Live by Night author Dennis Lehane is a writer often divided
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.
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.
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.