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The Five Stages of Being Adapted by Martin Scorsese

What is it like to have one of cinema’s most renowned directors turn your book into a movie? Dennis Lehane (‘Shutter Island’), Joe Connelly (‘Bringing Out the Dead’), and Brian Selznick (‘Hugo’) explain the emotionally overwhelming process.

Leonardo Santamaria

Martin Scorsese’s new behemoth of a film, The Irishman, is based on I Heard You Paint Houses, a book by Charles Brandt that was published in 2004. I Heard You Paint Houses tells the remembered life story of Frank Sheeran, a mob enforcer, union leader, and longtime friend of Jimmy Hoffa. Built from years of interviews that Brandt conducted with Sheeran, it’s basically one long “as told to”—Sheeran’s own words with Brandt sporadically jumping in to provide context to the stories. It’s no wonder why Scorsese was drawn to it: At many points when reading I Heard You Paint Houses, you can almost hear the words in a Robert De Niro voice-over, the way he narrates Casino or Ray Liotta narrates Goodfellas.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Scorsese has adapted a book. Aside from Goodfellas and Casino, which were based on the true gangster epics reported by Nicholas Pileggi, Scorsese has looked for inspiration in everything from hefty works of historical nonfiction to spiritual memoirs to beloved romance novels. The last nondocumentary Scorsese film that wasn’t based on a book was 2006’s The Departed, which was a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Before that it was 1985’s After Hours. Scorsese may not be into comic book movies, but that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in preexisting intellectual property.

But to have your work adapted by one of cinema’s most renowned directors can be an emotionally overwhelming process. To understand what it’s like and how it can affect your life afterward, The Ringer spoke with three writers who’ve gone through that experience: Joe Connelly, whose novel inspired by his time as a paramedic in New York City became 1999’s bleak Bringing Out the Dead; Dennis Lehane, whose books Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River were turned into films by other directors before Scorsese took on his askew detective novel Shutter Island in 2010; and Brian Selznick, the Caldecott Medal–winning illustrator and writer of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which became 2011’s Hugo, the director’s first children’s movie. Below, Connelly, Lehane, and Selznick break down the process, from manuscript to screen to what comes after. Call it the Five Stages of Being Adapted by Martin Scorsese.

Writing for the Screen

Selznick: When I was working on Hugo, I was often asked if I thought the book would make a good movie because the book is about the cinema and involves so much relating to the history of film. I always said it can’t be adapted for film. It has to be experienced as a book, because even though it’s about the history of film, it’s about the importance of books. The way the book is created, the story is told both in words and pictures, and there’s a twist that happens at the very end of the book where the object in your hands actually becomes part of the plot.

Lehane: I hate the term “cinematic” when it’s applied to anything besides cinema. I feel like saying, “What it is is perfectly detailed. What it is is giving you the impression of cinema before cinema existed.” Good writing is vivid. Good writing is visual. Good writing makes the brain turn into a film projector. What I would consider “cinematic writing,” and I would disparage it, is writing so it can be made into a film. Just write a script.

Connelly: The book was my dream, and to sell it to Knopf was the ultimate fulfillment of that dream. The movie at first was great because it was cash. You hear all these stories about how the novel is destroyed by the film. What’s the Hemingway line? You drive to the California border and throw the book over, and then they throw the check back to you. But once I heard it might be Scorsese, then it got really interesting. It certainly became much more than the money.

Interested Parties

Connelly: They asked me to write a synopsis of the book because they said they had a director who was interested. They called it a top-five director in the country. I knew it could be only one person who would tackle something like this, so in the synopsis I kind of copied the speech in Taxi Driver that Peter Boyle gives to Travis about “you are what you do.” The producer’s assistant called me back and said, “This is too ephemeral,” or something.

Lehane: There was a version [of Shutter Island] with Wolfgang Petersen that was with Sony. I had several conversations with Wolfgang, but I didn’t want to write the script. I know Steve Knight took several whacks at the script, but I never saw it. The other thing that I heard that I can’t completely source—because again, I never saw the script—was that Sony wanted them to change the ending. And I kept saying, “Guys, it can’t work.” Not because I was proprietary, not because I was precious, but because I knew how the watch had been constructed, and you couldn’t change the ending without causing all the springs and dials and fucking bezels and everything to come flying out of the watch. Shutter Island with a different ending can’t hold, can’t sustain. It collapses.

Selznick: Hugo made its way into a lot of people’s hands in Hollywood, and I was suddenly finding myself fielding a lot of fascinating emails with really fancy names. The one email that stuck out to me didn’t have any names attached to it. It was from a woman named Grey Rembert. I didn’t recognize the name of the producer who she was working for, she didn’t mention any directors, but she talked about how much she loved not just the book, but the character of Hugo himself. And then she talked about a personal experience where coincidentally she grew up in a house with an automaton that always sort of frightened her. The letter was ultimately about taking care of this orphan boy, like she wanted to take care of Hugo. Most of the other letters were like, “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Brian, are the rights available? We’re very interested.”

Lehane: They kicked it loose, and we got it back. Then [producer] Mike Medavoy came out of the woodwork with a guy named Brad Fischer. As a film fanatic I knew Medavoy’s work—Apocalypse Now, Married to the Mob, Silence of the Lambs. He ran Orion, which made some of the best films in the ’80s. So I had a conversation with Mike and then Brad Fischer, who had just produced Zodiac, which is a film I’m in awe of. Then they went and they hired Laeta Kalogridis to write the screenplay. Again, great hands. Any success that I can claim in this realm is that I only get involved with people whose work I admire, and then I just get the hell out of their way.

Selznick: When we spoke on the phone, Rembert first mentioned that she had given it to or was giving it to Martin Scorsese. I kept thinking to myself, “I wrote a book that Martin Scorsese is reading.” And so that was exciting enough. I had a long series of steps where I thought to myself, “If this is all that happens, it will be enough.”

Connelly: I remember Scorsese mentioning he saw [Bringing Out the Dead] as a kind of bookend to Taxi Driver. He picked me up one afternoon at my apartment on the Upper West Side. We drove around through Hell’s Kitchen. And he was just so respectful of the work and he wanted to film it right where it happened, where I worked as a paramedic for so long. I just wanted to go for the ride. My dream was to see an artist like him translate my work.

Lehane: The whole [deal to put the film into production] happened in a crazy weekend. Everybody was scrambling to get projects before the writer’s strike. I got a message from Brad Fischer: “Leo’s reading.” That was on Friday. And then it was either a Monday or Tuesday of the following week: Scorsese’s in. Came out of nowhere. I found out later, Brad got it to Leo and there was all this jockeying. At one point Johnny Depp was going to do Shutter Island and Leo was going to do Public Enemies, and they did a flip-flop. Leo took Shutter Island and they brought in Scorsese, and that’s when Johnny Depp went and did Public Enemies with Michael Mann. I knew nothing about any of that. I mean, keep me the hell out of it. I don’t want to know.

Letting Go

Connelly: The book was optioned a month after it sold. Before it even came out, I was sitting with Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, at dinner. A month later, [I was] riding around with Scorsese looking at locations. A couple months after the book actually came out, we were on a movie set. Probably within a couple months of selling the book to Knopf, I was in the offices of Paramount, Scott Rudin’s office. It was wild. I had been living check-to-check. I had been a paramedic for 11 years and there I was up in this really high tower, looking down at the same streets that I had driven an ambulance in. So I quit that day, basically.

Lehane: If you sell your book to be a film, then 80 percent of your book is going to be thrown out. What you hope is that they get the essence, the spirit. When they did Mystic River, Clint [Eastwood] told me he hired [screenwriter] Brian Helgeland. I was so happy, because he’d done L.A. Confidential. I knew immediately so many things were going to get thrown out of, let’s admit it, my most personal and my favorite book.

Connelly: I had no worries about changing the work or what they would do. I was just interested in being part of their translation. At that point I was already kind of learning the differences between film and print, the different ways you look at something when you read a novel than when you see a film. So I had no illusions to being the owner of the ideas. I was just so respectful that they were trying to be so faithful to my work.

Selznick: I was given the opportunity to read drafts of the script written by John Logan and to give notes and comments. Even in the very first draft of the script, I could see that what he was doing was making a very, very close adaptation of my story. It was certainly more streamlined, but it was also very clearly my story.

Lehane: What you fear is Roland Joffé’s Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne is still spinning in the grave from that. When they throw out the heart of a book, that sucks. And I’ve never had that happen.

Selznick: As writers, we tend to feel that every single thing we put into our story is necessary because we put it into the story. It’s often not until we’re confronted with the idea of some kind of adaptation that you have to face the idea that the way you told the story for the first medium is not entirely going to be suited for the story in the second medium. One of the things I realized very early on was that if this movie got made, one of the reasons it will work as a film—that I couldn’t have known when I was making the book—was that John Logan and Martin Scorsese were going to take my intention and reverse it. I made a book that celebrates film, but it’s ultimately about the importance of books. And what they did was they made a movie that celebrates the books and writing and bookstores, but it’s ultimately about the importance of film.

Making It

During preproduction for Bringing Out the Dead, Connelly brought the film’s star, Nicolas Cage, on paramedic calls for research into the character. When they began filming, Connelly was hired as a on-set technical consultant for medical questions, but they soon started asking him more and more about the narrative.

Connelly: There were all these levels of reality. There’s the first one of me on the streets. And then there’s the book I wrote, which is a composite which I crafted from things that I experienced. And then there’s this other level of [film production with] roads blocked off and trailers and cameras everywhere. It was fascinating and at times surreal. My second book, Crumbtown, became this story of a man who’s lost his identity and he steals it back. He’s a bank robber, and a movie is being made of his exploits and he actually robs the movie, in a sense robbing his own self back.

Selznick: I was on the set for about two weeks and I quickly became friends with Martin Scorsese’s assistant, a guy named Tommaso [Colognese]. Tomasso said that one of his main jobs was giving people copies of my book, and my book is not small. It’s a heavy book. He constantly had to be lugging around multiple copies of this book and giving it to people so that Scorsese could reference it when he was filming. So everywhere I went on the set, there were copies of my book. As a book writer who’s heard so many stories about directors not even reading the books that the movies are based on, knowing that my book was read by everybody, was being looked at constantly, was really incredible. All of that’s to say I was still completely unprepared for how closely Scorsese was using my drawings as storyboards. I eventually spoke to the guy who was in charge of the special effects, who won an Oscar for the movie. He said that there were many times where Scorsese made him go back because what they were doing didn’t exactly match one of my drawings.

Lehane: I got on the phone with Scorsese a couple of times, and then that was it. We talked a lot about [1940s horror film producer] Val Lewton. We talked a lot about Out of the Past, which I was amazed he got that. I mean, I knew he loved Out of the Past—any movie geek loves Out of the Past—but the fact that he knew that it was threading its way through me while I was writing was amazing. I wrote the book as an homage to 1950s pulp movies. It’s my most movie book. We got into this really intense conversation; the great dream conversation of my life in some ways, to have a conversation with Marty Scorsese about movies.

I was a film fanatic. The joke we used to say was the only person who knows more about movies than me is Martin Scorsese, and then I met him and I was like, “Holy shit, I’m just a pretender.” I do feel like I could easily teach a film class, and Scorsese is just blasting me with references like, “Well, of course you based it on this” and “You must be doing an homage to this.” And I’m like, “Marty, I haven’t even seen a few of those movies.” And he was like, “Well, then you will,” and then the next day the DVDs show up at my doorstep.

After the Credits

Selznick: I became very good friends with Sandy Powell, the brilliant costume designer who’s worked with Scorsese on almost every movie since Gangs of New York. She went to San Diego with my husband after the Oscars to hang out with him for a little while. Sandy was staying on an air mattress in my studio. The book I made after Hugo, called Wonderstruck, had just been published. Sandy read it that evening, and when she woke up in the morning, she wrote to me and said, “This should be a movie for Todd Haynes.”

I immediately called John Logan and said, “John, would you write the screenplay for this?” And John said, “Brian, I think you can do this.” So John basically took me under his wing, told me what screenwriting program to download—I didn’t even know about Final Draft—and sort of gave me an ongoing master class in writing a screenplay. John just continued to give me notes on what I had written until he didn’t have any notes anymore, at which point I gave it to Sandy, who also had some notes for me, and eventually she just sent it to Todd and arranged for me and Todd to meet and we really hit it off. Todd was busy with a lot of other projects, but he fell in love with the story and said he was going to do it.

Lehane: Critically, the response to [Shutter Island] was pretty tepid. I remember A.O. Scott at The New York Times practically had an embolism over it. He hated it so much. I thought it was hilarious. I had a blast reading that review and I would read that out loud to my friends. I know that the general critical response was, “It’s OK, but in the Scorsese lexicon we throw it around the Cape Fear general area.” But the popular response is bigger than anything else I’ve been associated with.

“Oh, you’re a writer, what do you write?” Like, people expect you to say you’re a copywriter or something like that. I’ll say, “I wrote Mystic River,” and sometimes I get a kind of, “Oh, I think that was a movie.” But I say Shutter Island, everybody goes, “Oh, DiCaprio?” Everybody knows it, so …

Selznick: My experiences with movies have been extremely unusual. I still identify myself as a children’s book writer and illustrator—that’s how I see myself. But the Hugo experience opened up a lot of other doors for me and opened up other types of writing that I wouldn’t have thought about or really known about.

Connelly: The movie was a trip, a journey to another self. I don’t think I lost that self. I think the movie clearly changed me in many ways. I was so glad when I left [being a paramedic], because I was really burnt out and I definitely had some PTSD. It was 9/11 that actually got me to go back. Now I run this little ambulance squad here [in the Adirondacks], but I went back to working in New York City in those same streets with my same old partner for another five years.

When I left [the first time], I was focused on writing another book. That was my goal, to write full time. But I found writing full time and being in my head full time wasn’t what I’d hoped. I needed to get out there see that world and use my hands for something good.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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