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: