Dennis Lehane: The crime novelist who is one of Hollywood's most wanted
The "expat" Boston author invites EW for a conversation at his Southern California home as his latest book, Since We Fell, hits stores.
Nobody calls this hilltop in Playa del Rey “Little Boston,” but Dennis Lehane lives here now, so maybe they’ll start.
The 51-year-old novelist radiates a kind of Beantown wi-fi, a transmission that fills his general vicinity. It’s in his face, his voice, his taste in company.
Lehane moved to Los Angeles with his wife and kids three-and-a-half years ago to pick up more work in movies and TV, but this neighborhood, overlooking both Santa Monica Bay and the jetliner liftoffs from LAX, is full of “regular people,” as he says – not show business people. It’s not the same as his old Dorchester neighborhood, but then, Dorchester’s probably not the same without him.
Plus, Hollywood’s been good to Lehane. Movie versions of Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone introduced his best-sellers to new audiences, and now he’s in demand as a screenwriter and script doctor. Among other projects, Lehane is one part of the writing team on the upcoming TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, he’s “Americanizing” the harrowing French prison saga A Prophet, and penning a screenplay for DreamWorks based on his own new novel, Since We Fell (on bookshelves now).
The book is just the latest unusual turn for the author, whose work always combines pulp thrills with literary heart and sophistication. “Dennis Lehane uniquely can evoke time and place anywhere, anytime,” says Don Winslow, author of The Cartel and this summer’s The Force (out June 20.) “He can mine both the darkest pain and the most radiant human light.”
Lehane’s Since We Fell begins as the story of Rachel Childs, a troubled, isolated young journalist who’s on a quest to find her father. She’s a broken person, having faced horrors as a journalist during 9/11 and in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Those have left her with PTSD. But she was also born partly broken, raised by a manipulative mother who hid Rachel’s father’s identity from her and nurtured the young woman’s more neurotic impulses.
Rachel goes in search of her long lost dad, trying to find an anchor for her life. It almost goes without saying that she ends up finding a great deal of trouble instead. Fans expecting his usual violence, lawlessness, and gunplay might be surprised by the first half of the book – a genealogy drama. But they just need to be patient.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This new book is going to throw people for a loop.
DENNIS LEHANE: Thank you! Talking to my buddy Tom Perrotta [author of The Leftovers and Election] about it. He said it’s three books: a book about the search for identity. It’s a book about marriage. And then it’s a book about a mystery in the end. The mystery takes over. And it’s like, okay. Cool.
What made you decide to frontload the book with this search for a father?
That was last. There was something that just wasn’t working for me. I was just like, ugh, I’m not totally buying this all the way. So all of a sudden, I had a 3 a.m. moment. The book was heading into production at that point, and I called my editor and my agent, and I said, “Stop the presses, everybody hold back.”
Rachel needed more history?
It was connected to sort of global things. It was connected to 9/11. It was connected to Haiti. It was connected to global but I was like, what’s the personal? Besides the fact that her mother’s a nightmare? And then it was, what if someone withheld your basic right to know — to your paternity? So the first hundred pages were then written. It’s backward.
Is there a single theme you feel threads your books together?
I think there are a couple of obsessions that show up in my books. I didn’t even recognize it until about my seventh book, but in every single one is this question of “What is family. How do you define family?” Is family through blood or is it family through choice? That shows up in everything. It’s even in this, you know?
What else is always there?
I think this idea of honor comes up. It was very important to my father that you just be honest and let the chips fall where they may. He raised us that way, and the one thing I know for sure that I am not is passive-aggressive. Like, that’s not in me.
You’re just straight aggressive.
[Laughs] Yeah, straight-up aggressive. It would be nice if the world, to some degree, worked that way. I write about gangsters, but I don’t think a gangster’s a good guy. But why is it that, say, people on Wall Street can do far worse, far more damaging [stuff] than your low-level mafia thug, and yet they get the imprimatur of the state.
Talking about honor … While preparing for this interview, I stumbled on video from a commencement speech you gave years ago, back in 2006. Man, it was inspiring. I think you should dust that off. It’s perfect for today.
It almost feels like, then it was a warning…
Now it’s here.
Yeah, there was a moment when “empathy” became a dirty word in America. Once you start seeing everything through that prism, it’s pretty stunning. When did it become [weak] to give a sh–?
This question of honor really is all over your books. To quote a Dylan line, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” Some characters are, but some aren’t. It doesn’t always matter whether they’re criminals or not.
Yeah, I was once at a party with a guy whose job, and everybody knew it, was to help companies refashion properties that were polluted… so that they could resell them. That’s what he did. And it was literally like, “You sell cancer to children.” “You’re the Flint, Michigan water supply,” you know what I mean? And yet, he’s at a party. But if you asked him, “What do you do?” and he said, “I sell crystal meth,” people would be like, “Get the f— outta here!” I find the crystal meth guy at least honest. I don’t think he’s a “good guy.” His soul is his other issue, but at least I know who he is.
You used to say you never wanted to do an adaptation on one of your books because you didn’t want to “perform surgery on your own child.” But you’re doing a screenplay for Since We Fell and you’ve worked on others. What changed?
I think if I’m a little older and a little stronger as a writer, as a screenwriter by this point, I might’ve done Shutter Island. That was clean to me. I knew the architecture of it inside and out. Originally, there were two different permutations of Shutter Island, for two years. They tried to do that movie with the mandate to the screenwriter that he change the ending, and I was just like, “Guys …”
The ending is the whole point of that story!
I was like, you know, “Good luck!” You can’t [change it] because the architecture of it is if you change the ending, the whole thing falls apart. Everything falls apart. Nothing makes sense. And they tried and they failed, and so then they kicked back, and it kicked back to me, and that’s when I reached over to [producer] Mike Medavoy, and that’s when we got the movie we wanted.
What was your relationship like with some of the directors of your work? Clint Eastwood made Mystic River, Martin Scorsese made Shutter Island, Ben Affleck did Gone Baby Gone and last year’s Live By Night …
Without a doubt, I think there was a good one with Clint and there was a good one with Ben, definitely. Marty was – we had three really awesome conversations, and then he’s done. He’s good to go, you know? He’s like, “I’m shooting now,” you know? When Marty shoots, he shoots. It is just like, you know, you kind of visit the set real quick, give him a wave, move on.
Eastwood’s efficient like that, too. He doesn’t jaw more than is necessary.
Clint, he ruined me for the rest of Hollywood because he’s so — he’s so no fuss, no muss, and he’s so classy in terms of how he does everything that you feel like, “Oh, why would I take sh– from somebody again?” [Laughs.] You know what I mean? You just feel like, “No, you don’t get to – if Clint Eastwood didn’t get to talk to me that way, you don’t get to talk to me that way.” Clint Eastwood doesn’t treat people that way.
Have you got any good Eastwood stories?
I can say one thing, which is that Clint Eastwood – he’s obsessive about smoothies and oatmeal cookies. Everybody who knows him is, like, “Wow, those are interesting obsessions to have.” That’s his thing. Like, if the man has a vice, that’s what it is.
And smoothies. Smoothies. He’s very serious about his smoothies. Like, you know, a “Have blender, will travel” kind of vibe, you know? Get the fruit. That’s pretty much it to the best of my knowledge that he has in terms of a vice, that I saw on the 40 days I was around him.
He gave you a cameo in Mystic River, right?
His sets are the most just relaxed places you could ever be. When we were shooting the big parade scene in Mystic River, he put me in it as an extra, so I was literally on the set the entire time going back and forth and back and forth in this convertible. At one point, I remember watching him walk through the crowd. It was a huge crowd, big crane shot, and just hundreds and hundreds of extras and potential logistical nightmares in a million different ways, and there was a threat of rain during that day. But he was just moving through the crowd, and the look on his face wasn’t, “Oh, sh–, I hope I get this shot.” The look on his face was, you know, “I wonder what kind of smoothie I’m gonna have for lunch.” [Laughs.]
That film is full of high-intensity actors, too. Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins. Did the mellow vibe trickle down?
It was just this serene, “I got this” [feeling], you know? I remember when Sean and I hung out before the shoot, he said to me, at one point, “[Clint] thinks he’s gonna do this in 42 days on location? He’s insane. It’ll never happen.” He did it in 39. And then just kind of, okay, time to do Million Dollar Baby now. He’s just moving on.
How about your relationship with Ben Affleck? He’s obviously a fan and comes from the same Boston roots.
Without a doubt. Gone Baby Gone isn’t only shot in Dorchester. It’s shot within my parish. That’s about as drilled down as you can get. Casey Affleck fit with the character with the opening shot which is the street as he’s walking down the street. That’s literally a half a block from my street where I grew up. Ben didn’t know that. He just went in all the way into that neighborhood.
There’s a similar cultural language between you two?
I mean we share, clearly, a very similar sociopolitical outlook, and our interest in our city is — look, Bostonians are just embarrassing homers. I mean we’re all, like, obsessed with Boston. It’s ridiculous
That’s important, though. To know your subject, your characters. The Godfather would be a very different movie if it was Francis Ford Jones making it.
It’s a love letter to his culture and mine. That’s why, I think, of all my adaptations, the most Boston-est of them all is Gone Baby Gone. It’s shot by a Boston guy, and, at a very granular level, it feels like Boston.
What drew you to L.A. from Boston? Since you’re so rooted there.
I got sucked up by the jobs. It was TV more than anything. There has been no question that since the day I arrived, it was literally just like lowering a barrier and then watching everything flow over. I have been non-stop busy for three and a half years.
What’s the difference?
I think it’s “all business is personal.” The perception of distance, even in today’s age does matter. If I wanted this sort of work when I was in Boston, I flew out, I took meetings, I drove all around town. I kind of pitched, you know? Here, A Prophet is the perfect example. I had lunch with the producer at, like 12:30 on a Thursday, and by 4:30, they’d offered a deal. It’s like that because they know you’re right down the street.
What other kind of work are you doing for movies these days?
I did a film based on John D. MacDonald’s first novel, his first Travis McGee novel — The Deep Blue Good-By. Christian Bale was supposed to be the star, James Mangold directing. And Christian blew his knee out just before they were shooting.
What about TV? You worked on The Wire, but now TV seems to keep you extremely busy.
I love being in TV. I truly love it. The film work is a little bit more absurd and it’s a little bit more what you hear about. You’re just one of 145 people, and you are no more no less important than anybody else, including the set decorator, and that is how you are treated. So if they decide, “We don’t have time to try and negotiate with him. Let’s have somebody f—ing rewrite him right now, on the set, on the fly,” they will do that. That’s how it’s done. That’s the film world, and the bigger the budget, the more likely that’s gonna happen, and so in that case, it’s nice, “Thanks for the checks,” but you don’t have the same pride of ownership.
So what have you worked on TV-wise that brings that satisfaction?
I worked on Bloodline, and now I’m on Mr. Mercedes with David E. Kelley, and then I’m building a show for FX right now, which I don’t think I’m allowed to fully talk about, so I can’t get into that too much.
I like seeing novels adapted as limited series. Gives you more room for the full story.
So much more room. We’re doing a Stephen King book, and so we’ve got — it’s, like, 450 pages. We’ve got 10 episodes. Most episodes are 45 minutes long. Do the math. It’s every 45 pages. You can drill down on everything, and if you want to cut something, you can because you don’t feel like you’re removing the intestines or anything like that.
So life is good. Are you a Californian now?
No! [Laughs.] No, I’ll always be a Boston expat I think. … I went home to Boston, and it was gray and everybody’s skin was that gray that comes from just not seeing the sun for four months, and it was just this slushy day, you know? I was down in the waterfront, so it was, like, five times as cold and windy, and everybody just looked f—ing unhappy and miserable. I was passing through them, and I wanted to drop to my knees and say, “I’m home! I’m home!”
So how are you holding up?
I’m functioning. [Laughs.] I’m functioning. There are worse places to be exiled.