Interview: Scott Frank Tackles Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones

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Liam Neeson has successfully made the transition from serious Oscar-worthy dramatic actor to being a bonafide box office superstar with action flicks like Taken and Taken 2 and other movies since then.

Now, he’s starring in A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel of the same name, playing Block’s flawed private investigator Matthew Scudder who is called upon to find those responsible for kidnapping the wife of a drugdealer (Dan Stevens), which leads to a web of intrigue where nothing is what it seems.

Block’s novel has been adapted for the screen by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank, who previously adapted two Elmore Leonard novels, Out of Sight for Steven Soderbergh and Get Shorty for Barry Sonenfeld, and Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report for Steven Spielberg. He also was involved in the screenplay for last year’s The Wolverine.

Back in 2007, Frank wrote and directed the original crime-drama The Lookout, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the phase between being that “kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun” and being the coolest actor and filmmaker working in Hollywood. It’s a movie not so many people saw back then but hopefully has found more of an audience with Gordon-Levitt’s higher profile.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Frank a few weeks back to talk about adapting Block’s novel as a period piece set in 1999 New York.

Scott Frank: Hey Ed, how are you? Long time.

ComingSoon.net: Yeah, it’s been almost seven-and-a-half years since we last spoke.
Frank:
Seven-and-a-half years?

CS: Yeah, I was reading our previous interview and I thought, “Wow, this was long ago.”
Frank:
I was a child. I was 14 years old then.

CS: I remember you telling me that movie took 10 years to get made, so you’re doing better with this one, which only took seven-and-a-half years.
Frank:
“The Lookout” took almost 10 years. I started to write this one in 1999 after “Out of Sight.” I sold it to Universal and it was literally the first thing I set up after “Out of Sight” was this.

CS: I know it’s been in development a long time. I heard about the Harrison Ford version and I heard various directors had been mentioned, so did you finally just say, “Hey, let me direct it?”
Frank:
Yeah, because I was sitting around looking for something to do and another director had fallen out and my agent said to me, “Why aren’t you directing this movie again?” I reread the script and I thought I really liked it and I actually felt it was in some ways better now than before, because 1999 was right before Y2K and as it says in the movie, “You know, we were all afraid of the wrong things.”

CS: I was curious if you wrote it in 1999 and just kept it in that year rather than changing it.
Frank:
When I wrote it in ’99, I probably set it when the book was set, which was ’95, something like that. In the mid-90s I think is when I set it. I didn’t know where we were going with technology. It was just sort of general and payphones were around and cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous and they certainly weren’t like iPhones and Samsung Galaxies and things like that. It was very old school and I really liked that, and I always wanted to do a private eye movie particularly a New York private eye movie.

CS: “The Lookout” was sort of a crime thriller in some ways.
Frank:
Yes, definitely it was, but this was written before “The Lookout,” interestingly enough. But when I revisited it, just looking back, I thought, “Well ’99 is the perfect year,” and it was a great way to sort of organize my head around everything.

CS: How was it trying to recreate New York circa 1999? You don’t think about it, but 15 years ago, New York was so different than it is now. It’s crazy.
Frank:
It was. First of all, in terms of just locations, it was easier than you might think, to find places that were still the same as they were then. You had to remove a lot of modern parking meters and modern signage in places. You had to obviously change the cars on the street, but for the most part, a lot of the buildings were untouched in the various neighborhoods of where we were. Red Hook, we were in Sunset Park, we were in Flatbush, we were in Midtown. Obviously, Times Square is very different now. We have the Lower East Side. It wasn’t as hard as you think to sort of look and find those places that still play as back then, a lot of removal of satellite dishes, although, there were satellite dishes, but there weren’t many. A lot of just car removal, a lot of license plates were slightly different. It was really parking meters.

CS: I’ve lived on the Lower East Side for over 20 years and I would say there were definitely satellite dishes back in ’99.
Frank:
Definitely there, but not as ubiquitous as they are now.

CS: I’m sure there’s a lot more now, of course, yeah.
Frank:
Yeah, and there were more payphones, too. There still are payphones. You find them everywhere, but not?

CS: Really? You must have to look for them, though. I mean, if they’re there, I don’t notice them at all anymore.
Frank:
They’re there. You come up every now and again and go, “Oh wait.”

CS: The last time someone made a movie based on Block’s character was 30 years ago with “8 Million Ways to Die,” starring Jeff Bridges, who is only a few years older than Liam Neeson is now.
Frank:
Yeah, and they relocated that movie to Malibu, and I don’t know why. What’s so great about these books is, and Hal Ashby is my favorite director of all time, and that’s one movie I don’t understand. I just didn’t get it. It was just relocating all of that. It’s a New York kind of guy and a New York character, I was surprised that they did that.

CS: Now, this is the quiz portion of your interview. Who wrote that movie?
Frank:
Oliver Stone. Come on, you can do better than that.

CS: But he had a collaborator.
Frank:
Oliver Stone had a collaborator on that?

CS: Yeah, he was working under a different name but he co-wrote the movie.
Frank:
Are you sure? I’m looking at the IMDb while you’re talking. No, maybe you’re right. I always thought it was Oliver Stone and I was all cocky. Yeah, David Lee Henry wrote the screenplay with him? and that’s Robert Towne.

CS: Exactly. While researching, I was reading that Henry was a pseudonym for Towne who did some work on it, so you now have that little factoid the next time someone asks you.
Frank:
Interesting. That I bet is true. That’s great trivia. Okay, there you go. I love it.

CS: It was also interesting to me that the age difference between Jeff Bridges and Liam Neeson isn’t that vast, so that would make Matthew Scudder considerably older in this movie.
Frank:
Yeah, but he played a younger Scudder in that movie. I think he was in uniform. He was like a sheriff or something, so it was a little different, and the great thing about that movie is it introduced Andy Garcia to the world.

CS: And you have Liam Neeson starring in your movie, who really needs no introduction, because he’s done a lot of really good, gritty things in recent years. Was he a no-brainer once you took over directing? At what point did he get involved?
Frank:
Liam got involved about a year before we started shooting. We brought in the script to his agent Chris Andrews had always loved the script, and always thought it would be great for Liam.

CS: He’s really a very natural fit in this kind of role, but you also have a lot of different characters in this one and you cast a lot of lesser-known actors. Can you talk about casting some of the other roles and also finding Dan Stevens, who is really coming into his own?
Frank:
The luxury of when you have Liam is he is going to be the draw no matter what, and that’s great. So we could just pick people that were really great actors across the board. The thing about Dan is, Dan would be more valuable if I played more into his “Downton Abbey” persona. Nobody recognizes him in this movie. We were kind of doing something different, and Dan is a really good actor. There’s a really interesting dark aspect to him. He understood it and he got it and it was really great. I just always looked for people – in the book, I looked for a certain kind of actor who kind of can create the world around himself. Every time he goes to see somebody, they exist in their own little world, and you want these actors that kind of create that sense of being really singular and can kind of really – and deliver it, but it’s just sort of conveying that kind of attitude they’re good people.

CS: He’s in another movie called “The Guest,” which is coming out the same day or the same week as this.
Frank:
Well, that’s really dark.

CS: I saw that maybe a week or two before I saw your movie, and I couldn’t figure out who he played in this, because it wasn’t really obvious.
Frank:
He was the drug dealer. That’s great. That’s fantastic. I love that. (Laughs)

CS: It’s definitely a compliment to him that he could pull off such a different role and look so different.
Frank:
Yeah, he’s a really good actor, a really good actor.

CS: Matthew Scudder had been in 18 novels, so was there any concern about doing a standalone movie or a first movie to introduce him? I think Christopher McQuarrie had a similar thing when he wrote “Jack Reacher,” another character everyone knows who you have to introduce to new audiences in a standalone story. Did you have any of those concerns for people who hadn’t read the books?
Frank:
I think you can look at any movie where you’re introducing a character. Whether it’s based on a book or anything, you’re introducing them on the screen in a certain way. You’re always doing that. You’re always finding a way. I didn’t think of it other than this is the guy is at the center of the story and how we tell the story. I don’t know that I was really thinking about so much where he fit in vis-à-vis the books. I did draw from other novels certain things from his past that are alluded to, and I did put that into this story. I did do that.

CS: Do you feel that “Walk Among the Tombstones” is probably one of his better known books?
Frank:
Yes, I think it’s one of the favorites. There are five of them that people always talk about as their favorites, and this is definitely one of them. It’s my favorite. This and “Dance at the Slaughterhouse” are my two favorites.

CS: Considering it took 15 years to get this made, if it does well, would you want to try to tackle another one of his novels?
Frank:
I would love to, I would love to. Nothing would make me happier than to do another one. I love this character and I love Liam, so it would be fun.

CS: Is that other book you mentioned one that you think might be feasible to adapt?
Frank:
No, because it’s similar to “Walk Among the Tombstones.” There’s a couple others I like. I love “The Sacred Ginmill Closes” and I like “A Long Line of Dead Men”–those are I think my favorite four. There are also couple later ones that he wrote in the last couple of years, that I think also might be good, too. “A Drop of Hard Stuff,” is another one that I think might be good, but I’m not sure. I haven’t looked at them, thinking about them as movies, since the ?90s. When I wanted to do this, I sold this because I really loved this book. I didn’t do it because I loved the series–and I did love the series–but this is one of the first books I read in the series, and then after I sold it, I went and read them all. I wasn’t thinking about doing a series so much as, “Oh my God, I read this book called ?A Walk Among the Tombstones’ and I think it’d make a terrific movie,” rather than saying I want to do something based on the series of Scudder books.

CS: It seems like an odd time for “A Walk Among the Tombstones” to come out, because it’s pretty grim with its story of kidnapped and murdered women and we see all sorts of bad things on the news nowadays.
Frank:
I try not to think too much about that, because I can’t control that. When I started writing it and making it, things were what they were, and now I’m hoping that people want to see a really good story that’s adult and seems like it’s a throwback to some of those ?70s thrillers that I love. That’s all I can hope for. I hope they don’t mistake it for a “Taken” film, because it’s not. It’s something else. It’s a really good grown-up thriller.

CS: I saw Danny DeVito was one of the producers on this, too. Has he been involved since the very beginning?
Frank:
Yeah, he and I were the ones who actually took it into Universal to sell it, the two of us.

CS: He’s a great director as well, but it was a surprise to see him as a producer because this is very different from the material we normally associate with him.
Frank:
He was enormously helpful in the writing of the script, enormously helpful. He and I spent a long time together working on that, and he was very involved. Remember, he produced “Out of Sight.” He produced “Get Shorty.” He was very involved with all of those.

CS: I was reading an interview where you talking about adapting John MacDonald’s Travis McGee, where it’s a similar situation of a serialized character with a pretty deep history.
Frank:
Again, based on one book, based on the “The Deep Blue Good-by,” the first one.

CS: Is that something you look to tackle again and is that something that might take as long to get going?
Frank:
No, the Travis McGee I did, I came on later. Dennis Lehane had already written a pretty terrific script and I came on to just do a little more work with Jim Mangold, who’s now directing it. They’d been trying to get it forever made, and I had always been skeptical. I was actually a consultant early on in the project, and I began to believe that they were unadaptable. The studio really wanted to do it contemporary and not in the ?60s when they’re set, and I always thought they should do it in the ?60s. Dennis wrote a script and it was the first time I read something that, “Okay, this could really work.” He went off to do other things, and the studio was in quite a bit of hurry to keep going, so I came on to continue working on the script. But I really do believe he found a way to bring it up into the present.

CS: Some of these other movies we talked about seven-and-a-half years ago, I know you were going to do a Western at one point.
Frank:
I’m still trying to do the Western. I’m hoping to get that made. Right now, I’m writing a novel that I sold to Knopf that I’m trying to finish by the end of the year. Let’s see. I work on that Western all the time, and I’m also developing a script for me to direct, and it’s a little like “Babe.” It’s a German children’s novel set in Ireland actually that Craig Mazin is writing about a flock of sheep that solves the murder of their shepherd.

CS: So it has some element of what you’ve done before in it.
Frank:
Yeah, but it’s for kids.

A Walk Among the Tombstones opens in theaters Thursday evening, September 18. You can watch video interviews with Liam Neeson and Dan Stevens here.