After years as a part-time Tampa Bay area resident, bestselling author Dennis Lehane has sold his St. Petersburg home and moved with his family to the Los Angeles area. But he still has ties, personal and professional, to Florida.
"We got a wild hair about a month ago and came back to visit our friends, spent a couple of days at the Don (CeSar)," Lehane says by phone from Boston, where he was in the midst of a media tour in early September.
It might be a while before he gets another vacation. Lehane is sizzling hot at the moment. For starters, The Drop, a film based on his 2009 short story Animal Rescue, opened in theaters this month. Lehane wrote the screenplay — and then wrote a novel based on it, also called The Drop, a lean, twisty, beautifully executed slice of noir published on Sept. 2.
The movie, a gritty thriller directed by Michael R. Roskam, stars Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) as a bartender who finds an abused puppy in a trash can, Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as a woman with a connection to the dog — and, in his final performance before his death last year, James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as a former bar owner in the grip of Chechen mobsters.
The Drop's progress has been unusual; most of the time, an author writes a book and then it becomes a movie. "It's a little more unusual even than that," Lehane says. "Originally the short story was the first chapter of a failed novel that I wrote while I was living in Bradenton Beach" more than a decade ago. "Five years later I thought, I always wondered about that guy, about that dog."
So he wrote Animal Rescue, which was set, like much of his fiction, in his hometown of Boston and published in an anthology called Boston Noir.
"So the short story begat the screenplay, which begat the movie," he said. "Then my editor called me and said, is there something we can do at a literary level? So it came full circle as a novel."
Although he has written for television series The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, this is the first time Lehane has written a screenplay based on his own work. An attempt to adapt one of his own novels years ago made him swear off the idea.
"Even now I would never adapt my own novel," he says. "With a short story, you're opening it up. You do whatever you want, just keep the spine of the story: Guy finds dog, guy has confrontation with guy who beat dog."
"But adapting my own novel — I don't have the perspective to know what to cut."
As The Drop was being filmed, Lehane says, he often collaborated closely with Roskam and Hardy. But he never got to meet Gandolfini. "It broke my heart, actually. We played phone tag. There was a dinner that didn't happen. When you do a movie, you think, there will always be time, there will be festivals. But no."
Unlike Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, based on Lehane novels and filmed in Boston, The Drop was filmed in Brooklyn. "I didn't think it was too out of bounds" to relocate it, Lehane says. But he set the novel back in Boston, where his characters identify people by which Catholic parish they live in.
Another of his novels that was turned into a movie, Shutter Island, is key to one of his current projects. He's writing a pilot for an HBO series called Ashecliffe, named for the isolated mental hospital where Shutter Island is set. "It takes place prior to the movie, to the book," he says, focusing on the history of the institution.
Another project is one of those Florida ties: Lehane has written a screenplay for a movie based on Florida crime writer John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-by. It's potentially the first in a series about MacDonald's beloved character Travis McGee, with Christian Bale rumored to play the role.
Lehane has even closer ties to still another Florida project. After living off and on for years in the state — he graduated from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and later co-founded its Writers in Paradise annual conference — he set his novel Live by Night, published in 2012, largely in Ybor City during Prohibition. It, too, is on its way to the big screen, with Ben Affleck (who directed Gone Baby Gone) directing and writing the screenplay about transplanted Boston mob boss Joe Coughlin.
"It's on the move," Lehane says, adding that the three female leads for the movie have been announced: Sienna Miller as Boston femme fatale Emma Gould, Zoe Saldana as Joe's Tampa love Graciela Corrales, and Elle Fanning as Loretta Figgis, the wild-child daughter of the Tampa police chief.
Lehane is emphatically hands off for this movie, he says, aside from commenting on Affleck's script. "I'm so not involved. I've said this before: A novelist on a movie set is far less important than the caterer."
And he doesn't know whether the movie will be filmed in Ybor City. "It's all Affleck, it's all Warner Bros., it's all the tax incentives they can get."
Dale Gordon, Tampa Hillsborough County film and digital media commissioner, says the release of Live by Night has been moved to December 2016, so production isn't likely to begin until fall 2015. She isn't counting out our chances to get it lensed here: "It's great news for us. It gives us more time to push our legislation through next year."
Lehane does say for sure, though, "You get one more Florida novel." Live by Night was the second book in a trilogy that started with the Boston-based The Given Day. Coming in March will be the third act of the Joe Coughlin story, World Gone By. "Almost the entire book is set in Tampa, in 1943."
Times writer Steve Persall contributed to this report. Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.