Interview: Lawrence Block
In 1976, the alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder solved his first murder as an unlicensed private investigator. He continued closing unsavory cases for 35 years, a restless witness to the changing fortunes and crime rates of New York City. Scudder is the fictional creation of Lawrence Block, a prolific storyteller and a master detailer of the bars, diners, and subways of New York, those mute witnesses to so much death. Block has written 17 Matthew Scudder books so far, tracking this brooding sad sack through Alcoholics Anonymous and his deepening relationship with lover (and prostitute) Elaine. The books add up to more than a series of closed cases, and to something like an entire life lived.
Block hasn’t had much luck with Hollywood adaptations of his work, the most prominent disappointment being 8 Million Ways to Die (86), a chaotic production which transposed these essentially New York novels to Los Angeles. A Walk Among the Tombstones, from the tenth novel in the series, published in 1992, breaks that streak of bad luck. Written and directed by Scott Frank, and starring Liam Neeson as Scudder, it accurately conveys the books’ grimy sense of place, as well as Scudder’s ever-shifting moral compass. Scudder is hired by a drug trafficker to track down the psychos who kidnapped and sliced up his wife—and who may have been committing similar attacks for years.
I spoke with Mr. Block at one of Scudder’s old haunts, The Flame diner on the Upper West Side, about his writing process, Hollywood nightmares past, and the long road to cinemas for A Walk Among the Tombstones, which opens September 19.
A Walk Among the Tombstones
Where did the Matthew Scudder character originate?
An agent suggested that it would be good if I developed a series about a New York cop. I thought about that, and realized that I preferred an outsider perspective, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in bureaucracy, didn’t want to have to learn all that crap that my friend Evan Hunter [aka Ed McBain] did so well in the 87th Precinct series—I didn’t want to write that. And I thought an ex-cop would work. There was a book at the time, written by a fellow who used to hang at The Lion’s Head [in Greenwich Village]—his name was Leonard Shecter, he wrote a book called On the Pad, with a cop named Bill Phillips, who was a Knapp Commission witness and all that. From that I got the notion of a cop who took shortcuts, and who was not constitutionally opposed to clean graft, and that sort of thing. And I started writing and the character happened. It started out as three books for Dell; they didn’t do much. And the character was sufficiently alive for me so I stayed with it, and it’s gone on a long time.
Part of what I love about the Scudder books is the attention to detail paid to New York neighborhoods. Can you talk about when you moved here, and what your relationship was with the city?
I always knew I would wind up here. I first came here when I was 10 years old. My father and I came down here for a long weekend over Christmas vacation. He was from New York originally. Had a wonderful time. It was sometime after my third year in high school—I went to Bennett, in Buffalo—that I realized I wanted to be a writer. I assumed that would mean I would be living in New York. The college I went to was Antioch, and I got a job my second year, lived in the Village.
Were you studying creative writing?
I was nominally an English major, but I took as many history courses as I did English. I was there for two years, took a year off, then the job at a literary agency and I went back to school for a year. By that time I was writing professionally, and didn’t take classes as seriously as one had to. By the end of that year, I was out of there.
So you didn’t graduate.
Was it easier to make a living as a writer back then?
I don’t know how anyone can come to New York anymore. It was never easy to make a living as a writer, though. Never in history, I think. And it’s probably not supposed to be. I think the arts have to have a high threshold.
Did you take a lot of day jobs?
I never did. I always wrote. I was rapid.
When did Scott Frank first approach you about A Walk Among the Tombstones?
He optioned it not long after it came out. I think it was ’92 or ’93. And maybe ’96 or ’97 was when the production was first supposed to happen. It moved along, and we were four or five weeks away from commencement of principal photography, when the wheels came off.
Who was going to play Scudder?
Harrison Ford was going to do it. And then he decided he didn’t like the person who was going to direct it, or something, or whatever. He’d probably explain it himself as “artistic differences”.
That’s what they always say, yeah.
That’s why the marriages fail too [laughs]. Then it was dead for ages. Jersey Films renewed the option for a few years, and then that stopped. Then two years ago, he [Scott Frank] got back in touch. After a flirtation with another director or something, he realized he ought to direct it himself. And I’m so glad he made that decision. And I was thrilled when Liam was cast. He has that gravitas and a sense of an inner life.
A Walk Among the Tombstones
Had you seen Scott Frank’s work before this?
Yes. Out of Sight and Get Shorty [for which Frank wrote the screenplays]. Not just excellent scripts, but they really captured the feel of Elmore Leonard. I was going to say it’s not that easy to do, but not that many people try.
Did you see versions of the Tombstones script?
I didn’t want to. I was delighted to go to the set and watch, but I had a feeling if I read the script that the changes would bother me. More so than on screen.
I was a little disappointed they did not include the Elaine character.
So was I. So in retrospect was Scott. He’s sorry that got lost.
One of the things I really enjoyed was the location shooting in New York neighborhoods you rarely see in movies.
The house where they shot the scenes where Scudder’s on the phone—the Russian’s house—that was in a house in Whitestone, Queens, which I’ve never been to before. It’s evidently a heavy mobster-type neighborhood. And this particular house, that we were able to rent as a location, was this great, decaying mansion. It was quite impressive.
What they couldn’t do: Scudder, especially in this book, goes everywhere by subway. Well, it costs a ton to shoot anything in the subway. Even if you want him walking up the staircase out of a subway tunnel, you have to block it off and get permissions. It would have kicked the shit out of the project. Much cheaper to put him in the cab [laughs]. Scott was apologetic about that.
So, I think there will be more [movies in the series]. Depending on how it does. Scott would like to do more, and I understand Liam would like to do more. The easy one to do next, in terms of story, probably, is A Ticket to the Boneyard, because it’s not a whodunit, it’s more just a thriller.
So it’s safe to assume this is the happiest you’ve been having one of your books adapted into a movie?
Aside from getting paid, there was nothing happy about the other ones [laughs]. The pictures weren’t good, nor did they do well, in critical reception or anything else. It’s easy to like this better.
8 Million Ways to Die
I recently watched 8 Million Ways to Die, and it’s so strange, as if they tried to make it into Miami Vice.
They didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Oliver Stone optioned it originally, at the first go-through. At the time he wanted me to work on the script with him. And I spent one evening with him and… I didn’t want to. That may have been the wrong decision on my part, or a very good, important decision, I don’t know.
Well, I don’t know. I think I would have found it, a difficult experience. Then he dropped out of the picture at some point, and they started shooting the thing without a finished script. The snow-cone scene was improvised. And it has the advantages of an improvised scene, the freshness, and the disadvantages that they didn’t know what they were doing. They don’t know where they’re going. And they didn’t know how to get out of it. And Jeff Bridges [who plays the Scudder character in the film] has said that the whole thing is one he’d really like to have back. Ashby’s greatest strength as a director was in the cutting room, and they took the cut away from him. And whoever did cut it, according to Bridges, didn’t use the best takes. Ever. And the set was by no means a happy place.
I’ve read Ashby was not in a good place at that time.
You could have listed this picture in an autopsy as a cause of death. He was bottoming out. I made one visit to the set when Ashby happened to be out there, at some lot in El Segundo or something. We exchanged a sentence or two. There was this air of utter sadness coming off of him. Not encouraging. I think coke had really done a job on him, I gather.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr adaptation was the Whoopi Goldberg movie, Burglar (87)?
The casting was the least of its sins, I’ve always felt. It didn’t have much to do with the book, but you could make a movie with Whoopi playing the lead. The writer/director gave us Police Academy one through 18, or whatever.
Have you talked to other writers about getting adapted?
Oh, sure. You know, I was saying this earlier today, and it’s that, when you see a picture and it’s lousy, it seems almost unnecessarily picky to point that out, because it’s such a miracle it got made. So many things don’t.
Do you have any stories of movies that almost got made that you wish were completed?
Yeah. There was one I wrote the screenplay for. Fellow named Richard Rubinstein optioned the Keller books [Block’s series about a hit man]. Somebody else did a first draft, then I did a couple drafts. Came to be called Hit Man. Jeff Bridges was on board to play Keller. Martin Bell was going to direct. And it didn’t quite fly. There was some interest, but never enough interest. This would have been the early Aughts. Richard renewed the option every year for a while, before he finally said he was going to let it go. I think there’s a chance it may wind up being a TV series, which is what it should have been all along. But we will see.
You’ve also written many screenplays. I’m curious about your collaboration with Wong Kar Wai on My Blueberry Nights (07). How was it like working with him?
Not too much to say. It’s the first movie of his to have a script. We wound up working together because he’s a big fan of the Scudder books. And he got in touch, and wanted to option this, and do that. He had a movie he wanted me to write, with Nicole Kidman and set in 1937 Shanghai. Why he thought I was the person to write that I don’t know [laughs]. Nothing ever happened until Blueberry Nights. It was strange, because he’s an absolutely brilliant filmmaker, but he’s not really a story guy. It’s an experience I’m glad I had.
Is there much of your script on the screen?
Some. It was hard to write for him because his idea of the story kept changing while I was typing it. That kind of thing. And when he did settle on an idea, it suddenly became carved in stone, irrespective of its merits. As I said, I’m glad I had the experience, but I wouldn’t rush to have it again. It was his idea, before the first word was written, that Norah Jones just had to play the lead. She had never acted in anything, except maybe a sixth-grade play. It’s a helluva thing for someone with no acting experience to carry a film like that. She’s in virtually every scene. Other people in the film were terrific [laughs].
My Blueberry Nights
Do you think there will be another Scudder book?
I would doubt it. There have been many times over the years when I thought it was probably done, so it’s possible I’m wrong. But Scudder is 75 or 76, something like that, having him age in real time. I think the series has a sense of completion about it.
But you’re still writing other stuff…
I can’t seem to retire.
What is your writing process like?
When I write, and I don’t write often now. Just this year, in May, I was struck out of the blue by an idea for a book. When I thought about it, it came alive. Last month, I went down to Philadelphia, booked myself an apartment (Airbnb is a godsend!), and wrote the book.
So you isolate yourself…
Yeah. I’ve written in writer’s colonies, which work fine for me. But I think I’ve aged out of communal living. And also those you have to book in advance, you can’t really do it on impulse. This way I can, and attend to my meals myself. So it worked very well. I came back with a book, and it’ll come out next summer or fall.
Did you put more of your own life in the Scudder books as the series went along?
I don’t think so. It’s hard to know what one is doing unconsciously. But it seems to me that, with the series as time passes, the character is busy being who he is, and the writer is as well.