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A Replay Of A Few Minutes With The Late, Great Elmore Leonard: On Movies, iPads, And ‘Freaky Deaky’

By | Tuesday August 20, 2013 @ 9:13am PDT
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: Read More »

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Scott Frank To Write And Direct GK Films Adaptation Of British Miniseries ‘Unforgiven’

Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Scott Frank will rewrite and direct a feature adaptation of the 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven for GK Films partners Graham King and Tim Headington. When the project was set at GK last year, Christopher McQuarrie was signed to write the early draft as a potential vehicle for Angelina Jolie. McQuarrie did his job before going off to direct Tom Cruise in One Shot for Paramount. Jolie had never been formally attached, and so it won’t be clear who’ll star until Frank does his rewrite and gets the film ready.

Frank is finishing Houdini for Sony Pictures and director Francis Lawrence, and he also scripted Hell’s Angels for director Tony Scott and Fox. Both of those are priority projects and his adaptation of the Lawrence Block novel A Walk Among the Tombstones was resurrected by Cross Creek Pictures for DJ Caruso to direct. Frank made his directorial debut on his script The Lookout.

Unforgiven is about a woman’s attempt to rejoin society after she serves a 15-year prison stretch for the murder of two policemen. The tragedy happened after the policemen came to evict her family from their farmhouse. Her hope is to live quietly and reunite with her troubled younger sister, but the paroled woman is targeted for a revenge campaign by two sons of one of her victims. Suranne Jones played the lead in the original miniseries, which was … Read More »

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Tony Scott Boarding ‘The Wild Bunch’ While Revving ‘Hell’s Angels’ As Next Pic

Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Deadline revealed this morning that Ridley Scott was returning to his sci-fi classic Blade Runner. His Scott Free partner and brother Tony Scott is also getting serious about a new version of a movie classic. Scott is in talks with Warner Bros to direct a reboot of the 1969 Sam Peckinpah-directed The Wild Bunch. This film becomes one of three or so that Scott is most eager to direct as his follow-up to the Denzel Washington-Chris Pine action film Unstoppable.

Scott’s next assignment will be Hell’s Angels, though its timing will depend on whether he gets the actor he wants to play gang leader Sonny Barger. I’m told that he wants Jeff Bridges. They’ve not met face to face yet, because Bridges is right now touring his self-titled musical album that he recorded after he won the Oscar playing Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Once Bridges gets back to film work, he’s booked to star with Ryan Reynolds in Universal’s R.I.P.D. and Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ The Seventh Son. If Scott has his heart set on Bridges and the actor says yes, Hell’s Angels won’t get underway until next spring or later. Fox 2000′s Hell’s Angels is set around the Laughlin riots of 2001 when the Angels were caught up in a war with rival gang The Mongols. The drama revolves around a friendship that develops between … Read More »

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‘A Walk Among The Tombstones’ Resurrected With DJ Caruso At Helm

Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Cross Creek Pictures has stepped up to finance A Walk Among the Tombstones, an adaptation of the Lawrence Block novel that seemed to have been put to rest more than a decade ago. DJ Caruso is in discussions to direct a script by Scott Frank. It is one of two pictures Caruso is considering for his next film. The other is Preacher, the John August-scripted film for Sony Pictures and producer Neal Moritz.

Double Feature partners Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher are producing with Danny DeVito and Cross Creek president Brian Oliver. Shamberg, Sher and DeVito first got Frank to write a script while they were partners in Jersey Films. It had been set at Universal and once had Harrison Ford interested in playing Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic former cop who spends his retirement doing favors for friends, the kind that take him deep into the underbelly of New York City. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, a heroin kingpin’s wife is kidnapped and those kidnappers begin to send her back in pieces. The Scudder character was previously seen in 8 Million Ways To Die. Read More »

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