Dennis Lehane is known for his gritty, crime-filled novels, many of which have been adapted into movies such as “Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island.”
Now, his book “Live by Night” has been made into a film of the same name by Ben Affleck, who previously collaborated with Lehane on “Gone Baby Gone.” Affleck wrote, directed and starred in “Live by Night.” It’s a Prohibition-era gangster flick set in both Ybor City, Florida and Lehane’s hometown of Boston.
Host John Horn checks in with Lehane on the art of crafting a movie on paper. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.
On turning a novel into a screenplay.
The analysis I always use is like a surgeon working on his own kid. The perspective is a little shaky. Now that I've been doing a ton of screenplay and TV writing, I feel it's not so much of a problem anymore.
Writing visually as a novelist
Before there was cinema, novelists thought cinematically. I think Shakespeare thought cinematically. It's just code for visual. But at the same time I do read some stuff and think, Wow, that role is written for this actor. That just doesn't occur to me [in my writing process]. It's not realistic.
On choosing the filmmaker for his books
I'm extremely difficult and picky about who I will sell to. That's my last vestige of control so I'm pretty serious about it. Once I've done it, I say, I respect you as a director, I respect you as a producer. Then I say, Go with God. Because my job is to get out of [the] way, artist-to-artist. The last thing you need is to have the novelist craning his head over your shoulder as you work.
How location impacts the storytelling
When I knew "Live by Night" was going to journey out of my comfort zone, which is Boston, the place I journeyed [to] is very telling. I took [the character] to Ybor City. And if you've ever been to Ybor City in Tampa, it looks just like a baby New Orleans. There's lots of wrought iron, red bricks and cigar factories. If you close your eyes or if you look above the roofs of cars, you could easily be transported back to the 1920s. I'd never write about L.A. Period. It's Chandler. It's Ellroy. It's covered. It doesn't need to be touched. So I'll stick with Boston.
On seeing his words come to life
I've discovered that I'm kind of "set allergic." I don't like to go to [location] sets much. I discovered this really strongly when I was working in TV. I would much rather be in the writer's room, imagining and conjuring things up. But when you see ["Live by Night"] on the screen, it's certainly the most beautiful, most visually rich film of any that I've had adapted. It's very old school that way. It just feels like something out of the old studio system.
Click on the media player above to hear the full interview.