A Conversation with A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES Writer/Director Scott Frank
July 27th, 2014
Scott Frank’s career has thus far spanned about thirty years. Just think about that for a moment. Not a lot of screenwriters last three years in Hollywood, let alone three decades. As a screenwriter his scripts are unmistakable. They never open with just “Fade In.” There’s always something you hear right before the start. They contain flourishes of sardonic touches, emotional depth and honesty, and often express strong themes and present rich characters that you identify with or at least grow to understand. His scripts are patient in their unveiling and are always enjoyable to read. He's one of those few screenwriters who brings the craft of screenwriting to a true art form. But with that said, he is also a working man’s screenwriter. Scott has done it all and tackled every major genre.
Scott’s latest film – A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES – is his second as a director and I am sure it won’t be his last. The movie is based on the Lawrence Block novel – one in a series of books about former cop and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder who works as a private eye. The story centers on a grisly murder. Scudder is approached by a drug kingpin who hires him to find out who kidnapped and killed his pretty wife. It’s the kind of dark, film noir thriller that Scott loves. He’s really living in the wrong damn time period. The man should have been writing (and making) noir movies back in the 1940s and fifties; though he might say the 1960s or seventies would do.
I’m not going to offer an elaborate backstory on who Scott Frank is because if you know anything about screenwriting you better know something about Scott Frank. If you don’t, fine, just search our site. it contains four interviews with him and dozens of news pieces and articles. Scott has been a friend to SU since I first corresponded with him back in 1999 or so while MINORITY REPORT was in development. Interestingly enough, that’s about the time he started working on the screenplay for TOMBSTONES. The movie has been a long time coming thing, but when speaking with him you get the sense that he was never overtly bothered by that, as he’s used to waiting. He’s a patient man, which is one of his many strengths.
I got the chance to read the script for TOMBSTONES and it did not disappoint. It’s everything you would expect: dark, tense, and harkens back to those old school mystery noir thrillers. Check out the trailer (below) to get a feel for what I mean. The movie opens on September 19th – hope to see you there!
What aspects of Lawrence Block’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones” appealed to you?
I just liked the genre and hadn’t really done a private eye story and I loved the books. What was interesting about this story is that it wasn’t just a mystery, it was also frightening, intense— it was a real thriller. I always knew that if I was ever going to do any of the Scudder books it would be this one.
How about the central character Scudder, he’s not the typical protagonist.
Well he’s one of those guys that have had a lot of different lives. He was a cop, a drunk, and then he got sober, and he had a whole other life. And now he’s sober but without his wife and sons. In the books he has a girlfriend, but I decided to keep him a bit more isolated in the movie.
Did you go through all the books?
Yeah I did. I had already read most of them before I did this.
That’s a lot of material to draw from.
You’re not going to use it all obviously; it just informs you during the writing process. Helps you understand who the guy is, how he moves and thinks and feels about things.
Were you constantly drawing from the material?
No, just my usual process of what the movie was going to be. Not lots of back story, I don’t usually do a lot of that anyway. My notes are focused on where the story is going, though I do take a lot of character-based notes. I do less autobiographical exercises. More of what I do helps to inform and create plot.
You wrote the first draft of TOMBSTONES years ago. Has it changed much since then?
The script didn’t change much at all. I did adjust some for 1999, Y2K and all of that. But not a lot, a few little cuts and adjustments; the script I shot was very close to what I originally wrote.
The film however is very different. I ended up cutting about twenty to twenty-five minutes out of it. I cut entire characters out because I realized I didn’t need them. Where they kind of made for an interesting read, but narratively they weren’t needed.
How was the writing process, anything interesting you remember?
It was so long ago; I started the script in 1998 and 1999. I do remember Danny DeVito, the producer, and I spent hours and hours at his house doing draft after draft. Danny was always trying to make it more filmic – he was very helpful that way because he was a director. I hadn’t directed anything yet. So it was always about making the story more dynamic and finding ways to keep it on the move. There were lots of conversations about what worked in the book and what didn’t cinematically.
There was. I had committed to making a film that was old school, like those films of the 1970s that I loved. But early on in the cutting room I found that I was struggling and realized that I had shot the film two different ways. I shot it very simply like those movies were but I also covered my ass and did a lot of extra coverage, a lot more complicated shots. I realized those two movies were fighting with each other. Cutting the movie led to lots of frustration in the cutting room. I really wanted to slow the movie down. I didn’t want a lot of cuts. I wanted scenes to play out and breathe. But I didn’t stick to that. I began to worry that, you know, audiences today wouldn’t sit for something paced like that. I kept watching the film and didn’t like it. So I screened it for two of my toughest friends (Tony Gilroy and Steven Soderbergh) and they both were brutally honest. They pointed out things that might have worked well in the script, but were softening the movie and so they were very helpful. But more importantly Steven told me that I hadn’t cut the film the way I shot it. He immediately recognized the fight between the two on the screen. It was a fascinating discussion. He actually came into the cutting room and spent several weeks helping me bring it back to what I had originally wanted it to be. It was a failure of nerve on my part, really. I made rules for myself going in and promptly broke them so it was great to have a friend and a filmmaker – someone I admire – to kick my ass and bring me back to my senses. I learned a lot in that time we spent together in the cutting room.
Anything interesting about the development side of the picture? Was it difficult to get it made being that it wasn’t the typical action/thriller?
It was very easy to sell at first as we had just done OUT OF SIGHT and we (myself and Jersey Films) went to Universal with the book and they quickly grabbed it up. I didn’t get to the script right away because I had MINORITY REPORT and I was doing a draft of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCALATE FACTORY. Then I had to leave that to finish MINORITY REPORT. It was a couple years before I really got to the TOMBSTONES script. Then we got a director early on, Joe Carnahan, after he had done NARC, and Harrison Ford was going to do it and then for various reasons that all blew up. Then a period of time went by where we we’re trying to get it made with different actors and directors and it was just tough, but the script remained the same. It wasn’t so much about development as it was about: were people going to want to see these types of adult movies? Studios weren’t making adult dramas or thrillers like this as they entered into the comic book phase, so for a long time it was just hard to get it made.
Then slowly but surely these types of movies started getting made again but at a different price point, around $30 million dollars – which is what this movie got made for and where the adult film drama was living. So we were able to get it made because of this new model.
The other difficulty is that television is already doing this and much better than film. That may end up being a criticism leveled at us; we’re doing this in an age of “True Detective” and other TV series that do this genre really well. It may be hard for us to distinguish ourselves, I’m wondering how that’s all going to work out.
The good news is we have Liam Neeson. The author Larry Block said he always thought of Liam as Scudder and once Liam signed on it made it a movie. And really that was the challenge for all these years; it never was about script development as it was about the market place and finding the right actor to play Matt Scudder.
When we’ve talked before you have expressed disappointment over the loss of the DOG DAY AFTERNOON and THE FRENCH CONNECTION type of film. Do you see that genre coming back? Liam Neeson’s involvement seems to be key.
Well this movie is really very different than TAKEN or NON-STOP, those are more action thrillers. There’s not a lot of action in this one, it’s much tenser, darker. It is something more like the 1970s, something that maybe a Don Siegel would have made with Clint Eastwood. I don’t know if the studios are making more of these types of films. I do know TOMBSTONES comes out and then a week later THE EQUALIZER, and then a week later GONE GIRL comes out and those are all more of the adult thriller genre. So maybe they are making more of them.
You’ve been writing for 30 years and now directing, what’s the biggest change in Hollywood you’ve noticed?
I think the biggest change is that movies are more marketing driven now. They are greenlit more by the marketing department than the creative side, so it has created a kind of sameness in the industry. Independent movies and the rise of independent financing on the other hand have created a lot of room to do other things. Filmmakers like Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, and companies like Annapurna and Cross Creek (who financed TOMBSTONES) there are still people allowing for some of the more interesting things we’re seeing. But on the straight up studio side where everything is so marketing driven they’re playing to an audience they think they can get. They’re making fewer kinds of movies. Given what the mass audience supports, I can’t say that I blame them.
So are you confident TOMBSTONES will do well?
No, like I was saying about what’s happening on television I just hope we’re not too late. I worry that what television is doing is already better than what we (film) are doing. So I don’t know if the audience will turn out. It depends on the appetite; it depends on older adult viewer’s appetite to still go out to the theatre for this type of movie.
It’s an interesting quagmire for film with the evolution of television writing and production.
Yes it is. In some ways it’s eclipsed film writing because you’re allowed to do more kinds of things on television than you can ever do in film. Movies are sometimes only greenlit for how they’ll do in foreign markets. Anything at all that is challenging or genre driven is difficult on the studio side. I’ve been trying to get a western made for eight years, which is the hardest genre of all to get made; especially if it costs more than $15 million dollars.
You said recently that “I once loved writing movies,” was that a slip or did you really mean that?
No it’s not a slip. I don’t know how I feel about movies anymore. I love directing movies. I love writing in general I guess. I just don’t know if I love writing movies because of the restrictions and limitations we’ve been talking about. A lot of the movies I have written in the past wouldn’t get made today; I don’t believe they would anyway. So I want to try other things. I want to try television. I want to write a novel. I want to just see or maybe work on movies in a different way; maybe make smaller movies. Maybe work more in the independent world, I don’t know. There’s so much competition right now on the audience side, there’s so many different ways that entertainment is delivered today it makes it incredibly hard to get an audience. Movies aren’t the only game in town anymore.
How has directing informed you as a writer?
I think what happens when you direct is you realize you need more specificity in your writing; not in terms of shots or angles or things like that. You just have to be more visual. I’m thinking much more about what the scene is going to look like when writing now. I’m more focused on contextualizing than I ever was before. I had always done that and I thought I did it well, but once you start to realize the script (filmmaking) you understand how much better you can be visually. I am much more aware of that now, I think to myself, “I have to shoot that” when I’m writing. So I think more about do I actually need it? Is there a better or more interesting way to do something?
Have you gained confidence as a writer after all these years? I remember you telling me once that scripts had to be pried from your hands before you would show them?
It’s always a battle and it’s always something I am wrestling with. But I am always trying to take more risks and get out of my comfort zone. It’s my nature so I really have to fight against it all the time.
Do you go back and revisit old material or ideas a lot?
I’m always revisiting old ideas and that’s the problem, I have lots of ideas for things I haven’t written. My book, for example, I started a dozen years ago and I went back and revisited it and really liked the story. I really want to finish that story. Even with TOMBSTONES it was kind of just sitting there for a time and I re-read it and really wanted to make it; and wasn’t even thinking of directing it at the time.
Do you think writers give up on their material too easily?
I think it depends on how much you love it. You have to really love something; you have to be really passionate about it. But I think there are ideas that we should give up on if you lost the love for the material or simply it doesn’t work for whatever reason. But if you truly love the material you should never give up. As I said, I wrote a western in the early 2000s that I’m still trying to get made; it’s my favorite script I’ve ever written and I’m not going to give up. Not yet anyway.
Screenwriting is such a difficult profession, difficult craft.
Yes, even if you have the ability, it still doesn’t mean you’ll make it. You still have to have people who want to work with you, so it’s about relationships as well. But as a writer you either know your craft or you don’t. It’s like an aspiring musician who is tone deaf – he’s not going to ever make it. You either have it or you don’t. There’s something lost in translation for some writers and they just don’t have it. They can’t put it on the page or at least can’t do in a way that makes for a great story. That ability can’t be learned, you can’t buy it. There’s a whole industry scamming young writers into thinking they can be taught to write. Either you can paint or you can’t. It’s instinctive.
No. None. Not that I haven’t made mistakes because I have. I’ve made colossal mistakes. I’ve wandered in the wilderness lost, if you know what I mean. I’ve made mistakes, but haven’t regretted them. You have to learn from those screw ups and get better. Your misfires, they make you who you are. You carry that with you. I’ve learned to swing hard. You don’t learn if you don’t try. You can’t avoid striking out sometimes, but you learn from trying. It’s that fear that holds you back and you can’t let it. That’s something I’ve battled with my whole career.
About the Author
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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects. Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.
To contact Chris visit his website: Warm Beer Productions.