mullen, and all the bad guys, so captured Leonard’s wit that he told me it had restored his faith in Hollywood, or at least made the earlier slights less bothersome.

I got the privilege of spending some time with Leonard twice. Once in person, as a kid reporter at New York Newsday, when I peppered him with endless questions and recall him telling that one reason his scenes lined up differently than other writers is that he would write the same scene numerous times, each from the vantage point of different characters. He’d then choose the vantage point the felt right, and use that one. Three years ago, I spent time on the phone with him at Deadline, when director Charlie Matthau hooked us up while they were working on an adaptation of Freaky Deaky. Here is a replay of that interview:

EARLIER, MAY 18, 2010 9:32am PDT: 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.”

03-Elmore-LeonardSaid 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.”