'Logan' Screenwriter Scott Frank On Finishing His Debut Novel 'Shaker' Fifteen Years After He Began [Interview]

Back in the early 1990s, filmmaker Scott Frank began writing his debut novel "Shaker," which is now available in paperback. It's the story of an unassuming hitman, an embarrassing mayor, a sharp cop with a checkered past, a young street gang, and an unrelenting earthquake. They all affect each other in a Los Angeles-set story, unmistakably from the director of The Lookout and A Walk Among the Tombstones and the writer behind two beloved Elmore Leonard film adaptations, Get Shorty and Out of Sight.

Shaker's characters are on a comically dark, dramatic, and violent journey that concludes at a famous location that calls to mind some other great thrillers from the '90s. In addition to discussing Logan, which Frank co-wrote, he also told us about the experience of completing Shaker years after he first imagined the story's tragic, seemingly childlike hitman, Roy Cooper.

By the end of the book, I was surprised by how much empathy I felt for Roy.

Oh, great, that's the idea. You're supposed to feel for that poor guy.

Did you first start with the character or the story?

I started with him, with somebody who grew up to be the person that they were totally not supposed to be. I thought that would be kind of interesting and so I started with that. I don't know why I do it is, but I always end up writing in some way about identity. Someone's either running to their identity or away from it. I just had this idea for a character who began his life one way and ended up another and how that might happen and filling in the blanks as to how he ended up that way.

Then the earthquake came later. The Northridge quake happened. I was going to set it in New York for a while. I toyed with it in the script, and it just didn't feel right, and I had all kinds of subplots with the FBI and all sorts of nonsense that didn't work. I ended up moving it back to LA, where I lived up until three years ago. I lived there most of my life, in California, and I lived in LA since 1982 until 2014, or so.

But the quake really intrigued me. When I sold the book to Knopf, it was based on a hundred pages that I had written way back when and it took place in 1993 or 1994, and [Knopf editor-in-chief] Sonny Mehta said to me, "Why?" And my only answer was, "Well, because I don't want to write about cell phones." [Laughs] And he said, "Okay, you can do what you want, but I don't think this needs to be in period." Then I sort of embraced the enemy and cell phones became a huge part of the story, as you saw.

I've heard so many writers say how much drama cell phones have killed for them.

They just kill. "Why don't you just pick up your phone?" [Laughs]

And it's usually boring to watch, too.

It's so boring.

Do you often run into the cell phone problem? 

All the time. "How can I avoid them?" Sometimes I just quietly don't have them anywhere, and you don't think about it. "Why isn't anybody on the phone?" And even with Walk Among the Tombstones, I did the same thing. I wanted to kind of write it before they were so ubiquitous, and I used the excuse of, "Well, it's right before the millennium." I was trying to find some historical context to pretend to be concerned about [Laughs].

That year worked for that movie's atmosphere. It was pre-9/11, and there's a sense of foreboding.

Exactly. And like with cell phones, I embraced that too. It became a really interesting idea for me. But in Shaker, you know, the earthquake came later. And then I'll tell you, the first chapter I wrote way late in the day. I was almost done with the book when my editor said to me, "You know, the quake is there and it's kind of a background, but maybe it needs to be more of a character." And I took him literally. I made the earthquake a real character, and I decided to introduce the earthquake as the main character in chapter one. Because originally, chapter one was now what's chapter two. It was great to write about the quake because it changed everything in the book and it gave it this kind of weird personality that I could use and bring back. The earthquake was rather almost like a supervillain for me.

Scott Frank interview

How was the experience of looking back at those hundred pages from the '90s, maybe seeing how you've changed as a writer?

Well, that's a major thing, because I'll tell you ... You know, I'd written those pages and put them away, because I had the three kids very close together, and a mortgage and school and everything to pay for, and so I had to go back to my day job. I had written those hundred pages just taking 20 minutes every morning out of screenwriting to write the book, and I got pretty far. But then I kind of forgot about it for years and years. Every now and again I would look at it again, but it was right before I started to make A Walk Among the Tombstones, one summer I found those pages and I reread them.

Actually, unlike the experience you have when you read stuff you wrote when you were younger and you wince and want to burn it and bury it in the backyard as quickly as possible, I read it and I thought, "Oh, fuck, I've gotten really far away from what I wanted to be as a writer, and who I wanted to be." And this was so much closer. I thought, "Wow, I would love to work on this again, because I would love to get my head back to that place where I'm just listening to myself," because as a screenwriter you collaborate, you know, if you're lucky like I've been, with really smart people, and really talented people. And they become the voices in your head along with your own, and it gets hard to distinguish them from one another and from your own voice. Writing the book for me was an exercise in sort of cleaning house up there for a while.

From the beginning, were you interested in writing novels or films, or were you just interested in writing? 

I was just interested in writing, and then in college, I discovered screenwriting and began really, really pursuing that. But I always thought that I was going to write a novel. I really thought, you know, I'd write one in my 30s, and then I would adapt that and direct that. But you know, life has a way of happening and pushing you in different directions. But I'd always wanted to do it, it just took me a very long time.

Do you want to adapt Shaker?

I do. I really do. I don't know how. I don't know what it would be. Would it be a miniseries like what I just did with Godless? Or would it be a movie? I don't know. I'm still kind of pondering all of that. So I held it to myself. [Game of Thrones co-creator] David Benioff, I always admired him for holding on to "City of Thieves" and not selling it. It's one of the great novels of the last 25 years, and I just love that book so much. You know, people have always tried to buy it or set it up, and he just kind of held it for himself while he figured out what to do with it and when. He's a buddy, and I had asked him about that. He never looked back and always felt good about that, so that was sort of my thinking with "Shaker" for the moment.

I assume you wouldn't feel comfortable handing off Shaker to just anybody to make.

No, I would want to do it all myself. It's just a question of when. And so I have plenty stuff piled in front of me. And by the way, even when I sold the book, I sold it based on those hundred pages. What then happened is A Walk Among the Tombstones got greenlit, so I didn't even get to the book for another year and a half.

In the year and a half, were you thinking about ideas for the book? 

No, I wasn't thinking about the book. My wife was asking, "Well, why'd you do that? Now you have to go do that, and when are you going to go do that?" What happened was, I shot a pilot for a series called Hoke based on the Charles Willeford Hoke Moseley novels, and it didn't happen. At the last minute, it fell apart. I had cleared the deck so that I could do nothing but Hoke for a year, and I suddenly was faced with a year free, and I said, "I'm just going to write the book." It was great. It was a tremendous experience for me. I had a ball doing it.

What was your feeling after finally finishing the book? Did you feel rejuvenated?

Absolutely. I felt rejuvenated, and I was mad at myself for not doing it when I was supposed to do it back in my 30s. I really wished that it was my third or fourth book, not my first book. Because I really enjoyed the process so much and it helped me in so many other ways. It loosened me up in a great way.

You mentioned how you got to listen to your own voice again while writing Shaker. Did the novel provide you with other freedoms you maybe don't get from screenwriting? 

Well, yeah, because first of all in screenwriting you're only using two senses, two out of five. You're using sight and sound. And it's a very bastardized form of storytelling. Any time you try and make it sound novelistic, it's tricky. It can be dense and boring if you're not careful. So just the format itself is frustrating. It's hard to be free in the screenwriting format where you're always writing "interior" and "exterior" every few seconds. And so that part I really liked. Just the format. I could go anywhere, I could digress, I could go forwards and backwards. I had more than 120 pages of real estate to work with, and so you could really go on deep dives with any character you wanted to. No matter how big or how small, you could really have a good time and sort of exhaust yourself, and then keep going.

And you could take more time in individual scenes, if you will. You're not worried about, again, the constraints you have in film, where you can write all kinds of dialogue, and you can loop back and forth, and you can go inside a character and then outside a character. As long as it's moving and it feels like it's moving, you can play a little more, and that was great. And also because I'm not writing something that has to cost millions of dollars to make, I don't have to service anything other than the story. You know, I don't need a set piece. I just need to keep it interesting. I just need to keep spinning a good yarn, whatever that is. Whatever that is. That was liberating.

scott frank interview

Do you outline? 

I don't outline a lot in my scripts. I tend to write a lot of notes about them, and maybe you could call it a kind of outline because it is somewhat in order. But I tend to know as much as I can know about every scene before I write the scene. Not always, but whenever I can, I try to know a lot before I start to write. And lots of notes about what might be happening in the scene, what ... You know, just everything.

The sort of scene outline stuff doesn't work for me because I get five, six scenes in and it starts to change. As I really start to understand the characters and I start writing them, and they're doing things, and I start hearing them talk, what I thought they might say doesn't feel right anymore. It doesn't feel honest. So that all begins to bend in a different direction and suddenly that outline is no longer useful to me.

But what is useful to me is sort of just the notes about the world, about the people, about what might happen, about snippets of dialogue that I like or have heard that I think I want to use. Anything like that. Description, research stuff. I have it in a huge document, it might be 60, 70 pages long, and I'm always working on it. Whenever I get stuck in the script, I go back and reread it, or I go back and write in it, just to write about it, and that really helps.

And with the book ... It's almost like I'm writing a book. And the book is the same thing. I just would kind of write about a chapter, and gradually those notes became the chapter in a weird way. I began to change it into prose just by going over it and over it and over it. Or sometimes I would just start with what I do in a script, where I just start writing dialogue. I just get people talking and see what's going to happen, and I would do that, too.

Do you often take notes in your daily life for material? 

Oh, all the time. All the time. Yeah, I'm always listening and watching, and sometimes I forget. Even when I take notes, I forget to then to go look at my notes [Laughs]. But yeah, always on the make. And also books help me a lot. If I'm writing something, I tend to want to be reading something that's in the zone of what I'm writing. It helps me, you know, for no other reason than that I could steal something, or we'll say borrow it.

Will you sometimes read authors writing in an entirely different genre you're working in for inspiration?

God, yeah. I mean, yes. I'm always reading, so you know, definitely different kinds of things, and you learn different kinds of tricks from all different sorts of authors, and from all different kinds of genres. And even non-fiction, you know. I read certain books, I love certain kinds of biographies. You just get details about character that's always very helpful. All the time. I mean, too many examples because it just happens every day.

And you have to be reading, and it's because if you're not reading, you're not really writing. I've learned so much more from reading than anything else, even more than from watching movies, in terms of writing. Directing, it helps to watch movies, but for writing, I really don't learn that much. I learn a ton from reading books, though.

I imagine reading and adapting Elmore Leonard was a huge learning experience.

I learned a ton. It was a huge influence. Both of those books were. You know, even if he's not telling a story, just listening to Elmore Leonard, just listening to his voice as a writer, is just as pleasing as being told a story.