Author Q&A: Dennis Lehane talks about books, films, and how to turn one into the other
There’s something about Dennis Lehane’s books that seems to attract filmmakers, like bees to pulpy, Boston-based honey. And not just any filmmakers, but huge names like Eastwood, Scorsese, and, um, Affleck. With the release of the Shutter Island DVD and Blu-Ray we spoke with the author about adaptations, working with Marty, and why his novels are just so filmable.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve had a few films made out of your books by now. Do you tend to feel protective of the material, or are you comfortable letting the directors do what they want?
DENNIS LEHANE: I wouldn’t be fine with having them just do whatever they want, but I take extreme precaution to get involved only with people I respect in this business, on an artistic level. I’ve worked with people who, they get the material; they want to take a similar journey. We’ve had some minor differences in interpretation of a character here or there, but never anything major. We’re not talking about the Demi Moore The Scarlet Letter, which is the nadir of what could happen. I haven’t had anything even close to that. If they get the spirit of the material, I don’t care what they do for the most part with the tiny details. It doesn’t stress me out at all. Larry Fishburne in Mystic River was playing a guy who was written very much as a white character. The moment Clint said to me that he had Laurence Fishburne, I was like, “Yay!” It didn’t even give me pause. That to me is minor, it doesn’t matter. The major stuff is changing the ending, stuff like that. And that’s never happened to me.
How important is it for you for a filmmaker to match the mood or tone of your book?
The mood of Shutter Island, I think Marty did the cinematic equivalent of what I was doing with the book. There was a tongue-in-cheek quality to it, there was a sense of we’re never presenting you with real life. We’re presenting you with a love of a certain type of genre. I did it as books, in terms of Gothic fiction, while Marty was riffing on 1940’s Val Lewton movies. We were definitely showing very quickly in both book and movie that you were not entering a real world. In Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck changed the ages of the characters. They were older in the book. He wanted them to be the age they were in the first book of that series, which changes it a bit. But that’s totally cool with me. Fine, that’s your interpretation, as long as the spirit is maintain. Then in Mystic River there was a major thematic subtext about gentrification that had to get thrown out, and Clint told me about that right off the bat and that was fine. And that way the book remains the book and the movie is its own entity. Hopefully people will see the movie and might go, “Oh, I’ll go check out the book,” and when they check out the book, they get to go a little deeper.
Do you feel like that works for something in Shutter Island, where so much is predicated upon the final twist?
Yes, I think a lot of people will go back to the book so they can get inside the character’s head, and see how it was done in the book. A lot of what I did in the book that isn’t in the movie as much was play up his dreams. There’s no question his dreams are definitely in the movie, some of them, but in the book it was, like, every five chapters I’d give you another snippet, and they were really key to figuring him out.
What do you think it is about your writing that’s so attractive to Hollywood?
Some of it is flavor of the month, I think that’s where it starts. So your stuff goes to the top of the pile now. I do think that’s been true ever since Clint Eastwood did Mystic River. But there’s one thing I’ll take credit for and another thing I won’t. I think I can say with some lack of modesty that I write the type of characters that actors like to play, so I have that going for me. I tend to draw in actors. Where I can take no credit at all, and where I think most of the credit for my movies rests, is with the auteur theory, with the directors. With all three films they had locked scripts that were only touched by directors and writers going into shooting. There was no script by committee, there was no studio executives saying, “Well, actually the demographic in Kansas wants to see this, so you need to put this in on page 102.”
Like, “Can’t Teddy live happily ever after?”
Yeah, none of that. There was no studio interference. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence that we’ve had three aesthetically successful, if one of the movies was not financially successful, but three really good films that everyone involved could be proud of. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Beyond that, I can’t tell you what attracts people to my work because, s— man, it’s dark.
You’ve said you have no interest in adapting your own work, that you’re happier handing it off.
I’ll adapt other stuff, but adapting my own work, I would have no perspective whatsoever. To me it’s like a doctor operating on his own child. I just don’t know how anybody could do it. Some people do it, and they do it wonderfully, but I’m not that guy.
You do have some experience writing for the screen, though. You wrote for The Wire. Do you have the urge to write more for TV or film?
I’ve been writing a script right now for Fox, and that’s an adaptation of something I wrote, but it’s an adaptation of a short story, so I don’t have to cut, I have to open it up. I love TV, I love writing for TV. I think right now when you’re in premium cable TV it feels like what it must have felt like writing just off Broadway in the 1940’s and 1950’s. There’s just something really special going on. I really enjoy it, I just don’t want to adapt my own novels.
When you saw the film, did the island match what you saw in your head.
Yes and no. You come into a filter that is very distinct, and that’s Martin Scorsese’s vision, and that’s not necessarily my visual palette. It’s his, and his is a hell of a lot more interesting than mine. When you see the physical grounds of the hospital, that was very much what I saw in my head, no question. But when you’re looking at the backdrop and what he was doing with the CGI skies and really playing with that idea of the movies of that time, that wasn’t something that I saw in my head when I was writing. I think I saw a much more naturalistic world, whereas he saw a much more surreal world, which works.
Were you a big fan of Scorsese before he started working on it?
I remember dragging all my friends to Taxi Driver when I was twelve. I was a massive Scorsese fan.
So was it surreal when he was adapting something you had written.
I didn’t even tell anybody but my wife for several weeks because I was so embarrassed by my good fortune. And I didn’t want to jinx it. I didn’t want anybody to hate me any more, my friends who are writers particularly. “Oh, now you’ve got Scorsese directing a film…”