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Weekly Alibi Pulp Fiction

An Interview with Author Elmore Leonard.

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Elmore Leonard has been cranking out novels at a steady pace since the pulp-era heyday of the early 1950s. After recieving some spectacular praise for a string of Westerns (his 1963 novel Hombre became a popular Paul Newman vehicle and was named one of the 25 best Western novels of all time), he switched to contemporary crime novels in 1968. With the publication of his 1985 crime novel Glitz, Leonard has become a dependable top-10 bestseller. Leonard has had a long association with Hollywood--from 1957's 3:10 To Yuma to 1974's Mr. Majestyk to 1985's Stick--but it took Barry Sonnenfeld's hit version of Get Shorty to elevate Leonard to Hollywood royalty. Quentin Tarantino's new film Jackie Brown (based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch) is the first of four proposed collaborations between Southern Florida's hottest author and Southern California's hottest director. Leonard was kind enough to chat with Weekly Alibi recently about books, movies and bad men with guns.

What did you think of Jackie Brown?

I loved it. I think the adaptation was right on. It's my book, but it was definitely Quentin's movie. I think he added a little more dialogue, and you know my book's loaded with dialogue. But he loves talky movies.

Your books are very dialogue-driven, very character-oriented. Until now, I don't think anyone has quite gotten a handle on how to turn one into a movie correctly.

Yeah. Well, Get Shorty worked. But before that ... You know it's funny, there's a movie, Cat Chaser. I worked on the script because Abel Ferrara, the director, sent me the script, and he said, "See what you can do with this." I read it, and I thought: "Well, my God, right off the bat you've got 11 pages of two people talking. Sitting in the same place. At least get 'em walking around." He said, "Yeah, but they want all the dialogue from the book that they can get." And I said: "Well, ya can't do both. You gotta be judicious about this. You use what dialogue you can, but you do have to use movement and story." I think what Quentin did, he had enough interesting things going on in the scenes. He played out the scenes. He didn't just chop 'em off and link a bunch of scenes together just to tell the story. He took his time so that the characters came out. You knew the characters; you had fun with them.

Oddly enough, I found Get Shorty much closer in spirit to your work. The humor, the pacing, the general tone was all yours, but the script took a great many liberties with your original story. Jackie Brown, on the other hand, feels very different but maybe sticks closer to the letter of the law of what you wrote.

Yes, I think you're right. I think Get Shorty was presented as a comedy. It had a comedy look. Even though the characters didn't know it was a comedy. Thank God. You didn't get reactions from other actors when someone delivers a line. It's up to the audience. They think it's funny, fine. And you're right. Jackie Brown, Quentin thinks it's a comedy. But it doesn't have that comedy look. Entirely different look. Because one is Barry Sonnenfeld's look, and the other is Quentin's.

Was Tarantino more willing to work with you than some of the other directors in the past?

Quentin has understood my work from the beginning. As a teenager, he stole (my 1978 novel) The Switch from a bookstore and got caught. He knew what I was doing and has said that I have influenced him in trying to make the main bad guys appear to be normal people when they're not doing bad things. You know, talkin' about hamburgers before they get their pistols out. That's the same thing that I do--try and make them interesting and recognizable even though they're quirky and they do strange things. Still, they're like all of us. What do they want? They want to be happy in their own way. (Tarantino) understands that.

What did you think about the changes he made in casting Pam Grier?

I thought it worked great. He called me before he started shooting, and he says, "I been afraid to call you for the last year." I said, "Why? Because you changed the title and put a black woman in the lead?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said: "Well, listen. The book's the book, and the movie is yours. You're gonna make the movie. I'm not concerned with how closely you stayed to the book. I'm only concerned with whether it's a good movie or not. And I'm sure it's gonna be a good movie." ... But it's gotta be his movie. He's not just an adapter; he's a filmmaker.

As casting choices go, I don't think Tarantino could have found a better Max Cherry than Robert Forster.

Yeah. When he first called me two years ago, (he said) "I'm gonna use Robert Forster." "Robert Forster? I haven't seen him since Medium Cool. That was about '69." "Yeah, but he's the guy for it." "Yeah, I think you're right." He didn't mention Pam Grier then, even though he had her in mind. When I wrote the book, that was the purpose--to feature a bail bondsman. I thought, this was a guy, usually a fairly shifty character--at least in books and movies. I wanna write about a presentable bail bondsman, because, my God, his life, all the people that he comes in contact with. There's gotta be a story. Once I decided what the story was--that the flight attendant, she's the one who's in trouble--then I realized, nah, it's really her story. It can't be his story. He can help her out, but it's her story, 'cause she's right in the middle. So then I changed my thinking process.

I've read that Tarantino has optioned the rights to four of your novels. Is it true that Monte Hellman (director of 1974's Cockfighter) will be writing and directing Freaky Deaky?

He's writing it now. I've read that. And Quentin has told me that he wants to do Killshot next. Not direct, but write it and appear in it with De Niro with Tony Scott (True Romance) directing. That would be something. So we'll see if that works out. But that's far out of my hands.

I also heard that one of the books is a Western. Are you excited about that prospect?

Yeah, yeah. Forty Lashes Plus One. Takes place in Yuma prison 1909. I don't know where he saw it. It's been out of sight for a while.

Ever thought about returning to the Western genre?

The new book coming out next month, Cuba Libre, is sort of a Western. It's kind of a Cuban Western. It takes place a hundred years ago at the time of the Spanish-American War. The main character arrives in Havana three days after the battleship Maine blows up. He gets involved with these rebels fighting the Spanish. There are a lot of horses and guns. But it's in Cuba. The Coen Brothers are writing the screenplay. Universal bought it.

This is quite a time for you in Hollywood.

Yes. (There's also) Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Stephen Soderbergh is directing. I'll say it's been quite a time!

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