The prolific Michigan-based novelist, Elmore Leonard, died in 2013 in his home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, but one of his works will appear as a film at the 2014 Traverse City Film Festival. “Life of Crime” stars Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins, and is based on Leonard’s novel, The Switch. Leonard was known for his incredibly realistic dialogue and tight prose, two qualities of his writing that are preserved in big screen versions of his books.
The director of “Life of Crime,” Dan Schechter, wanted the movie to be a faithful adaptation of his novel. The setting of “Life of Crime” is 1970’s Detroit, so Schechter spent a weekend a few years ago visiting Leonard to learn more about him, his surroundings, and his inspiration.
“My time with Leonard consisted of long chats about his career—mostly adaptations he loathed and actors he got to meet—over beers and good food,” Schechter says.
This weekend gave him the opportunity to discuss The Switch more in-depth.
“In many ways, I felt more familiar with his earlier work than he was because it was so much more fresh in my mind. He didn’t seem to recall The Switch in super specific detail because he had written it over 35 years earlier. It was fun to remind him of scenes and jokes I adored. What seemed most important to him was to impress upon me what I already felt I knew: how subtle the tone of his work was. How any step in a broader direction, any step away from reality would likely be a false one,” he says.
Schechter viewed The Switch almost like a finished screenplay—the book was that tightly written.
“Unlike most adaptions, I would actually keep going back to the book to mine more and more material and scenes. I believe Leonard’s intention while writing is exactly the same as mine while directing: to create an incredibly grounded world where an audience can actually buy into the extreme circumstances the characters are thrown into and completely suspend their disbelief for an hour and a half,” Schechter says.
Schechter only added more of a plot line to the character Marshall Taylor—portrayed by actor Will Forte—to bring in more humor from that subplot. His adaption of The Switch is otherwise intentionally loyal.
“I really wanted to capture the experience I have while reading one of his books. So it was more about what I related to and felt like focusing on, which I suppose was the theme of how men make horrible decisions when filled with lust over a woman,” he says.
For Schechter, the decision to use The Switch as the basis for a movie was clear.
“The Switch was the epitome of what makes Leonard’s work so unique. A strong female lead, morally ambiguous yet completely likable criminals and a very clear and uncomplicated scheme at the story’s center. This isn’t an elaborately plotted heist with a “gotcha” twist ending. The twists and turns come from what happens when these characters interact with each other to try and get what they want,” he says.
While Leonard is well-regarded for his succinct and sharp dialogue, Schechter also feels that the action and suspense in his book—such as street fights, shootouts, and kidnappings—were made to be filmed.
But dialogue is what Leonard was always concerned with the most. In an interview with MyNorth.com in 2011, Leonard said, about the making of his novels into movies, “Most of my reaction to a film is based on how well the dialogue is handled. I’m paying attention to whether the actors are funny or serious, and how they’re interpreting the words.”
Schechter, too, has a great appreciation for the dialogue, describing The Switch as the film’s “bible.”
“There were times when I’d re-read the script I’d written and the line just wasn’t working. I’d go back and realized I’d left out a single word, or comma, and the line fell apart. His work was that good. It’s as if he’s possessed by his characters while writing them, and for lack of a better word, the way they speak is perfect,” he says.
Even the actors of the film, such as Tim Robbins and Jennifer Aniston, were always comparing the script with the novel.
“There’s a picture somewhere of Tim Robbins and I on set. I have my laptop open and he’s reading the book aloud to me and we were stealing lines. We joked that it was like legal plagiarism. [Jennifer] Aniston would call me the night before we shot because she had gone back to the book and noticed a full exchange I had left out that we could sneak into a scene, say, between her and the actor playing her son,” he says.
Schechter plans on coming to the Traverse City Film Festival with an actor or two from the film, and has great things to say about the festival and Traverse City.
“Mr. [Michael] Moore was kind enough to invite my previous film, “Supporting Characters,” in 2012. To have my work be recognized by one of my film heroes was the greatest. I’ll never forget everyone texting me that Michael Moore was watching my movie when it premiered at Tribeca. It oddly hadn’t even occurred to me that people like that would see my work. So coming back feels great, and I adored the time I spent at the festival. The food, the weather and the people. The Traverse City Film Festival treats filmmakers wonderfully, project the movies beautifully and I met some filmmakers that I’ve become very close to. People seem to love movies at this festival and I just hope they love my new one. It was my dream project and I still can’t believe I got to make it,” he says.
With his great appreciation for Leonard’s dialogue and vision, and his excitement for a burgeoning festival in Leonard’s home state, he would have no doubt been proud.
“Life of Crime” will screen on Friday, August 1st at 9 pm at the State Theatre and on Saturday, August 2nd at 6 pm at the Lars Hockstad Auditorium.