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Movie Review: Savages

Adapting Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages was never going to be easy. The book is both revelation and revolution whose joys come from its distinctive prose as its propulsive plot. Winslow’s novel feels like the culmination of years of experimentation in previous books like The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, and The Dawn Patrol, albiet infused with the anger and politics of The Power of the Dog. It has strong sexual content and ultraviolence aplenty — plus, it’s funny and sad and beautiful and a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Generation Y.

Now it’s a movie, directed by Oliver Stone, working from a script co-written by Shane Salerno and Winslow himself. In many ways, it’s an excellent adaptation of the book, honors the spirit of Winslow’s work with a deft, affecting touch. It has almost as many flaws, including a controversial ending that is sure to outrage fans of the novel.

The film begins in Laguna Beach, California — present day. Botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) and ex-Special Forces soldier Chon (Taylor “Tim Riggins” Kitsch) produce some of the best marijuana in the world. Ben is the brains, Chon, the enforcer — and both of them are in love with O (Blake Lively, xoxo Gossip Girl), who’s the kind of California girl Brian Wilson writes songs about. The three of them share an unusual but comfortable relationship, until the Baja Cartel, led by Elena comes calling.

When Ben and Chon spur the advances of the cartel’s generous offer to buy their business, Elena instructs the vicious, perverse Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O. She hopes this will send Ben and Chon into her embrace. Chon has other plans, plans best summed up by Tommy Lee Jones in Rolling Thunder:

“We’re gonna kill a whole bunch of people.” Continue reading “Movie Review: Savages”

Don Winslow, Interviewed by Shane Salerno

Today, the film Savages, based on the Don Winslow novel of the same name, opens in theaters. Check out the trailer, if you haven’t already. Directed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, the film’s screenplay is the product of a collaboration between novelist Don Winslow and screenwriter Shane Salerno. Winslow and Salerno have known each other for a long time – thirteen years to be exact. They have worked together, including creating the NBC TV series UC: Undercover, trust each other implicitly and often exchange early drafts of their work and talk on the phone every day, usually about film adaptations of Winslow’s work which Salerno produces. At our request, Salerno rang up his buddy Winslow who was in the middle of a cross-country book tour and interviewed the acclaimed crime writer about his life and work.

Salerno: What does it mean for you to be a writer?

Winslow: It means everything to me to be a writer. You know I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I grew up with great story tellers. My old man was a sailor, and I used to sit under the dining room table when he had his old Navy buddies over, and he’d pretend to think that I’d gone to bed and he’d let me sit there and listen to some of the best story tellers in the world so I always worshiped those guys. And we always had books around the house. My old man came out of World War II, you know 17 years old on Guadalcanal and what he wanted to do was ride around on boats, go to every zoo in the world and sit around and read books. So there were always books around our house and we were allowed to read anything we wanted at any age. There was no censorship, no nothing and so I imagined from when I was 5 or 6 years or so that if I could be a writer that would be the best thing in the world to be.

Salerno: Tell me 5 books that knocked you out?

Winslow: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential–where am I? that’s three?–a book called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, it’ll come to me, a really beautiful Indian novel about Mumbai, and, without question, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

Salerno: Name some authors’ you consistently admire in the genre?

Winslow: Well, James Ellroy, T. Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen and John Harvey, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child.

Salerno: You’ve been married for twenty-five years, and yet all of your characters are a mess. How do you access that?

Winslow: [laughs] All of my characters are a mess?

Salerno: They’re a mess!–Every single one of them.–A beautiful mess in some cases but…

Winslow: Y’know, I think methods are interesting. You know what I mean? Vulnerability’s interesting. I don’t think like ‘steady’ is real interesting in fiction, you know? I think that a character’s flaws are what give a character depth and interest. So, I’ve been married for 25 years but I had a life before I was married. It’s a little hard to remember sometimes but I did and I think I was the same kind of flawed, kind of vulnerable kind of character so it is pretty easy for me to access that .

At the same time, I think, you know any writer looks around him. You know, you look at people you look at relationships, you look at other people you know, you look at people in restaurants and cafés, you sit there and you make up stories about them you hear snatches of conversation you see little bits of behavior and that finds its way into your work. But if I was to just sit and write about myself I think we’d have some damn dull books. It would be about some guy sitting alone in a room typing. Not very interesting

Salerno: Give us a short history of your childhood, your parents and growing up.

Winslow: Oh, man. There’s no short history. My dad was a Navy man, Marine in World War II, and then into the Navy, Childhood was spent on most of the destroyer ports on the East Coast. My mom was from New Orleans, my dad met her while he was on leave during World War II. They got married six weeks later, and she came from a family of gamblers. My grandmother was a ward healer for Huey Long after the depression, and then she worked for Carlos Marcello the Mafia chief who probably had Kennedy killed — who by the way I met as a child we used to go to parties at his house in Algiers.

Continue reading “Don Winslow, Interviewed by Shane Salerno”

Savage Beauty, Savage Poster

One of the most anticipated films for crime fans this summer is the adaptation of Don Winslow’s revolutionary novel Savages. Directed by Oliver Stone, it’s the story of Ben and Chon, two Southern California marijuana kingpins who run afoul of a Mexican cartel. Shenanigans ensue. While Stone assembled a cast that blends established stars – John Travolta, Salma Hayek – and young stars on the verge of breakout success – Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively – images from the film have been few and far between.

Until recently, when viewers got their first look at the poster for the film. The verdict? Not bad. While the style – a series of successive images stacked atop each other – is reminiscent of other film posters, those images are powerful and striking, overall. One of my biggest concerns about Savages is whether or not Stone can capture the novel’s sense of scope. It’s a rapidly shifting book when it comes to perspective, moving from big, exciting set pieces to small, intimate moments from page to page. The top image on the poster, with its white sand, blue sky, and embracing couple, strikes that tone.

I’m also a fan of the use of color here – it’s bright, poppy, with nary a teal or orange in sight. While Winslow’s book is dark and gritty at times, Winslow at his best is fun, engaging, and reminiscent of Elmore Leonard. He’s about as hard to adapt as Leonard, it seems, so any adaptation of his work needs to have that fun, free-wheeling spirit to it.

As for the characters, Taylor Kitsch and Benicio Del Toro look like they stepped right out of the book, Blake Lively looks more like Winslow’s surfer character Sunny Day (from The Dawn Patrol) than a mall-hopping chantruce (could just be me, though) and Salma Hayek looks more than threatening enough. John Travolta, whose character is relatively minor in the book, remains a mystery, but appears to be operating in “scenery-chewing” mode.

While Stone was not my first choice to helm this project, this poster is an excellent start in the ramp up to what’s sure to be one of the craziest movies of the summer. Savages opens July 6th.

Check out the debut trailer for the film below.

In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader

bookshelvesReading a book that not only entertains but is also deeply felt—deeply realized, created from a highly personal vision, strikes me as a kind of rebellion.

—Jeff VanderMeer (2002)

I was once called a champion of the obscure. Maybe because the books that often get me excited are the ones that others haven’t heard of yet; maybe because I always strive to be willing to try new things. While everyone is jumping up and down about Savages, by Don Winslow (and they should, because it’s a brilliant book and a potential game changer),  I’m the guy jumping up and down about Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. Maybe I’m just a kind of outlier. Or an oddball. I don’t know, that’s for others to decide, but for now, how about a new term: “Long Tail Reader.”

There’s nothing quite like finding that undiscovered small gem of a book, unknown to most or forgotten in time; the book that yields little if anything when you Google the title and author; the book that requires some proselytizing. Finding those books and bringing them in from the cold to be among a fellowship calls for a willingness to go just about anywhere in search of story: to other genres, to other mediums, to very small presses, to other communities.

I can’t speak for other Long Tail readers, but one thing that bothers me is when lists are made and the authors of said lists claim to have made an effort to include items that are “off the beaten path” or that are mavericks,” but they haven’t. My beef isn’t with the intent or even with the compilers of the lists; it’s the choices that often baffle me. If you’re going to choose something out there, then really make it out there.

I think it’s worth acknowledging up front that yes, there is a high level of subjectivity to what’s about to come. More important, though, I want to be very clear that this column is intended to be open-ended. I want this to be the start of a conversation that goes on and discusses more and more books. So talk to me. Not just for the rest of the day or until the next column is posted, but beyond that.

Some books are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool members of the “Shadow Cabinet” (defined by Jeff VanderMeer as “an anti-canon that exists in the minds of those readers who have not been colonized by the all-too-familiar”). These books have either absorbed the history of the genre without being encumbered by it or have chosen to ignore it. This is crime fiction that fights against regressive trends and forces and looks ahead. Such books are innovative in ways that others aren’t. They may be more daring. They may be more structurally innovative. If these books share a common factor, it’s that they often don’t have any or many conventional or easily recognizable genre markers (to paraphrase George Pelecanos, not crime fiction per se but in the criminal milieu). Because of this they may require a more active reader who is willing to do some of the lifting or at least share the load. They can be difficult, and they can be challenging, but often they aren’t. Sometimes these books are already or are destined to become the cult classics of the genre.

Continue reading “In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader”

Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley

When someone asks me why I think there’s been a resurgence in dark crime, hard-boiled, and noir fiction, I tell them the story about the house across the street.
Razer

It’s a two-floor split-foyer that nowadays sort of looks like Boo Radley’s place. It’s become one of those legendary homes where kids are dared to run up to the porch on Halloween. Obviously, no one lives there anymore. The weeds are chest high. Part of the fencing has toppled. A leaf-strewn trampoline lies collapsed in the backyard, and sun-faded flyers and newspapers litter the stoop.

Eighteen months ago it looked like every other place on the block: well-tended, colorful, lively, active. There was always plenty of noise over there, but not the kind that gets on your nerves. Teenagers shot hoops in the driveway while younger kids played volleyball in the yard or drew chalk pictures and hopscotch boards on the sidewalk. There was a lot of laughter.

This was before my neighbor defaulted on his third mortgage and fled in the night with his family in a box truck, without saying a word to anyone on the street.

Two weeks ago I got so tired of looking at the shabby lawn that I dragged my mower over there and spent an hour doing my best to trim back the jungle. I struggled, sweated, and failed. A third of the way through, the mower started coughing smoke and spitting sparks. Then it let out a shriek like a well-stacked scream queen and died. I haven’t been able to get it started since.

Continue reading “Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley”

Live Chat with Don Winslow

What follows is a transcript of the live chat with Don Winslow, author of Savages, a book that I think is the literary equivalent of narcotic stimulants.

We’ll start with a few questions from me:

Sarah Weinman: – So first I wanted to talk a bit about Savages opening chapter (or opening line) and, at the risk of quoting myself – always dangerous – my sense was that “If you cackle out loud, you may proceed to Chapter 2. If not, you’re not Savages ideal reader, and it’s no great loss.” So was “fuck you” always the way the book started? Or did you have to pare things down, hack away at it, before that phrase became the book’s opener?
Don Winslow: First, Sarah, thank you for all the very kind words about the book. As a matter of fact, ‘fuck you’ was the first sentence I wrote, even before I had characters or a plot. I guess I was just in a bad mood. But then I got thinking, ‘What about it?’ Who says it? Who thinks it? The next thing I knew a 20-something Orange County woman named O was describing her friend Chon, and it went from there.

Sarah Weinman: Savages has quite the high-wire act in that it starts out as kind of high comedy – two guys and a girl, partying in the USA, so to speak, a threat nobody really takes seriously – and then things get Very Serious and it turns out that light-hearted beginning is basically a big lie. How did you make sure not to have too much comedy or too much tragedy, so that the tension between the two keeps the reader going until the illusion basically gets ripped away?
Don Winslow: Well, I like the high-wire, maybe because I’m so afraid of heights. I think life itself constantly flips between tragedy and comedy, and often very quickly and without warning, so I just wrote it that way. Frankly, if I thought something was funny, I put it in and took the chance. But as the story moved inexorably toward tragedy, the events argued against going for any laughs. Sometimes I think of story structure as a wave – it builds and builds and can do some funky things, but when it breaks, it breaks – when it crashes it crashes.

Harry Hunskicker: No memory, U wake up in a motel w/ pile of $ & dead hooker, police at the door. What fic. charac. do you call?
Don Winslow: [laughs] I call Philip Marlow, no question. But if you really are in this situation, Harry, you might want to consult a good lawyer.

Sarah Weinman: There’s a one-page narrative monologue near the end of the book that I think really delivers Savages knockout punch to American material culture and to the way boomer selfishness has not only failed subsequent generations but the country as a whole. Which is to say, you don’t mince words, and it seemed like the whole book was written from a place of frustration, if not anger, at how we ply ourselves with consumerism and are wholly ill-equipped for a world where such values don’t count.
Don Winslow: Yeah, I was pretty angry when I was writing this book. Hell, I’m pretty angry now. The widening economic disparity, the yapping, quarreling politicians who won’t address the real problems, the obsession with celebrity and cheap fame, and the endless consumerism that serves as a narcotic – really our worst drug problem. I was especially pissed off at the right-wing media bullies and congressional cretins who feel entitled to say anything, but then go running to mommy if anyone hits back. So I thought I’d take a rhetorical baseball bat to them.

Mexico's war on drugsDuane Swierczynski: Do you research before, during, or after writing a novel — like, say, Savages, which is full of tons of sharp insights into drug cartels, grades of marijuana, etc.? (Then again, it is entirely possible you’ve run a cartel at some point, and research is a moot point.)
Don Winslow: Thanks Duane! You know, I do a fair amount of research before and during. And so, it’s funny because you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to write it and so you think you’ve done enough research and then you’re writing and you realize there’s something you don’t know.
Afterwards, I try not to, I try to forget it and move on to the next book

Kathy Roberts: What’s on your iPod?
Don Winslow: Steve Earle, Robert Earle Keen, lots of Springsteen, James McMurtry (like in Larry McMurty’s son), Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and a surf reggae band called Common Sense out of Laguna Beach

Cort McMeel: For me, The Power of the Dog was a seminal work of fiction. You wove an extremely complex plot with a lot of uninventable details of the Mexican drug trade while painting an in depth portrait of a whole gallery of characters. My two questions:
1) In your research did you interview any actual DEA agents, drug cartel members, Mexican police and/or prostitutes? 2) If so, who was the most interesting to you personally, and why?
Don Winslow: Thanks for the kind words, Cort. I have to be really careful about this. Suffice to say that I did a lot of research, including talking to people. Beyond that, I think I’d better be discreet. You know, they’re all interesting in their own ways.

Continue reading “Live Chat with Don Winslow”