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Dennis Lehane Talks Shutter Island

by Anne Thompson
February 24, 2010 1:34 AM
4 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

The thing to remember about Shutter Island is that it's closely based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. James Cameron collaborator Laeta Kalogridis wrote the adaptation that lured Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. Read the book and you will see how closely she hewed to the original. Whatever the movie's strengths or weaknesses--and it has both--they come from the book. I'd argue that as cinematic as this paranoid thriller is, it works better as a book than a movie. That's because Scorsese faced the challenge of making this high-wire reality vs. fiction puzzle into a plausible, believable narrative that didn't throw the audience for a complete loop. Some buy it, some don't.

Paramount obviously made the right call pushing the HItchcockian suspenser into February--and selling the movie as a nasty R-rated psycho-thriller. Shutter Island delivered a boffo $40-million weekend, the best ever for both DiCaprio and Scorsese. Earning diverse, mixed reviews (here's The New Yorker) and a B+ Cinemascore, the question remains how well Shutter Island actually played for audiences. The second weekend will tell the tale.

After initially resisting Hollywood--it took Clint Eastwood calling him on the phone to land Mystic River--Lehane has settled in for a pretty smooth movie ride. "I'm still not sure I've capitulated to Hollywood per se," he says by phone from his native Boston. "My three films were made in odd non-conformist ways within the system."

1. "Mystic River (2003) was made by somebody who comes along and says, 'I'm going to make this film,'" says Lehane, who kept his distance from writer Brian Helgeland. "I wouldn't want some pain-in-the-ass author breathing down my neck," he says. "The studio didn't like the ending, cuts half the budget and Eastwood goes and gets the other half. 'I'll make it my way.' Clint Eastwood makes it his way because he has final cut. No focus guys in Peoria rode off on bicycles." Needless to say, the movie went on to win best actor and supporting actor Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

2. Gone Baby Gone (2007), based on the fourth Kenzie and Gennaro mystery series, was adapted by Aaron Stockard and Ben Affleck (who won a screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting). It took a while for the writers to figure out how to use the book's plot while introducing the detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) at a much younger age. While Affleck earned great reviews for his directing debut, and Amy Ryan scored a supporting actress Oscar nomination, the movie didn't deliver at the box office. A sequel is unlikely. The fifth novel in the series will be succeeded by a sixth, due later this year.

3. Shutter Island. Wolfgang Petersen was developing the book at one time, but Lehane never saw a script. Producer Mike Medavoy came along and adopted the movie, bringing in Kalogridis, who got her screenplay to DiCaprio and Scorsese. "Leo got a hold of it and flipped over it and told Marty he wanted to do it," says Lehane. "She wrote it fast because the writers strike was looming. The reason it's so faithful is you can't pull the wrong string in the script. Structurally it's not built for that. It's such a delicate house of cards, it takes only one. You can't pull a string."

Lehane is delighted with Kalogridis and Scorsese's understanding of how his characters speak the way people spoke in 50s movies. "The Sweet Smell of Success was the end of that type of dialogue," Lehane says. The writer was inspired by Don Siegel's The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Anthony Schaffer's original Wicker Man. "It's very much the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley," he added. "It's all in the pot and I just stirred."

The book and the movie draw the audience into levels of deceit and delusion that are tricky to decipher, although all is revealed in the secret twist ending. One scene in the book and movie is pivotal to whether the whole house of cards stays standing: the detective's cave encounter with a runaway inmate (Patricia Clarkson). "It had to happen, and I was terrified of it," Lehane admits. "I remember when I was writing it: 'this is it, everything hinges on this chapter, the book is fucked.' It's such a deranged chapter. I had to sell it with everything I had."

Shutter Island is rife with allegory. "We're playing with some concepts that were applicable in 2004 as much as they were in 1954," he says. Clearly World War II and the Nazis left their mark on Lehane's two detectives. And in 1954 the mental health industry was going through a seismic shift, says Lehane: "Three rival schools of thought met in a cage match. 1. Psychosurgery (lobotomy), 2. Pharmapsychology and 3. Talk therapy. "In the end we know which one won."

Next up: Lehane is taking the plunge into adapting his own short story, Animal Rescue. Meanwhile, freed from Spider-Man, Sam Raimi is developing The Given Day, Lehane's most ambitious, sprawling novel, set during the labor strikes of post-World War I Boston.

Here's a video piece with Martin Scorsese and Dennis Lehane:

4 Comments

  • sheila king | March 20, 2010 6:09 AMReply

    My favorite movie in a very long time. May have it's weaknesses on an initial viewing but it just gets better on subsequent viewings. Great acting, almost Shakespearean tragedy at core, dream seqences that are beautifully emotive. It definitely has rewards not the least of which is the desire to see it again. Great miss by some critics who should know better in my opinion.

  • Anne Thompson | February 26, 2010 7:51 AMReply

    Like you, I had some real issues with Shutter Island. On the first go-round it was all style and no substance for me--with references to old movies. It goes off the rocks literally when DiCaprio's U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels starts climbing around the cliffs and winds up in a cave talking to Patricia Clarkson--the scene Lehane talks about above. In the movie, it doesn't fly, and the movie descends from there. When the New Yorker blogger @tnyfrontrow, Richard Brody, tweeted that the movie was profound, I challenged him. His provocative response--the movie is about playing characters and character--made me want to see it again.

  • Brian | February 26, 2010 5:19 AMReply

    Interesting that Lehane mentions INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, because SHUTTER ISLAND is a perfect movie for an era like ours in which the pod people have taken over. It's a movie that encourages us to give in, fall asleep and be taken over by the pods. OUR version of reality is the ONLY one you'll need. If you question reality or authority, you're crazy and dangerous and you need a lobotomy. That seems to be the message of the movie for me.

    It's as if George Bailey woke up in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and found that Potterville was real and Bedford Falls was his fantasy world and when he protests and goes looking for signs of his Bedford Falls life, Old Man Potter, with the connivance of Mary the librarian and Bert the Cop, sends him off to the funny farm with a look of sad concern. That's SHUTTER ISLAND.

    And that's not a recommendation.

  • alan | February 24, 2010 6:36 AMReply

    MINI SPOILER

    am a bit surprised to hear the movie is that true to the novel. i was disappointed by the ending and felt lehane's novel must surely contain sordid plot elements that could not be included in the movie. the type of elements found in mystic river.

    SOMETHING OF A SPOILER ---------------------

    decaprio's character seems just a bit too clean in the end. it doesn't quite add up. it seems like his past needed to be more gritty to support his mental state. with a family background like that there's plenty of room for extreme behavior, especially coming from the pen of lehane. certainly, there must be some level of complexity in the novel that did not make it to the movie.

    the reveal in act III does not have the impact of, say, sixth sense or something like that. simply does not support what preceded.

    anyway, totally agree that the marketing was smart. feel this one is best as a novel. as a movie, does not have enough forward motion, through line.

    i think people will feel hoodwinked. the movie simply isn't a shock/creep supernatural thriller as the ads would lead one to believe. so, there may be a backlash of bad word of mouth. expecting huge drop off. if SI cost a lot it may struggle to earn its keep in second and third weekend.

    ------------------------------------------
    this one seems like it would do pretty well as a rental, though. and scorcese/dicaprio will play well on cable/tv, etc.

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