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Michael Connelly is a journalist-turned novelist whose enormously successful crime stories have filled 18 novels, translated into 13 languages. This week’s release, “The Lincoln Lawyer,” starring Matthew McConaughey as defense lawyer Mick Haller, Marisa Tomei as his prosecuting attorney ex-wife, and Ryan Phillippe as his wealthy client accused of murder, is based on his book. That’s “Lincoln” as in town car, not President, by the way.
I had a great conversation with Connelly about writing, movies, and crime.
How did what you learned as a journalist help you as a novelist?
A lot of what I did has a journalist has carried over into the books. The key has been the observation skills, to watch things and look for details to flesh out the picture. And when you’re a journalist you never have enough room. So you look for the telling details, instead of fifty, you have to find one to open up a window in people’s imagination and understanding. You listen for the dialogue that is more than fluff that actually carries information. Those are all day in, day out practices of journalism. Even though I’ve shifted to the kind of canvas where I can write unlimited pages and words I still follow the journalistic style. It doesn’t matter if it’s 400 pages. What matters is that there is momentum on every page. Shorter sentences that carry import in every sentence is the way to go.
Your main character is called the Lincoln lawyer because his office is in a Lincoln town car that he rides in from court to court and client to client. Is there really a Lincoln lawyer?
He’s retired now, but this whole project, book and movie, began about ten years ago next month, when I went to the first game of the year for the LA Dodgers, the home opener. I was invited by a friend and sat next to another one of his friends, whom I’d never met. During the course of the game there, it was “Who are you, what you do?” I had covered the courts in LA and I knew that if he told me where his office was, I could tell what kind of work he did. The courts in LA are all over, Century City, the Valley. That’s when he said, “It’s actually my car.”
He was very quick to say, “That’s not because I’m a bad attorney or not successful; I live in Malibu. It’s because it’s the best way of taking this city, with 40 courthouses, and I have a guy driving my car who is working off his legal fees.” By the 9th inning I had what I was sure was an idea that could go the distance. I get lots of ideas, but I really need one where I can spend a year with this character, where I can find 400 pages of a story about him. It happened to be when I was looking for a new character to write about. I had a lot of books about a detective and wanted to go to the other side and write about an attorney. And I knew this was what I was looking for.
He was a stranger to me. He gave me the idea with his lifestyle, but then it happened I was moving away, back to where I’m from in Florida. I reconnected with a guy I had known since college there, who was a criminal defense attorney. I told him I needed to know the nuts and bolts of what his job was like. On and off for three years I shadowed him and his partner, drank with them after work, had lunch with them, went to jail, went to court. And there was a judge who let me sit in her courtroom, follow her into chambers, see how she ran her courtroom.
I like the story’s contrast between the theory of justice and the reality. Your main character is not easily categorized. He’s very moral within his own construct.The-Lincoln-Lawyer-Teaser-Poster-13-12-10-kc.jpg
One of the things that impressed me in the people that I worked with was the stuggle between the idealism of our justice system, the idea that that no matter how bad the crime, you’re entitled to the most vigorous defense. But you try practicing that, sitting all day next to a child molester or worse, it’s very hard to do. There’s lot of alcohol in the movie, but that’s the reality that I saw. The best research for this book occurred at 4:30 in the afternoon, when the courts are done for the day and everyone stops for a martini on the way home.
I could spend my day writing and then go to these two bars, and that’s where the real gems of this book came from. That’s where the line that’s in the book and the movie comes from: “There’s no client as scary as an innocent man.”
It’s that struggle between the idealism and the reality that has affected Mickey, and we get to see what that has done to him. I love in the movie how his investigator played by William H. Macy is telling him what he has to do in legal terms and he just cuts him off, saying, “I’ve just got to make it right.” That’s the crux of the story, that he feels he has to make it right.
Tell me how you go about creating a believable villain.
The villains are always the easiest because you don’t have bounds. They can be, as displayed in this movie, so convincingly sane and innocent and then be just the opposite. One of the things I love about this movie is the way it respects the viewer. It doesn’t try to hide who the villain is. The intrigue, the real story, is how Micky is going to get out of the trick bag he’s got into as he calls it.
The villains are the easiest people to write about — you get a certain amount of freedom to make villains smarter in fiction than they are in real life. You start with the idea that they have broken free of any societal restrictions and then you can layer on all kinds of stuff, camouflage and all that stuff. They’re fun!
I’d like to know something about adapting a book for a movie. To begin with, a screenplay is much shorter than a book.
I haven’t had a great history in Hollywood. I’ve sold ten or eleven books to be made into movies but this is only the second one to be filmed. They break down because of the scripts. The books live inside characters’ heads and scripts can’t. I’ve learned my lesson; that’s not my skill. I like to tell readers what the characters are thinking. I was very careful about who I gave this book to. It was almost like an interview process. I was at a stage of my life where I wasn’t worried about how much they were going to pay me. I just wanted to know how they were going to keep the integrity of the story. I talked to big studios, little independents, one actor who wanted to do it. But Tom Rosenberg of Lakeshore had been a trial attorney in Chicago. So he said, “This is a world I once inhabited. I know it and you got it right. I promise if you let me make it, the gritty realism will be preserved. It will be in the movie, I can guarantee you that.”
They went through about 14 drafts. It went from one where I thought it was missing stuff to one where I thought, “This is the book, this is the character.”
Matthew McConaughey is not like the character in the book who is half-Mexican and described as very dark but with a name that did not indicate his background. He had lots of contradictions to add up to his feeling more like an outsider. I heard McConaughey had signed on. When I saw him as the sleazy agent in “Tropic Thunder” I leaned over to my wife and said, “He’d make a good Mickey Haller. And months later, maybe a year later, I heard he wanted to do it and wanted to meet me and talk about it. He spent a year studying and preparing. It was very impressive. So it doesn’t matter how he’s described in the book. He’s that guy. He totally owns it.
I liked the way you make Mickey defy our expectations in both his personal and professional lives.
There are now three more books with him as a character. Defense attorneys are generally misunderstood and blamed. People despise them because they think they’re trying to get the scum of the earth out of jail. Most of the time I write about a detective and it’s very easy because everyone is already on his side — you want the murderer to be caught. Maybe this is why I waited to my 15th book — I felt confident to take on a character most people would not like if not despise, and somehow make people want to like him and ride in that car with him. I was going to make him really good at gaming the system, even if it was going to be toward a goal people might think was negative, you couldn’t help but respect that. And the other aspect was I wanted him to have that higher moral code that would come out in the story. I’d want to hit them with the skills right away and then slowly bring out the moral code. In the book I enjoyed tricking the reader with Mickey talking about his office without revealing that his office is his car. In a visual medium like a movie, that’s not a trick you can pull.
Why do people like mysteries so much?
They’re stories where there are high stakes. Many of these people if they’re not stopped, they’ll do it again. We like to read these stories because it’s about people making a difficult choice to do the right thing, even though it could endanger them or their families, and we all want to know what we would do. Reading stories like that give us our ideas about how we could be.

Tim Griffin is the ultimate utility infielder, a top-notch actor who can handle drama, comedy, and action, and a favorite of directors like George Clooney, J.J. Abrams, and Doug Liman. You’ve seen him a dozen times — perhaps on television in “Cold Case,” “Lie to Me,” “Bones,” “C.S.I. Miami” or as George’s brother in “Grey’s Anatomy.” And he’s appeared on screen with George Clooney (“Leatherheads”), Matt Damon (“The Bourne Supremacy”), and Robert Downey, Jr. (“Iron Man”). He will play one of the leads in the upcoming cop series, “Prime Suspect,” with Maria Bello in a role adapted from the UK series starring Helen Mirren.

We are both Chicago natives, and I had a blast talking with him about going on auditions, working on both big-budget blockbusters and tiny independent films, a lucky car breakdown, and getting punched by Matt Damon.

Tim Griffin HD Demo Reel (2010) from Tim Griffin on Vimeo.

You must be an amazing auditioner to get such an array of roles. What’s your secret?

I call it a meeting instead of an audition – maybe it just sounds better that way in my head.

Auditioning is an underrated art. I’ve had a lot of practice! It depends on the project, but no matter how big the meeting, it is better if you are relaxed. The more desperate you are to impress them, the more it creates the opposite impression. Just let it go.

I’ll illustrate it with a story about my latest addition for Prime Suspect, a television series. I was there with Peter Berg, the director, and the casting directors. I knew them – they put me in Gray’s Anatomy, but I had never met Peter. I had 2 1/2 pages of sides [script], a straight, boiler-plate detective, talking to Maria Bello’s character, and we’re the old boys network types, dismissive, giving her the run-around. I like to have it memorized before I go in. I have a semi-eidetic memory, so that’s one thing I do.

So I read the lines and Peter Berg, who’s just so incredible, he did the movie and the pilot for “Friday Night Lights,” he said, “You’re just a phenomenal actor. You could be any one of these guys.” He wanted me to read for one of the leads, Augie Blando. But I had never even looked at the Blando pages. In the audition process you sometimes don’t want to know too much; you don’t want to know more than your character does. So I had no idea who Augie was.

They asked me to read the Augie sides. I said, “Why don’t you let the next guy in, so I can go out and look these over?” It was six pages, all my character, a totally different character than the one I prepared for, a lot of monologue. I look around the waiting area and there’s a room full of brilliant actors. Luckily, one of my fellow “Leatherheads,” Robert Baker, was there. All the Leatherheads are like brothers now. He said, “Would you like me to read those with you?” By having him read with me, I was able to go back in with the sides totally memorized. They acted like I was Rain Man! There was no way I could have prepared for that; you have to be in the moment. The next thing I knew, I had a contact for a test deal and then just a contract, no test, I had the job.

You appeared in one of my favorite scenes last year, opposite David Andrews as Scooter Libby in “Fair Game.” That was quite a confrontation!

The read-through for that movie was incredible. Every actor there, even those with just one line, had stepped out of a Broadway show or had been handling that level of performance quality. David Andrews really had to fight for that role because the producers said, “If we can get another name….” When we did the read-through, neither one of us had the role. I was still being considered for two roles. Sean Penn set the scene early [as Joe Wilson]. He was immediately confrontational — his intensity ratcheted everyone else up. Everyone had to bring his A game to the table read. David Andrews never took his eyes off me in our scene. He delivered his lines with such razor-like animosity, I said to myself, “I’m going to give it everything I have.”

We got instant offers. And he kept his distance throughout the filming so we could keep that tension between us. I didn’t know he was Southern until after the shoot!

What was it like to get beat up by Matt Damon in “The Bourne Supremacy?”

He deviated my septum! If you look carefully and slow down the scene, you can see it. Watch my eyes. But it was worth every ounce of pain because we got it in the movie. There’s nothing worse than suffering a terrible injury and it wasn’t on camera!

How did you get started?

I come from a non-acting household in Chicago. I started with local theater and a local movie, then went off and did a huge miniseries, a real awakening for me. I wanted something as isolated from that as I could find, so I went to college at the University of Vermont. It turns out they have a phenomenal theater department with the Champlain Shakespeare Festival and more. I ended up acting while I was an English and political philosophy major.

Then I was driving home and my car broke down outside of New York City my sophomore year. My agent said, “As long as you’re stuck there, we might as well have you look for work.” Nothing was going on because of the writer’s strike, so she sent me out for “Taking a Stand,” an afterschool special, the only show that was filming. Because everything else was shut down, it had an incredible cast. As soon as I got to Chicago, they flew me back — I got the part.

I loved working. I was supposed to do a year abroad in school but instead went to LA for a year, worked all year, and then went back and got my degree.

What do you aspire to?

My whole MO is that the variety of all these roles is what makes me most proud, in the tradition of actors like Gene Hackman, who did comedy, drama, and action. Stephen Root, who has become a friend, is always getting to do great projects. He has a wonderful body of work. It’s sometimes considered a dirty word to call yourself a character actor, but that’s what you should aspire to be.

The wonderful Warner Archive debuts four new films today and I have one set to give away! These are lesser-seen films from three of the greatest musical performers of all time, including Gene Kelly’s dream project, a film displays his talents in three different all-dance stories and Judy Garland’s first teaming with her most frequent co-star.

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Yolanda and the Thief Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer (of “Meet Me in St. Louis”) star in this fantasy musical about a man who poses as an angel to swindle an innocent heiress but…well, see if you can guess.

Invitation to the Dance Gene Kelly stars in a film that was his own project — all music, no dialogue, with three stories told through three different styles of dance. Kelly plays a clown, a Marine, and Sinbad the sailor.

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Little Nellie Kelly Judy Garland plays a headstrong Irish lass who defies her father to marry the boy she loves but dies in childbirth. And she also plays the daughter, named for her mother. Her songs in this film include “It’s a Great Day for the Irish” and “Singing in the Rain.”

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Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry Judy Garland again, her first time with frequent co-star Mickey Rooney. They get support from Sophie Tucker and several top character actors in the story of an actress and a jockey and a high-stakes horse race.

To enter for these movies, send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with Warner’s in the subject line and don’t forget your address! I will pick one winner at random on March 20. Good luck!

According to this movie the two universal human imperatives are the need to find out whether we can contact the dead and the need to use Google to do so. Can we please de-Google-ize movies? I love Google, too, but it is impossible to make a compelling movie scene out of someone typing into a search engine and scrolling through the links that pop up.

Clint Eastwood’s latest film is a meditation on death, with three entwined stories. A French journalist survives the tsunami but is haunted by visions from an NDE (near-death experience). An English boy sees his twin brother die and desperately tries to find a way to communicate with him. And an American factory worker resists his gift for acting as a conduit between the living and the dead. There are some powerful and moving moments, but the film overstays its welcome and fails to deliver on its promise.

There are people who are consumed with the need to talk with those they have lost, to ask forgiveness, to forgive, to know there is something, someone there. And then there are those who do communicate with the dead, and can be just as consumed with the need to get away from them, whose most important lesson from those who have passed over is that they need to make a life among the living. George (Matt Damon) is one of those. He once had a website and a business doing “readings” for those who want to reach out to their loved ones who had departed. A book was written about him. He appeared on television. But the comfort he brought to those who found some sense of completion in his ability to connect to the dead was outweighed by his own inability to disconnect from the messages he was carrying.

Then there is Marie (Cécile De France), a successful French television journalist on vacation with her producer/boyfriend on an Indonesian resort when the tsunami hits. This is Eastwood as his best, a stunningly powerful sequence that will leave the audience feeling swept into the pounding power of the ocean. Marie glimpses a vision of what might be the afterlife when she is briefly near death. After she returns to France the concerns that occupied her before — her ambitions, the stories she covers, even her relationship — are not as important to her as understanding what she saw and what it means. When once she was excited to appear in posters for Blackberry, now she is interested in a more profound form of communication.

Jason and Marcus (played interchangeably by real-life twins George and Frankie McLaren, a nice touch to show their close connection) are British twins who are exceptionally devoted to one another. They have to be. Their mother is a heroin addict, so they have to work together to take care of her and of each other and keep the social workers from finding out what is really going on in their home. Jason, 12 minutes older, is the more verbal and the decision-maker. He is killed and Marcus sees him die. He is put in foster care while his mother goes to rehab. He is alone. And he needs, desperately, to find a way to talk to the brother who is in every way the other half of himself. He tries a number of psychics but they all seem to be well-meaning fools or downright fakes.

Nothing that happens later in the movie lives up to the inexorable, thundering, power of the tsunami, which makes the under-imagined images of the afterlife seem thin and tepid. Eastwood’s own score (he is an accomplished jazz musician) is nicely understated and evocative. And it was a relief that the heroin-addict mother and the foster parents were not Dickensian ogres. But the stories meander. The movie could lose half an hour easily — until they all come together for a conclusion that feels inadequate. When a magician shows you a hat, you are entitled to see a rabbit. No rabbit here.