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He Adapts to Elmore Leonard's Style

June 21, 1998|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When novelist Elmore Leonard decided to shift his attention from westerns to crime sagas, it may have been good news for readers, but filmgoers tended to suffer. "Hombre" and "3:10 to Yuma," based on Leonard books, are considered classics or darn close; meanwhile, "Stick" and "52 Pick-Up" deservedly collect dust on video store shelves.

Even last year's "Jackie Brown," an adaptation of Leonard's "Rum Punch," missed the bull's-eye--even though writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a Leonard aficionado--for a crucial reason: Leonard has said, "I try to leave out the parts readers skip"; in his 2 1/2-hour film, Tarantino decidedly did not.

Then there's Scott Frank. The screenwriter ("Dead Again," "Little Man Tate"), a longtime Leonard fan, helped make "Get Shorty" smart, breezy fun and received nominations for a Writers Guild Award and Golden Globe for his efforts; he manages much the same with "Out of Sight," opening Friday and based on Leonard's '96 bestseller.

George Clooney stars as Jack Foley, a semi-suave and not-quite-smart-enough bank robber who busts out of prison--and directly into the arms of federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), whom he immediately kidnaps and stuffs into the trunk of her car. Covered in muck from his breakout, he hops into the trunk with her--his befuddled buddy Buddy (Ving Rhames) takes the wheel--and begins flirting with her.

She is not altogether uncharmed, but her job is to bring Jack back in, and after she escapes his clutches, the remainder of the film is concerned with her manhunt and his admittedly misguided efforts to rob a Detroit gazillionaire who has done time for insider-trading (look hard--it's Albert Brooks in a bald wig).

"I read all his books, and had been somewhat disappointed by his films and curious as to why more of them hadn't been made--a lot had been optioned and just sat there," Frank says between bites of asparagus salad near his Pasadena office. "I met him and it was one of those things where I was so in awe of him and I had learned so much about writing from reading him that I wanted to do everything I could to protect the work, especially the first time around, and see if I could realize an Elmore Leonard novel in a way that they hadn't been. The first thing he said to me was, 'Do whatever you want to do.' I think 'Get Shorty' was a happy experience for him because when he wrote his next book ["Out of Sight"], he said, 'Would you do this one, too?' "

Says Leonard, who deems "awful" his own efforts to adapt "Stick": "I feel comfortable and secure in his hands." He's already lobbying Frank to take on his next book, "Be Cool," a sequel to "Get Shorty." (Joel and Ethan Coen have adapted his current bestseller, "Cuba Libre"; no director has been set yet.)

Stacey Sher of Jersey Films, which produced "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," has known Frank since they both began in the industry a dozen years back at Paramount. She says, "Scott understands what Leonard's work is about. It's about the choices people make, that randomness, what happens if you make a left turn instead of a right. He's great at following that spirit.

"In Leonard's books, character is plot. A lot of filmmakers get seduced by all his interesting story lines. But if you get reductive with it, it won't be there--it's all about personalities. Scott starts out as a fan, he understands why Leonard's books work. Instead of being literal, he goes for the spirit of the piece.

"I knew he was a huge fan, and I knew that even though he wasn't available at the time, he wouldn't speak to me again if I hadn't offered him 'Get Shorty.' It screwed up his entire schedule, but he knew he had to do it. It was a great collaboration. And when we first got 'Out of Sight,' we said, 'We don't want to do this without Scott.' "

"I did 'Get Shorty,' and I thought, 'OK, I've done my Elmore Leonard and now I'll do my other stuff,' " Frank recalls. "And he sent me 'Out of Sight' and I didn't want to like it, I didn't want to spend my career doing Elmore Leonard. But I got to the trunk scene and I called up and said, 'I'll do it.' I didn't even finish, I just said, 'I'm in.' "

In adapting "Out of Sight," Frank rearranged a few plot elements, made the conclusion a smidgen more hopefully ambiguous (incorporating a story Leonard had told him), and added Brooks' character, Ripley, who is only referred to in passing in the book. The changes are heartily endorsed by Leonard.

"I argued with him at first about Ripley," Leonard admits. "I didn't think it was necessary. I thought you just needed to get to the big score. But he said you need to show a relationship between Jack and Ripley because why would Jack get involved in the heist otherwise unless he knew Ripley? And he was right.

"I also asked him, 'Why didn't you just get to the prison escape immediately?' And he answered, 'Well, you didn't!' "

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