In All Candor: Don Winslow on Savages, The Kings of Cool and Satori
Don Winslow has a new book out. The Kings of Cool is a prequel to Savages, so the release of the Oliver Stone movie based on Savages, for which Winslow cowrote the screenplay, was a perfect opportunity to interview the prolific author. If you’re expecting someone as aggressive as the prose style of his book Savages, Winslow was not like that at all. Measured and well mannered, Winslow was a delight to speak with, and he shared some news about a movie version of Satori as we discussed his current projects. Some spoilers for both the book and movie Savages follow.
CraveOnline: Did the movie Savages precipitate interest in a prequel book?
Don Winslow: It was sort of coming around simultaneously. I believe Savages the book was still in galley form when Oliver got interested in it and we made that arrangement. So I think it was a little bit later on that I decided to do The Kings of Cool.
Did you have a lot of people asking you, “What kind of name is is Chon?” so you wanted to explain it?
[Laughs] I did have a lot of people ask me that as a matter of fact. That was not my primary reason for writing The Kings of Cool but it was good to get that story in there, satisfy people’s curiosity.
Did you have that backstory when you named the character the first time?
In all candor, when I invented the character, I don’t know why I called him Chon. I just did. But later on while I was still writing Savages, I sort of came up with the story of how that came about.
Is there a movie deal for Kings of Cool, pending the opening of Savages?
You know, we haven’t even discussed that, in all candor. Again I’ve been so busy. I’m just in the process of finishing with my partner Shane [Salerno] a screenplay for another book, Satori, working on a film story with Chuck Hogan from The Town. Working on other books, I haven’t even thought about that at all to tell you the truth.
So you’ve written an adaptation of Satori?
We have. Shane and I wrote an adaptation of Satori that Leonardo DiCaprio is attached to. Yeah, it’s been a good year.
Is anyone attached to direct?
How difficult was that one to adapt?
Tough. [Laughs] Tough. It’s a long book and had to be streamlined and intensified into a 120 page screenplay. I’m really proud of it though. I think we did a good job with it. I’m excited about it.
How did that compare to the job of adapting Savages?
Boy, so different. So different. Savages the film is pretty close to Savages the book. In Satori, the characters are the same and the basic story is the same but there’s a lot of cutting that had to be done to get it down so that it wasn’t a four and a half hour movie, which nobody would like I don’t think.
Given the style with which you wrote Savages in prose, did that ever write you into a corner when it came to the screenplay adaptation?
I wouldn’t say in a corner. I would say it had its challenges translating that very radical style. I mean, sometimes it fit very, very easily into a scene and other times it didn’t. I think it was kind of a double-edged sword.
With the book, you can sort of only go with a prequel. Did you ever think about building off the movie’s ending and doing a sequel?
No, that hasn’t occurred to me. Thanks for the idea. If that happens, I’ll credit you but I don’t see that really. I’ve spent the last three years with these characters. That might be enough for a while.
When Oliver Stone is going to do your movie, are you both excited to see his take on it but bracing yourself for whatever changes may come?
I think that’s true of any adaptation from any director. As a novelist, you either consciously or maybe subconsciously get attached to certain elements of the book so I think there’s always some excitement but there’s also apprehension about what you just said. There might be some changes that are going to be tough.
What were your thoughts when Oliver suggested how he wanted to end the film?
You know, it’s funny because we obviously talked a lot about it and I think Oliver feels in some ways the film and the book are about ambiguities and mythology and that’s the direction that he wanted to go in. I wrote the book’s ending but I see where he was headed with it. I get it.
Were you asked to write the second ending for the screenplay?
I don’t think so. Listen, we tossed around a lot of different endings and I’m not being coy with you. There was so much conversation, I’m not sure I could sort out with any accuracy who did what.
Sure, that’s the collaboration.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny because I was watching the trailer when it first came out with my partner Shane. There’s a line in there, “If you let people think your’e weak, sooner or later you’re going to have to kill them.” I said, “Man, that’s a really good line, Shane.” He started laughing. It was in the book and I’d forgotten. Yeah, dummy, you wrote that line in the book. Oh, okay.
Was the prose style for Kings of Cool a little scaled back from Savages?
A little bit simply because it’s a different story. Savages, I wanted a savage book. I wanted that very, very ultrafast thing. With Kings, a lot of Kings is examining the past so I think you have to slow down a little bit at times. Obviously the styles are very close but I don’t know that I would call it scaled back, because again parts of it are pretty radical, written in screenplay form and poetry. But I would say at times, I take a little bit more time with things because I want to take people on that journey to the past and I think to do that you have to spend some time with it.
It’s definitely the same voice, but I think slowed down is a good distinction for it.
Yeah, yeah. Look, they’re two different stories. The Kings of Cool is about people having to choose between their blood families and their friends who’ve become a family and make those difficult kinds of choices. So I think it required a slightly different voice to handle those issues.
Savages is so aggressive, did you have a line that would be too much?
Apparently not. [Laughs] Listen, when you open the book that way, where’s the line?
That’s a good question. Opening the book with the first chapter saying only “F*** you,” that makes a statement. How do you keep that from being pure shock value?
Well, then you turn around and write a substantive book about it. Look, I always had an image when people would open that book in a bookstore, that some people would get instantly offended and shove it back on the shelves and other people would be amused or interested and keep reading. That was the reader that I wanted. When I started to write, I had no idea what the story is. I wrote those two words and then I thought ok, what about them. All of a sudden I’m writing from the point of view of a 20-something-year-old Orange County woman which I’m not. Then all of a sudden she’s talking to her boyfriend. Then all of a sudden this vidclip appears on screen and that’s based in reality. It’s a video clip that was sent to me. Then I had a story and then I knew what it was about. But that didn’t take very long. You’re talking about a single writing session for those elements.
Does that aggressive style come naturally to you or do you work at the sentence structure, the indents and all the fragments?
I work very hard at them. I wanted to write that book exactly the way I heard it. On the indents, I pity the poor copy editors. If I wanted 13 spaces instead of 12, I wanted 13. I wanted that word or that syllable to land on the 14th beat or the third beat or whatever it happened to be because that’s the way I heard it. I was very, very particular about that and I also would stand back away from the page and look at it so I could see the shapes but not the words. And then ask myself does it look like what it is? Is it in this moment very spare so there’s lots of negative space, or does it need to be very dense in which case there wasn’t? I wanted to make sure each page looked the way the content was.
Is there a first draft somewhere that’s more traditional prose before you’ve touched it up?
No, not at all. That book I was writing in that style from moment one but I did go back. You always rewrite. Even when it looks like you have it, you always do. It was in that rewriting stage that I was again very particular about those elements.
I read the kindle version and imagine how hard it is to have the computer version get the spacing right. But I compared it to the book and it’s the same.
Oh good, I’m glad to know that. Listen, I’m sure I drove people nuts. I know I drove the editor and the copy editors nuts with this thing. We had to take away their belts and shoelaces and stuff. Again, I wanted it the way I wanted it. What can I say?
When you talk about writing inside a young character’s head, is Catcher in the Rye an influence?
Listen, I think it would be silly for anyone of several generations to say that they weren’t influenced in some way by Catcher. I didn’t have it particularly in mind but I think that is sort of in the collective subconscious, don’t you think?
It’s just part of your experience.
Yeah, in the way that some films are. What I had more directly in mind were the new wave filmmakers of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in France. I was looking at Breathless and Band of Outsiders and Jules and Jim and Le Samourai. Films like that because I was trying to do with narrative fiction within my genre what those guys had done with film narrative back in the day.
Have you seen Week End?
Yeah, sure. It’s a terrific film so I was asking myself, and this is more in answer to your previous question, I would ask myself what’s the narrative equivalent of a jump cut? What’s the narrative equivalent of one of those long, long panning shots? There’s that great scene in The 400 Blows, he sets the camera on top of that building and watches those boys fall out of their school formation as they go on a field trip. I was playing with those ideas as well.
Of course I already knew it would be a movie, but reading Savages, I thought it read like an Oliver Stone movie. I could see him changing film stock between lines.
Listen, I think there’s a reason we went there.
When did you read Catcher in the Rye then?
I read it in high school but I’d be hard pressed to tell you. It wasn’t assigned but if memory serves, I want to say I was 14 or 15 years old, somewhere in there. Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 and all those things.
What are your thoughts on the literary world today where 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight are huge?
Well, listen, it’s easy to be snooty about it but I’m glad that people are reading. I think when you get people reading, whatever it is frankly, if they have a good experience they go out looking for other books. It’s I think very similar to film and I know it’s true of theater. If you can break through that barrier and get people to go to theater and they have a good experience, they go, “Wow, I want more of that.” So they might start with The Sound of Music and end up at Henry IV. So again, if people are reading, I’m happy about that.
That’s true. When I discover something I like, I want to see all of it, whether it’s a director I’ve seen for the first time or a musician I’ve heard for the first time, or a writer.
Right, and listen, I mean this very sincerely, I’m always happy for a writer’s success.
As prolific as you are, with all the industry changes and changes in the economy, have you been able to get published as often as you want to write a book?
Yeah, absolutely and I can’t keep up with it. It’s a nice problem to have, isn’t it? It sounds boastful but it’s the truth. I love to write, it’s what I do. Even if they weren’t paying me for it I’d do it but let’s not share that with them. Listen, there have been a lot of changes in the industry. Obviously ebooks and kindle and all of that, but I think that’s a shame now and I worry about bookstores. That’s my concern with all that. What happens to those people? But again, people are reading. Go on an airplane and people are reading. I think that’s a good thing.
How has your Hollywood experience changed from Full Ride and Bobby Z to Savages and the upcoming film?
[Laughs] Wow, that’s a big question. Full Ride was made, a very, very low budget film, by some buddies of mine who asked me would I do a rewrite on a script which I did. I did that and then the strike came along so I wasn’t able to go to the set. That film was shot in Nebraska with me sitting in California but I quite liked the film. Bobby Z was more of a turning point for me I guess because it went straight to DVD. It was not a successful film and it hurt more than I thought it was going to hurt. I really thought I’d be kind of detached emotionally from the experience and I wasn’t, so that really changed the way that I dealt with film. I got together with my good friend Shane Salerno and The Story Factory. He has ideas about different ways of handling books to film. That’s made all the difference in the world.
Are you writing an original with Chuck Hogan?
It is, it will be. We’re doing the original film story and then we’ll see what happens with the screenplay but I’m very excited about that. I like Chuck’s work and I loved The Town. I know we’re both native New England boys. He stayed there but I’m transplanted out here to California so I’m really excited about it.
What is it about and is it based on a true story like some of his other works?
I don’t think I should say at this point. I can just generally say it’s a crime thriller.
Have you had to make any painful cuts to Satori yet?
Oh yeah. Yeah, sure. I love journeys and trips. There’s for instance a long river journey in Satori that had to go. It’s just not cinematic and there just wasn’t room for it in the film. I completely understand that, but sure, certain characters have been compressed but I really think that we caught the essence of it. I don’t think anyone who’s read Satori will be disappointed when they see the film.
Was someone like DiCaprio what you imagined when you wrote it?
I don’t do that. Listen, I think he’s a great choice. When his name came up, I went, “Oh yeah, right, of course.” I don’t picture actors or anything like that when I’m writing a book. I just want my own image. I think that’s a slippery slope.
Could you have imagined anyone as gorgeous as Blake Lively when you wrote O?
[Laughs] I think O’s pretty gorgeous. Again, I didn’t have any actor in mind when I wrote her, or any of those guys. It’s not something I do. There’s plenty of time for that later.