If one were to assemble a list of the best crime movies of the last twenty-five years, the name "Scott Frank" would turn up more than a few times. As a screenwriter, he decoded the idiosyncratic storytelling of Elmore Leonard with GET SHORTY and OUT OF SIGHT, while co-writing one of the most ingenious thrillers of the '90s in MALICE. He brilliantly blended the mystery genre with science-fiction for Steven Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT, and crafted a smart heist flick with his feature directing debut, THE LOOKOUT. One could also make a spirited case for his take on James Lee Burke's HEAVEN'S PRISONERS (which Frank adapted with Harley Peyton, and which he does not seem to care for), as well as his twisty original screenplay for DEAD AGAIN.
And yet despite Frank's track record, it's taken over a decade to bring one of his most celebrated screenplays, an adaptation of Lawrence Block's A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, to the big screen. The project came very close to happening in 2002, when Harrison Ford was attached to star for director Joe Carnahan as Block's somber, recovering alcoholic detective Matthew Scudder. This pairing fell through for a variety of reasons, and the project languished in development hell as Frank scrambled to find a leading man with the world-weary gravitas to bring Scudder to life. Then the unlikely happened: Liam Neeson became one of the biggest action stars on the planet. Neeson was a perfect fit for Scudder, and now he had the box office clout to move the project forward; that he happened to be one of Block's dream choices to play Scudder was just a stroke of well-earned Hollywood luck.
Twelve years after the first iteration of the film fell apart, Frank has delivered a hard-boiled thriller that perfectly captures the slow-burn intensity of Block's storytelling. It's a dark, engrossing and, at times, terrifying film that draws its tortured hero into a sickening web of misogyny and murder. Given Frank's preference for long takes that accentuate the eerily expansive space of the anamorphic frame, the movie hearkens back to the thrillers of Alan J. Pakula (especially since director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. is clearly emulating the shadowy texture of Gordon Willis's influential cinematography). It's got a classic feel that's all too rare in movies today. Hopefully, if it's a hit, Frank and Neeson will get to cherry pick from the very best of Block's Scudder mysteries for more big-screen trips down these mean New York streets.
When I chatted with Frank a couple of weeks ago, I'd recently learned that his FX show HOKE, based on the main character of Charles Willeford's knockabout detective novels, had failed to make it past the pilot stage. We discussed that bit of heartbreak, as well as TRAVIS MCGEE, the still-in-development adaptation of John D. MacDonald's beloved pulp series (which, if it moves forward, will star Christian Bale as the titular salvage consultant).
Jeremy: This script reminds me of moving out to Los Angeles.
Scott Frank: From where.
Jeremy: New York City. Originally, I'm from Bowling Green, Ohio. One of the first filmmakers I interviewed when I moved out here was Joe Carnahan, and he was gearing up to shoot A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. I loved NARC, so I tracked down a copy of the script, read it, and immediately dove into Lawrence Block's Scudder books.
Frank: Those books are so good. Very old school, but so great.
Jeremy: And that's what sucked me in. I love detective novels, and here was a whole series built around this terrific character that was entirely new to me. So I'm curious where it began for you: what was your first encounter with pulp and crime fiction, and how did your taste for it evolve over the years?
Frank: The first crime novels I read were The Hardy Boys. (Laughs) But I guess they don't count.
Jeremy: (Laughing) Sure they do!
Frank: I think the pulpier stuff… I mean, Dashiell Hammett taught me how to write everything. Reading RED HARVEST changed my life. I was in the middle of writing DEAD AGAIN, and there was something about the way [Hammett] wrote that I just loved. I loved the super-terse quality to it. He said a lot with a little dialogue; he didn't need a lot of long speeches. And also William Hjortsberg wrote this great book called FALLING ANGEL that became a not-so-great movie called ANGEL HEART. The book was so pulpy. It was a private eye story in the very scary New York of the 1950s, and they changed it to Louisiana for the movie. Voodoo happening in an abandoned subway is scary; voodoo happening in New Orleans is Wednesday. (Laughs) I thought it was so interesting, this stuff happening in New York City, and I always wanted to do something like that. Reading Dashiell Hammett and reading William Hjortsberg's book, I then did DEAD AGAIN because I liked the idea of the private eye in a kind of supernatural thing. FALLING ANGEL had a big influence on me writing DEAD AGAIN. But then I came across A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES and DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, and I thought, "These are very scary books set in New York City." It was the kind of thing I've always wanted to do: a scary New York private eye book. That's the thing I seized upon.
Jeremy: You also previously adapted James Lee Burke.
Frank: I did. Unsuccessfully. I didn't do a very good job of it, but I tried.
Jeremy: I actually like that movie. I think it gets the character and atmosphere right.
Frank: Thank you.
Jeremy: But I love that idea of a scary private eye yarn. Nowadays, people see a detective movie or show, and they expect it's going to be action-based or a procedural. But with a guy like Block, there's that sense of fear that keeps you turning the page.
Frank: Without a doubt. All the time. I like the pace. It's very deliberate, and nothing is rushed. There's tension. You know bad things are going to happen; they're not going to happen now, but they are going to happen. You know that somebody you're attached to is not going to make it to the end of the story. I like that. It reminds me of the movies that inspired me: KLUTE, DIRTY HARRY, DOG DAY AFTERNOON… all those great movies of the '60s and '70s, even going back to something more straight-up like HARPER. NIGHT MOVES also had a huge influence on me.
Jeremy: I caught a bit of HARPER on TCM the other night. It's really good.
Frank: And NIGHT MOVES holds up.
Jeremy: It absolutely does. Getting back to having read this script in 2002, I saw your movie last week and was surprised to find it's basically that script. What's odd is that, while it felt so different in 2002, in the subsequent years we've had JUSTIFIED, TRUE DETECTIVE and other detective shows that have revived this genre. How do you feel about that?
Frank: I wonder. I know I love movies, and I wanted to make a movie. But I know that audiences have so many choices now. I saw TRUE DETECTIVE after I made this movie. If I'd seen TRUE DETECTIVE before I made this movie, I thought it was so good and so well done that it might've demoralized me; it might've scared me off of doing this. There's an irony in that. When I first tried to make this, we couldn't get it made because they'd stopped making these kinds of adult dramatic thrillers. So it couldn't get made for a long time. When I was trying to get it financed, I had some studio person say to me, "This is answering a question no one is asking." He went on further to say, "There is nothing to recommend this beyond its own quality." (Laughs) I didn't know how to respond to that. It means, "It's good, but no one will go see this." And then we entered into the whole era of superheroes and giant movies and everyone gunning for the spectacles. I remember when OUT OF SIGHT failed at the box office, it was just eaten alive by ARMAGEDDON. I thought that was kind of what's happening. So this movie wasn't going to happen. It came close with various directors and combinations, but what it really needed… the weird thing, in the middle of all of this, there became a whole new kind of movie that studios were making in the $20 million to $30 million range. You could actually make money and do more dramatic kinds of movies.
And then Liam Neeson became a star. Liam is someone Larry Block and I had always talked about way back when. So all of a sudden, TAKEN is happening, and Liam's agent, Chris Andrews, had always loved the script going back to the '90s. He pushed hard to get Liam involved. So this movie gets made because of Liam. People like to see Liam in the movies. They're not going to get TAKEN 3 with this movie, but they are going to get a very visceral thriller. It's a different kind of thing: it's not him as a superhero and martial artist. Liam being in this movie is what separates it from JUSTIFIED and TRUE DETECTIVE. It's an old-school Hollywood movie with an old-school movie star.
Jeremy: And you've shot it like an old-school thriller. You favor long takes, you've embraced the widescreen frame…
Frank: God bless you for noticing all of that. It's all anamorphic.
Jeremy: Bless you for getting away with it. I've heard from other directors that executives use a phrase called "vacuuming out the space".
Frank: (Laughs) I've never heard that before.
Jeremy: Yeah, it's like "you're holding on this take too long. You've got to cut to keep the viewer's interest." It's not like you're making an art movie with A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, but you definitely let things play out. Did you feel any pressure from the studio to perhaps keep things moving?
Frank: No. Here's the irony in that. I wanted to do that. I made Liam watch KLUTE and various movies from that period. I gave all of the actors homework, and I said, "This is the kind of movie we're going to do." Yet when I started shooting, I started thinking immediately "I lost my nerve." I shot the movie that way, but I would also cover it; I would have different coverage so if I had to pump it up, I could pump it up. I would, every now and then, throw in the kinds of shots I could only describe as "Look, ma! I'm directing!" I thought I had to do that. Mind you, no one had told me to do this; it was just a failure of nerve. I was nine weeks into the cut, and I hadn't shown it to the studio or anybody, and it just wasn't working. I kept trying to hedge my bet all the time. So I showed it to Steven Soderbergh, and the first thing he said to me when we watched the movie was, "You didn't cut it like you shot it." So he came into the cutting room and really took me to task over what was really nothing more than a failure of nerve on my part. The studio and the producers never once said, "Pace it up." It was just me who kept thinking, "The audiences won't like this." Thank god [Soderbergh] protected me from me.
Jeremy: I read that you took twenty minutes out of the film.
Frank: I did. I took a whole character out.
Frank: No. Ruth Wilson played Joe Durkin, the cop. Elaine was never in the movie.
Jeremy: Okay. I was wondering if you'd tried to find a way to put Elaine in the film.
Frank: People were speculating, but no. Joe Durkin is a man in the books, but I wrote him as a woman because I wanted a strong female character who wasn't getting chopped up and raped. She was fantastic. Ruth just rocked the part. But I found that their relationship, even though she was a very tough character, softened the movie. He shouldn't have a relationship with anybody. He should be completely on his own and completely isolated. That just made for a more powerful story.
Jeremy: That's the kind of business you expect when you're reading the books. There's going to be a love interest, and there's going to be some sex. But it doesn't always work for a film.
Frank: You don't need it, and you don't want it, actually. You want to stay on this other thing. It's sad for me because those were far and away my favorite scenes in the script, and they were far and away my favorite scenes in the early cuts of the movie. Ruth's such a good actress, and the two of them together had enormous chemistry. It was sad.
Jeremy: Perhaps you can assemble a longer cut at some point.
Frank: Maybe on the DVD or something.
Jeremy: We were talking about serial television earlier, and, I'm sorry, but one of the biggest heartbreaks of my year was HOKE not getting picked up by FX.
Frank: That pilot came out great.
Jeremy: It's such a bummer. I was introduced to Charles Willeford by MIAMI BLUES, which I absolutely love. Hoke is such a great character, and he really lends himself to a television series. Also, the casting of Paul Giamatti was perfect.
Frank: It was, soup to nuts, one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life. The network was fantastic, and I really believe they liked the pilot. The fear was that [the show is] strange. And I think the fear was it was very expensive; it's set in 1979 Miami, so it was not a cheap show to make. I think it was a big risk, and the thing about Hoke is that it's pulpy - and in pulpy stuff, the story moves are very small. In JUSTIFIED, you have big melodramatic moves. In THE AMERICANS, THE STRAIN and TYRANT, you just have big melodramatic moves - and I mean "melodrama" in the best sense of the word. HOKE and its ilk - Jim Thompson and all of the people Willeford writes like, even Elmore Leonard to a degree - have very small story things that accrue over the course of a twelve-episode season, but there's not a lot happening. I think it would've worked, but I also think it would've been a giant leap of faith on the part of the network, and ultimately they balked.
Jeremy: Well, David Lynch managed to turn a failed television show into a brilliant movie. Could you do the same with HOKE?
Frank: I can't expand it into a film because the rights are now an issue, but we might take it somewhere else. FX was very accommodating in terms of saying, "Whatever you want to do." They were fans, but it was a tough sell. I can't say as I blame them, but while it's disappointing, I had a wonderful experience.
Jeremy: Since you have essentially become the chief interpreter of great American pulp authors (Frank laughs), I have to bring up TRAVIS MCGEE. John D. MacDonald's series of books has a very devoted following.
Frank: And they're very different than these other ones.
Jeremy: We were talking earlier about making changes to material. When I heard Travis McGee would be a stoner in the movie, I was like, "Okay?"
Frank: But what's the difference between him having a joint and him sitting there having twelve dark 'n' stormys at a bar? There's really no difference. We're not doing it in the '60s. I kind of wanted to, but the studio didn't want to. I have to mention Dennis Lehane, who was the first guy to write the script, and he's the one for me. I was attached as a consultant on this twelve years ago, and I began to believe you cannot adapt Travis McGee because he's too big of an anachronism. But Dennis was the first person ever to convince me that it was possible. He did such a good job. And when we talked more about bringing it into the present… you needed a way to make it a movie. You needed to find other kinds of things that he did that didn't feel old fashioned and boring. A guy sitting there having a certain kind of drink feels a little old school to me. But a guy sitting there rolling a joint while talking to someone in the army? That's an interesting guy. And when we cast Christian, I became even more convinced. It's just a less obvious way of going about things. And that's just one of many things that he does. Meyer is in it, but Meyer is a whole new guy: he's the same type of guy, but a completely different character with a completely different backstory - but you can source the ideas to McGee. And most important of all, it's about Florida. Florida right now is the same shithole it was then. If Vegas, Waikiki and New Jersey had some weird three-way, Miami is their love child. It's been that way since John MacDonald was writing. That's the most important part: his attitude about development and people with money, that's all intact. What he drinks and what he looks like, all of that is, for me, fun to change so a new audience can connect with it. And it's very sexy. There are three really great women in it. And it's straight out of THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES hits theaters this Friday, September 19th. It is a terrific movie, and worthy of your support. Send a message to Universal that you want more Matthew Scudder.