Leslie Dixon is the screenwriter/producer who made the novel The Dark Fields happen as the film Limitless. Here, Leslie and Limitless author Alan Glynn discuss the project’s long road from book to screen. And everything in between.
Leslie Dixon: Alan, my attempts to get this movie up and running took soooo long — was there ever a point during which you suspected I might just be another Hollywood bullshitter?
Alan Glynn: Not really, no, and there are two reasons for this. One, you wrote a great script, and It’s been there from the beginning – standing, as far as I’ve always been concerned, as a bulwark against the bullshit. It was your script, you wanted it produced as well, so we were more or less in the same boat. If you had just been a producer, then maybe I might have been worn down and wracked with doubts and tempted to look elsewhere. But no other producer – and I met with quite a few over the years – would have had that killer script under their arm. The producers I met with – always at their request, and usually approaching option renewal time – were enthusiastic and persuasive and generally convinced that they could make things happen. They had good ideas, too, but I’d always walk away thinking, there’s already a great script there, what are the chances of any of these guys coming up with something better?
And the second reason is that you were also upfront with me. From the very beginning. I don’t know if you realize it but we have exchanged close to a thousand emails (so far). You have kept me up to speed on everything, the good stuff and the bad, and it’s been quite an insight into the whole process – and also, I’ve been told many times, very unusual. But I think writers tend to understand each other. We understood each other pretty quickly and trust built up as a result. Plus I got it that you were trying and trying and that it was never easy. So no.
AG: Leslie, how did you approach adapting the book?
LD: I didn’t have an approach. Seriously. (Kids — don’t try this at home — this is because I am a hardened screenplay combat veteran — but I never so much as made an outline.) I just opened your book, jotted down some notes, sat at the computer, and went nuts.
Now. I knew I was going to have to invent more plot. Movie audiences are more ADD-ish than book readers, and there were going to have to be some extra twists and turns. And you will forgive me if I say I didn’t want to use your ending — Faustian as Eddie’s bargain is, I had a feeling the audience would still want to see him win. (Kinda, sorta.)
I had a general idea of where it was going to end up. But mostly, I surprised myself. And most unusually — I had never done this before — I wrote myself into a corner more than once. When Lindy (Eddie’s girlfriend) is pinned down with a killer closing in on her, I had absolutely no idea how she was going to get out of it. When Eddie himself was trapped in his apartment with thugs beating down the door, found one last pill, and was about to take it, I thought, “No! That’s too easy!” — and made it roll down the heating grate. Unrecoverable.
I really don’t know how I did it. I used to work from slavish outlines. But I will say this: on not a single preview card did we get the word, “predictable.”
So maybe I needed to loosen up.
AG: Very interesting. This is a subject that always fascinates me. To outline or not to outline. I’m currently in the molasses sludge of indecision about what my next book is going to be about, and I know from experience that I’ll eventually have to just jump in blind – or end up in a straitjacket and on horse tranquilizers.
MB: As Alan has discussed in previous interviews, Limitless tells a story of intense, eerie paranoia that would seem to have its antecedents in books/ films like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, or perhaps David Fincher’s The Game. Respectively, what were your influences in approaching this kind of material?
LD: That’s primarily an Alan question. I honestly wasn’t too focused on that genre of films, though I know them all, and am a particular fan of Seconds. I have always found the Manchurian Candidate, possibly just in its execution, just a bit outlandish. I wanted Limitless to have a taste of that 70’s paranoia, but seem more realistic and — paradoxically — be a bit more of a thrill ride.
But overall I think Eddie’s behavior, and the behavior of those around him, is quite relatable. He doesn’t have a power-mad mother willing to throw him to the wolves in the name of geo-political domination! (Most of us don’t.)
AG: Influences is a tricky subject. You know what has gone into the overall mix – what you’ve ever read or seen – but it’s hard to be specific without retrofitting or rationalizing. When you start you often have no clue what’s going to emerge and it’s only when you’re up and running, and on safe ground, that you might begin to see influences. With The Dark Fields I quickly realized that Eddie was telling us the story of his own destruction, and that there were great precedents for this, favorite books of mine – Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and John Banville’s The Book of Evidence – very different in many ways, but with an underlying pattern that I found very attractive. Much later on, I came across a brilliant examination of this fundamental story-telling pattern in The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. It’s a five-stage tragedy arc that you find in the Icarus and Faust myths, in Macbeth, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Lolita. The five stages are Anticipation, Dream, Frustration, Nightmare and Destruction. That seems to me to be a perfect description of Eddie’s trajectory in the book. It was also the first person closeness of the narrator in The Third Policeman that I found irresistible, that clinical dissection of psychological torment. Other influences would have to include The Great Gatsby, with its great American theme of the re-invention of the self and the delusional notion of the perfectibility of man, which I envisaged as being reduced at the tail end of the twentieth century to a commodity, a small white pill. And then, as always, for tone and mood, an over- (or under-)lay of movies from the 70s, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Marathon Man.
LD: Alan, I know you lived in New York and weren’t exactly rolling in bucks. How much of you is in Original Eddie?
AG: A lot, really. There is always a danger with a first person narrative that readers will assume the voice is the author’s own, that there’s no dividing line, but writers are born liars, it’s what we’re paid to do, make stuff up and make it convincing, and a first person voice is the most efficient delivery system for this. Where things get fuzzy is when the writer draws on his or her own experience to fill in details or provide a setting. Does that mean you’re writing about yourself? Or are you just cannibalizing your life for convenient material? When I was making up Eddie – Original Eddie, as you so diplomatically put it – I didn’t have to look far for the details. I lived in New York in the late 80s, in dingy apartments, I had very little money, I worked as a proof-reader for a cable TV listings magazine, I wanted to be a writer but had serious trouble motivating myself, I craved literary success, but seemed to be short-circuited on how to go about achieving it, or achieving anything for that matter. And if I’d met someone who gave me a hit of MDT-48, I’d have popped it without hesitation. So holy shit, I AM Eddie. (Nice piece of casting, btw).
AG: Leslie, you’ve done a lot of comedy, and I think you’ve brought a really sharp wit to this script, but it’s something of a departure for you. What would you like to do in the future? Any dream projects you have in mind?
LD: What I would most like to do in the future is eat truffle pasta and drink Brunello. Next project? I am so wiped out I can’t imagine ever writing a word again.
You may imagine that this film took quite a bit out of me, and you’d be right. But there is something a little persistent about this mini-funk. The awful feeling is creeping over me if I want to stop fighting to protect my work, perhaps I should write something that isn’t a screenplay.
This concept, to Hollywood types, is the abyss. If the thing flat-out tanked there’d be no studio to blame. I really have to think about this.
MB: Leslie, you’ve written countless scripts. Do you think your experience working with Alan’s material will affect your writing moving forward?
LD: Well, the whole reason I was drawn to Alan’s novel — beside its rocking premise — was Alan’s voice. His prose style reminded me, a lot, of the way I write prose (on the rare and secret occasions I do). I felt I could pick up the ball and continue where he left off with no interruption in service. We would meld.
This experience has made me wonder if I could stop writing scripts altogether. Maybe I could have Alan’s job from now on. And he could have mine — God knows he’s seen every film ever made and writes excellent dialogue. He’d enjoy the checks clearing and I’d enjoy being left the hell alone, to please myself, without having to think thoughts like, “Oh, shit, she said the f-word twice — that’s an automatic R.”
Probably the bylaws of the MPAA should not intrude on the synapses of a fired-up writer.
AG: Leslie, this reminds me of Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors pulling out his pocket recorder . . . idea for a reality TV show, two writers swap jobs, a Brunello-quaffing Hollywood screenwriter goes to live in rainy Dublin to write a novel about priests and spinsters set in the 1950s, while an eager Irish novelist goes to live in Beverly Hills to eat truffle pasta and have the soul wrenched out of him by studio executives constantly telling him how “excited” they are . . .
Okay, not priests and spinsters. But with your attitude and long experience writing whippet-lean scripts you could write a really cracking crime novel with as many f-words in it as you liked. That’d be something I’d really look forward to.
MB: Alan, has seeing your work translated to screen had any kind of effect on your writing process?
AG: Not that I’m aware of. What I think of as my writing process feels like something pretty immutable at this point, and inescapable, like hair color or a tendency to snore. Each time out, I try to do it differently (essentially to speed things up a bit), but it always ends up coming together the same way, and at the same pace. So seeing The Dark Fields become Limitless didn’t really have any effect on how I wrote Winterland or Bloodland. But there might be a broader question here. People often say that my stuff is very “cinematic”, that they can easily imagine it translating to the screen, and just sometimes I detect a note of condescension in this, as though it’s something I do deliberately, even cynically, in order to increase the chances of getting a book made into a film. Only someone who has never written a novel could possibly imagine this was a smart plan. Because it just doesn’t work that way. The truth, of course, is that prose fiction has evolved over the decades and the influence of cinema on it has been enormous. It’s an entirely natural, organic process. So any storytelling style I might have, any sense of pacing or structure, has inevitably – and happily – been informed by the endless hours I’ve spent in the dark watching movies.
Against everyone’s advice, Leslie Dixon left the clean air and charm of San Francisco to move to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter.
With grades too odd for a scholarship, and no family money, Leslie did not go to college, instead suffering a series of menial jobs and guitar playing boyfriends before finally discovering, to her surprise, that she was venally ambitious. She began writing at night. Her second script was made into the hit film “Outrageous Fortune,” starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long, and she was off to the races.
Later credits include “Overboard,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Pay It Forward,“ “Freaky Friday,” and “Hairspray.” Her next film will be the thriller “Limitless,” starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, which she wrote and will produce.
She is married to the screenwriter Tom Ropelewski, and they have one accidental, 14 year old son. They have stopped using his first name and simply refer to him as “Satan.”
Alan Glynn is the author of two novels, Limitless, which was adapted into the major motion picture of the same name, and Winterland, which was published earlier this year by Minotaur and Faber & Faber. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.