So I meet Elmore Leonard on one of the only junkets I’ve ever covered for the Georgia Straight. I’m with a group of just over a half-dozen journalists at a studio in LA and we’ve screened Get Shorty and when we get to the Four Seasons Hotel to do the junket interviews everyone is psyched to talk to John Travolta. So when Leonard walks in with screenwriter Scott Frank and they sit at this roundtable with us in the funky little board room, no one says a thing.
I’m new to this whole junket scene, but when I see no one else wants to start I ask the first question, about what it’s like having someone adapt your work. Leonard says something about how this was a rare occasion where he liked working on an adaptation because the writer got it and the two kid each other like old buddies. Frank talks about loving Leonard (his imdb listing shows he wasn’t kidding – he later did Out of Sight and Karen Sisco). Leonard talks about how he’s used to people screwing up his stuff, but this guy got it right. And I wait like a polite Canadian for someone to ask the next question, thinking, Leonard’s an American icon, everyone must have something they want to ask him.
No one does.
After an awkward pause, I ask the next question, then the next, then the next and get what sure feels to me like a private master class on adapting books for screen. When the two writers finally leave, I’m feeling guilty about monopolizing the interview and a bit confused (these journalists ain’t shy about asking questions or butting in on interviews) and as I’m thinking I ought to apologize, one of the junketeers thanks me for taking the lead on that one. Then another one nods in agreement. “Yes,” he says. “Writers are so boring.” That was the moment that made the whole thing unforgettable.
I never did get to write about Leonard and Frank — my editors were also more interested in Travolta — but here’s part of the story I filed on Get Shorty, which I can’t believe was hiding in an old file on my laptop:
Despite the fact that Pulp Fiction put him back on the map, Travolta says he didn’t feel any pressure about choosing what to do next. “I don’t know if there was pressure as much as there was wanting to get to work and hoping that there was something good that came my way. But pressure, I gotta be honest with you — I gave up on that years ago because it’s unpredictable to a certain degree,” says Travolta. “If you’re savvy about this stuff you make the best decisions that you can at the time and if it doesn’t work out — even Tom Hanks supported the idea — who better to make a comeback than me?”
One of the projects Travolta initially passed on was Get Shorty, but Pulp Fiction’s writer-director didn’t think that was one of Travolta’s more savvy decisions. “Quentin Tarantino called me and said listen, this really is the one you should say yes to, not the one you should say no to. And I said why? And he said, ‘Did you read the book?’ And then Danny DeVito called me and confirmed I should read the book because they were really hell-bent to get me into this thing and I read it and I said, oh I know, now I know why — it’s because all this tasty dialogue has been paraphrased to some degree. If you can get that tasty dialogue back in the script perhaps I’d be more interested in it.
“And they said, ‘Well, for instance?’ For instance — the opening scene — I go to the coat closet and in the first script it says, ‘Where’s my jacket? It costs $400.’ In the book it has, ‘Where’s my jacket, black leather, fingertip lining, the kind Al Pacino wore in Serpico. It cost $379 at Alexander’s. My ex-wife bought it for me.’ All that is funnier — $379 is funnier than $400, buying it at Alexander’s is funnier than not saying it at all, bringing my ex-wife into it, that’s interesting. So they got the idea.”
Travolta says once he made his point there weren’t any objections to making the changes. “They were so in love with the book that I think they saw that they needed to put some of the book back in, they did and they did it beautifully.”
Elmore Leonard RIP.
Mark Leiren-Young blogs at leiren-young.com.