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How to Handle Hollywood | An Author's Guide

How to Handle Hollywood | An Author's Guide

The writer of Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River (above) and Shutter Island knows a thing or two about getting a book made into a movie (and a good movie at that). His new novel, Live By Night, is a gangster novel set in Prohibition-era Florida and Boston — Leonardo DiCaprio has already snapped up the rights. Should you ever find yourself in a similarly enviable position, Lehane offers some advice.

Usually as soon as I finish a book, the bidding war starts. I’ve been really blessed with three excellent film adaptations of my books, but Hollywood doesn’t see the reason for those three excellent films. I know exactly what it is and it has nothing to do with me.

Look, how many great books have been turned into shitty films? It really isn’t about the source material. It’s about the people who adapt the source material. If they understand the spirit of it, then the worst you’re going to get is an honourable failure. You’re not going to get the Demi Moore Scarlet Letter. You’re not going to get a decade-long embarrassment on your resumé. That’s been my MO.

I sold Live by Night to Appian Way, DiCaprio’s production company. They got Warner Brothers to pony up the money. I almost lost the deal because I wouldn’t allow them to buy the character rights outright. I was like, “You’re not buying out one book and tying up five.” They can buy the story, but I can continue to sell the next book as long as whoever buys it changes Joe’s [the main character’s] name. That’s the way I worked out the deal. I got lucky and they blinked.

If you sell it to the studio, you lose all control. I did it once. I heard what they were trying to do and it was like, “You’re insane to try to do what you’re trying to do with this book.” I got the rights back, thank God, and that became Shutter Island (below).

The only thing I can take credit for in my entire career in terms of movies is that I only get in bed with really top-notch people. After Shutter Island had sat in limbo for two years, I said to my agent I’d never sell to a studio again, and this great producer Mike Medavoy came out of the woodwork. He brought it to Scorsese. Gone Baby Gone [directed by Ben Affleck] was done through the producer Alan Ladd Jr, who did Braveheart. Mystic River was done through Clint Eastwood. Go straight to the main man.

I understand that if I was listening to this, I’d say, “Oh bullshit”, but I’ve always had a clear sense of the bifurcation between a book and a film. When I finish, my wife and I and my friends may goof around and talk about “so-and-so might be good to play this”, but we know it’s parlour games. You can talk all you want, and then they say, “DiCaprio wants to play Joe.” OK, sounds good to me.

Live by Night is out on 11th October (Little, Brown)