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A book-to-movie leap with a graceful landing

Published October 17, 2003

[Photo: Warner Bros.]
For the Dennis Lehane novel turned film, Mystic River director Clint Eastwood favored A-list actors, such as Sean Penn, above.

[Photo: Warner Bros.]
Of director Eastwood, Lehane says: “You know, Clint doesn't say ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ Clint says ‘okay’ and ‘thank you.’ That small detail alone amazed me.”

Author Dennis Lehane couldn't write a better scenario about his novel Mystic River being adapted for the movies.

Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood was behind the camera. Oscar winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) did the script based on Lehane's bestseller. Two more Oscar nominees - Sean Penn and Tim Robbins - plus a third actor, Kevin Bacon (who should be by now), signed to play the lead roles. And each of them is more interested in telling a memorable story than how much money a movie makes.

"Sean said to me very early in this process: "You realize that it's never going to get this good again,' " said Lehane, a 1988 graduate of Eckerd College. "I told him: "Oh yeah, I know I won the writer's lottery.' "

Now it's the moviegoers' turn to buy tickets. Mystic River opened nationwide on Wednesday, earning some of the year's best reviews. It's the story of three childhood friends in Boston, one scarred by abuse, who are edgily reunited as adults when a young woman is murdered. One man (Penn) is her father, another (Bacon) is a police investigator and the third (Robbins) is a suspect.

Mystic River is a mystery on several levels and tragic on all of them. It was reportedly the kind of novel the movies aren't supposed to be able to adapt. Now Lehane calls it "astonishingly faithful," adding: "I'm hard-pressed to think of a better book adaptation."

Not many authors say that when their words become film. Selling out to the movies is an easy way to make money and a fast way to lose self-respect. Too many good books have become lousy movies, a fact that didn't escape Lehane even when Mystic River started attracting attention from Hollywood.

"I was very adamant about not selling the book," Lehane said. "I was intractable on the subject. But, you know, when Clint Eastwood calls you take the call. The strangest thing was that it only took about five minutes of talking to him. I knew I was going to sell it to him.

"He just got it, completely got it. He told me right off the bat that whoever the screenwriter turned out to be, his mandate was going to be: Be faithful."

That sounded promising but Helgeland's hiring made Lehane believe even more.

"I felt in very good hands because of what Brian had done with L.A. Confidential, one of the true unadaptables but somehow he managed to do it," Lehane said. "When I saw Brian's script, any tiny worries I had were gone."

Eastwood and Helgeland even invited Lehane's input after three drafts. "Not in the early stages, which is the way I think it should be," Lehane said. "A screenwriter shouldn't have a novelist looking over his shoulder when he's doing an adaptation."

Lehane's script review was positive except that Helgeland had deleted what he calls the "Lady Macbeth scene," that became the next-to-last scene in the movie.

"That was one I said just has to be in there," said Lehane. "Within, like, three seconds Clint said: "You're right.' Brian added the scene and he kicked its a-. There were a couple scenes I told Clint I'd like to have in there and he just said: "No, you're not going to get that.' It was the collaborative process in the best sense of the word."

Casting was the next step. Lehane had character actors like Ray Liotta and Denis Leary in mind until Eastwood casually mentioned that he'd get Sean Penn. That floored Lehane, who was thinking in terms of low-budget filmmaking after directing his own feature, Neighborhoods, that never found a distributor. "I was, like, "Oh, wow, this is a totally different ballgame, isn't it?' " said Lehane.

The artists were likely attracted by the chance to work with Eastwood, known for his economical strategies and straightforward storytelling.

"Watching Clint Eastwood run a set was fascinating to me," said Lehane. "If I ever do it again - and I'm not sure I will - that is exactly how I would do it. It runs so smoothly, it's so graceful and classy. There's no yelling and shouting and running. No Napoleonic martinets walking around with cell phones and walkie-talkies. I see that it's a trickle-down effect, it all comes from him.

"You know, Clint doesn't say "action' and "cut.' Clint says "okay' and "thank you.' That small detail alone amazed me."

Lehane also felt Mystic River shares a particular world view with Eastwood, one adding subtext to several of his films like Unforgiven and A Perfect World in which, as Lehane described: "There are very few heroes and very few villains, just people with contradicting motives and desires.

"Unforgiven is the perfect example of a film in which there's no real villain. People say it's Gene Hackman's character, but I don't think so. He's just like everybody else. He's just trying to do the best he knows how from his perspective. That film and my book are both cautionary tales about how dangerous human beings are when they're sure they're right."

Being convinced you're right can also lead to breakthroughs. Lehane was 20, living in the tough Dorchester neighborhood outside Boston when he decided to become a writer. "Nobody did that where I came from," he said.

To make it happen, Lehane knew he had to go somewhere else. That turned out to be Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, an atmosphere far different from what he had known.

"Eckerd was the smartest decision I ever made in my life," said Lehane. "I remember showing up on campus thinking, "Okay, I've got three years to immerse myself.' That's what I did, just drank, ate and slept writing. It was a very nurturing environment. Those were arguably three of the greatest years of my life."

Lehane enrolled in the Writers Workshop, an intense training program for aspiring authors. Two of his most influential professors, Sterling Watson and Peter Meinke, still teach there. Their lessons are now passed along to Lehane's students at Harvard and a Boston workshop for low-income writers.

"The way those workshops (at Eckerd) were run was, like, wanting it and earning it are two very different things," said Lehane. "You could be supported without being coddled. Constructive criticism. That's something I say to my students now: If you came here looking for an encounter group, you walked through the wrong door. That's not what we sell here."

The release of Mystic River, however, may sell more books. Even Lehane concedes: "It's a hell of a billboard.

"I'm doing fine in that department so far but this will make another full-level leap in terms of public awareness. It's good that it will bring people to the novel because the film is not the novel and the novel is not the film."

Another such billboard is in preproduction. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who coincidentally directed Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, is planning an adaptation of Lehane's seventh novel, Shutter Island, with screenwriter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) handling the adaptation chores. Mystic River is a tough act to follow.

"That kind of lightning never strikes twice," said Lehane. "I'm very confident in what Wolfgang is doing, but I don't ever expect to have this level of experience again."

[Last modified October 16, 2003, 13:02:09]

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