Scott Frank 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.

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