Scott Frank is having one hell of a year. The multihyphenate writer-director-novelist, best known for penning blockbuster screenplays like Minority Report and Out of Sight, is hot off the major triumph of Logan, the hugely successful, wildly acclaimed X-Men movie he co-wrote with director James Mangold. Godless, a new six-part miniseries Frank created, is set to drop on Netflix this fall, and the buzz is already deafening. And this January saw the release in paperback of Shaker, a brawny, hard-boiled crime thriller that has the distinction of being Frank’s debut novel.
We caught up with Frank by phone at his home in New York to talk about genres, influences and the differences between writing books and writing films.
How different is writing strictly for the page from writing for the screen?
Writing a script, you’re limited by the tools available to you, because you’re only really describing sight and sound. You can’t go much deeper than that. You use two of your five senses. It’s a tricky way to write, and I find it very hard to get a flow going when I’m writing a screenplay. Writing scene after scene is a trickier thing. What was so much fun for me writing a novel was being able to not worry about a lot of things you have to worry about in a script. You have a very limited amount of real estate in which you can tell your story in a screenplay—120 pages at the most. In a novel you can digress. You can go backwards. It’s a lot freer, and a lot more forgiving, and I found it more fun.
It’s a cliche to say that the city is a character in a movie—Los Angeles especially. But the city is essential to the book, and I wondered how, without the tools of filmmaking, you put that city feel into words.
Well, I sort of went from the inside out. The main character is a guy who is not from Los Angeles, and what we’re getting is his view of the city, the outsider’s view. I’ve lived in L.A. for most of my life, but it seemed to me that it would be really fun to explore it from an outsider’s perspective. There are other characters who grew up there, each in their own neighborhood, and I wanted to get their perspectives of the city too, so that instead of one city, we’re seeing four or five different cities. That’s more interesting than trying to capture one single essence of what Los Angeles is—because I couldn’t even tell you what that would be.
How similar is the prose of your novel to the prose of your screenplays?
Very different. You don’t have, as I’ve said, a lot of pages to work with, so you’re trying to set your scenes very quickly. Reading Red Harvest taught me how to write scripts, because Dashiell Hammett sets these scenes with about two or three words and suddenly you understand where everyone is. That’s the goal of a script. If you spend too much time describing things, you don’t feel like you’re reading a movie. You get stuck. You stop. I try to describe as much as I can in a script on the fly. If there’s a lamp in a room, I only describe it if someone turns it on. I like to keep moving. How much do you need to know? Hopefully only the bare minimum. That’s what I think about when I’m writing a script: how can I do this with less?
Where do you begin?
Frequently I will write all the dialogue first. I spend a lot of time on that—not worrying about what anyone is doing at first, only worrying about what they’re saying. Then I bring to bear other behaviours and movements, blocking, things like that, which is naturally suggested by the drama of the scene anyway. You begin to get an idea of what might be in the way: There could be real conflict in the setting, say. Are people overhearing? Is there someone in the next room? But you need to be entertaining in the set up. You don’t want to stop dead and describe something. Everything should be entertaining. It should all feel like it’s moving forward.
Whereas in a novel?
You need to go deeper! Sometimes a description can be its own character. It can be fun to describe something—and a complex description can be a ball to read. It becomes fun to tell a story within a story within a story in the description. How are you defining characters through that description? Does something mean something in the scene? Is there something in that scene that might affect the character? I have a cop who walks into the room of a murder victim and sees that they own the same sheets. That’s an intriguing piece of description that you can play with. It’s trickier to do that in a movie.
This is a genre novel. Your screenplays, too—a lot of genre films. Even Logan is a kind of western. What are your thoughts on genre?
I love genre movies. I just do. It is a framework, and it helps you think about a story. Logan was certainly that way. But I also just generally like playing in genre. I’m working on a TV show now and it’s a western. I’d always wanted to write a western and explore that genre. I’m inspired by genres as much as I am by characters sometimes. Rules help you. Rules help you make choices and keep something disciplined and interesting. There are certain genre constraints—but constraints in a positive sense, because they help you develop a story.
I don’t like superhero movies. They’re not real people. They don’t die; they bounce.
So Logan is a superhero western.
And it turns into Universal Soldier, briefly. And Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World.
There’s a lot of that in the middle, yeah. Jim would always talk about Little Miss Sunshine. I talked about Paper Moon, only with a lot of knives. You’re always referencing things, and it’s fun. You organize around it. Unforgiven was probably the movie we talked about the most. The idea of a character who has to be the worst of himself in order to be the best: That’s really interesting.
If Unforgiven is the main point of reference, why use Shane in the film?
Well, Shane was something that we started thinking about and watching and it felt that, because there was a western feel to this, why not? There are thematic ideas that dovetail with the story we were telling in Logan. It felt right. So right. In fact, we had done another Wolverine movie before this one, to varying levels of success. And I was resisting doing this one. But when James told me he was watching Shane and thinking about that, it completely turned me around. I was like, oh yeah, that’s an interesting way to think about that.
I remember when The Wolverine came out there was a lot of talk about influences—Wong Kar-wai, Akira Kurosawa. Not obvious superhero influences.
I don’t like superhero movies. They’re not real people. They don’t die; they bounce. None of it seems real to me. In the last film I said to Jim, “Let’s take away his powers and explore a guy who’s been immortal until now and suddenly he’s mortal.” I thought that would be interesting. We got halfway there. It was a different studio regime then, and the corporate demands were different on that movie, so we didn’t quite succeed.
But on this film you could explore that better.
On this film, it was the same idea. He’s a normal character. He’s at the end of his life, and we knew that we were going to kill him—which gives the whole thing weight. He’s going to die at the end. It’s a kind of tragedy. He’s taking care of this man who is ostensibly his father. They’re both at the end of days. And suddenly he’s confronted by this young version of himself—this daughter. And she’s already, at 11 years old, dealt with the violent life he has. Those are real character issues, whether you wear a cape or not.
That’s your strategy for making the genre interesting?
That’s just the only way I knew how to write it. It’s not ingenious. It’s just a simple approach: Write this like they’re real characters. I certainly did not know how else to do this story. Make them real. If everybody is real, and the situations are real, that becomes interesting.
Check out our review of Logan here.