Smart trims make the grade

Author Den­nis Le­hane’s in­volve­ment on the film adap­ta­tion of Live By Night was just how he likes it: non-ex­is­tent. By James Croot.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Anice, no muss, no fuss ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s how Den­nis Le­hane likes film adap­ta­tions of his books to go, even if it’s the book he de­scribed ‘‘as the novel I al­ways wanted to write’’.

Re­leased in 2012, Live By Night is the Pro­hi­bi­tion-era tale of Joe Cough­lin and his jour­ney from small-time Bos­ton gang­ster to run­ning the rum trade in Florida. It was in­spired by the re­search the 51-year-old author did on ear­lier, his­tor­i­cal novel The Given Day.

While, at the time of the book’s re­lease, he hoped it would fol­low the likes of Gone Baby Gone and Mys­tic River to the sil­ver screen, he had no de­sire to adapt it him­self.

‘‘It’s like a doc­tor op­er­at­ing on their own child,’’ he ex­plained.

For­tu­nately he found an ally in Ben Af­fleck, who had pre­vi­ously adapted Gone Baby Gone to crit­i­cal ac­claim. Fresh off the Os­car-win­ning Argo, the Hol­ly­wood star was keen to usher this lat­est Le­hane story into cin­e­mas.

‘‘And,’’ the author twin­kles down the phone­line from his home in Bos­ton, ‘‘my in­volve­ment would be nonex­is­tent – which is how I like it.

‘‘I have a very stan­dard ap­proach, which Ben has al­ready been through with me once be­fore, which is ‘once I’ve sold it to you, here’s my cell­phone num­ber – if you need me, call me. If you don’t - I’m good’. And Ben reached out maybe three times – once at the script stage and a cou­ple of times dur­ing pro­duc­tion. Then he took me to see a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent cuts, which was great.’’

When asked if he no­ticed many changes be­tween those cuts, Le­hane just men­tions that there were ‘‘lots of re­ally smart trims’’. ‘‘A long time ago, I heard the best way to de­scribe the cre­ative process is that you’re look­ing for the statue un­der­neath the mar­ble and that’s what it felt like – each cut got closer to the statue.’’

He ad­mits that it was strange watch­ing cuts the movie ei­ther side of ‘‘the abom­i­na­tion we called an elec­tion’’. The book and movie’s themes of cor­rup­tion, law­less­ness, and race re­la­tions ten­sions seemed even more rel­e­vant post-Novem­ber 8, Le­hane thinks.

De­lighted with the fin­ished prod­uct, the author has plenty of praise for Af­fleck.’’He’s an amaz­ing, fan­tas­tic straight-down-the-line di­rec­tor who is just ter­rific at cast­ing his films, from the non-speak­ing parts to the leads. That’s not a gift that I would nec­es­sar­ily have.’’

But he be­lieves it will ul­ti­mately be up to au­di­ences to de­cide if Af­fleck and com­pany have achieved what he be­lieves is the big­gest chal­lenge of adapt­ing the 400-page doorstop­per.

‘‘Ul­ti­mately it’s stuffed with a lot of events – a lot of things hap­pen in the book, you know? Does it feel over­stuffed? That would be the only ques­tion I have about the movie and I cer­tainly can’t an­swer that.’’

Open­ing up, the for­mer writer for ground­break­ing TV se­ries The Wire, says in a per­fect world he would have got Af­fleck to make Live By Night asa ‘‘10-hour, lim­ited se­ries’’.

‘‘But movie stars don’t make lim­ited se­ries. My brain is re­ally pro­grammed like a 10- to 12-episode for­mat. That’s how I trained as a nov­el­ist, how I trained as a TV writer.

‘‘So I al­ways find it in­ter­est­ing work­ing on film scripts. I al­ways have to go, ‘man, I’ve got to throw out a whole lot to get through this story faster’.’’

While Le­hane is keep­ing him­self busy with work on a TV adap­ta­tion of Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes (with Bos­ton Le­gal pro­ducer David E Kel­ley) and fin­ish­ing up his lat­est novel Since We Fell (a con­tem­po­rary thriller), there is the small mat­ter of the third chap­ter of the Cough­lin saga – 2015’s World Gone By.

Has Le­hane had any sense from Af­fleck or film gi­ant Warner Bros that they are keen to fol­low up Night with that? ‘‘No, and I’d be fine ei­ther way. Hav­ing now had five adap­ta­tions, whether a movie gets made or not means noth­ing to me. I feel like I’m good – I’ve eaten now. Let some­body else take a shot at it. I know a lot of great writ­ers who have never had a movie adap­ta­tion made.’’ ❚

Live By Night screen­ing. (R16) is now

Den­nis Le­hane says in a per­fect world he would have got Ben Af­fleck to make Live By Night as a ‘10-hour, lim­ited se­ries’.

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