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Dennis Lehane on Classic Crime Films, Writing for James Gandolfini and Leaving Boston

The Drop
23 March 2015

Novelist turned screenwriter Dennis Lehane sits down to discuss THE DROP, a thrilling and emotional drama that stars Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Matthias Schoenaerts. Written by Lehane, based on a short story he penned in 2009, the movie follows Bob Saginowski (Hardy), a lonely bartender who one day finds a pit bull puppy in a trash can. Soon Bob will cross paths with the equally damaged Nadia (Rapace), her ex-boyfriend Eric (Schoenaerts) and a gang of hardened Chechen criminals. There will be violence, but also the possibility of redemption for Bob.

Also starring the late James Gandolfini (in his final film performance) and John Ortiz, THE DROP is directed by Michaël R. Roskam, whose debut picture Bullhead was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Dennis Lehane is no stranger to Hollywood. The bestselling Boston-born author has had three of his novels turned into movies, all of them finding considerable commercial and critical success. Mystic River, the story of three friends living with the consequences of a terrible crime, was brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood in 2003, winning two Oscars. Dark mystery Gone Baby Gone was directed in 2007 by Ben Affleck. And in 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese collaborated on Shutter Island, a dizzying psychological thriller wreathed in fog.

This year, however, marks the first time Lehane has actually adapted his own work. The Drop is a gripping and suspenseful movie, centered around a powerful performance by Tom Hardy. Pulling pints at a grubby Brooklyn bar run by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), a place used for organized crime money drops, Bob has nothing and no-one in his life. But a chance encounter with an abandoned puppy gives him a glimmer of hope. Lehane masterfully crafts a story that is both dark and heartwarming, as only he can.

Having just released a full-length novel of The Drop, Lehane is now developing the next adaptation of his work, Live By Night, a gangster coming-of-age story that will re-unite him with Affleck. He’s also working on a Shutter Island television series for HBO, which will delve into American psychiatry in the first half of the 20th century. But first the busy novelist sat down for the following interview.



You adapted The Drop from your own short story, Animal Rescue. What are the origins of the tale?

“It was the first chapter of a failed novel which I began in 2001. I remember the thing that inspired it. I was taking a walk around the neighborhood I was living in, a solidly working-class neighborhood of firemen and cops and students. It was just after Christmas, and I was stunned by the conspicuous refuse of consumption. Toys thrown away two days after they were given to someone. It made me feel kind of lonely and sad. And that’s really where it all started, with the walk that Bob takes at the beginning of the short story. He sees all this garbage — this guy who would kill just to feel anything, with anyone, ever again. And then, just when he’s feeling at his most hopeless, he hears a noise. And it turns out to be this dog, his salvation.”


Where did the central character of Bob, a quiet and mysterious loner, come from?

“I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of loneliness. I think it kills more people than heart attacks and cancer combined. And so I wanted to tell a story about people who feel like life has passed them by but keep soldiering on. I’m in awe of that kind of person. Even when the novel didn’t work, Bob kept sticking with me. We keep describing the movie as a dark fairy tale, about an ogre coming out of his cave. And when he finds that dog, there’s a chance that he can live again.”


How much of the story is autobiographical?

“The dog stuff is autobiographical, because I have a great love of dogs. I’ve had dogs most of my adult life. But the only other thing that comes from my life is that I grew up on the fringes of that kind of shady world. It was all around us. If you grow up in a lot of bars on the East Coast, you soon realize that they’re not making money from the pinball machines. Money is being slid to bartenders, that kind of thing. But I’m a big believer in imagination being more important than knowledge. I don’t truly know anything about the Chechen criminal underworld, but I know that vibe.”


This was your first screenplay. How did you find the process of writing it?

“It felt so natural. Adapting a novel is like a doctor operating on his child: you cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. Whereas to adapt a short story, you blow it up. It’s like a short story is the bulb of a flower, just before it blooms. And the movie’s a bloom. So I was able to let myself loose on the Chechen angle, Cousin Marv, the investigation, all these elements which were only touched on before. I had a blast writing it.”


Was Serpico an inspiration for The Drop?

“Certainly Sidney Lumet was in the back of my head. Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Verdict. And early Barry Levinson movies like Diner and Tin Men. I got to channel a lot of movies from the 1970s and 1980s that are really character-driven, where every character thinks that they’re the star. You have to adhere to the laws of plot and structure, but I was always thinking about how to add a little more color, how to make a scene a little memorable. It had to feel like a world that exists, with characters who feel lived in.”


Did you have actors in mind while you wrote it?

“Not while I was writing it. But something bizarre happened, which made me freak out a little. I had this character actress, Elizabeth Rodriguez, in the back of my mind when I was writing the female detective, as I’d just seen her in a play. But I never said a word about her to anybody. When they started shooting, I asked, ‘Who did you cast opposite John Ortiz?’ And it was Elizabeth Rodriguez! But otherwise I never thought of anybody. When they cast James Gandolfini as Marv, I added some back-up dialogue which I thought maybe only four actors on the planet could handle. And he was one of them.”



What is the relationship between Cousin Marv and Bob?

“They started out very much in a teacher-student relationship. And then at some point they became equals, but Marv still treats him like an inferior. Bob allows that illusion to stand. Marv is chasing something that’s already 20 years in his rear-view mirror and he doesn’t realize it. He’s a guy who is so completely caught up in the past that he can’t see the present.”


Were you familiar with Michaël before he came on-board the project?

“I had been sent a screener of Bullhead before it was even out in the States, and I loved it. So I was ecstatic when he became attached as director. This whole project couldn’t be more in my dream wheelhouse. Michaël is a terrific filmmaker. I’ve been impressed with Tom Hardy since Bronson: he does so much with stillness. Noomi is obviously wonderful. I was even doing cartwheels because we got John Ortiz! I’m the guy who loves character actors few other people have heard of.”


You’re famous for your Boston-set tales, like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River. The short story Animal Rescue takes place in Boston, too, but The Drop is set in New York. Why the change in location?

“The idea came from the producers. It was amazing because at first everyone was really nervous about broaching the subject with me! But when they did, I was fine with it. It makes perfect sense. The sub-genre of the Boston crime film has become the victim of its own success. From The Departed to Mystic River to The Town to Gone Baby Gone, we ran the table for a decade. Now it would feel played out. Brooklyn is a very appropriate place to set this story. If they had suggested San Diego, I would have said no!”


Your novels have been turned into hit movies before, by directors like Martin Scorsese and Ben Affleck. How was it being on a set as a screenwriter this time?

“Much more comfortable. A novelist on a film set is worth way less than the caterer. You feel noblesse oblige – they’re real nice for inviting you, but what can you honestly do? The actors may want to talk to me about backstory, but when they run into a jam they’re not going to ask the novelist for the solution: they’re going to ask the screenwriter. The Drop was a great experience. I was only on set for two days, but in that time Michaël, Tom, Noomi and I were all working together to get a crucial scene down. I had written 19 versions of it already, but it was only when we were together that we got it perfect. That’s the filmmaking process at its purest and best. Also, I brought my wife and she got very excited to meet the dogs that play Rocco!”


Do you feel like you’re part of the Hollywood establishment now?

“More a part of the East Coast film community. I wouldn’t say Hollywood yet. It helps that I’ve spent many months recently working in New York on Boardwalk Empire. I definitely feel part of the group that is hanging around Brooklyn with cameras and boom mics.”


You’ve moved into screenwriting. Are you now considering directing?

“I have zero interest in being a director. Watching Michaël shoot scenes, I was reminded repeatedly that the great directors are obsessively detail-orientated. I’m a macro guy, not a micro guy. I did direct a film once, a tiny $30,000 indie called Neighborhoods. It wasn’t bad, but the experience taught me that you should only do something if you absolutely love doing it. Michaël loves what he does — he’ll happily restage the same shot over and over again until he gets it just right. Whereas I’d be like, ‘What time’s lunch?’”


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