Exploring Hollywood’s Fascination with Elmore Leonard

In a career that spans over sixty years, Leonard’s first story was “Trail of the Apache,” which he sold to the magazine Argosy for one thousand dollars. Throughout his long career, he published forty-five novels, penned four original screenplays and a produced countless number of short stories and essays. Having never given up writing long hand, he wrote with a pen and a yellow legal pad, with each legal pad equaling sixty-three pages of a novel. An almost romantic notion of writing, long forgotten in the age of modern technology, it’s almost as romantic as Hollywood’s attachment to Leonard’s work. Thirty-six times his material has been adapted to film in all forms, from short films to television movies and series to first run movies. An impressive catalogue for a novelist whose first agent warned him again and again not to give up his day job.

In his early years, Leonard’s routine consisted of writing from 5am-7am, and then heading to his job as a copywriter, where he wrote ads for Chevrolet. Focused on supporting his growing family, he wrote Westerns, which were at the peak of their popularity. Continuing to work for the ad agency, he supplemented his income by selling short Westerns to pulp magazines and dime publications. Finally heeding the advice of his agent who predicted a waning of the genre, he began to write crime fiction.

During this time, his major influence was Ernest Hemingway, whose economy of words and dialogue heavy approach appealed to Leonard. After realizing that Hemingway didn’t have a sense of humor, Leonard searched more deeply to find his own style. While maintaining an appreciation for Hemingway, Leonard’s stories soon developed his trademark humor, a trait that to this day draws many admirers to his work.

Not always the sensationally respected author we now know him to be, Leonard’s novel “Mother, This is Jack Ryan,” was rejected eighty-four times and his novel “Unknown Man #89,” one hundred and five times. After a reread of the manuscript for “Mother, This is Jack Ryan,” Leonard knew he needed a revision that strengthened the story line. His persistence paid off and in 1969, Fawcett published the novel under the title “The Big Bounce.” The retitled “Unknown Man No. 89” was published by Delacorte Press in 1977.

Motivated by its financial payoff, Leonard was always explicit about his intentions of selling to Hollywood saying, “I want to make money writing. And that’s not my first purpose…but it’s certainly important. If you can’t make a living at it, why do it?” It was that attitude that led him in the late 1960s, to begin writing original screenplays. Unsatisfied, he soon abandoned the venture though. In a multifaceted system where screenwriters must adhere to a collaborative process, Leonard quit the trade frustrated by his loss of control, deciding instead to stay with novel writing where he could retain that control.

Elmore Leonard’s style is distinct for many reasons. Often cited is that his novels are character driven, with plot a secondary notion. He is renown for his ability to construct compelling characters, characters that are realistically flawed and convincingly human, who live a fine line between good and bad. His characters are distinctive and unlike heroes in any conventional sense. Leonard loves all his characters and his affection for them aptly seeps into his audience’s subconscious. The key tying it all together is Leonard’s narrative abilities. Much has been said about his “sound” and his ability to create characters with particular voices. Leonard writes from each of his character’s point of view, switching often throughout and taking care to view the world as the character would see it, not as Elmore Leonard would. The resulting dialogue is succinct, dry but funny, and unique to each character. Benjamin Cavill, writer for the series “Justified,” has said that his “narration has a sort of Hemingway staccato,” appropriate considering Leonard’s admiration for the author.

All this begs the question, why is Hollywood so fascinated with Elmore Leonard? The reasons are many and varied. When Leonard opens one of his novels, he dives right in, hooking the audience immediately. He’s soft handed with exposition, which he delivers in small doses throughout, respecting the audience enough to believe they will catch on. There is no flowery language and he is sparing in his descriptions. A compact narrative, delivered from multiple characters points of view, creates a vivid world. These characters that are neither saintly nor evil, are of great appeal to actors. His novels move quickly, cutting often, lending themselves to quick and fluid scenes. Maybe most importantly, his novels paint a picture, but not so fully that a filmmaker can’t extrapolate their own ideas and convey their own vision.

Of the many adaptations of his work, some are worth highlighting:

3:10 to Yuma

The first of Leonard’s material sold for film. Originally a forty-five hundred-word story, Leonard was paid ninety dollars when it was published in Dime Western Magazine in 1953. Leonard was a big fan of the 1957 adaptation, calling the casting “perfect.” The 2007 remake, starring Russell Crowe, was a critical success.

The Big Bounce

Directed by Alex March and adapted by screenwriter Robert Dozier, Leonard had very little good to say about the resulting film and was especially angered by the transformation of Jack Ryan into the “obvious hero type.” So irritated was Leonard, that he walked out of the theater after agreeing with a fellow moviegoer who proclaimed it to be the worst movie she’d ever seen.

Stick

Yet another film Leonard was unhappy with. Directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, the film suffers from Reynolds overacting, which directly contradicts the typical low key, but confident, Leonard antihero. So incensed with the film, he sent a four page letter to Reynolds with his complaints. As Leonard’s trusted researcher, Greg Sutter explains, “Reynolds did just about everything as wrong as he possibly could-the thing bears no resemblance to anything Leonard would ever dream of writing.” Leonard would even go so far as trying to have his screenwriting credit removed.

Get Shorty

The first of two films adapted by screenwriter Scott Frank, it is one of the most successful adaptations of Leonard’s material. With director Barry Sonnenfeld at the helm, the film was faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue and both director and screenwriter were admirably attuned to Leonard’s sense of humor. In it, Sonnenfeld creates the world you would expect from the novel. Spot on performances from John Travolta, Gene Hackman and cast ensured its success. The film would garner Frank a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay. After Get Shorty, much of Leonard’s work was optioned, with a slew of films guaranteed soon to come.

Jackie Brown

Leonard super fan Quentin Tarantino was just coming off his success of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s quirky style was, in part, from a reverence for Leonard’s work. After having optioned two other of Leonard’s novels (“Freaky Deaky” and “Killshot”) Tarantino decided on “Rum Punch” after rereading the novel one night. After changing the Jackie Brown character to African American, plus changing the location and film title, Tarantino was scared of what Leonard would think. He was thoroughly relieved when Leonard thought that not only was one it one of the best adaptations of his material, but that it was “maybe the best script he’d ever read.”  The film is a true amalgamation of Tarantino and Leonard’s style; quick dialogue, a penchant for cool, and, unlike other Tarantino movies, understated in its violence.

Out of Sight

After his successful adaptation of Get Shorty, screenwriter Scott Frank would tackle Leonard’s novel “Out of Sight.” While considered a box office miss, the adaptation was true to form and comprised some of the best elements of Leonard’s style. With George Clooney’s knack for a deadpan delivery, Frank’s care not to overpower the script, instead letting Leonard’s voice come through, and Steven Soderbergh’s gritty style, all came together to deliver one of the best films to highlight Leonard’s unconventional humor.

Justified

The most recent and another superb adaptation of Leonard’s work, the FX series “Justified” is based on Leonard’s short story, “Fire in the Hole.” The story marks the reappearance of one of Leonard’s most iconic characters, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Since Leonard’s short story is the basis for only the first episode, series creator Graham Yost and his team of writers were tasked with filling in what would turn out to be six seasons of material. Longtime fan Yost, saw “Fire in the Hole” as a coming together of Leonard’s earlier work in Westerns melding with his later career in crime fiction. Remaining as an executive producer, Leonard’s presence was felt throughout the series run. Guided by the mantra “What Would Elmore Do?” Yost and his writing team would turn often to a library of Leonard’s material located in Yost’s office for inspiration while crafting a series that remained faithful to its originator.

For all the times that Hollywood producers, directors, writers and actors have taken on Leonard’s material, they have done so with varying degrees of success. Many have felt the need to divorce the characters from the plot and vice versa, or felt the need to carve out pieces of the story they find fascinating. All too often, they have not been true to the characters, not true to the stories and worst of all, not true to the storytelling. Those who have been successful have been so because they understand Leonard’s work and approach the material with a respect and even a reverence for his style. They understand that humor is not always reaction or about jokes but rather about irony, that characters are complex and represent an opportunity to explore the gray areas of life and that violence is often unexpected and not the least bit gratuitous.

After fifty-years of filmmakers adapting Elmore Leonard’s material, Hollywood’s fascination with Leonard is obvious. It’s a symbiotic relationship, though, and film influenced Leonard almost as much as he influenced film. Whether writing with specific actors in mind or writing about the industry, Elmore Leonard never shied away from expressing the importance of Hollywood for his career and to the end, film remained an inspiration to the man many call the greatest American crime writer.

 

Photo: Michelle Donnelly, ElmoreLeonard.com

Suicide Squad Set Photos Show Even More of Harley Quinn and Katana

David Ayer's Suicide Squad has been in production for a while now and we continue to see set photos by the day.

From The Joker to Harley Quinn to Katana, photos are leaking left and right, and boy are they good. See below some more set photos that show Harley Quinn, Katana and El Diablo. 

Enjoy the madness. 

Photos: DC Entertainment, Warner Bros.

True Detective Season 2 FULL Trailer

 

"Sometimes your worst self is your best self." 

Vince Vaughn delivers this line and sets the entire tone for True Detective: Season 2. We can expect the same grit that we love, but what we are most amped about is Rachel McAdams' character Ani Bezzerides. She's a hardcore, knife-wielding badass who seems to be the glue of this trio of detectives. 

Watch out, Vince. You don't want to be too bad or you'll end up with a "one-two" knife jab in your gut. 

True Detective airs June 21st. 

Trailer Credit

NEW Mad Max: Fury Road Throwback Poster

We are banking on Mad Max: Fury Road being the best film of the summer (yes, better than Avengers: Age of Ultron). It [sort of] kicks off the summer's blockbuster list and will hopefully deliver what we want: the return of Max in an epic story that includes high octane explosions and action sequences at every turn. Our confidence is high, as George Miller knows how to hold onto story even with a large budget. He did it with The Road Warrior; why can't he do it here? 

And in the spirit of throwbacks, see below an ultra-awesome vintage poster that embodies the old school spirit of the first trilogy's posters. 

Mad Max: Fury Road opens May 15th and will be quite an experience - one busting at the seams with not only gasoline and explosions, but nostalgia. 

Image: Village Roadshow, Warner Bros.

Terrence Malick: A Discourse in the Art of Filmmaking

Films: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups

All art comes from perspective. From within, an artist projects out. Their views of the world, of society, of humanity, of the universe are expressed in the end product. Worthwhile art defies simplistic explanation and interpretation. In the eye of the beholder, it can be appreciated for what it is or it can be revered for all it represents. Film is a medium that invites a complex approach, but which many filmmakers find it difficult to master. Writer/Director Terrence Malick is one of those filmmakers whose depth and artistry shows through in his films, which are both thought provoking and renowned for their stunning visual imagery.

In the mid-1960s, Malick studied philosophy at Harvard University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He would go on to become a journalist, penning articles for Life, The New Yorker and Newsweek, while simultaneously teaching at MIT. In 1969, he received an MFA from the American Film Institute. Reported to be very wealthy, a combination of oil profits and script doctoring, it would appear his filmmaking is born from a passion, not out of necessity for his livelihood.

His first movie, 1973’s Badlands, tells the tale of a disaffected, murderous youth named Kit (Martin Sheen), who traverses the country with girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) while fleeing from the authorities. The film is notable for its remarkable visual presentation and its commentary about American society. From the ego and eccentric charm of Kit, who at time possesses the sensibilities of a southern gentleman yet all while on a murderous rampage, Malick’s twist on the American dream gone wrong is expressive and somber, its message about infamy as relevant today as it was then. Badlands introduced many of the trademark elements that would soon come to be associated with Malick’s style.

In these early years, Malick’s films were part of a larger turn in filmmaking. From the glossy world of 1950s movies, there arose a set of filmmakers intent on demonstrating increasingly realistic worldviews and themes. Films such as Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show portrayed a grittier side of humanity, a world where not all questions had answers and where the line between “bad” and “good” were blurred, if they even existed at all. Malick’s films took to this new way and with both Badlands and Days of Heaven he created characters that were not easily defined, who found themselves in situations that tested their resolve, determination and their spirit. His themes about living, dying, modernity, God and nature would touch audiences profoundly.

The commonalities in all Malick’s films are clear: voice over narration, extraordinary cinematographic shots, and little dialogue. Malick’s films are less about story than they are about life. While they are about character, we learn little through their words. There are many ways to approach an analysis of Malick’s work. Taking a cue from the great playwright/actor/director, Sam Shepherd who said of Malick’s films, “for me, they are not so much intellectual, they are visceral,” it seems worthy to look at both for a greater understanding of his work.

Considering Malick is himself a philosopher, there is an inherently strong inclination to intellectualize his work. In 1969, Malick’s translation of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work, “Essence of Reasons” was published. Nature, modernity, man and his place in the universe are all subjects which Heidegger explored and several precepts from his theories would emerge as themes within Malick’s work. Heidegger is credited for his questions about reality and existence (Being) and his works about nihilism and its rejection of religious and moral principles. Heidegger believed that humans only began to question their existence when confronted with death. He believed that death was the only authentic moment where one could see their place within the larger world. On nature, Heidegger would postulate that man’s desire to control nature was wrought from a deep need for a sense of security; that man grappled with the chaotic natural process of constant and evolutionary change. His views on modernity placed the contemporary worker as the authentic, true model for which man should emulate.

Malik has tackled films about every stage of our ever-changing society, clearly exposing the problems and struggles inherent in each. In Days of Heaven it was the clash of an abrasive urban industrialization against the backdrop of an increasingly remote frontier and where modernity meant that one world was ending as a new one was beginning. Likewise, in The New World, he shows the harsh realities of the frontier with its famine, disease and death while also holding a romantic view of the new “kingdom,” for which pioneers were to create a fresh example for humanity. In Tree of Life, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) only finds humility when faced with joblessness after a plant closure. His confidence rocked after it’s clear that he is one of many, an insignificant cog in the wheel that is progress.

Malick’s most famous film, The Thin Red Line, is an adaptation of James Jones’ novel of the same name. Unlike the many films that focus on Vietnam and the upheavals of the 1960s, Malick instead decided to make a film that focused on World War II. In it, he confronts what is widely considered a patriotic war to show the depravity and senselessness that is battle. He shows that war, at its core, causes even the best of men to commit evil acts, that war holds no sanctity for life, its destruction vast and unrelenting. His message clear that war not only destroys innocence, but stays in the mind and soul of those that experience it, haunting them forever.

In his later films, such as Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick shifts his focus to the chaos that is life. In Tree of Life, he presents an abstract look at grief. He questions God and explores death. Aware of the regrets that we will inevitably have when faced with mortality, Malick seems intent on pointing out how small our moments are in the greater context of the universe, regardless of how tragic and grief filled they are. It expresses that life is transient and in time generations will cease to exist as the world barrels on, impervious to those affected. In To the Wonder, he explores a pastor’s crisis of faith as he stumbles about the path that he once believed was his.

For all that could be said about Malick’s work in a political, philosophical and a historical context, one gets the sense that this is not what Malick intends at all. That instead, it really is the emotions he seems at pains to capture and that what we see on screen is about reaching our deepest feelings, our most sensory emotions. It’s not a stretch to say that Malick is a master of this, of which is done not with words, but with images. His movies are often akin to a series of postcards. Flowing images that capture a moment, images that illustrate a sensation and which seem meant to evoke a visceral reaction from the audience. His stories unfold through these series of images. Characterization and story are shown as how we would expect them to ‘look.' Does one need more than a couple laughing, playing and touching to show love and intimacy? Malick would say no. 

Known for an extensive editing process where he sculpts the story into its end form, it took Malick and his editors a year and half to cut The Thin Red Line. And while there was a proper script, little of that dialogue would remain in the end product. Instead, Malick went to great lengths to eliminate any narrative deemed unnecessary, replacing it with sounds that would evoke emotion from the audience and voice over narration that does everything from posing philosophical questions to giving us insights about the emotional core of the characters. In addition, Malick is skilled at building suspense through sound. His film scores will crescendo and abate, therefore creating momentum that drives the story toward its ultimate conclusion. Combining sound and imagery, Malick deftly juxtaposes cruel reality with beauty; the elegance of nature in the midst of a brutal war in The Thin Red Line, the serenity of a river as fugitives flees in Badlands, vibrant flowing wheat fields and open land against the savage conditions of harvesting that wheat in Days of Heaven. It all tells the greater story Malick wishes to communicate about the universe. Nature is the most obvious sign of this universe and for him it conveys both a physical and spiritual message about life and our space in this world.

Terrance Malick uses a complex set of tools with which to construct his films. Unconventional storytelling mixed with a poetic sense of artistry, his films consistently push boundaries. Malick’s films are skillful and creative expressions, easily appreciated for their emotional power and beauty. In sum, they are the definition of “art.”

The Accidental Turitz: Revisiting Old Properties - It's a Growth Industry!

So now word has come down that Tim Burton is going to direct a live action remake of Dumbo for Disney, right after he finishes his adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiars. Of course he is. The man who rode another live action remake to a billion dollar worldwide gross will bring all the usual visual bells and whistles he normally brings to the table and all but insure another big grosser for the studio.

Now, Dumbo isn’t Alice in Wonderland, of course, and PETA is already calling for him to change the ending (74-year-old spoiler alert!), but the idea is pretty much the same. It’s another example of a studio looking back into its own properties to wring some new life, and new dollars, from its library. In this case, a beloved classic reimagined by one of the most revered directors in Hollywood, a man with an established track record of success.

We all know that the shelf life of, say, a standard superhero is limited. There have been three different versions of Superman, two sets of Batman films (with four different actors) and yet another on the horizon, two Spider-Mans and another of those on the way, and so on. A new Fantastic Four will be introduced this summer, a new Green Lantern next year (possibly), there is now a third version of Star Trek about to shoot a third movie, there is a new interpretation of Robin Hood seemingly twice a decade, it all adds up. Franchises, as we have discussed ad nauseum in this space, are kings of the new Hollywood, even as original ideas continue their long, slow march toward inevitable death.

Which is why it shouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Burton would be taking on this re-do of an animated classic. What would be surprising, actually, is if these projects weren’t being developed. Look at what happened with Cinderella. Kenneth Branagh’s live action, non-musical adaptation of the timeless cartoon grossed over $70 million, which had to reinforce the thinking of the Muckity-Mucks in charge that this business model is as good as any other. Forget shared universes, why bother spending money on new ideas when there are perfectly good old ones just sitting around, gathering dust? Bring them out, shake them off, give them a new spin and, voilá! A brand new, moneymaking property.

To wit: Jon Favreau’s upcoming live action take on The Jungle Book, David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake and, of course, Bill Condon’s star-studded take on Beauty and the Beast. Each of those, by virtue of their being live action and, thus, separate from their animated predecessors, therefore become fresh takes that have never been told before (even though they are not really separate, and they obviously have been told).

Disney has several others in development, including one for the unfortunate 1970s sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole, though it is bafflingly light on adapting old animated films. Sure, the concept of re-imagining something like Song of the South might not be the most politically correct move in this day and age, but it’s a bit curious that the studio isn’t working on something fun like The Rescuers or The Aristocats for a modern audience.

The thing is, it’s not like Disney is the only one doing this. Far from it. Warner Bros., for instance, has no fewer than two dozen of its previously-made properties lined up for revisitation. Some of them, like the long gestating Logan’s Run, make some sense in a more technologically advanced age than when the original was made, but there are plenty that scream sacrilege.

We should be paying attention to what titles are being considered.

Like Bullitt, for instance. I don’t know about you, but as big a fan as I am of the original, the story is kind of nonsensical and all the movie really does is allow Steve McQueen to be Steve McQueen while also including one of film’s great car chases. Without McQueen, who’s only been dead for 35 years, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and yet it’s actually in development. Sacrilege!

Some of the other titles being bandied about for the remake mill are Soylent Green (sacrilege!), Super Fly (Sacrilege!), The Bad Seed, The Hunger and The Dirty Dozen (SACRILEGE, SACRILEGE, SACRILEGE!).

The thing is, though, we can belt out to the back row our displeasure about things like this, but as long as we keep flocking to the theater to see the finished products, we’re playing right into the studios’ hands. The simple truth of it is that, rather frequently, these kinds of things work out awfully well for the companies making them. Doubt it? Here are some recent titles that have been recycled to great success: Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, The Karate Kid, Tron, Clash of the Titans, True Grit, and Sherlock Holmes, just to name a few. There are more, obviously, especially when it comes to monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman and The Mummy, but you get the idea.

I’m not saying that we should all boycott these projects when they come out, especially because there is great talent attached to them and, more often than not, the end product is pretty good. My point is that we should be paying attention to what titles are being considered. Do we really need a new version of The Searchers without John Wayne? Or an updated Captain Blood without Errol Flynn? Or even The Incredible Mr. Limpet without Don Knotts? The fact that this last one has gone through such a disastrous development process should be a sign to everyone involved that it’s just not meant to be. Not that this is really going to stop anyone, of course, but I’m noting it for the record.

It’s one thing to revisit a beloved old property when there is no single personality attached to it, which makes the joining of Dumbo to Tim Burton somewhat appealing. But when the studios lose sight of the fact that a previous success has as much to do with who was in it as it does with what it was about, that’s when I think we start to run into trouble.

Like a Bullitt without McQueen. Good Lord, no.

 

Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and a senior editor at SSN Insider.

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