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During filming of Michael Connelly's 'Lincoln Lawyer', author's words a moving target

I am stepping onto the movie set flanked by my legal team. We walk with purpose toward the light stanchions. After Hollywood's long history of writer abuses, it's good to know I've got veteran trial lawyers on either side of me. Daniel Daly and Roger Mills. Guys who have stared down judges, juries, cops, even killers. Guys who won't take any crap from anybody.

We enter a hallway crowded with equipment and technicians. Lots of movement. Thick black cables snake across the floor — Daly points them out and says, "There's a lawsuit waiting to happen." There are monitors replaying the shot that was just filmed and actors and extras returning to position for the next take. Mills surreptitiously clips me with his elbow. I look at him, and in a cloaked move, he points toward his own stomach, meaning, Look behind me. I casually turn and scan. There, sitting in a folding chair against the wall 5 feet behind us, is Matthew McConaughey. The actor looks like he's concentrating or in the moment or whatever it is actors call it. He's got do-not-disturb written all over his face. But he suddenly looks up and comes over. I introduce him to Daly and Mills, and within a few minutes, my two tough legal dogs are smiling so hard their eyes are all crinkly.

So goes the first meeting between the movie star and the source material. McConaughey is filming The Lincoln Lawyer, which is based on the novel I wrote, which in turn was based largely on the stories and tutelage of Daly and Mills. They have never been on a movie set before, let alone met a star portraying their own lives. Mills compares the actor's thin, muscular frame to his own ample size. To McConaughey, he says, "You brought the six-pack, and I brought the keg."

The Lincoln Lawyer is the story of a Los Angeles criminal-defense lawyer who works out of his backseat. It was inspired by a chance conversation I had at Dodger Stadium with a lawyer who did just that. David Ogden — now retired — said he cruised from courthouse to courthouse, chauffeured by a client working off his tab. He said it was the best way to carry out the business of law in the city of freeways. There are more than 40 courthouses in L.A. County alone.

It seemed to be the starting point for a quintessential L.A. story, using the autotopia/dystopia as the backdrop for a thriller about law and redemption. I took the idea a step further, putting my lawyer in a Lincoln and turning its spacious confines into an office: laptop, cell phone and printer up front, file drawers and office supplies in the trunk. Everything a lawyer needs and always good to go. I called him Mickey Haller. Have case, will travel. Reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee.

But it was Daly and Mills who brought the fledgling idea to life. I have known Daly for 30 years, since we shared an apartment in DeLand as rookie news reporters right out of school. He went on to law school and an eventual partnership with Mills in Tampa. Their specialty: criminal defense.

In 2001, I moved to Tampa with my family. I had the Lincoln lawyer idea in my back pocket and approached Daly and Mills with a question: "Could I shadow you two, learn how you work and then put all the secrets in a book? It would be billed as fiction, of course, and it would be set in L.A."

They said no problem. But the funny thing is, over the next few years, I followed them to court and jail and sat with them in their offices, but the best stuff came after hours, in bars and over martinis. That was when they revealed themselves. That was when I learned the hard truths of the law. That was when Dan Daly once told me there was no client as scary as an innocent man.

Now, almost a decade later, we are on the set with the actor who is portraying the fictional creation inspired by their revelations and exploits. The story is about Mickey Haller learning there is no client as scary as an innocent man. It seems surreal and so far from that apartment in DeLand.

I know about the history of writers and Hollywood. The denial of the source and inspiration. Everything in the business, creative side or not, starts with the words. They launch everything. The writer is the only one in the chain that must make something out of nothing. Everybody else starts with his words.

But everybody wants to feel important and creative. So they take those words and put their imprint on them. From location scout to actor to director, everyone is engaged in both the service and denial of the writer.

I know all of that, and yet, like my legal attack dogs, I am melted by the prospect of a meeting with a movie star. The set is the Hall of Records building downtown. After hours, after dark. The hallways have been transformed into courthouse corridors. One of the points of the book as well as the movie is that what happens with a case outside the courtroom is sometimes more important than what goes on within. The scenes they are filming this week in July are some of the most pivotal.

The film's director is Brad Furman. Before arriving on set I stream his previous film, The Take, on my computer and like it a lot. A gritty L.A. thriller and character piece. A lot of momentum. He impresses me as someone who knows what he's doing. I'm very hopeful.

The night before this visit to the set with the lawyers, I came by myself to watch the filming of what I think is the most important moment in the book and the film — when all of lawyer Mickey Haller's machinations and scheming come together. It's a set piece with a lot of choreography of main characters and background movement. In the novel, momentum is the key component. It is so important it's even announced on the cover with a shot of a blurred Lincoln Town Car speeding by.

As I watch the first three takes of the scene, I see that the director, screenwriter, actors and everybody have gotten the point. A momentum builds, an undeniable energy that seems to explode in a stare-down between lawyer and client — McConaughey and Ryan Phillippe. As I watch, I am absolutely ecstatic. When the long scene ends with actor Bryan Cranston delivering the line of the movie — "Are you a good guy or a bad guy, Haller?" — I am at a loss for words. Me, the writer. I don't have the words.

Later, as I'm leaving the set, McConaughey comes up to me. He's a space invader. He lives in a world where he knows he is constantly watched by people acting like they aren't watching him. He comes up close so only I hear. "I'm really diggin' being in this guy's shoes," he says.

I'm digging it, too.

Daly, Mills and I watch an important but lesser scene the following night. Haller and his office manager, Lorna, meeting in the courthouse snack bar and going over their roles in Haller's grand play. Once again, there is a lot of movement and building excitement in each 20-second take. Momentum.

McConaughey is perfect. His eyes betray a mind that is always in motion, looking for the next angle.

I never thought of McConaughey when I wrote the book. Haller's mother is Mexican born. I was thinking more of an Andy Garcia sort of look. Then one night my wife, Linda, and I went to see the comedic film Tropic Thunder. McConaughey was in it, playing the part of a slippery agent. I leaned to my wife and whispered that he'd make a good Mickey Haller. A year later, I got an e-mail from him saying he had signed on for the part.

Over the summer, I come back twice more to watch the filming. In all my time on the set, I never see a false note. The film is being produced by Tom Rosenberg and his company, Lakeshore Entertainment. An attorney himself, Rosenberg promised me when he optioned the book that the film he'd make would retain the gritty realism of my story. From what I have seen on multiple visits, he has made good on that promise.

It is now the moment of truth. It's a week before Thanksgiving, and I am sitting in a small screening room at Lakeshore's Beverly Hills offices. I have been warned the rough cut I am about to see has not been color corrected and contains only temporary music. I don't care. I don't even know what color corrected means. I want to hear the words, not the music. It's now been 10 years since Dodger Stadium and the day I first thought about the Lincoln lawyer. I just want to see the film.

The lights go out and the film begins . . .

Every writer should have this moment, the chance to see their work translated into the visual medium, realized in flesh and blood and pixels of color — corrected or not. If there is no client as scary as an innocent man, there is no moment as scary or as exhilarating as this. I am as tight as a spring in my comfortable leather seat, clutching the bottle of water given to me.

Five minutes in, I know there is a good end to this story. They got it. All of them. Actors, producers, director, screenwriter, they all got it. This is the story, and those are the characters. This is the book.

I pull out my phone and start texting, spreading the word, reducing what I'm seeing to words again and sending them out across time and space.

Meet the author

Inkwood Books and the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading present Michael Connelly in conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft and signing his new book, The Fifth Witness, at 7 p.m. Monday at Four Green Fields Irish Pub, 205 W Platt St., Tampa. Admission free with purchase of a copy of The Fifth Witness from Inkwood, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa. For a review of The Fifth Witness, see Page 9E.

Daniel Daly, 56, practiced law in Tampa from 1987 to 2009 and now practices in Gainesville. His notable cases include the 1995 trial of 16 members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang on drug and racketeering charges; the 1998 trial of Emilio Ippolito and his followers on conspiracy and threat charges; and the 2001 trial of the leaders of the Greater Ministries International for a $500 million Ponzi scheme.

Roger Mills, 55, has practiced criminal law in Tampa since 1983; he and Daly were partners from 2001 to 2009. He says there are "not a lot of high-profile cases" in his past, although a cockfighting case in Hernando County in the 1990s made news. In recent years he has begun doing foreclosure defense — just as Mickey Haller does in Michael Connelly's new novel, The Fifth Witness.

During filming of Michael Connelly's 'Lincoln Lawyer', author's words a moving target 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 10:23am]
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