Elmore Leonard in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino's favorite novelist recounts decades of being jerked around by Hollywood talents like Burt Reynolds and Dustin Hoffman, explains why Get Shorty was the first decent adaptation of one of his novels, and gives thumbs up to the chemistry of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the new film of his novel Out of Sight.

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We're upstairs at Johnny Depp's Viper Room on Sunset where a crowd of hip, sophisticated people, some loaded, others high on nicotine, have paid $10 each to hear Elmore Leonard read a few pages from Be Cool, his work-in-progress sequel to Get Shorty. At 9 p.m. the curtain opens, and the 73-year-old Michigan novelist stands in front of a microphone. No introductions are needed, and Leonard makes no small talk. The hum of the crowd subsides as the coolest man in the room begins to read the sharp, witty dialogue that has made him such a cult figure.

Leonard's moment in the Hollywood limelight has been a long time coming. He spent more than 30 years flirting around the edges of the movie business, seeing some of his work turned into films even he had to walk out of. Remember Paul Newman in Hombre? Roy Scheider in 52 Pick-Up? Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk? Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd? They--and many others--were all inhabiting characters born in Elmore Leonard's fertile imagination. But only since Get Shorty has Leonard's fiction been adapted with any real finesse. The turning point in Leonard's Hollywood fortunes seems to have come when Quentin Tarantino, then 31, told talk-show host Charlie Rose that Elmore Leonard's novels were his inspiration for True Romance. And indeed, after Pulp Fiction, when Tarantino could pick and choose anything he wanted, he and his producer partner, Lawrence Bender, went straight for Leonard. Jackie Brown, based on Leonard's Rum Punch, was Tarantino's tribute to his hero.

Now there's Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. And suddenly--with projects based on Leonard's fiction all over town--like the four novels Miramax bought for Tarantino (Killshot, Freaky Deaky, Bandits, Forty Lashes Less One), and Maximum Bob, which ABC is turning into a TV series, not to mention Swag, The Switch, City Primeval, Unknown Man No. 89, LaBrava and Cuba Libre, all of which are owned by one entity or another--Hollywood is paying to listen to Elmore Leonard.

So the man who started in the advertising business and wrote short stories about cowboys before going to work each morning, and who has written a dozen screenplays and 34 novels, has finally hit the jackpot in the film as well as the publishing world.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: How much credit do you give to Quentin Tarantino for the interest of Hollywood in your work now?

ELMORE LEONARD: It helped enormously. I don't know him that well. I hung around with him twice on the set of Jackie Brown, and we talked about movies. He knows a lot about my work--he'll refer to things that I haven't really thought of. He wants to write and appear in Killshot as Richie Nix, one of the bad guys, opposite De Niro. And he wants Tony Scott to direct. That's his plan. It almost came about at one time. But they all have companies and they all get involved and that's how it becomes a $50 million picture before you set up the lights.

Q: Did you have anything to say to Tarantino about adapting your work?

A: No, because I figure he knows what he's doing. I was surprised at some of the pictures that he likes, like Blow Out and Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo. He's so aware of what the director is doing even if it's not a very good picture. He called me up a couple of weeks before he went into production with Jackie Brown and said, "I've been afraid to call you for the last year." And I said, "Why? Because you've changed the title and you're starring a black woman in the lead?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "I think Pam Grier is a good idea." I'm not concerned how close the adaptation is. It's whether it's a good movie or not.

Q: The last few years have certainly changed the financial respect Hollywood has had for you, in addition to everything else. What's the single largest paycheck you've gotten?

A: I sold the screen rights to Out of Sight for $2.5 million.

Q: Have you seen the movie yet?

A: I saw dailies. It looks good to me.

Q: Did you see chemistry between George Clooney, as the bank robber, and Jennifer Lopez, as the federal marshal tracking him?

A: Yeah, looks good to me. I didn't see the bedroom scene, but I saw them in the scene where they're stuck together in the trunk of a car.

Q: Is the book as sexy as they've made the movie?

A: No.

Q: How did it become such a sexy movie then?

A: You put Jennifer Lopez in it, that's going to make it sexy.

Q: George Clooney has yet to catch on as a movie actor. Think he will with this one?

A: He has a natural look and presence that's gonna work. They think he's got a Steve McQueen quality about him. I saw Nicholson in the part first, then I suggested Sean Connery. I didn't think age would matter one bit. But I think it does work with Clooney.

Q: Since you mentioned McQueen, didn't you once write something for him?

A: That was a project called American Flag, about the little guy against the big mining company. I wrote a 20-page outline which McQueen optioned. When I first met him, he'd had an accident riding his dirt bike out in the desert the day before and he slipped his pants down to show me this huge scrape on his hip that he bandaged while we were talking about the movie. He was going with Ali McGraw then, and he wanted her in the picture. But nothing ever happened to it.

Q: Around that time you were also writing for some other tough guys, like Clint Eastwood, who starred in Joe Kidd, which you scripted. Wasn't Mr. Majestyk, which starred Charles Bronson, also originally written for Eastwood?

A: Right. Eastwood asked me for something like Dirty Harry only different. I came up with an idea that evening and called him in Carmel. He said to work it up. So I wrote a 23-page outline and went to see him. But by that time he had acquired High Plains Drifter, so he passed. My agent gave it to producer Walter Mirisch who sold it to United Artists, and they got Charles Bronson involved. That was an original screenplay--I wrote the book after the movie.

Q: You've credited the movies, specifically Westerns, with inspiring you to become a writer. What was it about movies like My Darling Clementine that got to you?

A: My Darling Clementine _interested me because of that black-and-white look of it, the realism. When I was brought out to Hollywood to write a script, what they wanted was _Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and so on. But what I had in mind was My Darling Clementine. That's the difference in the attitude between the studios and me. I'm sure Gunfight at the O.K. Corral made more money. I'm not opposed to that--I've always been a commercial writer. But I don't put heroes in my stories, I put everyday people.

Q: The Western you're best known for is 1967's Hombre, which starred Paul Newman.

A: Once, in a Beverly Hills men's shop, my wife and I saw Paul Newman walk in. We hung around to see what he was going to buy. My wife said, "Go over and tell him that you wrote Hombre." I said, "What if he didn't like it?" We just watched him try on a jacket and then we left.

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