The Dickens of Detroit
Elmore Leonard talks cops, the Motor City, George Clooney and the worst movie ever made
Published: March 30, 2011
MT: Did you have fun playing with those very current themes, like al-Qaeda and the Middle East unrest?
Leonard: Yeah, I have a lot of fun writing full stop. All my scenes are realistic. Stories set in Detroit are as realistic as I can get them. I try to be very accurate with the attitude of the cops, especially homicide cops. The ones that I've met have a good, dry sense of humor. They're having a good time too.
MT: The character of Dara Barr, an investigative journalist, is particularly admirable in Djibouti. A strong and beautiful woman ...
Leonard: Twenty years ago, someone criticized my women — that they were more in the order of women in Mickey Spillane novels, just there because they're women. I resented that, but I've tried to concentrate more on my female characters and make sure I'm bringing them to life. In Killshot, the husband is an iron worker. He's a very macho guy. Has a drink before he goes up on the iron and walks the narrow strip of metal. I thought, he's gonna be the main character. In the opening of that book, we meet his wife and see the two of them together. I thought, he's not the main character, she is. That's the way it turned out.
MT: With the book that preceded Djibouti, Road Dogs, why did you bring back Jack Foley?
Leonard: George Clooney liked Out of Sight very much, so I thought I'd give him another one. But he still hasn't read it, and he decided that he doesn't want to be another bank robber, so I'll have to find somebody else. I thought George was great as Foley.
MT: When you license one of your stories to be made into a movie, is it tough giving creative control of your stories over to somebody else?
Leonard: Well, it has been in a lot of cases, but some good movies were made — Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty. Those were good pictures and they stayed fairly close to the books. They picked up as much dialogue as they could, and I was very happy with them.
MT: Which ones did you not like so much?
Leonard: The Big Bounce was made twice. The first time, I said, this has got to be the second-worst movie ever made. Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young starred. Then it was made again, and now I know what the worst movie made is. They didn't know what they were doing. They were in Hawaii shooting it, and mine takes place at the top of the thumb in Michigan. I'm always excited to watch the latest one, wondering if I'm going to recognize it or not. I have liked the three most recent ones. Be Cool was not good. The director [George Armitage], he said, "Do you have any advice for me?" I said, I'll tell you the same thing I told Barry Sonnenfeld when he did Get Shorty. I said, when someone delivers a funny line, don't cut away to get any laughs or grins. These people are all serious. Well, the second Travolta movie, he ignored that completely and they all just yack-yacked it up. I thought it was terrible.
MT: You did write screenplays for a while ...
Leonard: I stopped in '93. I did one for Billy Friedkin at Paramount. I finally admitted that I didn't have any fun writing screenplays. Normally it was from a book that I'd already written. My energy went into that. Now I'm sitting here trying to work up a little more interest in the project. That's hard to do. The studio guys always have ideas. What about this, what about that? Backstory — they love backstory. Well, we don't know what she's all about. I say, yes you do. You know all that you need to know about her. You don't have to know when she went to school or if she was married before, any of that. I walked in one time and the guy who was the head of the studio said, "All you did was turn the book into the screenplay." I said, "Yes, that's right." He said, "We wanted to see some new stuff." So why did they buy the book?
MT: With Mr. Majestyk you did your own screenplay ...
Leonard: I was happy with Mr. Majestyk, very happy, because it's still paying residuals and I wrote it in '75. I might get a check tomorrow. You never know what the sale was, but one-quarter of the gross of the sale is what the writer gets. I did that one for Walter Mirisch [the producer]. He and I are good friends. He's got five or more Oscars, behind his desk on a table. He's a good guy. He calls about every two weeks and wonders what I'm doing. I always send him a manuscript. He hasn't made anything in years.
MT: Did you see Karen Sisco, the TV series based on your character in Out of Sight?
Leonard: They didn't get her. They tried different personalities, and they didn't catch it. They didn't find that one that really worked. Finally, they gave up. Jennifer Lopez got it right away.
MT: Stephen King called you the Great American Writer. Is that fair?
Leonard: That was kind of him. I haven't read that much of him. I've read maybe a half-dozen of his books. How many has he written? A hundred or so? He's written far more than I have. He does it so quickly. Does he rewrite? I'm rewriting all the time. It takes me about three pages longhand to get one that I like. Then I type it. I've been doing it like that ever since the beginning. I started with a Royal portable typewriter, and all I was doing was X-ing out lines. I thought, I'm wasting all my time. I should just write it out and if I don't like it, cross it out and keep going. That's finally what I did and what I'm doing now after 60 years. I don't use a computer. My researcher has all the equipment. All the electronic stuff. I call him up and ask him a question, and he tells me immediately the answer. I'd be looking around and trying to read the screen. I'm going to have to learn, a little bit. But there are so many people who have never used a typewriter. I've had this one now for about 20 years. I was reluctant. I used to have a regular old stand up one. This one, you plug it in. I was afraid it would be too sensitive. That's why I put it off for so long. I'd hit the wrong key and there it would be. I worry about dumb things like that, until finally I got the typewriter. Now, it's hard to get ribbons. A lot of good writers still use typewriters.
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