Ever since legendary filmmaker Clint Eastwood turned Dennis Lehane's novel Mystic River into an Oscar-winning feature film, Hollywood has certainly taken notice of the successful author. Actor Ben Affleck made a terrific directorial debut with the adaptation of Lehane's novel Gone Baby Gone and earlier this year another film legend, Martin Scorsese, directed the third adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 8. I had the chance to speak with Lehane over the phone about this film, which marked his debut as an executive producer, and here's what he had to say.
I was curious on where the initial inception for Shutter Island came from and what inspired you to write this book?
Dennis Lehane: It came from a couple of different sources. One was I visited a mental institution on an island when I was a kid, and so that kind of stuck in my head. 30 years later, I had this book that was sort of in the same vein of Mystic River and I felt I was in danger of being pigeonholed. Right about that time, for whatever reason, this idea popped into my head. What if you sent a federal marshal to a mental institution? Then the questions that you ask begin to take shape. You say, 'Well, how can you write a gothic set in 2005, or 2002?' You can't, because of cell phones and modern technology, so why don't you back it up a little bit. Then we decided on the 1950s and with a little bit of research and a little bit of luck and it all came together.
This is the first film that you are on board with as a producer. Can you talk about that experience working with everyone on the film?
Dennis Lehane: Oh, it was great. I just wanted to be involved as a producer because, at that point, I didn't have Shutter Island for several years and gotten it back, gotten the rights back, and I wanted to protect this a little bit. I wanted to be involved with really good people and I wanted to have conversations with those really good people about talent and that was sort of the limit of my contribution to things. The secret of my success is refusing to get involved with anybody who doesn't have a certain level of quality. I just won't do it. I have no problem walking away and leaving a bunch of money on the table. It doesn't bother me.
There was a quote from you that I read where you said that you wouldn't want to adapt one of your own novels because it would be like operating on one of your own children. What is the process for finding a screenwriter for one of your books? Is it like finding a spouse for one of your kids then?
Dennis Lehane: No, I think it's more like finding a really good contractor to work on your house. They're going to be in your shit for a few months (Laughs) and it probably could be aggravating unless you go with someone you really respect. The process started with, when Clint Eastwood and I chose Brian Helgeland for Mystic River, we were 100% in agreement on. We chose him based on what he had done with L.A. Confidential, which was just an unadaptable book and he adapted it. Once you see the gifts on display with really great adapters, just step out of the way, is my feeling. I am not a really good adapter. I think I am a good novelist and I think I'm a good teleplay writer and I think I'm even a decent screenwriter, but I'm not a good adapter. It's a different skill set, it's a different art form and the people who are good at it, man, all you do is sit back and take your hat off. I don't know what else to say about them. They're just a different breed.
Helgeland is one of the best. His adaptations are usually phenomenal.
Dennis Lehane: Oh, yeah. And Laeta Kalogridis killed this, Shutter Island. She just nailed it. I could see in Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard's script for Gone Baby Gone, the same thing. They just got it, whatever it is that I couldn't have gotten. I couldn't do it with my own work. I probably could do it with somebody else's, because you have perspective but when I try to do my own work, I just lack perspective.
I saw one of the DVD clips and you were talking about how when Leonardo DiCaprio came in, he was asking you all these questions about the character that even you couldn't answer. What was it like to work with someone who is such an immersive actor like Leonardo is?
Dennis Lehane: Well, for the writer, a lot of times, we've kind of moved on and he's living in that present tense because he's playing the character. When he's asking me those questions, it was about five years after I had written the character, it was like, 'Wow. If only it was five years ago,' you know what I mean? Or maybe I just should've read my own damn book before I came to meet him. Yeah, he had that same kind of - him and Sean Penn have this real uncanny intelligence, in terms of their characters. I can't describe it, you just have to see it. You see the results on the screen, so it's not that hard to believe.
Dennis Lehane: Honestly, it's like saying that you're getting a chance to watch Michelangelo paint. What do you do? You stand back and you watch, and that's what I did. It was just standing back and watching Michelangelo paint. It was pretty amazing.
I see you have a few other screenplays in development right now. Is there anything you can talk about those or anything you have in the works right now?
Is adapting one of your short stories more in your wheelhouse then?
Dennis Lehane: Exactly. I'm expanding, I'm not being asked to go in and murder my darlings. I'm being asked to go in and create new plotlines. I wrote the short story and when it came out, Peter Chernin over at Fox loved it and asked me to adapt it. I thought, 'I can do this. I can expand. I just can't collapse. I can't cut.'
It makes more sense too. I know there haven't been a lot of films based off short stories, but it really seems to work better because you have the bare bones structure and you can just build from there.
Dennis Lehane: Yeah, that's what I think. You know, the highway isn't littered with the carcasses of your dead (Laughs) because you had to do so much damage to get there.
Are there any other plans for other adaptations of your works?
Dennis Lehane: I can tell you that The Given Day, my last novel, Sam Raimi has been trying to bring it to the screen, but I don't even know where that stands. I stay out of the process until I'm needed. Right now, I'm not needed, so I have nothing to do with it. He's going with my best wishes and all my encouragement, if that means anything, but I have no idea what the status of that is now.
Do you have any new novels coming out in the near future?
To wrap up, what would you like to say to those who didn't see Shutter Island in theaters about why they should pick up the DVD?
Dennis Lehane: Pick up the DVD because it's a great movie. I don't know. I mean, what do you mean you didn't see it in theaters? What's wrong with you? Yeah, now is the time to catch it.
(Laughs) Well, I caught it in theaters and I thought it was quite a wonderful movie.
Dennis Lehane: Oh, thanks.
Well, that is my time. Thanks so much for talking to me, Dennis.
Dennis Lehane: Hey, thanks for everything. Take care.