Interview: Author Dennis Lehane on Expanding The Drop Into a Full Screenplay

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Crime writer Dennis Lehane has become the go-to source for filmmakers wanting to dive into the murky waters of the Boston crime scene, which has led to a number of critical and commercial hits from Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone and Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

Lehane’s latest adapted work The Drop opened this past Friday and did pretty well in a moderate number of theaters, but what makes it different from the other films based on Lehane’s work is that it’s based on a short story called “Animal Rescue” that Lehane himself converted into a screenplay, which in turn became a film at the hands of Bullhead director Michael Roskam.

The Drop follows cousins Bob and Marv, played by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, who run a bar in Brooklyn which the mob often uses as a “drop bar” for all the money earned over the course of the day. When the bar is robbed, Bob and Marv find themselves having to bring the perpetrators to justice while Bob is also dealing with a beaten dog he finds that connects him with an equally abused woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace). When the dog’s owner (and Nadia’s ex), played by Matthias Schoenarts, returns, Bob finds himself having to tap into long dormant and dark territory he’s long since hidden.

ComingSoon.net had a rare chance to sit down with the author at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks back to talk about adapting his short story for the screen.

ComingSoon.net: I knew this was based on your short story, but until recently, I didn’t realize you had adapted it yourself.
Dennis Lehane:
Yes, very much so.

CS: I’ve already been fascinated by the process of adaptation, by how various books get adapted and the author’s mindset on that. Some authors are hands off and don’t want anything to do with it since a movie is a separate entity. Some authors are fine at collaborating and giving notes. It’s always an interesting collaboration between author and filmmaker.
Lehane:
Sure. Well, this one was just a direct straight-up screenwriting job though. The films that have been made of my novels, that’s more like “Here’s the novel, knock yourself out. Let me know if I can help.” But it’s not an expectation.

CS: That’s the thing. When you sell the rights to your book, you don’t always expect to be involved.
Lehane:
That’s not entirely true. What I would say is that what I do is that I’m extremely picky about who I will sell to and I will never sell directly to a studio. I’ll sell to a studio through somebody, like Clint Eastwood works with Warners, but I didn’t sell to Warners and they got Clint Eastwood. I sold to Clint Eastwood and he went to Warners for the money, that’s how it works. There is a bit that you can control if you choose to and that’s who you sell it to. Once you’ve made that leap of faith though, then you just get out of their way. I’m selling to you because I already trust you ahead of time.

CS: How did it go that they came back to you to adapt?
Lehane:
Yeah, they just came to me, the people at Chernin, they came to me and said they’d really like to adapt this, we’d like you to adapt it and write a script and open up the world of this 20-page short story, so I said, “Sure, you got it,” and off I went.

CS: Had you wanted to do that before or was it because it was a shorter thing?
Lehane:
Because it was short. I never want to adapt my own novels. Adapting my novels is like trusting the surgeon to operate on his won child, it’s a bad idea, so I’m not the guy for that job, but to adapt a short story, to open it up, that’s perfectly comfortable. I just don’t know how to cut my own work.

CS: And also with a novel I’m sure you spend years working on it, refining it, getting it exactly to where you like it, so to go back and have to possibly change it, that must be hard.
Lehane:
Definitely, I’d carve it out and throw out 80%, it’s really what it would be. To make a screenplay from a novel is to throw out 80% unless it’s a short novel.

CS: I’m sure it’s the same with writing novels as anything else that you could work on it forever unless someone says “Okay the book has to come out, you have to finish it up.”
Lehane:
Yeah, that’s usually the only way my books ever get published, because I get tricked into releasing them.

CS: Let’s talk about the short story. I haven’t read it unfortunately. I wish they could have handed it to me earlier because I could have read it while waiting to do this interview.
Lehane:
Of course, there you go.

CS: What was the original story?
Lehane:
The short story is very clean, very simple. It’s just that Bob finds the dog in the trash, meets Nadia. He works at the bar with his cousin Marv, but you never learn anything about their backstory. There’s no Chechens. There’s a suggestion. You know it’s a mob-owned bar, that’s all you know. And then along comes Eric Deeds looking for his dog, and that’s it. That’s the story.

CS: Realizing that, had you always thought more about these characters and did you feel you had more to say about them?
Lehane:
Yeah, there was definitely more to play with. John Ortiz’s character Torres was someone who showed up? Actually, before it became a short story, it was part of a failed novel that didn’t come together that I shelved in 2002. So some of the characters from the failed novel were floating around waiting to pop in. One of them was an early incarnation of the John Ortiz character Torres. Once I could line-up all the ducks, it was like “Oh, what if this was a three-pronged plot” or three prongs of pressure coming in on Bob to go to that old phrase “In extremis,” to show us who he is in the most extreme moment of his life.

CS: Another thing that’s interesting about the movie is its location, because it’s set in Brooklyn. I live in New York myself but I’m originally from Framingham. I don’t know that area of Boston where a lot of your stories like “Mystic River” are set, but I was curious about the shift in location.
Lehane:
What happened was that the producers contacted me and said, “Look, honestly, we think that Boston is a little played out. You’re a victim of your own success.” The look into the white trash criminal of society has really been beaten to death in the last eight years in Boston in terms of “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Departed” and “The Town.” So I was like, “Okay, just give me another world that’s similar where I can set it. Well, Brooklyn, yeah great,” so I looked around and I started to investigate some of the various neighborhoods of Brooklyn and thought, “This will work, no problem.”

CS: I’m sure a lot of authors get asked about where their ideas come from, but I’m more curious about how you research the subjects. I’d guess you would go to the seedier bars and overhear things, but this world is so tough you probably can’t start asking a lot of questions or you’d get shot.
Lehane:
You sort of grow up in it, which was the case. I just grew up in a very insular, extremely parochial no-outsiders-allowed type neighborhood. We used to be on the news all the time and people would say, “Isn’t it a terrible place to live?” and I would say, “No it’s a great place to live.” “Is it dangerous?” “Not if you’re from there.” You’re already born in it, and it’s a world in which I feel completely and utterly comfortable. If I had to do the research, I feel like the *sshole going “So, uh, how do you make money on the side?” Whereas in this, people go “Where did you come up with the drop?” I just made it up. It seems perfectly logical that there would be drop bars, it seems likely. Have I ever known one? No. Have I seen money exchange in a bar? Yes. Just extrapolate from there.

CS: I’m curious about the title change. I guess it changed and then it changed back?
Lehane:
No, it was “Animal Rescue” and then it became “The Drop.” It was always originally called “Animal Rescue” and the working title for the script and the film was “Animal Rescue” but and they gave me ample opportunity, everyone kept saying, “We just don’t think this title is going to stay. What can you come up with?” I kept saying, “I can’t really come up with much, guys,” and then finally they came to me and said, “We tested this one title ?The Drop’ and it’s really working,” so I said “Okay.” Because “Animal Rescue” clearly wasn’t (working) – they showed me the data and nobody was getting that out of the test screenings. Fair enough. I’m not going to be married to a title.

CS: I feel that “Animal Rescue” works on a lot of levels, especially in the movie.
Lehane:
It does work on a lot of levels, but on so many levels that I think it confused a lot of people from the outside looking in. So, fair enough. There’s art and there’s commerce. I won’t bother them on the commerce end as long as they don’t bother us on the art end. And when you have that relationship, that’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship that works beautifully. It’s when commerce thinks it can discuss art and art thinks it can discuss commerce that you run into trouble.

CS: Film isn’t really a writer’s medium?
Lehane:
No, it’s not.

CS: Usually you write a screenplay and hand it off to the filmmakers, so how much more were you involved in this one?
Lehane:
This was great, this was wonderful. I think I also have a very strong sense of collaboration that probably comes from working in TV, probably comes from working on “The Wire” and working on “Boardwalk Empire.” If you want to change something for the good of the film, that being the key phrase there, let’s talk about it. Let’s work on it. I’m not one of those people who is precious about their dialogue or precious about my scene as long as it’s for the greater good of the piece. That’s again art vs. commerce. I’ll argue art with somebody all day. We can make this work, so it was extremely collaborative. Michael and I collaborated on a couple drafts of the script and when the actors were cast, I did other versions for the actors. It was just this sense of “Yeah, this is what it’s all about.” My Dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a show. It’s that sense of “We’re all part of this.” So as long as everybody, again, is artistically or aesthetically sympatico, then great.

CS: I spoke to Scott Frank recently as he has a movie coming out, “A Walk Across the Tombstones,” and we were talking about the plans to bring Travis McGee back to the screen, and he mentioned your name. I found intriguing that an author who has been adapted so much would adapt someone else’s work.
Lehane:
Well, part of it was that I knew the books really well and they came to me with all these drafts of scripts and I read them and saw that the central problem and reason it wasn’t working was that no one understands Travis McGee, so I took this as my job to get Travis McGee back on the page and back on the screen for the ghost of John D. MacDonald who was a huge influence on me. That’s what I did. That was my sacred job. Now Scott’s dealing with structure issues. He’s doing a rewrite dealing with that, but as far as nailing Travis to the page so that he could then be nailed to the screen, that was my job. I feel like I think I did it. I had to protect my man, you know?

CS: I’m surprised you don’t do more TV, so is that something you see yourself doing more of?
Lehane:
Well, not for “Boardwalk.” I do work with HBO, I work with Showtime, I work with WGN America right now, so I’ve been doing a lot in premium cable television. It’s just you haven’t seen it.

CS: You’re working more behind the scenes in development?
Lehane:
Yeah or I’m writing stuff that’s not quite coming together. I’ve had several TV shows almost go to pilot and then not have it happen, so no, I’m doing it, and I’m loving it, it’s great.

CS: It’s great meeting you. I have to admit I’m always intimidated talking to crime novelists even though I’ve met Andrew Vacchs and Elmore Leonard, just never interviewed them.
Lehane:
Well, with the one eye, Vacchs can get you, but Leonard was a teddy bear.

The Drop is now playing across the country and presumably will continue to expand over the next few weeks. You can also check out our earlier interview with actress Noomi Rapace here.