Wednesday, July 6, 2011

ELMORE LEONARD AND KILLSHOT AND JUSTIFIED


Hi folks,

I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan and have been for four decades. I’ve read every single thing he’s written and paying attention to his writing has been a big influence on my own.

Awhile back, I wrote a couple of posts here where I discussed the television show Justified, based on the Raylan Givens character he’d created, when it first came out. At the time I wrote the post, I hadn’t yet seen the series, but had just seen the promos and instantly knew it was based on Leonard’s work, just from the sixty seconds of the promo. It had that “Elmore Leonard” feel that was instantly visible.

I was excited as in my opinion, Hollywood had never gotten Leonard right. Especially in movies like Get Shorty and most of the movies they’d based on his novels and short stories over the past twenty years. They always… what’s the word?... Hollywoodized his fiction. Tinseltown, in my opinion, had never “gotten” the real Elmore Leonard.

Then, when I saw a couple of episodes of Justified, I posted a review in which I expressed disappointment in the series. The main source of my disappointment was in the casting. Timothy Olyphant as the lead character just seemed too soft. That’s how I described him in my negative review, and it wasn’t exactly the right word, but I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong with him as Raylan Givens.

Now, I know what the right word is.

First, I need to give some backstory to show how I came to the conclusion that once again, Hollywood had failed to grasp Elmore Leonard.

My favorite of all of his novels—hands-down—is Killshot. I’ve read this masterpiece over twenty times. I feel it’s the very best of all his novels, bar none, and that’s going some. He’s written an awful lot of masterpieces! But, Killshot is, word-for-word, one of the best novels ever written by anyone. Again, in my opinion, but it’s the only opinion I have to work with.

His opening in that novel is the single best opening in any work I’ve ever read, and, as many of you know, openings are my particular shtick, and I talk about it extensively in Hooked. It does so many things. It creates the particular tone that is only Leonard’s and plunges the reader into the world of that novel completely and absolutely. It’s intelligent—written with Leonard’s minimalism that shows a complete trust in the reader’s intelligence to be able to understand it without the author using a teleprompter. I’ve read the novel at least twenty times—I’ve read the first few pages probably a hundred times. It’s that good.

In my review of Justified, I mentioned Killshot, as I’d read somewhere that they were making a movie of it. I vowed then that if they messed that film up, I’d never again watch a Hollywood version of a Leonard novel.

Well—shame on me—I don’t read the entertainment pages or People Magazine or any publication that talks about movies, so I didn’t realize it until a month ago that the movie Killshot had come out. A couple of years ago! And, I’d missed it!

I ran to the local Blockbuster’s and rented a copy. Viewed it two days ago. Viewed it yesterday. Viewed it a few minutes ago. Later on, I’m going to return to Blockbuster’s and buy it.

This is the first movie they’ve ever gotten Leonard right. It was pitch-perfect. Before I saw this movie, I had two favorite movies. As many of you know, I think Thelma & Louise is the best-written movie of all time. At least for fiction writer’s purposes. My favorite movie for all reasons—script, acting, entertainment value—all of the elements of great film—is The Hustler. For lots of reasons. One is that when that movie came out that’s what I was doing—hustling—and my friends immediately nicknamed me “Fast Eddie.” I was in the Navy at the time, and when I left those shipmates, the nickname slipped into disuse among my new friends. But, The Hustler was loaded with everything I want to see in a movie. Powerful acting performances by Piper Laurie and Paul Newman (Paul Newman, in my opinion, is the best actor who ever lived and I do not want to get emails telling me Marlon Brando or Johnny Depp or somebody else has that title, as I’ll delete them unread…). If you don’t believe Paul Newman is the best actor who ever lived, rent The Hustler and The Color of Money and compare the performances of both Newman and Tom Cruise in the respective title roles. Both are about the same age when they made each movie, and when you watch them together it’s clear that this is a comparison between a man and a boy. Or, an actor and a model…

I digress…

I learned that the reason I didn’t know it had come out was that it came out direct-to-video instead of as a theater release. This just shows two things. The intelligence of the multiplex audience and the intelligence of Hollywood… The review posted on IMDb mostly panned it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443559/  Which… shows the intelligence of the reviewer as well…

Or, perhaps, since everybody else didn’t like it except for me, it may be my I.Q. that is suspect… I've been told that once or twice... Of course, the ones who criticized me and were foolish enough to provide their addresses are now room temperature... (Thanks, Guido, and you know what I mean...)

The movie Killshot was just that. Killer. For the first time ever, I got to watch a film based on a Leonard novel in which every single person involved in making it understood and “got” Elmore Leonard. I’m not sure who the casting director was, since listed on IMDb were four names—Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, Diane Kerbel and Suzanne Smith—so I don’t know who cast which parts, but whoever was responsible for which roles, they all did a superb job. Mickey Rourke as The Blackbird was the perfect choice. Every time Rourke makes a movie, I’m the first to buy a ticket. And, this was the best role he’s played since Angel Heart (which, coincidentally, is the only movie set in New Orleans that got the Big Sleazy right…). His sidekick, the smarmy Richie Nix, was played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was afraid they’d be unimaginative and go for somebody like Steve Buscemi, but intelligence ruled in this choice. It isn't that Buscemi wouldn't have played the part well, but his fame would have overpowered the performance. This role called for a relative unknown. The Wayne Colson and Carmen Colson roles were filled by Thomas Jane and Diane Lane, and whoever made the decision to cast these two understood the novel completely. The “stars” were Blackbird and Nix, and not the husband and wife. Actually, the casting choices for the husband and wife were pitch perfect as they didn’t steal scenes or interest from the true central characters of the story. This is The Blackbird's story, all the way.

Hossein Amini, the screenwriter, did such a great job of getting the story down as Leonard wrote it that I was surprised that Leonard himself hadn’t written it. He completely understood the particular genius that is Leonard. Every single note was spot-on.

As did the director, John Madden. In fact, every blessed person involved in this collaborative effort just nailed Leonard perfectly. They were all on the same page. Which may be why it wasn’t released in theaters and why it got a shitty review. I suspect most movie-goers who don’t read Leonard would have preferred Quentin Tarantino and Danny DeVito to play some of these roles and made it into a comedy with clever dialog.

However, the thing that really made this movie true to Leonard more than anything, was Rourke’s performance. I’m glad that he played this part at his age now than in his younger days. I think if he would have had this role a few years ago, he would have overplayed it, much as did Robert DeNiro in the remake of Cape Fear, with his over-the-top performance where he came across mostly cartoonish with his overacting. Kind of a Jason role without the hockey mask. This kind of thing plays well for the pubescent crowd at the multiplex, but does little for acting subtlety and true acting chops. What makes Leonard such a great writer is not only his dialog (which was everywhere in this film!), but his approach to his characters and the world they exist in, in that they’re amoral to the nth degree. Totally existential landscapes and characters. Rourke played the role with true understated genius, and, by not trying to create a “bogeyman” kind of character, delivered a truly scary guy. He never once gets in his own way by stooping into melodrama. He’s a force in this movie, just as Leonard created him on the page, and he’s so powerful because nothing can stop this guy—certainly nothing moral. He plays the true criminal mind and character better than anything I’ve seen or read in a long, long time. And, I know something about the criminal mind...

And, that’s the key to my reasoning why Justified doesn’t work for me. It’s because Raylan Givens is the kind of character Leonard is almost alone in creating. His characters aren’t concerned about right or wrong, good or bad. They’re just concerned in… doing their jobs, getting through life. Doesn’t matter which side they’re on—the so-called “good” side or the so-called “bad” side. All of the characters in a classic Leonard story are almost totally amoral. In other words: realistic. In other words: pure noir. That’s the Raylan Givens character in the printed story. Not what appears in the series.

But the creators of the TV series didn’t understand that about Leonard’s stories. They made the stories and the characters moral. Compare the Olyphant character in the series to the Thomas Jane role in Killshot. Wayne Colson could give a shit about anything moral in the popular sense at all. He just wants his wife back and for The Blackbird to go away and leave them alone. While Olyphant looks soft and gooey in a white Stetson, Colson looks “real” and much better without one. A great example to illustrate that most audiences like at least a bit of a sermonette in their entertainment. Hollywood's idea of a lead character is to make him or her moral... but with a flaw. Bullshit Writing 101.

And that’s why Hollywood always fucks up Leonard stories. They know the average popcorn buyer isn’t into noir nor do they understand or appreciate it. That’s why they always try to broaden the audience by turning great stories into… shit. People understand crap. Many don’t really understand art.

I know I’m that prophet crying alone in the wilderness. I know that Hollywood will probably never adapt a “true” Leonard story. But, they did once and that’s great. If you love noir, rent this movie. If you like Quentin Tarantino and Danny DeVito in your crime roles, don’t.

This one’s for you, Carl Brush! I’ll be very curious if you agree or disagree with me on my take here.

I’d really be interested to know if Elmore Leonard agreed with me on any of this. Probably not. At least I suspect he wouldn’t agree publicly—but I wonder if he would in private. I know if I was him, I’d be kind of pissed about what Hollywood does with his stories…

Hope you folks found this halfway interesting.

Blue skies,
Les

23 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

I disagree massively. Not about Killshot, because I haven't seen it, but about Justified, which for both seasons was the best capture of the EL feel of anything I've seen.

It's all about 'riffs' and Justified got the riffs perfectly. Mr Elephant was perfect in the 'pretty by getting a bit older role. 'Though the supporting cast made the series.

Paul D. Brazill said...

AND Raylan's relationship with the rest of the cast-his school friends,ex ming pals, ex girlfriends, family - is all perfectly done- even the boring ex wife. In a lot of ways, Raylan in the series is much more interesting the one is , say , Riding The Rap.

The series, like, the best TV, needs a bit of time to breath. And it does!

Les Edgerton said...

Paul, I massively respect your opinion, but you didn't convince me here, alas. And, I know I'm in the minority. I've heard Mr. Leonard even likes what they did with Justified.

But, take a look at Killshot and look at the difference.

If I didn't know Justified was based on a Leonard character, I would have given it a big thumbs-up. I still watch it, but it just doesn't feel stark enough by half. And, it's because of Olyphant. I think a much better choice would have been someone like the husband in Killshot. I also agree that the supporting cast is terrific and IS Leonard-esque--especially (forget his name) the guy who was on The Shield. Now, that's a Leonard character.

Olyphant comes across to me as if they were casting for No Country for Old Men and instead of getting Tommy Lee Jones, they'd gotten Roy Rogers...

Paul D. Brazill said...

Naw, it's just cos he's good looking. And he's supposed to be.

Not as good as Burt Reynolds at Ernest Stickley Jnr, though.

Les Edgerton said...

LOL! Can't believe we disagree, Paul. Must mean one of us is human...

But, let me know what you think after you see Killshot, okay? Especially the husband role in it as compared to the role Olyphant plays in Justified.

I have a feeling I'm going to be in the minority view on this and that's fine. I'm waiting to see what my friend Carl Brush has to say as we disagreed on this also...

BTW, folks who may be reading this--go to Amazon immediately and get Paul's new story which just came on sale, titled DRUNK ON THE MOON. It's an utter steal at 99 cents!

Paul D. Brazill said...

I actually believe that EL has been more than well served by Hollywood in recent years. Improved, in fact!

Get Shorty was a good book and a very good film; Rum Punch was a minor EL and an excellent- and moving- film- Out Of Sight was another okay but hard to remember book and a very good film.

I like everything he does but the later books blur into one a bit. The films involve me and stand up to re watching. I bet very few people have read Riding The Rap more than once.

I think he's like The Ramones. After the 3rd LP they all blurred into one. Still good. Still The Ramones. Have their moments but...

The only later EL I really got involved with was Pronto, mind you...I wonder how that would work out?!

Sally Clements said...

I haven't seen either Killshot or Justified, but I liked reading Leonard and found the Get Shorty film a let down. But then I felt the same about Kathy Reichs books (love em) and tv show bones, (let down), Jeffry Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme (love him) and film (let down, D Washington as Rhyme? with A Jolie!? Noooooo!!!)
Enjoying reading you two noir blokes duke it out!

Les Edgerton said...

Sally, I felt exactly the same as you did about Deaver's novels! I love the novels, too.

Unknown said...

Ah, Les,
You've got me straddling a fence, which really hurts in the crotch. I fully understand your take on Olyphant as well as on the general scripting. But nearly every episode, there's a scene that you can tell was done by Elmore or a clone. It's easy to tell the difference because the action moves ahead without your even knowing it because you're focused on the tension between the characters.
I'll never forget the scene of the older sheriff with bad knees chasing the crook hauling an oxygen tank behind him trying to make it to a helicopter. Geriatric beauty is slow motion.
So, compared with Leonard pure?Justified makes it only occasionally. Compared with TV? TV, for crying out loud? Let's get a grip.
I need to read and see Killshot, then I'll reply more fully. In the meantime, This is a hell of a good argument, eh?
Carl

Les Edgerton said...

I've been waiting for you, Carl....

You isolated my whole problem with Justified--it's the lead character. The rest of it is quintessential Leonard. Like you, I loved the crippled sheriff chasing the old criminal pulling along his oxygen tank! That was pure Leonard! And, just about all of the supporting characters are of that pure Leonard mold. It's just Olyphant--I cannot buy him in that role at all. Maybe if he lost the hat...

You're right about it being TV and all that implies. For one, serial TV can never be as good as a movie, simply because there's no character arc possible. Sam is still Sam at the end of each episode--he learns a little "lesson" as a result of the drama, but when the next week arrives, he's still the same womanizing guy as he is every week. TV is much more related to short stories than novels, simply because of the restrictions of the format.

I suspect I'm not far from both you and Paul--it's the movies that really put me off. It's like Get Shorty--Leonard wrote that as black comedy and Hollywood did it more as broad comedy slash drama. And, Leonard's black comedy has a cruel edge to it that when they make a movie out of it, they lose. Always. I think it's because of the characters cast, often. I think if they'd avoid well-known actors who come with a built-in animus, the movies would capture better Leonard's spirit.

And, you're right, Carl. As I hoped, this is developing into a crackling good argument!

Paul D. Brazill said...

I heard that Leonard was so tired of the casting in his films that he's write about a character things like : 'he looks like Harry Dean Stanton ' so that, hopefully, casting directors would cast HDS!

I think comparing books, films and TV series is a oranges, apples and ... kiwi fruit situation. I think what impressed me most about Justified-and I watched both seasons over the course of one week- was how much was done in a mere 40mins. Now that IS impressive!

Les Edgerton said...

I hadn't heard that, Paul, but I totally agree! If I was Leonard, I'd insist on casting decisions being okayed by me on anything they did. That's the main problem,imo, with Hollywood and television-land and his work.

And, I realize it's difficult to compare the mediums, but then I look at the adaptation of KILLSHOT to the screen and they absolutely nailed it. Every single character was precisely the characte in the novel, every single scene was pitch-perfect, the dialog was pure Leonard and delivered in the monotone style of his best stuff. The movie delivered drama rather than melodrama and that was a huge departure from other adaptations of his novels.

It's not that Hollywood is dumb. They're not. They understand their audience and cater to them as any shrewd business people would. The movie market is driven by teenaged boys--they're the only demographic who goes to a movie more than once and that's how films are geared. Not to adults or learned people--as adults and well-read people only pay for a one-time ticket. It's all about the popcorn sales. Why Woody Allen doesn't set box office records. But, he's got his own financing and doesn't care if it makes a boatload of money, so he's able to deliver an intelligent and true vision.

This is why KILLSHOT went direct-to-video. It wssn't melodramatic enough and over-the-top enough to attract the teen male audience. It's that simple. Again, that's my opinion, but it's the only one I have to work with.

I love this discussion! I just think Elmore Leonard's work isn't treated with the respect it should be treated with. It may be that he gives a shit, but I have to think he does, especially with what you just said about his opinion of the casting.

Paul D. Brazill said...

I heard that Killshot was shelved because the Johnny Knoxvill character tested so badly.

What about the BEST Elmore films not based on his books? I'd go for Straight Time. Am sure you've lots to say about that?!

Les Edgerton said...

I'd forgotten about the corrupt cop--great character! Another reason I hate test audiences--it's like designing a horse by committee--you end up with a camel.

The only other slight weakness was the atmosphere--just wasn't drab and dismal enough. I kept thinking that vistas like in FARGO would have worked a bit better (although they were pretty good), and before it was made I was hoping the Coen Brothers would make it and use the chops they did in FARGO or MILLER'S CROSSING. And, NOT in those godawful films they did with Clooney... (That statement may trigger some more disagreements...)

Les Edgerton said...

Also, Paul, I haven't seen STRAIGHT TIME and wasn't even aware of it! Now, I'll have to get it. Thanks.

Paul D. Brazill said...

It's the Ulu Grosberg film based on the Eddie Bunker book. Made in the '70s?

It's got a very EL atmosphere, as I remember.

Les Edgerton said...

This is eerie, Paul. My wife had a garage sale last week and I went through to be sure she wasn't selling "important" stuff, and sure enough, she was! I retrieved my copy of Bunker's "Education of a Felon" and it's sitting directly in front of me!

How's that for spooky?

I have to forgive my wife. Our marriage is the result of a "kidnapping gone right." She's a "Stockholm syndrome" bride...

Paul D. Brazill said...

I just hide my girlfiend's lithium ...No Beast So Fearce and Animal Factory are the Bunker books I remember enjoying most.

Unknown said...

I'm at a disadvantage here because I haven't seen many of these films, or even been aware the films were EL works in the first place. I haven't even read the stories Justified is based on, so I'm going to bow out until I have a chance at Killshot, except for this...
For the most part, you have to give the series points for setting. In the last couple of episodes I caught disappointing glimpses of Hollywood hills, but for the most part, the geography seemed authentically Kentucky. Few series give a damn.
Sorry I can't figure out how to label with my name.
Carl Brush

Les Edgerton said...

In an interview with Leonard I saw before the series aired, he addressed the setting issue, Carl. He said that while they were shooting it in California, they covered that by trying to get settings out there that could pass for Kentucky settings and that also they'd done a lot of Kentucky exteriors they'd also use. I agree that they've done a great job with that. In fact, I think the series is great... except for Olyphant... And, I imagine he's a terrific actor and a nice guy and that may be my problem--he seems nice and too "moral" for a typical Leonard character. Wait until you see the husband in KILLSHOT and see if you don't feel someone like him would have been truer to the character. Also, in the stories with Raylan Givens, he's about the same size as his nemesis, the guy the actor from The Shield plays, and Olyphant looks like he's about 6'4" and towering over the Shield guy and that throws me as well...

Les Edgerton said...

Paul, I didn't know what Harry Dean Stanton looked like so I just went to IMDb to see his photo.

WOW! He has the perfect look for Raylan Givens! I mean... SPOT-ON PERFECT. At least as a bit younger version of himself. His current photo looks a bit too old for the part, but damn, a younger version with his look and demeanor would have been a MILLION TIMES BETTER than Olyphant.

This proves my point better than anything. I rest my case...

And, see? The fact that Mr. Leonard himself did everything he could to get this guy cast in whatever tells me I see the Raylan character exactly as he himself intended.

I'm really jazzed now, because this tells me I really do "get" what Leonard's characters are all about...

Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah...

Carl Brush said...

Today in our workshop at the Tin House Writers' conference (Luis Urrea, leader of our section, and check out Hummingbird's Daughter if you haven't already.) I mentioned EL. Urrea called him "the boss", says he sees him in Tucson every year and despite having published 14 books, 4 of them best sellers, he (Luis) still hasn't had the guts to introduce himself.
Then someone mentioned "Justified," and away we went. Those who had seen it (a group of good writers) liked or loved it. I mentioned (without naming names) that there was a school of thought that Timmy was too soft for Raylan Givens. A couple agreed. Two people said that he only went soft when he took off his hat, but that with his hat on he was tough as he needed to be. One person (again, not naming names) said Tim was his boy crush despite the fact that he's kind of small and spindly in person.
Thought that conversation should be reported to the appropriate website, so consider it done.

Les Edgerton said...

Carl, good comments! I guess Olyphant should keep his hat on... the thing is, a character who looks like Harry Dean Stanton looks the part with or without a hat...

I'm not sure viewers are familiar with the character Leonard created. he's somewhat older and has had a hard life. He worked with his nemesis in the coal mines for a long time, for instance, and is just a tough dude. Olyphant always reminds me of what Hollywood does casting-wise with war and prison movies. I was in a war and most of the participants weighed about 140 pounds and looked about 16, with tons of pimples, etc. Hollywood uses "types" who look like 30-year old models who work out in gyms. Same with prison movies--same "types." That's why Leonard's stories are so great--he never casts anyone in them that look like they live near Santa Monica Boulevard...