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Interview with Dennis Lehane


If there had been no Dennis Lehane, it's safe to say that Ben Affleck wouldn't be having an FBI SWAT team blasting away at Charlestown bank robbers a few days ago a couple of blocks from where I live. He was shooting a scene from "The Town," an adaptation of Boston author Chuck Hogan's novel "Prince of Thieves."

 Lehane, you recall, wrote the bestseller "Mystic River,"  which Clint Eastwood shot here in Boston and which won and was nominated for several Oscars in 2003. The success of that film no doubt influenced the Massachusetts government to pass a bill allowing studios shooting in Boston attractive tax credits, which led, in turn, to Martin Scorsese shooting "The Departed,"  which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2007. And then Affleck adapted Lehane's "Gone Baby Gone" and Scorsese adapted "Shutter Island" and now we have cops and robbers blasting out the windows of Gate D in Fenway Park.

Lehane has a new book out, one he's edited (and contributed a story to) called "Boston Noir." He and some of the other writers will be "launching" the book at an event at the Boston Book Festival // at the BPL on Saturday. He was kind enough to talk with me about the phenomenon of Boston Noir in its many manifestations.

PK: What inspired you to put together an anthology on Boston noir?

DL: Um, somebody kept asking me to, that was my inspiration. Johnny Temple, who runs Akashic books, and does these noir series, he just pretty much hounded me into my grave to do it, so I did it.

PK: And what was your resistance to doing it?

DL: Time, just time. I mean, I love noir, you know if I was-I'm not a big believer in that sort of ghettoization of certain types of literature but within the crime fiction if I would say noir is my favorite, as a sort of sub-genre if you will.

PK: Is Boston noir a legitimate sub-genre or sub-sub of the genre?

DL: Umm, I don't know if-that's for other people to decide-but I do think that noir itself can be. Noir is certainly different than classical mystery. Umm, so yeah. It was fun. Once I finally got the ball rolling I enjoyed it a lot.

PK: What are the elements of Boston noir that are distinct from let's say LA noir or Florida noir or any of the other regional types?

DL: Well, look, you can compare Florida noir to Boston noir, Florida noir it has a much more sort of absurdist, gothic bent. If you look at, I would think of Carl Hiaasen.Whereas if you look at Boston, it's a different kind of comedy. It's a darker kind of-blacker-more Boston type of comedy. The idea that, I'll say about Bostonians, that God's a bit of a jokester and we're the punchline.

PK: That's almost an Irish Bostonian, kind of point-of-view and tone.

DL: But you know, I see it in general across the spectrum in Boston. I mean, there's a level, a sort of deadpan understated humor that if you try it any place else, certainly any place south of New York City, nobody's going to get your joke. You'll just get blank stares.

PK: And is this from Brahmins down to Stevedores, or do you think it's more of a class kind of humor?

DL: I would say now it's definitely metastasized so that it's pretty much citywide. You know there's just a-I don't know-people get the dry line in a way they just don't in most places.

PK: There's a kind of fatalism to it, I think, which may have something to do with our sports teams.

DL: I definitely thought that for years. I mean I felt like it's going to be interesting to see if there's a generational shift now that we've become this city of winners, if you will.

PK: Title town

DL: Yeah. I remember trying to explain this to people last year, I lived at least half a year in Tampa and went to college there so I've always had a bit of an affinity for the Rays, I always think of them as my minor league team, and so it was a strange feeling seeing the Rays go up against the Red Sox having my identity built around David vs. Goliath and realizing I was Goliath.

PK: All of a sudden we've turned into the Yankees.

DL: Yeah, you know there is that, I don't know if we're quite the Yankees, I think we need 26 and George Steinbrenner to be the Yankees, but we're certainly, there is that-there used to be that line about the Yankees,  that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel. There is certainly that sense that rooting for the Pats and rooting for the Red Sox is rooting for a sleeker  beast, if you will.

PK: More than a literary genre, noir has become a film genre and it seems like the Boston noir is dominating; most of the highly touted films and successful films have been set in Boston. Can you give insight as to why that it so?

DL: I think there's certainly...there's a funeral going on and it's for that type of world. The world that you see in "The Departed," the world that you see in "Mystic River," the world that you saw in "Monument Avenue," the sort of European Ethnic neighborhood, that sort of clannishness. It's departing and I think there's a bit of a funeral being held and it's showing up in those movies.

PK: So it's nostalgia?

DL: I don't know, it's both a nostalgia, and certainly I can say, I don't know if I can speak for, you know, Monahan or, I'm trying to think who wrote "Monument Ave," I remember Ted Demme directed it, but I can't speak for those guys, but I can say when I was writing "Mystic River" it was both a nostalgic look but also, you know, there's a reason these floors get swept.

PK: It seems as the city becomes more homogenized and gentrified, the films and the writing about it is sort of settling into a world where it's a bit more of a neighborhood kind of a city, more of a lower class kind of a city. Do you see that happening?

DL: I definitely see that that's where storytelling seems to be happening, I'm not sure-what would you say about Kenmore Square these days? Except that it's pretty much homogenized.

PK: Since the Rathskeller has left certainly.

DL: Yeah the Rat's gone and...God everything's gone, Cornwall is still hanging by its fingernails, but it's just not Kenmore Square anymore.

PK: The Citgo sign is still there.

DL: The Citgo sign, thank God. Remember that idiot who was trying to take it down a couple of years ago?...Yeah, so I think it's a dramatically fertile area to go to right now, is the neighborhood, so I'd like to see, I'd like to see what's going to come out of the new ethnic fabric. I'd love to see a Cambodian writer, you know what I mean? Or...the Brazilians in Allston, you know I'd love to see something come out of the new ethnic enclaves.

PK: A lot of Hispanic

DL: Yeah, well my neighborhood went Vietnamese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and that's not something, because that happened as I went away to college and moved out, it's not something I would feel comfortable speaking to, I would feel more like a tourist.

PK: So you're going to continue drawing from your experiences of Boston back when you were growing up in Dorchester, or...

DL: Or certainly from the perspective of somebody who grew up that way and is now seeing, you know, the writing is on the wall, you know that's certainly the story that I contributed was that idea of these guys growing up believing in the Church, suddenly that's not-

PK: I think a big reason Boston is becoming such a setting for this type of movie is clearly your success in film. What do you think is cinematic about your books? You look at them and they're very dense in terms of characters' psychology and the writing is very fine, it doesn't seem the kind of thing that would translate immediately into movies.

DL: You know, I totally agree with you. I've written one original plot in my life and that was "Shutter Island" and even that is wearing it-the homage is on its sleeve-I'm not a real strong, I'm not an original plot guy. You know, "Mystic River" is the plot of an old 1930s RKO movie, so I don't know what started it, what originally brought people to work. I know now, and I flavor them up, and so I produce a laundry list and everybody's like, "Ooh that could be a good movie, could get an Academy Award out of that." I think the success of my movies is very clear on what it is and it is to me. There were no extra cooks in the kitchen and in each case I had sort of auteur theory in play and you had Clint Eastwood, Brian Helgeland, that's "Mystic River," that's it, end of story. "Gone Baby Gone" was Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, end of story, the Weinstein brothers left them alone and Martin Scorsese comes in and he's a 500 pound gorilla and he says "This is what I want to do," so none of my films have a lot of fingerprints on them.

PK: What's the story with "Shutter Island?" It's been postponed until February; is that something we should worry about? I was disappointed to hear that it wasn't coming out in November.

DL:  No, you shouldn't worry about it, I can say this without ego because I had zero to do with the production of that film, I mean I'm an executive producer, yeah, you know, but I had zero-my fingers are not anywhere near that outside of the book and so I can say having seen the film that it's brilliant. I think the story that they put in the press is mostly true which is that they didn't have the money, the market and in a year in which very solid films, like "Public Enemies" and "State of Play" clearly under-performed, I think everybody's scared. So they said, they want to go back, they decided let's have a really good marketing plan before we pull the trigger on this.

PK: Would you be involved in that?

DL: Yeah, I'd be happy to. I've always said, look, if the film sucks, I'm not going to talk it down. I just can't stand writers who do that, I would just vanish, I would take the money, thank you, and just vanish. With "Shutter Island," it's such a good movie, I'd be happy to go out and pimp for it a little bit.

PK: You've been fortunate, I would say, a pretty good run of movies, adapting your books, they all seem to been true to the book and also excellent movies.
DL: Yeah, but again, it's-we go back to that idea, singular visions behind the camera, it's an old school kind of-

PK: The auteur theory.

DL: Yeah, and it's-now I don't know any other way. Sooner or later I'm going to have that crooked up adaptation of my books, and that's when you won't be able to find me.

PK: But have you contributed anything other than the basic book to these adaptations?

DL: I've had consultations, would be the way I would put it, most heavily on "Mystic River," but with "Gone Baby Gone," Ben and I spent a lot of time talking, but it was late in the process because I was so immersed in my book, I was just like, I really can't roll with you in the early stage of pre-production. And then with "Shutter Island," I started reading Laeta Kalogridis's script, I want to say two drafts before the final draft, and the only notes I had on the entire thing was that she was being too reverential to the lines in the book. And she got it, she was like, "Oh, you're right , you can't have that come out of a character's mouth, sounds pretty in a book, but it wouldn't work." So she went, she cut those lines and that was it.

Next: Boston filmmaking when the biggest heists were not on the screen.

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