Last month, Daniel Schechter's screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel The Switch played to enthusiastic Michigan audiences at the Traverse City Film Festival. Starring Jennifer Aniston as a 1970s-era trophy wife kidnapped by Leonard's criminal duo Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara (here played by Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and John Hawkes), the film was renamed Life of Crime in order to avoid confusion with the 2010 romcom The Switch (which, ironically, starred Aniston).
Writer-director Daniel Schechter, whose previous work involved micro-budget independent films, has made an ambitious jump, not only in terms of budget and cast, but also in adapting an author whose work has notoriously yielded far more misfires than hits. Which is not to say that it's Elmore Leonard's fault. His crime novels are memorably gritty, funny, and nasty, filled with twisted plots and eccentric characters. No, the problem is that so few filmmakers understand what makes his work so special and how to translate that onscreen. And though "Dutch" — as his friends used to call him — died before he could see Schechter's take on his work, he reportedly had high hopes.
METRO TIMES: So, I heard that you met with Elmore Leonard before starting production on Life of Crime. How did you convince him that you were the guy to make this film?
DANIEL SCHECHTER: It actually happened in the reverse order. I was able to convince his representatives. I think that Elmore Leonard liked to keep that stuff at arm's length because he realized his participation in the process only ended up hurting him when the films didn't come out to his liking. But I think he loved movies so much that he secretly was rooting for them to be something special, something that would make him proud.
I got to spend a weekend with him in Detroit, and he and his research assistant, a guy named Greg Sutter, drove me around the city and the suburbs to every location that was written specifically into the book. I got to see what the real places looked like, which was a treat. And I got to have meals and beers with my hero.
MT: What did you talk about?
SCHECHTER: A lot of it was me reminding him about the book — which I don't think he had opened for nearly 30 years — and repeating its jokes, and seeing him be delighted that they were still funny. We talked about other adaptations, and he talked about being a screenwriter and how miserable that experience was. He relished shitting on the adaptations he disliked. He was very publicly open about what he hated. You can go on YouTube and see him talk about how much he disliked The Big Bounce or Be Cool. I was very terrified of being on the list of films he wasn't proud of. It's also clear how happy he was with Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, and Get Shorty. My goal was to be in the top four.
MT: Did he talk about what he thought the films that failed didn't get about his work? And did you apply any of what he said to your own approach?
SCHECHTER: I think he was trying to express to me what I, frankly, already understood, that if you try to go broadly comedic with the material, it would fall flat. He knew that if I tried to be too funny or wacky with the material, which is not at all how I saw it, it would displease both him and audiences.
I felt like the book (The Switch) was a great script handed to me that I had to do a little 'directoring' to. But really I didn't change it all that much. It was a highly adaptable novel.
MT: So, I understand that you shot Life of Crime in Connecticut. Why? Especially given Leonard's connection to Detroit.
SCHECHTER: Well, first it [the story's setting] was much more the suburbs than the city of Detroit. When I was driving around Bloomfield Hills it looked a lot like where I had grown up on Long Island and in Connecticut. So I felt that because there wasn't a lot of urban Detroit in the story and because we were such a tightly budgeted indie film, every penny I could put onscreen was important. Once I heard that Michigan was reducing its rebate program for filmmakers (the Michigan Film Incentive Program), I went with the next best choice. Plus the location had other advantages. It was close to New York, where I could draw crews to come out and help.
MT: So, how hard was it to re-create 1970s Detroit?
SCHECHTER: The period is really difficult to achieve. You have 360 change everything. Every lighting fixture, every bit of wallpaper, every kitchen or car or piece of wardrobe ... which puts a big strain on your budget. But it also creates a lovely illusion when you can re-create it. I think we did a really good job without overselling it. A lot of films use the '70s for shtick, like it's a joke. I wanted to create the feeling that the story was really taking place in that era.
MT: Tell me about casting Mos Def as Ordell? That was an interesting choice.
SCHECHTER: He was actually my top choice. As you know Jackie Brown has older versions of these characters. And while I don't see my film as a prequel to that one in any literal way, I felt they did a fantastic job with Lewis and Ordell. I felt like those were the living embodiment of those characters. When I was trying to think of a younger version of Ordell, someone who had the same charisma and watchability and naughtiness that Samuel Jackson had, Mos Def kind of crawled into my brain and stuck there.
And to his credit, he was the first person to sign on. It's not easy to be the first person to sign on to a project like this, and I have to give him a lot of credit for that. But it legitimized us — and once he did, it really got the ball rolling. — mt