Monday, September 15, 2014

AN INTERVIEW WITH LAWRENCE BLOCK

Lawrence Block is the highly prolific, respected and best-selling crime author of over one hundred books, and has been published for over fifty years. He is responsible for the enduring series of books featuring the characters Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Evan Tanner and Keller, and amongst many awards, has won four Edgar and Shamus awards apiece. As well as being superb genre writing, his books are simply terrific entertainment, something Hollywood was quick to pick up on. I spoke to Lawrence about the films based on his books - namely NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON (1974), EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986), BURGLAR (1987) and the current A WALK AMONGST THE TOMBSTONES (2014), starring Liam Neeson - and his collaboration with Wong Kar Wai, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (2007).  

When you were starting out as a writer, was it a dream of yours to have one of your books adapted into a film?
No, not really. I've always been more interested in prose than in film. For financial reasons, I entertained a certain amount of hope that a book might sell to the movies, but I figured the book was an end unto itself.

Have you written any books in a particularly cinematic way?
The only one I can think of offhand was a book of mine called 'Not Coming Home to You' (1974), which originally appeared under the pen name Paul Kavanagh, but has since been republished under my own name. I originally saw it as an idea for a film, and I wrote it as a treatment that my then agent sent around Hollywood for a while. No one was interested, and I put it away. Then a couple of years later I realised ''Gee, that really could be a book, couldn't it?'', and I rewrote it as a novel . That was one that was conceived as a film, but other than that I don't really think much in those terms like ''This would look good on the screen.''

Over the years have any particular films or filmmakers influenced your writing in any way?
I've seen a lot of films along the way but I don't know that anything had a particular influence or had an impact. I know that I was very interested when I saw the film of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), the one with Bogart and Mary Astor. I saw that and I realised that it was the book, almost line for line. Years later I read that Hammett had purposely written the book essentially as a prose screenplay, so that it could readily be made into a film. It was very calculated on his part.
 
What was the first work of yours that got attention from the film industry?
It was the first one that got made, 'Deadly Honeymoon' (1967), which was filmed as NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON. Because it was such a 'high-concept' book, it got optioned and stayed under option for a long time. It kept being renewed and different people kept trying to write scripts. Finally they made the film and it wasn't very good at all. There seems to be a widespread consensus on that! It barely got shown, and would have gone Direct-to-Video if there'd been video for it to go to.

Were you excited by the prospect of the film coming out?
I wasn't excited at all to tell you the truth because I knew it was going to be a lousy movie and that it wasn't going anywhere.

Did the experience change your attitude towards films being made from your books?
No, not really. They paid me some money, which was nice. I've always regarded the book as the last word on the subject. When films are made, that's nice. Several titles of mine have been optioned over the years obviously but prior to A WALK AMONGST THE TOMBSTONES there had only been three films made from my books - NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON, BURGLAR and EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE - and none of them was  a critical or commercial success, nor did I think they were good films. 

How involved do you like to get in the adaptations of your books?
It depends on the property. There was a time when I was a lot more eager to be part of the project than I might be now.  

What were your problems with the film of EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE? 
There were interesting things about it, and certainly Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia did some good acting. I've talked to Jeff since then and he told me that the way the film turned out was one of the biggest regrets of his career. The film company took final cut away from Hal Ashby, and cutting was what he did best. As far as Bridges was concerned, he felt they used the wrong takes of just about every scene. Also, they didn't have a finished script, and there were a lot of improvised scenes, like the snowcone scene, which everyone notices if they notice anything about the movie. That scene had both the virtues and the liabilities of an improvised scene, which is that interesting things were able to happen but they didn't know how to get out of it.

Given the calibre of the talent involved, did you have high hopes for the film?
Early on, when the first deal came together, Oliver Stone was going to write and direct it. He did write a few drafts which they departed from substantially. I had a meeting with him where he wanted me to work on the film with him, and I was just put off by his whole affect and everything, so I realised it was not something that I really wanted to do. Now, if the same thing had happened a couple of years later, I might have had a different take on it. By the time it went out to Hollywood and got made, Stone was off it and someone else was on it. I am happy the film got made because it enabled me to pay off a mortgage, but I didn't think it was a good picture.

What do you think went wrong with BURGLAR, from your book 'The Burglar in the Closet'(1978)?
The funny thing is that the film almost worked. Everybody who had fun with the book expressed outrage at the character of Bernie Rhodenbarr, a white male, being played by Whoopi Goldberg, a black female. It struck me as strange but it didn't bother me because the movie isn't for readers of the book, the movie is for whoever goes and sees it. Had it been done well, it might have been okay, but it wasn't. Bruce Willis, originally up for the role, would've been a better fit for Bernie. It was directed with the keen sensibility of the guy who gave us POLICE ACADEMY (1984). Whenever there was an opportunity to make a decision, they made the wrong one. When I saw it in the movie theatre, it got a lot of laughs but when the audience were walking out of the theatre, I heard people say to each other ''That really wasn't very good, was it?''  And, alas, it wasn't.

How did you end up writing the screenplay for Wong Kar-Wai's MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS?
Wong Kar-Wai was a big fan of the Scudder books for years and he talked about it in an interview. His agent wrote to me one time to find out if the rights were available. There was a period where he got in touch and was thinking about adapting one of the Scudder books. We had a meeting or two but nothing came of them. Then he wanted me to write a film set in Shanghai in 1937, called 'The Lady from Shanghai'. I don't know why he thought of me for it. We were on a trip to Taiwan and he picked up the tab for us to go over to Shanghai for a few days and then return via Hong Kong. Nicole Kidman was going to be the lead, but nothing came of the project. After that he got in touch with a new idea for a picaresque tale of a girl dropping her keys off with the owner of a delicatessen, wandering around America and then returning to get her keys. It was based on an eight minute short that he had done. He thought this could be his first English-language film.

Why didn't 'The Lady from Shanghai' get made?
Who knows why it didn't happen? You have to bear in mind that most movies don't happen. Most projects come to nothing, and that's even true of projects that have finished scripts and actors attached. That's why it seems almost picky, when you leave a theatre after having seen something quite dreadful, to condemn it for its faults; instead one should applaud it for having actually been produced.

What was your final impression of MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS?
There are things that I liked about the movie. He's a brilliant film-maker, with a wonderful visual sense, and his pictures are beautiful. What he hasn't got is a great sense of story. That works better with some films than others. MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS was the first picture of his with a script; previously he'd start shooting with a couple pages of notes. While I was writing the script, he kept changing his mind about what the story was. It was a strange experience, but he is a very nice man.  

Did you spend any time on set or location?
No, I was not there when they shot the film.       

Were there any unfilmed books of yours that you believed would especially make good films?
There have been a lot that I thought might be eminently filmable. There was a book I wrote (under the pseudonym of Jill Emerson) that came out in 2011 called 'Getting Off'. It was about a female serial killer, essentially. I thought that with the right actress in the lead it could be a very interesting film. No one has expressed an interest so far so I don't know if anything will happen.

What advice would you give to any filmmaker intending to adapt one of your books?
I probably wouldn't give much advice. From the little screenwriting I have done it has become clear to me that a book is not a movie and a movie is not a book. Given all the work and the money that has to go into a film, being true to the book writer's original vision comes low on the list of priorities and rightfully so. The important thing when making a film is that it had better work. I did an adaptation of one of my own books, 'Hit Man'. It almost got filmed as 'Keller' but the financing didn't come together. When I was writing the one draft and polish that I did, I realised there were things that had to change because what works on the page doesn't necessarily work on the screen. I was able to make substantial changes because that is what the medium demanded.
 
What can you say about the new film of A WALK AMONGST THE TOMBSTONES from your 1992 novel?
Well, I find myself in the role of a real cheerleader for the film. I think it's brilliant. Scott Frank set out to make not an action film but a dark thriller for grown-ups, and to my mind he did just about everything right. There are story changes from the book, some of them quite necessary and others perhaps arbitrary, but the whole tone and thrust of the film is there, and the casting's wonderful. Liam Neeson, of course, is extraordinary, but everybody does good work here. And I'm so glad Scott elected to direct the film himself.

Can you talk about your latest book?
It's a one-off noir crime novel set in small-town Florida, about a cop retired from the NYPD and some women he encounters. My film agent, who loved the book, summed it up as "James M. Cain on Viagra." It's dark, it's nasty, and it's super-erotic, and Hard Case Crime will publish it a year from now. Noir, I'm told, is a ways from being the flavor of the month right now, but the right actor could make a meal of the lead role, and there are three stunning roles for women, so I wouldn't be surprised if some clever filmmaker were to jump on it. But, you know, if all it is is a book, well, that's fine.

I spoke with Lawrence by telephone on 14th February 2013, and by email during September 2014. I would like to thank him for his time.

Check out Lawrence's website where you can keep up to date with his work.