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How Dennis Lehane brings the Boston attitude to Hollywood

Dennis Lehane penned the screenplay for his new book, Since We Fell.

Los Angeles may love Dennis Lehane, but Dennis Lehane does not love Los Angeles. The 51-year-old writer has made California his home for the past three years, as he's expanded his work from the Boston crime novels he's known for (Moonlight Mile, Prayers for Rain) to a slew of acclaimed film and television projects (HBO's The Wire, the Tom Hardy drama The Drop). Just don't expect Lehane to wax rhapsodic about his new, sunnier environs. "There are worse places to be exiled," he says, as if gritting his teeth on the other end of the line. "And yeah, I don't think there's a single rational reason to leave L.A. right now. But I like to bitch."

Misery loves company, though – a truth familiar to any fan of the Lehane antihero. You already know the type, even if you've never picked up a Lehane novel, thanks to big-screen adaptations of his books Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, Shutter Island, and this year's Live By Night. Lehane's world is one filled with anxious working-class stiffs who exist just outside of the law, or just on the edge of morality – a world neatly captured but given a Hitchcockian spin in his new book, Since We Fell, which Lehane also penned the screenplay for. The Globe and Mail spoke with Lehane about hometowns, Hollywood and how to split your brain between the page and the screen.

Do you think you'll ever write about Los Angeles the way you write about Boston?

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It's funny. Last night, I went to a screening of a restored version of Heat, the ultimate L.A. movie. I was sitting there watching it for three hours and I recognized maybe 10 per cent of the city. Michael Mann was there 20 years when he shot it, and he still felt like he didn't know the city. I feel like between Michael Connelly's work, and Ellroy and Chandler, L.A. is covered. I've got Boston. That's where I'll stick.

Do you feel you have Boston covered as much as, say, Mann in Heat?

You can't know everything about a city. But Boston is small; it's the same size as Milwaukee. It's easy to wrap your arms around it. Plus, when you grow up there, it's in your bones, your blood. How you receive knowledge is very different than when you come in and study something, versus growing up through it. That's why the word "roots" is so good – you're part of the ecosystem, the roots are in you. I understand Boston at a root level. Every other place, I'm a tourist.

Since We Fell gets back to your roots, though.

I remember I had a draft where we're at the finale, at the old mill, and I just thought, "Ah, I'm home again." Give me a crumbling industrial town any day of the week and I can go crazy. I'm working on a TV show now set in Ohio, but in a crumbling Ohio town that's left its industrial base. And I'm so comfortable. I get these people. I get these characters.

That's the adaptation of Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes, right? How is that going?

Usually, you have to worry when something goes this fun. There's sort of a reputation in Hollywood that if a film is fun, it's going to turn out to be a bad film, and the film productions that are nightmares produce great films. But right now, we're in sync.

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What have you learned about writing for film and TV since you started off on The Wire?

First, that it's visual. You can write a great scene using one word, as they famously did on The Wire. It's not about the lines. Sean Penn said something to me while shooting Mystic River: "I never trust a great line." If the story is working, you shouldn't need a great line. That's the cinematic approach to things. Also: no fat. In a novel, there are things that should be indulged. I don't read a novel for plot. What brings me to a novel is the depth of language. I want to read things that can never make a film. I was just talking about a movie that's been unfairly maligned in some ways – All the Pretty Horses. It's not a great movie, and it's not a bad movie, but what's lost is the language. Just the story, it's pretty pedestrian. But the novel is a masterpiece because of what Cormac [McCarthy] does with the language. And you can't get that on film. But you can do other things. And one of the great things about film is what can be done with a look, or with stillness. When we did The Drop and cast Tom Hardy, I went and cut 30 per cent of his lines, because Tom can do so much with silence.

How much of a challenge is it to switch between the mindset of a novelist and a screenwriter, to work in those two languages?

Sometimes you write to be read, but when you write a screenplay or teleplay, that's not your job. You're leaving a template for everybody, giving them the blueprint for the cinematographer or director or actor. But I'm guilty to this day of still writing very talky scenes, and that's the novelist in me. But I keep working against it.

You're work has been adapted to film, and you've written The Drop, but now you're also working on Mr. Mercedes, and Shutter Island was in the works as a TV series, too. Do you feel more of the Hollywood work is moving from film to television, or streaming services?

There's a lot of factors, but yeah, I think it is moving that way. The reality is, adults aren't going to the movies. They have big-screen TVs and all these programs. So then Hollywood says, "We're not making movies for adults any more because they don't show up, so let's make these tentpole comic-book movies." It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it's a wonderful thing, working on Mr. Mercedes, because if we filmed that book as a two-hour movie, all that would be left is the bones, the skeleton. The book is so much more than that.

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Talking about the drop-off of adult audiences, do you think that is partly to blame for how Ben Affleck's Live by Night was received?

That's a dicey area to go into, why people didn't show up to that movie. I'm not the audience, I'm not the marketing team at Warner Bros., I don't know. In that circumstance, I have to demur because I'm too close to the material. I can't trust myself to answer that question.

Does that spell the end for films involving your character Joe Coughlin, though?

No, I don't think so. There's been continued, non-stop interest. I will say the one thing I'm precious about is that book. But the other thing is, I've had some beautiful film adaptations. I don't need that validation any more. Somebody recently low-balled me on a film project, and I said, "This guy seems to think that I need this." I'm not talking about needing the money, but that I'm just going to fall for that, "Oooh, you're going to make a movie of my book?" I'm sitting there going, "No, I'm good, man. I'm really good."

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More

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