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He Adapts to Elmore Leonard's Style

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

"The trick with Elmore is, he just writes, he doesn't know what he's gonna write every day," says Frank, who likes to call Leonard in the afternoons just to hear the author read his day's work to him. "He doesn't know where the story's gonna go, so it's all happenstance. So the trick to adapting his books is giving structure to that happenstance. The other thing is, I'll always find a theme. My first instinct is to just write--there are so many great things in the book, I try to get them all in and the result is a real flattened-out version of the book, instead of a good movie.

"So I try to find out what the book is about to me," he continues. "In the case of 'Get Shorty,' it was how everyone comes to Los Angeles and reinvents themselves. In the case of 'Out of Sight,' it's the road not taken--if I hadn't spent my life robbing banks, I could be with this woman. And anything that doesn't play to that theme, I cut out. I would call Elmore and tell him that, and he'd say, 'Wow, I never knew that there was a theme, but yeah, that works.'

"He once told me he writes the book and then he goes back and takes out everything that sounds like writing, which is a good lesson for us all."

Frank enjoys keeping the film business at an arm's length. He moved to Pasadena (thanks to his "Out of Sight" payday, so in tribute to Clooney's character he calls it "the house that Jack built") because, he explains with a laugh, "The only Hollywood a--hole in my neighborhood is me." His office is a roomy, comfortable space with the requisite pool table (his 4 1/2-year-old son, he jokes, "thinks I play pool for a living") and large posters of "Get Shorty," "Little Man Tate," "Dead Again" and Kubrick's "Lolita" (pointedly absent--posters for his films "Malice" and "Heaven's Prisoners").

Frank grew up near San Jose, and went to school at UC Santa Barbara, where he worked on "Little Man Tate." When he came to Hollywood, he continued tinkering with the script as he held jobs doing research for a production company and tending bar. He got into a screenwriting program at Paramount, where he wrote "Dead Again" (1991), a cheeky thriller directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.

"It's sort of a weird tone, you don't know how you're supposed to take it. The tone was just this side of camp, and it was marketed as more of a straight thriller, so people weren't quite sure how to respond. The test screenings were terrible. I would get hives, I would make my wife come with me to the screenings and cling to her during the whole thing, leave welts in her arm. Then they would fill out these cards; Ken Branagh would call them the 'Cards of Death.' "

That same year saw the release of his longtime project "Little Man Tate," Jodie Foster's directorial debut. Though he's understandably fond of the film, he admits, "When I saw 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Searching for Bobby Fischer,' in both cases, I thought, 'Why didn't I write that?' "

Currently, he's working on an original screenplay, "The Lookout," for DreamWorks, and will follow that with a couple more adaptations--Pete Dexter's "Brotherly Love" and Lawrence Block's "Walk Among the Tombstones."

He's also working on a novel and has a production deal at Jersey Films.

Ask Frank why he seems to adapt Leonard so well, and he tries to duck the question, crediting his directors--he touts director Steven Soderbergh's deft editing of "Out of Sight's" seduction scene as improving upon his script--and cast (Clooney and Don Cheadle's improvisations made some scenes pop, he adds).

Finally, he says, "This is the answer. Oftentimes, with his books, people misunderstand where the gold lies. And what they do is they keep the plot and jettison all the textural things--the characters, the dialogue--all that goes. And the plot--even he'll tell you it's insignificant. You have to start with those characters and that may mean reinventing some of the plot. That's been the problem. I also think people have taken him too seriously. I don't think he takes himself that seriously."

Oh, and one other thing: "I've been reading him for so long and stealing from him for so long that he was sort of in my head."

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