Although the trailers and other marketing materials being utilized to sell “A Walk Among the Tombstones” will have you believing that it’s another run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson thriller, it’s not. The movie is intricate and beautifully done, with one of the finer Neeson performances in recent memory, a twisty crime movie plot (based on a Lawrence Block novel of the same name), and nary a superhero in sight.
We recently got to chat with Scott Frank, the film’s writer/director, who you might know from his long and illustrious resume that includes collaborating with Steven Spielberg (“Minority Report“), Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight“) and several other people who aren’t named Steven (including Jodie Foster, Kenneth Branagh, Barry Sonnenfeld and Aaron Sorkin). He’s also one of the most sought after script doctors in Hollywood. During the course of the interview we talked about everything from the pressure of adapting well-known mystery novelists to the western he’s desperately trying to make, what he learned from Steven Soderbergh, his take on the “Planet of the Apes” franchise and more.
You’ve done a few of these high-profile mystery novel adaptations. What are the challenges of something like that?
Just to try and not to panic. They’re all different because you wrestle with all of these because they all have a very specific voice, a very strong authorial voice that is part of what makes them read so well, particularly in the case of Elmore Leonard. The challenge is to translate the feel of those novels into something visual, and then from a story standpoint, the moves in these stories are very small. They’re pulp stories, they’re not giant dramatic moves, they’re very small pulp moves. And the challenge is to make those little moves feel big enough that they warrant a movie. Once upon a time you could. In the sixties and seventies and even going back to film noir, the private eye story was very common. But now movies are about spectacle and television is more about telling the pulpier stories, like “True Detective” and so on. So you’re always trying to want it to be a movie.
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“A Walk Among the Tombstones” had been around for a while and that was the case with “The Lookout,” which had made the rounds…
[laughs] Yes, story of my life.
Were there any “one that got away” scripts or any more that you were looking to direct yourself?
Yes, and I think they all take a long time because the kinds of things I like to write and particularly the kind of things I like to direct are challenging, again, because of what movies are right now. So they all take a long time. People have always respected the writing in this and the material but they were always nervous about whether or not there was an audience. And the way that “Walk Among the Tombstones” gets made is very simple: it’s Liam Neeson. Without Liam Neeson, this movie doesn’t happen. They’re not action movies, they’re not comic book movies, and that’s pretty much what studios are doing at the moment. But, I have a western that I’ve been trying to get made since the early 2000s. It’s my favorite script I’ve ever written. But since it’s a western I’m just trying to find my Lorenzo De’ Medici to finance it.
Is this the western you teased Soderbergh with?
He didn’t like horses, right?
He didn’t want to shoot people on horses. I begged him to direct it. And by the way – that’s happened twice now. “The Lookout” I wasn’t going to direct. I had gone through two other directors and the last one was [David] Fincher and when he left I couldn’t go through it, I couldn’t get my heart broken with another director. And the same with ‘Tombstones.’ There were lots of people who came in and out and finally I said I’d do it. It seems to be a pattern with me.
But you’re intent on making this western?
Well, now I am. But originally I was trying to get Soderbergh to do it. And Sam Mendes flirted with it for a while.
Ruth Wilson was originally announced as being a part of the ‘Tombstones’ cast but isn’t in the final movie. What happened to that part?
She was my favorite part of the script and my favorite part of the movie when I shot the movie. She was great and her scenes with Liam were fantastic. But I realized that he needed to be a character in isolation. I also cut out his son. He had a son in the movie and there were several scenes with him. Whereas the read was greatly helped with those characters being there, once you see and hear things coming together, it takes on its own life and the scenes with Ruth tended to soften the movie. Not because she was a soft character; she was a tough character. And one of the reasons is because I wrote her into the movie, since in the book that part is a man. I made it a woman so that not every woman in the movie was getting cut up or kidnapped. I wanted a really strong female character and she was great – she rocked it. But I just realized, at a certain point, he was a much stronger character being on his own.
Who was she?
She was a cop from his past. It was heartbreaking to me. And Tony Gilroy saw the film early on and he was the first one to suggest it. I said, “No way, you are absolutely wrong.” Then he reminded me of “Michael Clayton” and in “Michael Clayton” he had a girlfriend and he ended up cutting out the girlfriend and it was much stronger. I said, “This is so different.” Then we cut her out and I looked at it and had to say it worked much better.
You have an incredible knack for casting. What made you think of Dan Stevens as this drug dealer character?
I wanted somebody who, the first read you got was intelligent. And he was trying to live a life in Brooklyn in this nice townhouse with his wife and sooner or later he was going to have children and take them to school. But he was a heroin trafficker. I wanted somebody who would fit into that young hipster life and look like that part but also play the darker part. I wanted somebody who you didn’t expect, too. You know, Matthew Goode was so interesting in “The Lookout” and the way he worked that part he was able to bring so many layers. I was looking for a similar character here – I wanted somebody who could be worldly and intelligent and play the darker part.
Where did the decision to set the movie in 1999 come from?
Well, there were a couple of reasons. I always knew I wanted to set it in the past because I didn’t want to set it in a time where cell phones are so ubiquitous. Thrillers have become all about technology and using technology. That seemed, to me, not so interesting. And what I liked about the story was that there were still pay phones on the street and people were still using them, but it was on the cusp of something. To that end, when I went back to it a couple of years ago to start thinking about directing it, I realized that the great thing about Y2K was that everybody was afraid of the wrong thing, as the character says in the script now. Everybody was worried about getting stuck in elevators or worrying about our computers exploding or whatever we thought would happen, and I thought it seems quaint now by comparison to what happened after that. So I thought that was a great opportunity to set something in New York, when New York was doing really well and crime was down and everybody was fat and happy and content, meanwhile, around the world, there was something that we weren’t paying attention to. I looked at these two bad guys as a harbinger and I thought it was the perfect time, if you did it subtly and didn’t make a big deal out of it. And it was a great way for me to organize myself creatively around the movie that way.
A while ago you had the first crack at the “Planet of the Apes” reboot. How did your version differ and what do you think of the ones they eventually made?
I haven’t seen them. I haven’t seen either of them. Scott Rudin and I worked on it together and at the time the studio felt that our version was too dark and too expensive but I get the feeling that that is sort of where they ended up anyway. But beyond that I can’t speak to it because I haven’t seen it. But that’s what it was. I liked the movie we wrote but it was really dark. It was about what it means to be human and I don’t know that back then they wanted to go in that direction. But it feels like that’s the direction they’re going now. And I hear the movies are great by the way.
You just did this Paul Giamatti pilot for FX that didn’t get picked up. Is there any chance of you taking that to Netflix or another network?
I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I love the pilot. I love the way the pilot came out, I loved every minute of making the pilot, I love the people at FX – how about that? I understand why they were nervous about it. It’s a very dark, strange bit of business. But I don’t know how I feel about it. Right now I’m finishing a novel that I owe Knopf and I’m two years late on that. So when the show didn’t happen I took the opportunity for some free time and thought I should finish that. So that’s what I’ll be up to in the next few months. And then think about what I want to do. Maybe that will be trying to reposition “Hoke.” If somebody knocked on the door and said they had a place for it, I’d probably change my mind. But right now it’s in limbo while I figure out what to do next. Part of me is wondering if the universe is telling me that nobody wants to watch it.
Can you talk about what the novel is?
It’s an LA crime story in the week after a bad earthquake.
Another high-profile thing you’re working on is the “Assassin’s Creed” movie.
Actually I’m not. I don’t know why I got so connected to that movie, so I think I should unwind that and I’ll do that with you first. I did one quick step while I was on post-production on ‘Tombstones’ but I had to leave and finish my movie. Michael Fassbender‘s schedule… Actually I don’t know what it was… But I did a quick step and couldn’t work on it anymore and they have since had two or three other writers. A lot of people have worked on it. So it’s not my thing and not my movie and for all I know it could be a whole new thing. I think there’s probably nothing of mine surviving in there. But I had a great time working on it.
You’re one of the most in-demand script doctors in the business. Does it ever bug you when someone else is given credit for a line or a scene that you’ve written?
No, no… It’s not frustrating at all. I feel lucky that I can work with these various types of people and work on these jobs and meet different directors and actors and producers. A lot of times I begin really important relationships on those gigs. I earn money from those jobs so I can do things like “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” where I really don’t earn money. And it buys me time to do other things. They’re great learning experiences and great challenges because these are the types of things I normally wouldn’t do otherwise. I wouldn’t spend a year on these myself. But to come in and do a little work on something and genuinely help solve a problem is very satisfying. 9 times out of 10 I never deserve any credit. I’m never going in trying to take credit. I rarely talk about anything I’m working on. And most of the time the original writer gets credit and deservedly so. I usually come in and fix a little problem or something here or there. And most of the time I’ve done a significant amount of work, I’ve gotten credit.
One of the directors you got to work with in this regard was Tony Scott on the “Hell’s Angels” movie. Is that still something that will be developed?
No, they’re starting over. I didn’t know what was going to happen with our movie. We were at a bit of an impasse, I think. The version that we were going to do died with Tony. And because of “Sons of Anarchy,” which has quite elegantly usurped that territory, what I think they’re going to do now is just a biography of the Hell’s Angels. That’s the direction they’re going.
What director have you learned the most from while working with them?
I think I’ve learned the most from Steven Soderbergh, if I had to say. And also my mentor Sydney Pollack. But probably the most I’ve learned is from Soderbergh in terms of directing and how my directing style has evolved, particularly when I did the pilot. I had a lot of help from Steven in the cutting room on “Walk Among the Tombstones” – I really turned to him and asked for a lot of advice on things I struggled with. So when I did the pilot I really felt invigorated to try a lot of things that I felt really good about. Sadly no one will ever get to see that… That’s why I’m okay with the pilot not getting picked up, because it accomplished this other thing for me.
You did “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.” Are there any more Elmore Leonard novels that you’re dying to tackle?
I think that there are definitely a couple more books that I like but I feel like I got away with it twice and I don’t know if I could pull it off again. I feel very good about those movies and they’re very difficult adaptations for me and I don’t want to crap on the first two by doing a lousy third one.
You were working on a “Houdini” movie…
For Francis Lawrence.
Right. Is that something that he could circle back to after “The Hunger Games?”
I don’t think so. I think that’s another one where we worked on it for about a year together but I think Sony wants to go in a slightly different direction. We were doing “Ragtime” with magic in turn of the century New York. That’s what I wanted to do and that was the direction we were going in. But it’s a very expensive proposition and I don’t know if an audience would support that kind of movie. It was more drama than supernatural.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is now in theaters.