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Exclusive: Shutter Island Writer Laeta Kalogridis

Avatar’s exec-producer on writing for Martin Scorsese

The last time filmmaker Martin Scorsese delved into the world of terror, it was for his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear starring Robert De Niro. Over eighteen years later, he’s exploring some of the same territories of fear and suspense in Shutter Island, his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel.

The eerie film reteams him with his regular leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, playing U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, sent to investigate a mysterious disappearance at the high-security hospital for the criminally insane along with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). Once they arrive, they become trapped by a dangerous storm and must try to navigate their way around the institution’s enigmatic director Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) who seems very casual about one of his dangerous patients vanishing into thin air.

Helping Scorsese to create the tone and mood of some of those great suspense and horror movies of the late ’40s and early ’50s is screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, whose experience writing genre fare culminated in her collaboration with James Cameron on his worldwide blockbuster Avatar. She was also involved with the adaptation of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch, and is currently adapting two beloved Japanese animes, Battle Angel (also for Cameron) and Ghosts in the Shell, for American moviegoers.

Last week, Shock Till You Drop got on the phone with Ms. Kalogridis to talk about how her latest screenplay was realized by another master director.

ShockTIllYouDrop.com: When and how did you get involved with this compared to when Dennis Lehane’s book came out?

Laeta Kalogridis: I don’t remember the exact year honestly. I haven’t got it in front of me, because it had gone on for a while. The book, when it first came out, was optioned to Sony for Wolfgang Peterson, and I don’t recall how long that option lasted, but when it lapsed, when the book fell out of option, was when Brad (Fischer) and Mike (Medavoy) and I decided to option it outside of the system with Dennis’ blessing. I’d gone to his agent, Amy Fishman, and pitched how I would do the book and I felt fairly strongly that the biggest problem that it had with people attempting to adapt it before–because at that point, the industry line was it was an unadaptable book. I thought people actually tried to change it too much, honestly. I think sometimes you have to get out of your way a little bit, you’ve got to get out of your own way, and people had looked at the novel and said, “This is an amazing novel. How can we quote, unquote fix it?” And it didn’t need to be fixed. (laughs) You wanted to reproduce the emotional quality of the experience that story had on you when you read it and that did not involve restructuring the story, it involved making the story tighter, making it leaner, making it more focused, but it didn’t involve changing it except in a few very surgical places. When Dennis was there, we talked about changing some of the dream sequences, doing overlaps between Dachau and the dream at the door, the introduction of the little girl as a Dachau victim, that sort of thing.

Shock: Had “Mystic River” or “Gone Baby Gone” come out at that point? Probably not “Gone Baby Gone,” but had “Mystic River” come out already?

Kalogridis: “Mystic River” had come out and “Gone Baby Gone” I believe was filming.

Shock: Did the studio come in much later or were they involved before Martin Scorsese came onboard as director?

Kalogridis: There was no studio involvement at all. When I finished the script with Brad and Mike we then came up with a list of directors we’d like to take it to, obviously Marty is pretty high on every list ever. (laughs) We were thrilled when we sent it to him and he liked it. Marty then sent it to Leo and then all of us together went as a package with the script to studios and it ended up at Paramount, but I never took a studio notes meeting. All of the notes that I had came from Marty. The package essentially went out saying, “Here’s the script, here’s the budget, here’s the director, the actor, this is what we’re going to make.”

Shock: Was there a lot of development that still needed to be done once Marty and Leo came on board or was the script pretty much done and ready to go?

Kalogridis: No, there were some physical changes that came out after rehearsal primarily – things where the language didn’t sound quite, places where an actor felt like their reaction would be a little different than what was in the text, but structurally there weren’t changes. It was all physical. It was all very small.

Shock: Marty and Sir Ben are the only people involved who actually were alive in the ’50s when this took place, so do you think Dennis captured the way people talked back then, or did you have to change that a little bit to work when spoken?

Kalogridis: Well, Marty echoed to me several times what Dennis said, which was the language was the stylized language of movies from the ’40s and early ’50s and not the actual language of the time, but as such, in a way it had a more effective waver to it because it was stylized, because it had a hyper-real feeling to it. So yeah, they felt that he captured that filmic language really, really well from that period.

Shock: I remember at the press conference Dennis was saying he was influenced by a lot of the same movies Marty was influenced by. Did you have any conversations about those ’50s horror movie references either with Dennis or Marty or were most of those already in the book?

Kalogridis: The only actual conversations that we had with Dennis was the same very funny one that he had with Marty because of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” reference which we all assumed was an underpinning in the book and which was not. (laughs) He hadn’t seen it. It was very funny because all of us were like, “Oh yeah, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’” and it was exactly what Dennis said. He was like, “Uh, yeah, no.” But other than that, in terms of things like “Crossfire” and “Out of the Past” and “Laura, ” I think all of those are movies that we had all seen for various reasons, so it definitely felt like as I was reading the book and writing the script that there was this very familiar set of filmic touchstones and also a familiar set of… I mean, Dennis was pulling from a number of places and one of those places was 19th century Gothic novels. He was pulling very heavily from those as well and that was a very familiar sort of oeuvre for me and one that I felt very strongly was sort of a brilliant thing to bring into the mix, to marry those two things which is a stroke of genius on Dennis’ part.

Shock: As far as adapting, I know you were involved in “The Night Watch” at one point. Were those the only things you were adapting books into screenplays, or have you done other things besides those two?

Kalogridis: Not a book, I’ve worked on other things that had other source material, like “Tomb Raider,” but not actually a novel. I take it back, there is one that hasn’t been made, I don’t know if this counted or not, which would be “Demonkeeper” at Fox. That is a novel, but that is not currently in production.

Shock: Did you want to have more contact with or involvement from Dennis, or did he tell you right from the start to go off and do your own thing?

Kalogridis: I didn’t know Dennis when the process started, so that I think it would be fair to say that since he was an unknown, like many writers, I felt it would be fabulous if I could get the draft done and then start interacting after I had already sort of okayed with Amy what my approach was going to be. Because you really never know. When you haven’t met someone regardless of whether they’re an author or not, when you’re taking their work and you are in some way filtering it or interpreting it, of course there’s potential for them to feel that you have in some way not lived up to what it could have been. I did not know Dennis at all so I wasn’t aware of his very Zen attitude (laughs) towards choosing the right people and then standing back and letting it happen, which was really fantastic once we got there because he didn’t have notes. The closest thing he had to a note was his concern that I used some of his prose as actual dialogue and that it didn’t play right. As beautiful as the prose was and as in love with the prose as I was, the rhythm was wrong. The rhythm was wrong.

Shock: Dennis’ story is pretty amazing because to be a fairly new author and to already have three movies based on your works is amazing. What is it about his writing that attracts such a high caliber of filmmaker interested in adapting it? Is his writing style just naturally cinematic to begin with or is it just the ideas he has?

Kalogridis: I think it’s kind of this weird alchemical reaction that his work has frankly, on writers as well as directors, maybe on writers first. I had read all of the Patrick Kensey novels, the hero of “Gone Baby Gone,” and I had really enjoyed them. But it would never have occurred to me…they weren’t the sorts of stories I personally would want to make into a movie. Interestingly, and “Mystic River,” again, just a brilliant novel, very atmospheric, very rich and textured which I think is why again it would speak to writers and actors and directors who would want to kind of marry quite a moving and a really good cinematic plot with extremely textured characters. Normally, you’ll sort of get one or the other in novels or in screenplays – finding the two together and adding that to a really phenomenal atmosphere and a sense of place, which he always has, it’s an unusual thing. Ironically, in my case, I would not have chosen any of those other novels. There was something specific about the really bizarre concatenation of 19th century gothic horror morays, questions about the evolution of psychiatric care in the United States in the1950′s and again, for me personally, the kind of weird 1940′s noir feel of it. That was just such a fantastic and unique combination. I’ll tell you, when I decided to do it I had absolutely no expectation of ever getting the movie made, because I felt it was too individual and too unique, but I just really wanted to write that story.

Shock: It definitely seems more fantastical than some of Dennis’ other work, I would say. The imagery in the movie is amazing. Was a lot of that in the book or was it from Marty or stuff you came up with while writing?

Kalogridis: It’s an amalgam. Some of it’s mine, some of its Dennis’, some of its Marty’s, some of it is all three of us standing on set saying, “This doesn’t look very good. What can we do? What can we do?” (laughs) That I think is really one of the really wonderful things about Marty is that you can say, “Where did a particular shot come from?” It is entirely possible that there was Marty and two or three other people – it could’ve been me, it could’ve been Brad and Bob Richardson, it could’ve been Bob and me sort of going over possibilities and in the best kind of collaborative way all seeing the same film in our heads, seeing the same sort of film because Marty has given us such a clear idea of what that movie is, especially the screenings that he does beforehand. You know, you know what the atmosphere is meant to be. You’ve seen the rehearsal, you know what it’s supposed to feel like. It helps everybody pull in the same direction and certainly it’s a really fantastic experience to feel like there’s so much more as a group, so much more than all these individuals when you’re working under Marty.

Shock: Obviously when you wrote this, you had no idea what actors were going to be playing the roles. Someone like Sir Ben, he can pretty much say any line and he just sounds amazing. How much tailoring of the dialogue did you have to do for the actors or did they just try and fit into the characters as you had written them?

Kalogridis: Very little, but I mean, the tailoring was more honestly to the emotions of the moment in the scene than it was to the actors themselves with the exception of some of the dialogue that had too much prosaic turn to it which was my fault. But other than that a lot of what we did was more about emotions than it was about sort of the specific words because you’re looking at an amazing, astounding group of actors. I mean, there isn’t anything that that group of people can’t do. So it was more like, “Well, what do we feel like would be the absolute best possible iteration of this moment?” You know, you try three or four different things and they feel their way to what was right.

Shock: You’ve given all of these actors some great moments like Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson. I almost feel like you want to see more of them, and it’s disappointing that you don’t even though that caters to the plot.

Kalogridis: It was continuously amazing to me how much I want to go back and follow all of these other characters and see more about them. Every single moment that we had to leave on the cutting room floor and every single moment that we couldn’t fill, even moments that worked in the book that I wish we could’ve written – that was one of the most fun things about the job was that some of the writing I did, especially for Leo was scenes that we were never able to film that kind of flushed out his relationship with (his wife) Dolores and gave us sort of a sense of background to kind of his emotional state even more than what we had in there. It was frequently useful to me at least even to write it. I think it was useful for him to, I hope so.

Shock: I was wondering how much Marty does in terms of editing the script down before actually filming. I remember at one point you said this could have been a six-hour movie at one point. Was a lot of those decisions made before filming and might we see some of the scenes that were filmed on the DVD down the line?

Kalogridis: I hope. Well, there’s stuff that I wrote that was never filmed, but there’s also stuff that I hope will end up in the DVD. There’s some really good stuff that I hope will end up on the DVD.

Shock: This is a tough question to answer, but how hard was it to keep the big reveal hidden for so long? A movie like this, it goes on for a while and you have to set up these clues and then eventually someone is gonna go back and see the movie and they’ll want all those clues to fit together. How hard was it waiting until as long as possible before revealing the truth?

Kalogridis: Well, I will defer to Hitchcock in this particular case, a conversation Marty and I had several times. This really isn’t a movie about surprise. It’s a movie about suspense, and not in the strictest way where Hitchcock was saying, “Well, okay there’s a bomb in a box and when is it going to go off?” But you know exactly what’s in the box as opposed to having no idea what’s in the box and it’s a surprise when you open it. You know that there’s something in this box. You don’t know what, but you know there’s something in there. As you’re watching the movie, what we’re trying to create was an experience literally of being, “Well, maybe it’s this, well maybe it’s this. Oh my God, maybe it’s not even a box.” We didn’t want the audience to feel like we were playing it straight at any point and I hope that that’s what comes across. It wasn’t so much trying to hide any particular reveal specifically as we were trying to create the suspense of suspense, of foreboding, of the other shoe is going to drop and what’s it going to be when it drops and have you figured it out? Here are all these clues, here are all these red herrings. To what degree are you prepared for what happens?

Shock: Obviously, you’ve been involved with this amazing phenomenon called “Avatar.” I interviewed Sam last year and he was saying that James Cameron was trying to get more people into theaters, which he successfully has done. When you were working with him on the movie, did you have any idea that it would turn into what it did?

Kalogridis: The weird thing about working with Jim is you become so submerged, so to speak, in the world, you become so obsessed with it, and this is going to sound really silly, part of you can’t imagine that everybody else will not be as obsessed as you are with it when they finally get to see it. Part of you is like, “Oh my God, this is the most wonderful world to visit,” I mean, to a point where it gets to your detriment where you’re watching the four-hour cut and you’re like, “This is great!” You’re thinking, “I want to stay here for four hours!” which is not really realistic. Simultaneously, part of you is thinking, “I feel this way because I’m too close. I’m too close, I’m too close, I’m too close. I’m too invested in every little detail. I care too much about the characters.” I think the only person who doesn’t second guess himself is Jim. Jim is the one who frankly can keep the boat on course while everyone around him… you follow him like the General that he is, because you believe in him. I would be truthful in saying that believed in Jim more than I believed in the movie, just because he’s a very inspirational figure and person for me. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was totally obsessed and will continue to be obsessed with that damn planet.

Shock: People actually do leave the movie actually sad that it’s over and not being able to actually live on that world, so they want to go back and see it again.

Kalogridis: I literally have seen the cut probably 20 some odd times in various iterations before we ever got to anywhere near the end. I lost count at 16 or 17, 20 something, possibly even 30 something. It was ridiculous.

Shock: How does that experience compare to working with Marty? Do they have a similar type of thing where they just have so much confidence that everyone believes in what they want?

Kalogridis: Absolutely. That’s one of the wonderful things about working with – and it tends to be that kind of filmmaker. What is it, three guys? It’s Marty, it’s Steven and it’s Jim. When you’re working with people like that, it’s much less about, “I wonder if this will work,” and much more about, “Can I elevate what I’m doing to a level where I deserve to be here?”

Shock: You’ve kind of spoiled yourself with Jim and Marty I would think, for working with any other director in the future. I hope that’s not the case.

Kalogridis: It would certainly be impolitic to say that, wouldn’t it?

Shock: What about some of the other things you’ve been developing with Jim over the years? He’s done some interesting manga adaptations and some real things? Do you have any idea whether or not he’s gonna try to direct those or if you’re gonna find another director?

Kalogridis: Those are questions for Jim, not for me.

Shock: Yeah, he never answers them. That’s why I’m asking you.

Kalogridis: (Laughs) No, no, no, he works in mysterious ways, let’s just put it that way.

Shock: Well, I hope it won’t be another twelves years before we see another movie from him, that will upset some of his new fans.

Kalogridis: Well, we’re all looking forward for Jim to make another film. But, it’s like what he’s gonna do is what he’s gonna do, and frankly if he decides to go down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, it’ll be pretty awesome, too.

Shock: What about yourself? What do you have planned next? Obviously these two movies have been put to bed finally, so do you have something that you were developing on your own bookwise or anything?

Kalogridis: I’ve got “Ghost in the Shell,” which is an adaptation of another manga and anime with DreamWorks and Steven’s producing that and I’m hoping that the draft will come in pretty soon and I’m hoping he’ll like it, and other than that, I’m sort of keeping myself open right now because I’m not really sure what I want to do. (Laughs) There are some possibilities, but I haven’t made any firm decisions and frankly, it’s nice to have a little bit of a break.

Shock: Cool. Did Steven come to you to adapt “Ghost in the Shell” as well?

Kalogridis: Well, Dreamworks has the material and I have loved it for years and years and years. They contacted me about it when they found out that I was interested. I mean, there’s just no other property quite like it.

Shock: No, and that could be a six hour movie as well, if you let it.

Kalogridis: Well, you know, it could actually be three two-hour movies, which is what I would vote for, but it’s the seminal cyberpunk text as something like “Neuromancer.” I mean, it really just is, and there’s nothing else like it.

Shutter Island opens nationwide on Friday, February 19, and we’ll try our best to share some highlights from the press conference with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio before then.




Source: Edward Douglas