“Not to be preachy about it, but discipline is everything for a working writer, at least for this one. I can’t just wander around fields of flowers or sit brooding in coffee houses waiting for the muse to land on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. That would nice, but it ain’t gonna happen. I treat writing like a factory job – the whistle blows and I’m at work. This thing always comes down to someone sitting down with some kind of writing instrument and getting it done,” author and screenwriter Don Winslow told us recently. And he’s not kidding around. That focus and drive has allowed Winslow to write 16 books over the past two decades or so, including “Satori” (hitting bookstores in paperback last week) and his upcoming “Savages” prequel “The Kings Of Cool.” And this doesn’t even include the television work or the brewing movie adaptations he has in development. And though he commits to a strong worth ethic, it’s never at the mercy of challenging himself as a writer or compromising his own standards.
His latest effort “Satori” may seem on the face it yet another thriller — the book jacket draws instant reference points to James Bond and Jason Bourne — but instead offers something very different from both those franchises. Lifting the protagonist from Trevanian‘s novel “Shibumi,” the story follows Nicholai Hel, a martial arts expert and assassin raised in Japan who is also a master the ancient game of Go. When his master faces charges of war crimes, Nicholai kills him “as an act of devotion” but gets thrown in jail for murder. The CIA bails him out and teams him up with a beautiful French woman who trains him to assassinate the Russian commissioner to China. But when things go wrong, Nicholai is on the run through 1950s Vietnam hiding out from everybody ranging from worldwide intelligence agencies, the Corsican mob and a Vietnamese criminal syndicate.
Certainly a far cry from where 007 and the agent from Treadstone are these days. And given the cultural and period details that would be required of the story, Winslow invested the time to make sure he got things right. “…a lot of books, old newspaper and magazine articles, and a lot of collecting photos off the net. I had already co-authored a book about the Vietnam war era [‘Looking For A Hero‘] and felt pretty comfortable with the military and political background of Asia at that time,” the author told us about his research process. “I’d spent a lot of time in China, as well – in Beijing and elsewhere and have always been intrigued by Chinese history. So much of the research was ‘smaller’, if you will – what did people eat in Beijing in December of 1951? What was the weather? If you were walking down the Rue Catinat in Saigon in 1952, what did you see? Smell? Where did you go for a drink, for a coffee? I think it’s that kind of detail that gives a book life.”
But what was it like to take on a pre-existing character? Winslow’s idea to borrow from Trevanian is an intriguing one as not only do the two writers have wildly different styles, but they also explore different themes and territory as well. But it was exactly those differences that compelled Winslow. “For one thing, he wrote about what he felt like writing about – structure and genre be damned – and I admire that. If he wanted to take you spelunking, for instance, he just did it, and did it so well that you were fascinated by it. Moreover, he created this fascinating character, Nicholai Hel, a man torn between his European background and Asian upbringing, that was just too good not to do,” he explained adding, “Also, I wanted to take the spy/thriller genre a little deeper, and get into historical and political issues of the time in a way that the reader would enjoy. I really like it when a reader comes away thinking, ‘Boy, I learned something.’ “
So given the thriller elements and rich subtext beneath, it’s no surprise Hollywood came calling. Last fall, it was announced that the project was snapped up as a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. And Winslow confirms that the project is still very much on the move. “It is Mr. DiCaprio’s film and I am thrilled about that. He is such a smart, versatile actor and he is the reason this all came together at Warner Brothers. His range is just enormous. From ‘Catch Me If You Can to ‘Gangs Of New York,’ from ‘Titanic‘ to ‘Inception.’ When [screenwriter] Shane Salerno first suggested him for ‘Satori’ I said ‘We’ll never get him,’ and Shane said ‘let me see what I can do.’ Producers John Lesher and Jennifer Davisson Killoran helped make that happen and when I found out he said yes I was incredibly excited because he is Nicolai Hel,” Winslow enthused. “Shane and I are totally immersed in writing the script right now. It is a delicate balance. It is a heart pounding spy thriller with tremendous action and also a very sophisticated cold war love story.”
And indeed, it’s Salerno’s instinct and eye for talent that has made him a regular Hollywood collaborator with Winslow (he adapated Oliver Stone‘s forthcoming “Savages”). And it’s a relationship the author values and continues to find very fruitful. “We were introduced by a terrific agent at CAA named Joe Cohen who thought we might work well together. He was right! I read a script Shane had just written about Sonny Liston and said, ‘I want to work with that guy.’ We co-created the NBC TV series ‘UC: Undercover‘ which ran for one season. Shane fought hard for two hires on that show, one was a young actress named Vera Farmiga who went on to star in ‘The Departed‘ and was Oscar nominated for ‘Up in The Air.’ The network wanted someone else. And the other was a young writer named Stephen Adly Guirgis who the network had never heard of but Shane said he had to have. He went on to write ‘The Motherfucker with a Hat‘ which was just nominated for six Tony Awards. Shane has a scary eye for talent,” Winslow said. “Shane is by far the more experienced screenwriter and really brings that expertise to the table. He’s also extraordinarily creative – I really don’t know how his mind works, but I marvel it sometimes. I think Shane and I work so well together because we have mutual respect for each other’s talent and share the same discipline when it comes to how many hours we put in every day. Also, we laugh a lot, which is essential.”
Until we can the action up on the big screen, you can catch up with the adventures of Nicholai Hel in “Satori” which is on bookshelves now. And this summer, “Savages” arrives on the big screen on July 6th.