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Rick Cleveland

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Remembering Elmore

Posted: 08/23/2013 3:59 pm

I got my first job in television after Miramax bought a film I wrote after it appeared at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1998. One of the reviews for Jerry and Tom called my script for the movie "Elmore Leonard-esque." To me, that was and still is about as high a compliment as you can get.

I have loved Elmore Leonard's writing for as long as I can remember. There isn't a book of his I haven't read, including his early westerns. Leonard's flare for dialogue is unparalleled. Poetic and spare, with rhythms that easily compare with and often surpass the best dialogue written for the stage, including the plays of that guy from Chicago who smokes cigars and sometimes wears a beret. In fact, I much prefer Leonard's dialogue. It's less self-conscious and seems to reflect more accurately the way people really talk, especially inarticulate people. In plays, even in my own, characters oftentimes sound too goddamned articulate. I just love the way Elmore's dialogue reads, sometimes so much that I will go back and re-read passages out loud to myself.

In every one of his novels, and there are close to 50 of them, his antagonists are as relatable and sometimes even as likeable as his protagonists. Elmore never let his characters get overshadowed by plot, but the plots to his novels are great. Maybe because they're all character driven.

Shortly after I returned to Los Angeles from Sundance, I was offered a job writing on an ABC summer replacement series based on Elmore's novel Maximum Bob. The pilot was written by the great Alex Gansa (Homeland) and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld who had also directed one of the great movie adaptations of one of Elmore's books, Get Shorty. Scott Frank wrote the screenplay for Get Shorty as well as for the next great Elmore Leonard screen adaptation, Out Of Sight. With both scripts, Frank seemed to realize that Elmore had already done most of the heavy lifting, and he didn't have to try to make the screenplay better than its source material. Maybe that's why he earned an Oscar nomination for Out Of Sight. It would seem Graham Yost and his writing staff feel the same way about Elmore's source material for the richly compelling FX series Justified.

It was on Maximum Bob that I became a part of a writers's room for the very first time. I was surrounded by Alex Gansa, Rick Kellard, Molly Newman and Theresa Rebeck, and even though I had no idea what the hell I was doing, they treated me like I did.

After I wrote my first script for an episode of Maximum Bob, and even though I had only been on a film set once, Alex sent me down to Miami to supervise my episode. When I told him I had never supervised anything, Alex told me that there was only one way for me to learn. He also let me have some say-so in casting my episode, and later in the editing room.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of adapting one of Elmore's short stories, Sparks as a television pilot. While I was writing the script, I received an autographed copy of Elmore's book 10 Rules For Writing. This one's my favorite:

6
:

Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

Now, every time I read the word "suddenly" in a script, I cringe a little bit. Even more so when the script has my name on it.

This many years later, whenever I'm beginning to write anything new, whether it's an episode of a television series, or a new play, I'll often re-read one of Elmore's novels. For inspiration, and as a reminder of how it's done right.

One of the things I'm most proud of in my career as a writer is my credit on Maximum Bob. The producers on the series decided to call me an Executive Story Consultant. I can't tell you what that title means, but I'm still proud of it for one simple reason: Elmore had the same exact title. There is very little that can compare with that.

 
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