Newcomer Daniel Schechter, who wrote one of my favorite neglected gems, The Big Bad Swim, worked with an all-star cast in “Life of Crime,” which he adapted from The Switch by Elmore Leonard and directed. It is set in 1970’s Detroit and it is the story of a woman played by Jennifer Aniston who is kidnapped for $1 million ransom. But things don’t go well because her husband (Tim Robbins) does not really want her back. The hapless kidnappers are played by Mos Def and John Hawkes and the husband’s tough, calculating mistress is played by Isla Fisher. Schecter talked to me about re-creating the 1970’s, spending a day with Elmore Leonard, and why we love to watch crooks.
What are the challenges of doing a period film with a very limited budget?
I always say it’s the difference between moving into a furnished and unfurnished apartment. You just have to re-create everything 360 and we had a fantastic production designer named Inbal Weinberg who was even more ambitious than I insisted that she be to her amazing credit. And it creates a great illusion really helps the audience go back in time. The money goes on screen but it doesn’t add more days to your production. So it’s a tough give-and-take. I was also thrilled with the wardrobe. We had a really wonderful costume designer named Anna Terrazas to walk us through the process. She just had to pound the pavement and then go to every vintage place she could find in the Tri-State area. She found us some wonderful stuff. We also really wanted the cast to feel involved in their choices and some of them dressed in things they used to wear in the 70s and some of them wanted to dress like their parents. It was a really fun exploration and conversation. I wasn’t alive in the 70’s, I’m only 32, but I think you just see authenticity when you see it. There are even things in the book that were specific references to what they wore and we would try to take our cue from that.
You assembled an extraordinary cast.
It’s really tough because you want to get your big names but we’ve all seen the films that have so many famous people but zero chemistry or who felt inappropriate for the role. So I think there is a angel hanging over my shoulder that I not only got people that I’m felt really appropriate for their parts but have great chemistry. I’ve never worked with a cast of this caliber but after a few minutes you realize they’re all actors and they really want to deliver and I think one of the reason I chose to adopt this book was because it had seven unbelievably great lead parts in this ensemble. Actors love good parts.
What is it about crime stories that is so endlessly appealing?
It’s why we go to the movies. It’s like we want to see some kind of crime that we don’t have to take any responsibility or blame or fault for. But that I think there’s something especially fun about this because the main character isn’t a criminal. So I think the audience sort of feel like they’re inside Jennifer Aniston’s point of view the whole time, experiencing this crime vicariously. And it’s just sort of timeless. I think that’s what’s so fun about being in the 70s, you’re not dealing with any sort of cell phones or Google or Internet. It really makes it a real pure papers story like a 1970s crime movies which I love. It’s a wish fulfillment, and I also think the pleasure of reading Elmore Leonard’s books is not only getting the experience of committing the crime but being reminded of how real people would behave in those situations. We’ve seen so many films with smooth criminals or elaborate heists in glamorous setting that don’t make any sense but I think that he really wanted to thoroughly ground the experience of a crime or heist a bank robbery with reality and real characters that’s where I responded to the material.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” has a surprise hit soundtrack filled with 70’s songs and now your film also has a fabulous selection of music from that era.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since seeing “Guardians of Galaxy” because they had every penny you could possibly have to spend on licensing music and we no money at all. I could guarantee the cost of any one of their songs was probably the entire budget for our entire soundtrack not including our score. But I think in a great way it allowed me to discover music that I’ve never heard before and to find gems and make really creative choices in music that I love, that sounded familiar to an audience. It raises the production value. It helps an audience sort of go back in time a little bit so we worked really hard to get the best possible music we could. We tried to get songs that you might know, so we had songs like “Don’t Pull Your Love” and “Let Your Love Flow.” I think that has a bit of nostalgic pull on a specific audience. We opened the film with a guy called Dorondo and I love that song and There is a Frankie Miller song called I Can’t Change It that I’d never heard and now I listen to endlessly on my phone. It’s amazing how some songs are a hit and some songs get lost in time. Some things just don’t come at the right moment and they seem just as good to me.
There’s this song called “Show Me a Man” and it plays over this long tracking shot of John Hawkes walking to the restaurant pretending he was inside of it stealing a car. It’s a very offbeat bizarre song that I thought that I thought Quentin Tarantino would’ve liked. And there’s this great juxtaposition with the lyrics. Here’s a song about a noble great cowboyish type played for a guy who is just a criminal stealing a car. We love this guy and we do feel that there’s nobility to him. There are sometimes you don’t even know why you just put those song on top of the picture and yet it justs elevate whatever I had there before. And then there’s moments like during kidnapping we had a literal needle drop where a record plays and I think we had 10 different songs in there at one point. One song I really wanted was Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” or something that was reedy like that, iconic and memorable but of course that was like a $75,000 thing we had to make different choice but just the idea of getting featured song like that and have it played throughout the house in different perspectives; you don’t get the better opportunity than that to play with music.
You met with Elmore Leonard to talk about the film. What was that like?
I was really lucky. I went up to Detroit to meet with him for a weekend and we had good food and beers and discussed a lot of his projects, many of which he needed to be reminded of because they were old books that he hadn’t looked at, and things that I had read several times recently. And I got to look at every location that was written into the book. Everything that he writes was set in a real place in and around Detroit so it was fun to see the book come alive in front of my eyes.
What is it about his writing that makes it so instantly cinematic?
Somehow he makes exposition entertaining. I’m writing a new script now and it is such a challenge to make exposition not feel so obvious. He finds a really good reason for those people to be discussing the plot and having the audience be thinking, “Oh that’s what I would say and that’s what I would ask.” There are a lot of people who say that he was the greatest dialogue writer alive which I agree with. Not because he is the quippiest or cleverest but because it just felt so alive. It was like he was just possessed by those people as he was writing it. In my adaptation I was sometimes I would just omit a word and then I would read my script and I wouldn’t love the line. I would go back and realize I skipped a comma or one word and it just threw off the whole rhythm the that’s how good he was, that’s how almost perfect his writing was. Well, I think if you look at “Jackie Brown” which is based in a book called Rum Punch, you’d think, “Wow that stays shockingly close to the original novels capturing characters and dialogue!” And I think I took the cue out of their book and did the same thing. I think people are far less impressed with my adaptation when they read the book. The book was as if somebody gave me a great screenplay and as a director I just had to adapt it a little bit.