Luke Davies on ‘Candy’, mature share houses, and the magic of Garth Davis

Aussie screenwriter Luke Davies lives in LA with director David Michôd, and is repped by UTA’s Bec Smith. Both are former IF editors, and Davies himself used to contribute DVD reviews to the magazine. We spoke with the honorary old boy on the phone from Bondi, where he was staying on a layover in Oz late last year.

Your path into screenwriting began with Candy, is that right?

Yeah. I was always obsessed with film but didn’t know how to break in. So I said to Margaret Fink, the producer, that she could option the book if I was allowed to try my hand at the first draft of the screenplay. That was the beginning of the path that led to here.

Had you been reading screenplays before that point or did you just learn on the job?

No I was really obsessed. There was actually a screenplay store in Sydney that lasted for about ten years. Honest to God, they must have lived on a shoestring, those guys. But I was one of the faithful customers. It was pre-internet, mid-90s, in the city. It was down near Darling Habour. I used to obsessively buy screenplays of films that I loved and I’d watch the film and try and work out what had changed. My first draft of Candy was very much of its time (laughs). Wall to wall voiceover. Very Goodfellas-esque, like a lot of what people were writing back in the late 90s.

Gradually over the years of working on the screenplay with Neil Armfield, we stripped most of the voiceover out of it. We were all busy living other lives, doing other things, the years passed and it really was hard to get that film financed. But then Heath Ledger came along and got it financed very easily. It was a five year period [of writing] where I was learning, and Neil Armfield was a real mentor.

When did you move to the States?

After Candy I went to America to have a little exploration. I really don’t know what I was thinking. I thought maybe I’d get an agent or something. It wasn’t a grand plan. In April it will be ten years I’ve been in LA. The first five years were really difficult. I was poor and I really didn’t know if it was going to pan out. In 2009 I started sharing a house with Alex O’Loughlin (Hawaii Five-0). Then David Michôd, who I had been friends with for some years, and his girlfriend, Mirrah Foulkes, started coming to LA around the time that Crossbow was suddenly leading to all this buzz and to David making Animal Kingdom. They’d be going to Sundance, or whatever, and they would stay at our place. We all got on and we became fast friends. At a certain point we were like, ‘Why don’t we all get a bigger house? We come and go a little bit, and if there’s four of us it’s cheaper’. We started doing that six years ago and two houses later we’re still doing it. It’s a lovely house that’s kind of an oasis in Koreatown. It’s like a mature share house and it works (laughs).

How did Lion come to you?

I had a pre-existing relationship with See-Saw Films and Emile Sherman, who along with Margaret Fink was one of the producers of Candy. Emile met Iain Canning on the Candy shoot.

Iain was the European sales agent and exec producer. They became friends and formed See-Saw Films and went on to make The King’s Speech. We had maintained a working relationship and fiddled around with a couple of things that never really happened. So then they gave me Saroo’s book and asked how I would approach adapting it. I got the job, then went to India to meet Saroo and see the real places where everything happened: the train station, the orphanage, his home town. And then to Tasmania with Saroo to meet Garth and Sue and John, Saroo’s parents.

And Saroo’s friends. Everything mattered at that moment. That’s how it began; a really intense two-and-a-half week research trip.

At what point did you start writing?

About two weeks after that trip, Garth came to LA and he and I sat down with a whiteboard for about a week or ten days. Very casual, cups of tea all day long, filling up his whiteboard, throwing ideas around. From that point I sort of disappeared into the cave and started writing and by then it was September or October. I wrote the very first draft in less than twelve weeks and then there was feedback and notes and I wrote another draft. That draft was what See-Saw Films took to Cannes in May 2014. The Weinsteins won a bidding war, and the money that the Weinsteins paid to secure international distribution rights became a portion of the budget. So then the film went into pre-production and it was shooting by the beginning of 2015. There were still more script changes going on right up until shooting but essentially the first two drafts after the research session were done in this really compressed six month period. Six months, two drafts, with gaps in between.

What do you think of the finished film?

I cry every time I see it. I shouldn’t, because I wrote it, so I know everything that happens, but I do and I think it is because Garth’s a magician and he made me an observer again. We’ve been doing all these Q&A screenings and it’s really, really nice to be promoting a film that you actually love. There’s no feeling of fakery about having to push the thing. Garth’s identified the different kinds of criers now; people who start weeping in the first minute, the people who hold off and have muscular tension for the whole two hours and then cry at the end and then there’s all these gradations in between. We love the fact that it connects with audiences.

By Harry Windsor INSIDE FILM Mon 20/02/2017

Crime and adaptation: Dennis Lehane

Live by Night author Dennis Lehane is a writer often divided

Dennis Lehane, author of Live by Night, adapted for the screen by Ben Affleck. Photo: Getty Images.

  • The Australian

Dennis Lehane moves between fiction and film, and has a rueful way of describing the difference between the two. “When you’re writing a novel, you’re God. When you’re working on a film, you’re one of 147 guys.”

He published his first crime novel in 1994; Hollywood came calling for his sixth book, Mystic River, the story of three men who have known each other since childhood, a recent murder and an incident from the past that haunts them still. Clint Eastwood directed the adaptation and it won Oscars for actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

Since then there have been adaptations of several Lehane crime novels: Shutter Island, ­directed by Martin Scorsese; Gone Baby Gone, directed by Ben Affleck; and now Live by Night, a crime drama set in Florida in the 1930s, written and directed by Affleck, who also stars in it.

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin and Chris Messina as Dion Bartolo in a scene from 
<i>Live by Night</i>.

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin and Chris Messina as Dion Bartolo in a scene from Live by Night.

Lehane has written scripts for film and TV but has tended to stay away from adapting his own work. A screenplay and a novel are completely different entities, he says. “It’s like comparing a giraffe and an apple.” The task is different, the relationships with others are different, yet he finds things that he needs in both.

“Sometimes you want to be God, sometimes it’s OK to be one of 147 guys. Each activity fills a different gap,” he says. “When I write a screenplay or a teleplay, I say, ‘Oh, it’s so great not to have to describe the room, it’s so great not to have to create this from whole cloth, it’s so great just to sit down, know where I’m going, to have a road map and follow it.’ In the case of a teleplay, 15 days later I’m done; in the case of a screenplay, 45 days later I’m done. And then all of a sudden one day you wake up and you go, ‘I really miss prose, I really miss painting the scene. I really miss that part of my personality.’ So then you start to write a book.”

Lehane, 51, born in Boston to Irish parents, was a voracious reader as a child. At the age of 14 he came across Richard Price’s novel The Wanderers, set among gangs of youths in a Bronx housing ­project, and it gave him the feeling that he could write about what he knew. Years later, he and Price worked on the groundbreaking TV series The Wire. Being in The Wire writing room, he says, writing episodes for the last three series, “was my perfect graduate school in screenwriting”.

Lehane studied creative writing at Florida International University and wrote a draft of his first novel while in college, but it was several years and many drafts until A Drink before the War was published in 1994. It won the Shamus Award for best first ­private eye novel, and he has been writing steadily ever since.

Live by Night is part of a loose trilogy that began with The Given Day, a sprawling tale set in Boston in 1919; at its centre was an Irish family, the Coughlins, who lived on both sides of the law. Live by Night is a spare narrative focused on Joe Coughlin (played in the film by Affleck), who’s definitely on the wrong side of it.

Lehane spent a year researching the period for The Given Day, but is cautious about the ­experience of immersing himself in the period. Too much detail, he says, can kill a book. “You have to sprinkle it very judiciously because it pulls people out of the narrative, which is the absolute unforgivable sin in any book.”

He tackled Live by Night a little differently. He was steeped in the world his central character had come from and decided, he says, that “I’m not going to research anything on this book until I need to”. Instead, he tackled questions when they came up. “What did a suit cost in 1925? How afraid were people of flying in 1935? It was a much more pleasant way to do it; I highly recommend it.”

When it comes to adaptations of his work, Lehane says, he leaves it to the screenwriter to initiate contact. “I feel like they should be left alone to do what they have to do.” Affleck asked him to read the first draft of Live by Night, he says, and to give him notes. “I gave them to him, and some he took to heart and some he discounted, just as I do when I get editorial notes.” He saw two cuts of the film and then the finished product.

Elle Fanning is Loretta Figgis in 
<i>Live by Night</i>.

Elle Fanning is Loretta Figgis in Live by Night.

It’s always strange, he says, to see characters he created on screen in new incarnations. “There’s a feeling of dislocation, no matter how good the film is. People are surprised that Ken Kesey’s never seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m not. I’m not surprised at all. They say, ‘Well it won five Academy Awards, it’s one of the best movies ever made.’ Yeah, but it’s not what he had in his head. No matter how great it can be, it’s never exactly what you had in your head.

“So the best you can do is judge it on its parts. I don’t think a novelist can truly judge something on its whole unless it’s wholly terrible, and then it’s, ‘Oh, that thing sucks, no big deal there.’ But if it’s good, and I’ve had four good ­adaptations, including Live by Night, then you just kinda go, ‘Well, the pieces sure seem to be lining up, the cinematography is beautiful, the performances are great …’ But I can’t fall into it the way I fall into Casablanca or The Silence of the Lambs, or something I didn’t write. You know, that suspension of disbelief that is so ­crucial for a moviegoer.”

He half-broke a rule about not adapting his own novels when he wrote a screenplay based on one of his short stories, Animal Rescue. It ­became a 2014 film called The Drop, which he then turned into a novella of the same name.

And now, he says, he’s broken it completely. He has a new novel coming out in May called Since We Fell, and he has already written a screenplay. The project is in its early stages, he says. It has been acquired by DreamWorks after a bidding war but there’s no director as yet. The story has a female central character whose life is turned upside down by a chance encounter. “It’s very contemporary, very Hitchcockian. No more trips into the past for a while.”

He’s well aware, of course, that the scriptwriter’s work can often end up in limbo. I ask him about the fate of several screenwriting jobs he had been involved in recently. Lehane had been writing an adaptation of A Prophet, Jacques Audiard’s absorbing drama about a young man in prison quietly building himself a new life. He wrote a pilot for a series set in the hospital from Shutter Island. He had been working on a new version of the Irish TV series Love/Hate. And he had been involved in a miniseries that was to revisit the legendary law enforcer of the 30s, Eliot Ness.

He takes me briskly through the state of play. “A Prophet is still alive; it’s called American Son now, last I heard. Eliot Ness is dead. The Shutter Island project is dead. The Irish TV series is in limbo.” He laughs. “Welcome to Hollywood.”

Live by Night is screening nationally.