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Dennis Lehane Talks Shutter Island

Dennis Lehane Talks Shutter Island

The thing to remember about Shutter Island is that it’s closely based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. James Cameron collaborator Laeta Kalogridis wrote the adaptation that lured Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. Read the book and you will see how closely she hewed to the original. Whatever the movie’s strengths or weaknesses–and it has both–they come from the book. I’d argue that as cinematic as this paranoid thriller is, it works better as a book than a movie. That’s because Scorsese faced the challenge of making this high-wire reality vs. fiction puzzle into a plausible, believable narrative that didn’t throw the audience for a complete loop. Some buy it, some don’t.

Paramount obviously made the right call pushing the HItchcockian suspenser into February–and selling the movie as a nasty R-rated psycho-thriller. Shutter Island delivered a boffo $40-million weekend, the best ever for both DiCaprio and Scorsese. Earning diverse, mixed reviews (here’s The New Yorker) and a B+ Cinemascore, the question remains how well Shutter Island actually played for audiences. The second weekend will tell the tale.

After initially resisting Hollywood–it took Clint Eastwood calling him on the phone to land Mystic River–Lehane has settled in for a pretty smooth movie ride. “I’m still not sure I’ve capitulated to Hollywood per se,” he says by phone from his native Boston. “My three films were made in odd non-conformist ways within the system.”

1. “Mystic River (2003) was made by somebody who comes along and says, ‘I’m going to make this film,'” says Lehane, who kept his distance from writer Brian Helgeland. “I wouldn’t want some pain-in-the-ass author breathing down my neck,” he says. “The studio didn’t like the ending, cuts half the budget and Eastwood goes and gets the other half. ‘I’ll make it my way.’ Clint Eastwood makes it his way because he has final cut. No focus guys in Peoria rode off on bicycles.” Needless to say, the movie went on to win best actor and supporting actor Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

2. Gone Baby Gone (2007), based on the fourth Kenzie and Gennaro mystery series, was adapted by Aaron Stockard and Ben Affleck (who won a screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting). It took a while for the writers to figure out how to use the book’s plot while introducing the detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) at a much younger age. While Affleck earned great reviews for his directing debut, and Amy Ryan scored a supporting actress Oscar nomination, the movie didn’t deliver at the box office. A sequel is unlikely. The fifth novel in the series will be succeeded by a sixth, due later this year.

3. Shutter Island. Wolfgang Petersen was developing the book at one time, but Lehane never saw a script. Producer Mike Medavoy came along and adopted the movie, bringing in Kalogridis, who got her screenplay to DiCaprio and Scorsese. “Leo got a hold of it and flipped over it and told Marty he wanted to do it,” says Lehane. “She wrote it fast because the writers strike was looming. The reason it’s so faithful is you can’t pull the wrong string in the script. Structurally it’s not built for that. It’s such a delicate house of cards, it takes only one. You can’t pull a string.”

Lehane is delighted with Kalogridis and Scorsese’s understanding of how his characters speak the way people spoke in 50s movies. “The Sweet Smell of Success was the end of that type of dialogue,” Lehane says. The writer was inspired by Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate and Anthony Schaffer’s original Wicker Man. “It’s very much the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley,” he added. “It’s all in the pot and I just stirred.”

The book and the movie draw the audience into levels of deceit and delusion that are tricky to decipher, although all is revealed in the secret twist ending. One scene in the book and movie is pivotal to whether the whole house of cards stays standing: the detective’s cave encounter with a runaway inmate (Patricia Clarkson). “It had to happen, and I was terrified of it,” Lehane admits. “I remember when I was writing it: ‘this is it, everything hinges on this chapter, the book is fucked.’ It’s such a deranged chapter. I had to sell it with everything I had.”

Shutter Island is rife with allegory. “We’re playing with some concepts that were applicable in 2004 as much as they were in 1954,” he says. Clearly World War II and the Nazis left their mark on Lehane’s two detectives. And in 1954 the mental health industry was going through a seismic shift, says Lehane: “Three rival schools of thought met in a cage match. 1. Psychosurgery (lobotomy), 2. Pharmapsychology and 3. Talk therapy. “In the end we know which one won.”

Next up: Lehane is taking the plunge into adapting his own short story, Animal Rescue. Meanwhile, freed from Spider-Man, Sam Raimi is developing The Given Day, Lehane’s most ambitious, sprawling novel, set during the labor strikes of post-World War I Boston.

Here’s a video piece with Martin Scorsese and Dennis Lehane:

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