Interview: Dennis Lehane Talks Shutter Island and Martin Scorsese — "This is a gothic and very strange fictional world."
Tue, 16 Feb 2010 15:47:49
Martin Scorsese Videos
Dennis Lehane and Martin Scorsese must have some kind of psychic connection.
With his latest masterpiece, Scorsese extrapolates the raw darkness and disarray from Lehane's best-selling, critically acclaimed novel, Shutter Island. Marty taps into protagonist Teddy Daniel's (Leonardo DiCaprio) psychological dissonance like only he can. The original text followed Teddy as he embarked on a twisted journey into the heart of the eponymous island in order to track down an escaped murderess named Rachel Solando. Lehane crafted a modern day gothic hell ride with the original novel that's impossible to put down, being as hypnotic as it is harrowing. His original narrative twists and turns through a wide array of emotions and moods, and Scorsese translates it to the big screen with a visionary and classic film. Lehane's work has hit cineplexes before—Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River—but no one has brought it to life like Marty…
Dennis Lehane sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for this exclusive interview about creating this gothic nightmare, Martin Scorsese's mastery, the darker side of Frank Sinatra and how strange his home state of Massachusetts can be…
Martin Scorsese does a phenomenal job bringing the original darkness that you created to the screen. How did you feel when you first saw the film?
That's pretty much how I felt [Laughs]. This is not naturalism. The book is not claiming to be realistic fiction. Very early on, it takes you by the hand and says, "This is a gothic and very strange fictional world." There are certain books and films that very clearly say, "We're not representing life here." I feel like the opening shot of Shutter Island says the exact same thing. We're looking at Teddy and Chuck coming in on that boat, and we're thrust into the world of film in a very unsettled sense.
In the original text, you created a very hazy dreamscape. It's essentially a cavalcade of different nightmares. Everything that you could possibly fear comes to life in this world. Is that what you felt?
Yeah, you said that much better than I did [Laughs]. That was good! I like that! Go with that [Laughs]. I definitely felt like I was creating a dreamscape, and I didn't want one single moment where the reader was on sure-footing, until the end. I wanted you to feel as if the floor beneath your feet was ball bearings.
The loss of control is the scariest thing about it. The reader loses control as Teddy loses control.
Right! That was the plan, as they say…
When you wrote Shutter Island, were you primarily writing at night?
I wrote that book really fast because the entire plot came to me in one night, which had never happened to me before. Usually when I know every major beat that's going to happen in a book, I have to write it fast because otherwise I'm bored. I write for discovery. After I came up with the idea, there was no discovery for me in Shutter Island because I sat down and wrote out all of the plot points. Let's say for the sake of argument there are 36 plot points in the book. I wrote them all down in one night. With Shutter, as a couple of screenwriters found out, the book is built so you cannot remove any one element without blowing the entire piece. I had to know all of the points to hit before I wrote a line or, otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to write the book. If I don't know the ending and if I don't know exactly where to begin the story, I can't do it. There's a very precise place where the story of Shutter Island begins, and all of that is connected to the big payoff at the end.
In Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island, you explore a myriad of harrowing subject matter. Being a Revere native myself, your exploration of Boston is the most true that I've read. Most people don't realize how desolate and strange the exterior suburbs of Boston—Revere, Chelsea, Dorchester and Lynn—really are. It's a weird place.
It's interesting…How old are you now?
In my day, 20 years before you, it was even more Balkanized. To step into Revere would've been almost like stepping into a different country. It was very insular and very anti-outsider. When you're dealing with a world like that, which is the world I grew up in, you look at Boston as a really tribal place. There was a lot of darkness in there.
Looking out over the water at those islands in the harbor, I always wondered if there were some weird, evil things going on there. It's the perfect setting.
I think we've all looked out at those islands and said, "What goes on out there?" A couple of them have forts on them. Then you start finding out the history of those islands. One had a mental institution. It wasn't like Shutter Island, but one of those islands did in fact have a mental institution on it. One had a P.O.W. camp during WWII. There's an abundance of dramatic possibilities for those islands.
Teddy Daniels is such a complex character because he holds so steadfast to certain truths in his life even as they unravel.
What else do you do? I think that's the question of the book. What else does one do when all of your signposts and everything you've defined your life by is wiped out? How do you give your life meaning?
The mental patient interview sequences really show that these people on the island aren't very different from the rest of us.
No, and that goes along with the old, "The lunatics are running the asylum" line. With most interesting people, the line between sanity and insanity is a little thinner than you'd like to think. That was something to play with and look at. Just because you're a mental patient, it doesn't mean you lose empathy, per se, as the woman who hands Teddy the note has. That was something to look at for sure.
The film adaptations of your books typically allow viewers inside the characters' heads. That doesn't happen with most adaptations. Scorsese does it though.
Without a doubt, simple short answer [Laughs].
When you can get that close to the narrator, you get a classic film.
You should call Marty and tell him that [Laughs]. Thank you…less so than a book, you never know what you have on your hands when you make a film. I saw the film about six months ago, and I knew it was great. I went, "Oh my God, this is brilliant." That doesn't mean that people are going to respond the same way though.
Do you ever listen to music when you write?
All the time! For Shutter Island, I listened to one album over and over again. It was Frank Sinatra Sings Rodgers & Hart. A lot of the songs were informed by Sinatra's breakup with Eva Gardner. It's all about loss. That was why I kept listening to it. It has songs like "Bewitched," "I Could Write a Book," "My Funny Valentine" and "I Wish I Were in Love Again." They were all of these great heartbreaking songs. These were all of the songs that I wanted to lock into that time period as well. Usually when I write, I listen to everything. Right now, I have my iPod on "shuffle," it's about 5,000 songs. For Shutter Island, I listened to that CD almost exclusively. Every now and then, I'd find a Bing Crosby CD, and some of that worked its way into the book too.
Check out Rick Florino's new novel Dolor available now for FREE here…