When Elmore Leonard visited the set of “Get Shorty” earlier this year, the filmmakers surprised him with a small token of appreciation--a director’s chair with his nickname, “Dutch,” on the back. It was a fitting gift for Leonard, who at 70 is America’s eminence grise of crime fiction and has seen many of his books made into films. But here’s what Leonard considers the real gift--he thinks “Get Shorty,” taken from his 1990 bestseller, is a damn good movie.
“It really works,” he says of Barry Sonnenfeld’s film, which stars John Travolta as Chili Palmer, a loan shark making it in the movie business. “Scott Frank [who wrote the adaptation] got it all--and more. It was funny and had lots of little surprises. And I thought Travolta was cool. Laid-back but always with that little bit of threat in his eyes--like you wouldn’t really want to mess with him.”
Midway through “Get Shorty,” which opens Friday, Leonard deposits Chili Palmer and a rival hood in a B-movie producer’s office. They discuss how to improve a script they’re both scheming to finance--with funny money, of course. To Chili’s astonishment, the other hood, played by Delroy Lindo, proposes to rewrite the script himself.
“You have the idea and you put down what you want to say,” he explains. “Then you get somebody to add in the commas and [stuff] where they belong, maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. [There are] people who do that for you. I’ve seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page, you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
In Hollywood, everyone thinks he or she is a writer. Just ask Leonard, who has worked in Hollywood between novels for 25 years, witnessing innumerable examples of movie-star vanity and studio chicanery.
They include an ill-fated collaboration with Dustin Hoffman, bizarre encounters with a drug-addled Sam Peckinpah and a series of conflicts with Cannon Films mogul Menahem Golan, who managed to produce, back-to-back, two totally different versions of Leonard’s “52 Pick-Up.”
In all, Leonard has had 26 of his 32 novels optioned as films, dating to the 1950s, when Hollywood began making movies out of Leonard-penned Western stories such as “The Tall T,” “Hombre” and “3:10 to Yuma.” When the Western market dried up, Leonard turned to crime novels, set first in his hometown of Detroit (which he still lives near), later in Miami. He labored in obscurity until “Glitz,” which rocketed to bestseller status in 1984 and made Leonard a literary sensation. Newsweek put him on the cover, and Time dubbed him “the Dickens of Detroit.”
Despite all the acclaim, Leonard has an appealingly self-effacing charm--when it’s lunchtime on the “Get Shorty” set, he opts to eat in a big tent with the extras, cheerfully signing copies of his books. With his wire-rim spectacles and close-trimmed gray beard, he looks like a retired cool-jazz pianist, the kind of crusty old hipster you’d see sitting in at a wee-hours Detroit nightclub.
You hear music in his writing too. Populated with garrulous cops and con men, Leonard’s books have the loose-limbed rhythm of an Al Green song, every character’s voice in perfect pitch. Nora Ephron once described an Elmore Leonard sentence as a “long, looping twisting string of words that turn around and back up and go the other way, managing to avoid all the accouterments of punctuation like colons, semicolons and parentheses.”
No wonder he’s the envy of every screenwriter.
“Elmore’s a terrific writer,” says Robert Towne, a longtime admirer. “His stories have an economy of language that gives his dramatic situations an incredible sense of ballast and gravity. You have to put him up there with the greats, like Jim Thompson and James M. Cain.”
Wherever you look in Hollywood, you find Leonard fans. Quentin Tarantino, who helped talk Travolta into doing “Get Shorty,” cites him as a major influence and has optioned four Leonard novels himself. Director William Friedkin says: “Nobody who writes crime fiction is even in the same league with him.” Ephron reviewed “Get Shorty” for the New York Times Book Review simply because “it gave me the opportunity to read the new Elmore Leonard before anyone else.”
Despite these rave reviews, Leonard has found that writing in Hollywood is, as S.J. Perelman put it, like “playing piano in a whorehouse.” Outside of his Westerns, his films have been plagued by poor casting, botched rewrites and studio meddling.
“Everyone has always had trouble telling if my stories were straight drama or comedy,” Leonard explains one day, sitting by the pool at the Four Seasons hotel, sipping a nonalcoholic beer, a pack of Trues in his palm. “In this town, all they want to know is: What’s it about? All they want is the story. But what I do well is what happens between the story. The talk, the characters.
“I start with people, get them into a situation--and see what happens. I send Chili Palmer to Hollywood and then I start thinking--does he become an actor? No, maybe he’s a studio executive or a producer. I never plot my books out.”
Theories abound on why Leonard’s books have spawned so few good films.
“Great writers’ work often isn’t well served by Hollywood,” says Friedkin, who worked with Leonard on a now-abandoned project. “Elmore’s insights come from his narrator’s voice--that’s the real pleasure of his stories--and that’s hard to translate on screen.”
To adapt “Get Shorty,” Scott Frank reread the novel, highlighting his favorite passages--the ones that just had to be in the movie. (“Of course, when I was done I’d highlighted everything.”) Frank eventually trimmed down several characters and gave the story a more linear structure, preserving Leonard’s pungent dialogue as well as his key theme: Hollywood’s real seductive power is that it’s a place where people can reinvent themselves.
“Where else can a drug dealer or a loan shark show up and just say, ‘Hey, now I’m going to be a producer’?” Frank says. “That’s what makes Chili Palmer so irresistible. He isn’t even really trying that hard--it just comes naturally to him.”
‘It was an unwritten rule in Hollywood, actors never ordered straight from the menu,” Leonard writes in “Get Shorty.” If need be, “They’d think of something they had to have that wasn’t on it, or they’d tell exactly how they wanted the entree prepared.” That’s just the way the scene plays in the film, with actor Martin Weir ordering a cheese omelet with shallots but with the shallots “only slightly browned.”
Leonard says he got the idea for the scene from an off-the-menu lunch with Dustin Hoffman: “Once I saw it with Dustin, I knew just how to write it. I just had Ed O’Neill from ‘Married . . . With Children’ call me and say, ‘I loved that scene. And it’s true. I’m even starting to do it myself.’ ”
During the filming of “Get Shorty,” Leonard and Danny DeVito, who both produces and co-stars in the film, swap movie-biz stories, enveloped in smoke from DeVito’s cigar and Leonard’s Trues. When it’s Leonard’s turn, he tells DeVito the saga of “La Brava,” his novel about a retired Secret Service agent caught in a blackmail scam.
The project made headlines in 1986 when it was announced that Cannon Films was paying Hoffman $6 million for the starring role. When Hoffman soured on the deal, the project died. According to Leonard, the star had flirted with the movie earlier but never made a commitment.
“We met off and on for six months, and Dustin had a new director at almost every meeting,” Leonard recalls. “First one guy, then another guy. Scorsese was even there for a few meetings. But we couldn’t get Dustin to commit, so finally I said, ‘Look, I’m doing all the work. I’m writing all these treatments and I’m not getting paid.’
“So Dustin says, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get paid retroactively.’ When I told my agent that, he rolled on the floor, laughing. He kept going, ‘That’s what he told you--retroactively!’ ”
That provokes a big laugh from DeVito too. He puffs on his cigar, clearly intrigued. “So my character--Martin Weir. Is he based on Dustin?”
Leonard shrugs. “I had said some negative things about Dustin after he walked away from ‘La Brava.’ He called me later and apologized about the way it ended up. By then, ‘Get Shorty’ had come out. So he asked me--'That guy in “Shorty,” is that supposed to be me?’ ”
Finally, the writer gets his revenge. “Come on, Dustin,” Leonard says he told him. “You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”
Elmore Leonard’s first Holly wood memory is of driving onto the MGM lot in 1969 for a meeting. “I was in awe,” he recalls. “I was looking for movie stars everywhere. Even after I’d spent three hours meeting with Clint Eastwood, I’d go out to dinner and look across the room, trying to spot more movie stars.”
His first story meeting on “The Moonshine War” (1970) provided a bracing dose of reality. Seated with the producer, director and a man hired as a liaison with Leonard, he noticed that his liaison had turned his back to him. “He took over, as if he was the one doing all the writing. And they just ignored me. And I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if they’ll ever ask me what I think--I’m the writer, aren’t I?’ ”
Not long afterward, Leonard was hired to write an original script for Eastwood, which became “Joe Kidd” (1972). When it came time to do rewrites, Leonard would take his new pages down the hall to the producer, who would promptly cross out what Leonard had written and insert his own dialogue. Leonard quietly devised a new system: “I’d take the script back, and before our meeting with Eastwood, I’d cross out everything he wrote and put my own dialogue back in. The producer never said a thing--I think he just liked to cross things out.”
In the early 1980s, Sam Peckinpah decided he wanted to make “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit.” A meeting was arranged. “He went on about everything but the piece--I’m not sure what he was talking about,” Leonard recalls. “The studio executive’s secretary took notes, and when we saw the transcript, it was all gibberish.”
Nonetheless, Peckinpah pressed ahead, showing up in Detroit to scout locations. It seemed obvious to Leonard that Peckinpah was on drugs: “He was very quiet until he’d go to the bathroom for about 15 minutes, and then when he came back, he was the life of the party.” Leonard adds: “I don’t know why he even came to Detroit. When he wrote a draft of the script, he set it in El Paso.”
Leonard offers these anecdotes without rancor. To him, taking meetings in Hollywood simply provides him with good material. One of his favorite tales involves Cannon Films producer Menahem Golan, the man who made “52 Pick-Up” twice.
To keep costs down, Golan shot “52 Pick-Up” in Israel. He flew Leonard to Tel Aviv to transform the lead character from an affluent Detroit businessman to the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“He kept telling me to put all this foreign intrigue into the story,” Leonard says. “He wanted spies and secret papers and a Henry Kissinger character. . . . Finally, when he said, ‘I need more international intrigue,’ I said to him, ‘No, you need another writer.’ ”
Sometime later, Leonard saw an ad for the film in the trades. His name was still attached as the author, but the film had a new title, “The Ambassador,” and new names for all his characters. Leonard took his name off the film, which is most memorable today as being Rock Hudson’s last movie. A year later, director John Frankenheimer made “52 Pick-Up” under its real name, with Leonard helping out with some minor rewrites.
Neither film did his book justice, but Leonard has no hard feelings. In fact, he pays Golan the ultimate compliment in “Get Shorty.” It’s Harry Zimm, the low-budget producer played by Gene Hackman, who has many of the film’s funniest lines.
To Leonard, Golan was a writer’s dream--a great character.
“Menahem was an original,” he recalls. “Whenever I’d give him a new script, he’d say, ‘Write me one more. I’ll put the money in your pocket. You don’t even have to tell your agent!’ ”