He Adapts to Elmore Leonard's Style

David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When novelist Elmore Leonard decided to shift his attention from westerns to crime sagas, it may have been good news for readers, but filmgoers tended to suffer. "Hombre" and "3:10 to Yuma," based on Leonard books, are considered classics or darn close; meanwhile, "Stick" and "52 Pick-Up" deservedly collect dust on video store shelves.

Even last year's "Jackie Brown," an adaptation of Leonard's "Rum Punch," missed the bull's-eye--even though writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a Leonard aficionado--for a crucial reason: Leonard has said, "I try to leave out the parts readers skip"; in his 2 1/2-hour film, Tarantino decidedly did not.

Then there's Scott Frank. The screenwriter ("Dead Again," "Little Man Tate"), a longtime Leonard fan, helped make "Get Shorty" smart, breezy fun and received nominations for a Writers Guild Award and Golden Globe for his efforts; he manages much the same with "Out of Sight," opening Friday and based on Leonard's '96 bestseller.

George Clooney stars as Jack Foley, a semi-suave and not-quite-smart-enough bank robber who busts out of prison--and directly into the arms of federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), whom he immediately kidnaps and stuffs into the trunk of her car. Covered in muck from his breakout, he hops into the trunk with her--his befuddled buddy Buddy (Ving Rhames) takes the wheel--and begins flirting with her.

She is not altogether uncharmed, but her job is to bring Jack back in, and after she escapes his clutches, the remainder of the film is concerned with her manhunt and his admittedly misguided efforts to rob a Detroit gazillionaire who has done time for insider-trading (look hard--it's Albert Brooks in a bald wig).

"I read all his books, and had been somewhat disappointed by his films and curious as to why more of them hadn't been made--a lot had been optioned and just sat there," Frank says between bites of asparagus salad near his Pasadena office. "I met him and it was one of those things where I was so in awe of him and I had learned so much about writing from reading him that I wanted to do everything I could to protect the work, especially the first time around, and see if I could realize an Elmore Leonard novel in a way that they hadn't been. The first thing he said to me was, 'Do whatever you want to do.' I think 'Get Shorty' was a happy experience for him because when he wrote his next book ["Out of Sight"], he said, 'Would you do this one, too?' "

Says Leonard, who deems "awful" his own efforts to adapt "Stick": "I feel comfortable and secure in his hands." He's already lobbying Frank to take on his next book, "Be Cool," a sequel to "Get Shorty." (Joel and Ethan Coen have adapted his current bestseller, "Cuba Libre"; no director has been set yet.)

Stacey Sher of Jersey Films, which produced "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," has known Frank since they both began in the industry a dozen years back at Paramount. She says, "Scott understands what Leonard's work is about. It's about the choices people make, that randomness, what happens if you make a left turn instead of a right. He's great at following that spirit.

"In Leonard's books, character is plot. A lot of filmmakers get seduced by all his interesting story lines. But if you get reductive with it, it won't be there--it's all about personalities. Scott starts out as a fan, he understands why Leonard's books work. Instead of being literal, he goes for the spirit of the piece.

"I knew he was a huge fan, and I knew that even though he wasn't available at the time, he wouldn't speak to me again if I hadn't offered him 'Get Shorty.' It screwed up his entire schedule, but he knew he had to do it. It was a great collaboration. And when we first got 'Out of Sight,' we said, 'We don't want to do this without Scott.' "

"I did 'Get Shorty,' and I thought, 'OK, I've done my Elmore Leonard and now I'll do my other stuff,' " Frank recalls. "And he sent me 'Out of Sight' and I didn't want to like it, I didn't want to spend my career doing Elmore Leonard. But I got to the trunk scene and I called up and said, 'I'll do it.' I didn't even finish, I just said, 'I'm in.' "

In adapting "Out of Sight," Frank rearranged a few plot elements, made the conclusion a smidgen more hopefully ambiguous (incorporating a story Leonard had told him), and added Brooks' character, Ripley, who is only referred to in passing in the book. The changes are heartily endorsed by Leonard.

"I argued with him at first about Ripley," Leonard admits. "I didn't think it was necessary. I thought you just needed to get to the big score. But he said you need to show a relationship between Jack and Ripley because why would Jack get involved in the heist otherwise unless he knew Ripley? And he was right.

"I also asked him, 'Why didn't you just get to the prison escape immediately?' And he answered, 'Well, you didn't!' "

"The trick with Elmore is, he just writes, he doesn't know what he's gonna write every day," says Frank, who likes to call Leonard in the afternoons just to hear the author read his day's work to him. "He doesn't know where the story's gonna go, so it's all happenstance. So the trick to adapting his books is giving structure to that happenstance. The other thing is, I'll always find a theme. My first instinct is to just write--there are so many great things in the book, I try to get them all in and the result is a real flattened-out version of the book, instead of a good movie.

"So I try to find out what the book is about to me," he continues. "In the case of 'Get Shorty,' it was how everyone comes to Los Angeles and reinvents themselves. In the case of 'Out of Sight,' it's the road not taken--if I hadn't spent my life robbing banks, I could be with this woman. And anything that doesn't play to that theme, I cut out. I would call Elmore and tell him that, and he'd say, 'Wow, I never knew that there was a theme, but yeah, that works.'

"He once told me he writes the book and then he goes back and takes out everything that sounds like writing, which is a good lesson for us all."

Frank enjoys keeping the film business at an arm's length. He moved to Pasadena (thanks to his "Out of Sight" payday, so in tribute to Clooney's character he calls it "the house that Jack built") because, he explains with a laugh, "The only Hollywood a--hole in my neighborhood is me." His office is a roomy, comfortable space with the requisite pool table (his 4 1/2-year-old son, he jokes, "thinks I play pool for a living") and large posters of "Get Shorty," "Little Man Tate," "Dead Again" and Kubrick's "Lolita" (pointedly absent--posters for his films "Malice" and "Heaven's Prisoners").

Frank grew up near San Jose, and went to school at UC Santa Barbara, where he worked on "Little Man Tate." When he came to Hollywood, he continued tinkering with the script as he held jobs doing research for a production company and tending bar. He got into a screenwriting program at Paramount, where he wrote "Dead Again" (1991), a cheeky thriller directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.

"It's sort of a weird tone, you don't know how you're supposed to take it. The tone was just this side of camp, and it was marketed as more of a straight thriller, so people weren't quite sure how to respond. The test screenings were terrible. I would get hives, I would make my wife come with me to the screenings and cling to her during the whole thing, leave welts in her arm. Then they would fill out these cards; Ken Branagh would call them the 'Cards of Death.' "

That same year saw the release of his longtime project "Little Man Tate," Jodie Foster's directorial debut. Though he's understandably fond of the film, he admits, "When I saw 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Searching for Bobby Fischer,' in both cases, I thought, 'Why didn't I write that?' "

Currently, he's working on an original screenplay, "The Lookout," for DreamWorks, and will follow that with a couple more adaptations--Pete Dexter's "Brotherly Love" and Lawrence Block's "Walk Among the Tombstones."

He's also working on a novel and has a production deal at Jersey Films.

Ask Frank why he seems to adapt Leonard so well, and he tries to duck the question, crediting his directors--he touts director Steven Soderbergh's deft editing of "Out of Sight's" seduction scene as improving upon his script--and cast (Clooney and Don Cheadle's improvisations made some scenes pop, he adds).

Finally, he says, "This is the answer. Oftentimes, with his books, people misunderstand where the gold lies. And what they do is they keep the plot and jettison all the textural things--the characters, the dialogue--all that goes. And the plot--even he'll tell you it's insignificant. You have to start with those characters and that may mean reinventing some of the plot. That's been the problem. I also think people have taken him too seriously. I don't think he takes himself that seriously."

Oh, and one other thing: "I've been reading him for so long and stealing from him for so long that he was sort of in my head."

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