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'Life Of Crime' Director Daniel Schechter Remembers Elmore Leonard

How the late novelist's final adaptation came to be

August 21, 2013 4:30 PM ET
Daniel Schechter
Daniel Schechter
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

For decades, Elmore Leonard's novels – 3:10 To Yuma, Jackie Brown, and Get Shorty – have been adapted into some of Hollywood's most thrilling movies. The famed novelist, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87, described the phenomenon in simple terms to radio host Sean Moncrieff: "My books are dialogue heavy, which makes them easy to adapt to screenplays."

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Still, some misinterpreted his work. To his credit, Leonard didn't pull punches, saying the worst two films he'd ever seen were adaptations of his 1969 novel, The Big Bounce, starring Ryan O'Neal in '69 and Owen Wilson in 2004. He was not all barbs, though, praising Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown – adapted from his 1992 novel Rum Punch – as the truest he'd seen.
 
Perhaps that's why writer/director Daniel Schechter was extra nervous when approaching the literary icon with a treatment of Leonard's 1978 novel The Switch, a prequel of sorts to Rum Punch. "I thought, worse comes to worse, I have a great spec script on my hands," Schechter tells Rolling Stone.
 
From studio to studio, Schechter followed the rights and permissions trail all the way to French film company Gaumont. "It was a 30-year-old deal written on dusty yellow paper," he says. Luckily, it expired years ago, and during his quest, he earned the confidence of Elmore and his manager, Michael Siegel. "They told me I had a year to get a package together, but I didn't have any sort of official deal in place until the day we started shooting."

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During his pursuit, Schechter tightened the script and joined forces with producer and Tarantino confidant Lee Stollman. Together they hit the road and started meeting with actors. Hollywood's top talent, including John Hawkes, Isla Fisher, Tim Robbins, and Jennifer Aniston, quickly signed on. "Every single person I got in a room with jumped on board. I think they could tell I was really coming at it as a fan of Leonard's work," Schechter says.
 
When asked what Leonard thought of the casting, he notes, "on multiple occasions, he said Aniston was extremely beautiful." Later, he adds, "I went out to Detroit to visit him for a weekend, and he showed me locations he'd been thinking about when he was writing the book. I think because he had been burned in the past by other filmmakers, he wanted to keep a slight distance from the project. But I know that he had high hopes for it."
 
He laughs while sharing one of his more recent memories, which showcases Leonard's naturally earnest nature. "I sent him a sizzle reel of shots from the movie. I had randomly thrown some upbeat '70s music over it just for fun. He must have mentioned three times that he didn't like the song."

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Schechter was working feverishly on post-production when he heard Leonard suffered a stroke. To add to the gravity, it was the same day the film was chosen to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival's closing gala, an unprecedented honor for a relatively new filmmaker.

Now, so close to the finish line, he rubs the bags under his eyes, clearly troubled by the passing of the man who's story has consumed the last five years of his life. It's obvious he hasn't been sleeping much. "People have been emailing and texting ever since the news broke. It just hit home what a risk he took on me. He gave me so much trust."
 
Life Of Crime will premiere next month at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening will be dedicated to Leonard's memory, and though he's "not good at speeches," Schechter plans on attempting one.

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