Crime story: Jennifer Aniston gets carried away in Daniel Schechter’s film of Elmore Leonard comic caper
Chances were slim that Daniel Schechter would ever be able to make Life of Crime, a Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions release opening August 29. For one thing, rights to the source material—a 1978 Elmore Leonard novel called The Switch—were in a sort of limbo. And Hollywood is littered with the corpses of Leonard adaptations that never got to the screen.
Even so, Schechter went ahead and wrote a draft in eight days, entirely on spec.
"The book was so easy to adapt, I doubt I'll ever have that good an experience again," the writer and director, a "huge" Leonard fan, says. "It's almost like a first draft anyway. It's very lean, it has a great balance of action and dialogue, and it has seven juicy characters."
The story details a scheme by two second-rate crooks, Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, to kidnap Mickey, the wife of crooked realtor Frank Dawson. Also in the mix: Mickey's would-be lover Marshall Taylor, Frank's lover Melanie, and Richard Monk, a Nazi sympathizer and gun nut.
Schechter sent his draft to Michael Siegel, Leonard's manager, who was so impressed that he gave permission for producer Lee Stollman to start pulling together financing. Meanwhile, Schechter refined the script, going back to the novel to add some action sequences, like the fight on Detroit streets that opens the movie. According to the director, the key to adapting Leonard's work is to resist the temptation to broaden the author's distinctive humor. Or to try to change his writing.
"Sometimes I would omit just a word or a comma, and I was bewildered why a line wasn't working," Schechter recalls. "And then I would go back to the book and realize I had made a mistake. That's how perfect his dialogue was."
Life of Crime takes place in 1978, before smartphones, text messages and Google searches. The setting allowed Schechter to indulge in the era's tacky clothes and music, but it also forced him to focus on narrative, on telling Leonard's story without today's shortcuts.
The 1978 period also added a layer of complexity to filming, to say nothing of additional costs. But Schechter points out that there were only four or five major locations in the story. Get them right, and you don't have to overwhelm the rest of the film with props.
Schechter credits production designer Inbal Weinberg for much of the movie's look, despite the compromises they faced. "Take cars, for example," he complains. "Each one, that's fifteen hundred bucks coming out of my budget. So maybe the next day I have to sacrifice and not use two cameras, or give up the Steadicam. For the country-club scene, that's 120 extras, plus we had to dress everything from head to toe: carpeting, wallpaper, lights, sconces we had to take down, 'Exit' signs we had to change."
Weather, including a blizzard that ate up a day of shooting, was another problem. "One day we paid this enormous expense to have an entire street plowed. And then a week later we had to buy all that snow back from wherever we dumped it to cover a location."
Schechter wanted the movie to look as authentic as possible, but he was more concerned with capturing Leonard's tone, to give viewers a sense of his writing style.
"He puts readers in situations they're not likely to encounter in real life, then asks how they would respond. I love how messy and awkward the story is, how things happen to the characters that they, and hopefully the audience, can't anticipate. I want you to be watching Ordell and thinking, 'Yeah, what would I do if that woman kept hanging up on me?' It's this simple, stupid problem that would never have occurred to me."
Leonard's characters grow into their roles during the course of the story, based on how they imagine "real" crooks or victims would act. Despite their mistakes, they are all smart and quick-thinking. As Schechter points out, Frank Dawson had to be intelligent to embezzle so much money.
Which made casting vital. The first actor to sign on was yasiin bey, known to music fans as Mos Def. "He's got insane charisma," Schechter enthuses, "but also very smart instincts to avoid cliché. Everything he does goes against what your first instinct would be."
Over late-night rehearsals during the shoot, bey developed a close bond with John Hawkes, who is sly and disarming as a crook feeling his way in new surroundings. While Hawkes liked to stay close to the script, Schechter would occasionally let bey loose, notably during a scene with Richard where he veers from soup recipes to slave repatriation.
The key figure in Life of Crime is Mickey, an unhappy housewife played by Jennifer Aniston. Schechter was delighted that she agreed to the role, and admits that he didn't know what to expect until shooting started. "I think one of the really thrilling aspects of the movie is to see Aniston do something you haven't seen before, and absolutely crush it. As a director, I want to give actors something new. I don't want to see Jennifer do the same thing she's done in other movies. Someone like Jennifer who can be funny is clearly very smart, and I think it's more exciting when they can play something dark for a change."
Mickey's counterpoint is Melanie, a classic Cosmo girl played to steely perfection by Isla Fisher. Schechter sought her out after seeing her in Bachelorette. "I was probably most excited about Melanie's role. She's formidable, brilliant, psychopathic, sexy, and a little bored, which makes her even more dangerous. Isla understood that character thoroughly."
Life of Crime was shot entirely on location, another source of pressure for Schechter, who had thought about using a soundstage for some extended scenes. But he acknowledges that working in real homes helped the movie.
"For one thing, I didn't anticipate that the bedroom where Mickey is being held would be connected to a bathroom. That inspired this moment when Louis is walking her back, and she suddenly sees all this Nazi paraphernalia—Nazi flags, guns, things like that. I gave Louis a line that yasiin bey came up with in an improv, 'What, don't you care about history?' That all came from the location."
Schechter storyboarded some of the scenes, including a moment when the captured Mickey realizes that someone is spying on her in her bedroom. "I was thrilled to direct that," he recalls. "I got to be Brian De Palma or Alfred Hitchcock for a day, trying to draw as much suspense as possible from a very tiny, intimate moment. I think it was the most fun I had."
The scene required more manipulation than expected, including bundling ten cigarettes together to provide enough smoke for the camera to pick up. Schechter even added the sound of smoke in post-production.
Schechter wrote one original scene not in the novel, an encounter between Marshall (Will Forte) and Richard (Mark Boone Junior) outside Mickey's house. "The idea was to have this slow-burn dynamic," Schechter says. "Also to get outside the kidnapping and phone calls and stuff. Put these two guys together and get them to figure out who the other person is based on their injuries."
Schechter rehearsed the actors from storyboards, building from what looked like a basic mistaken-identity setup to something much darker as the camera starts to pick up details like handguns. The director had two-thirds of a day to shoot the scene, the longest time scheduled apart from the actual kidnapping.
Despite the demands Schechter faced, including period props, shooting in downtown Detroit in the winter, and finishing his edit in time for the closing night of the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, the most telling aspect of Life of Crime is its calm, assured, unhurried tone. Like the Leonard novel, the movie is spare, dark, funny and entirely fat-free.
Schechter began his career as a writer and editor. His previous movie, Supporting Characters, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, was made for $50,000. He is currently writing an adaptation of The Job, a 2008 novel by Irene Dische.