A change of venue: Boston crime author Dennis Lehane’s first movie script set in Brooklyn

Dana Barbuto More Content Now
Screenwriter Dennis Lehane attends the premiere of Fox Serachlight's 'The Drop' during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on Friday September 5, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision for Fox Searchlight/AP Images)

BOSTON - The devil didn’t make him do it, but Hollywood did.

In “The Drop,” his first script for the big screen, author Dennis Lehane has shifted his milieu from the mean streets of Boston to Brooklyn. Star James Gandolfini wears a Jets hoodie. Yankees and Giants posters hang in the pub.

“They felt like (Boston) had almost become a victim of mine and Ben Affleck’s success,” Lehane, 49, said in an interview last week at the Westin Copley Hotel. “There was this sense of ‘how many stories about low-level white gangsters in Boston can you do in a decade?’ So we just felt … that it’s been played.”

The movie, which opens Friday, is an adaptation of Lehane’s decade-old short story “Animal Rescue.” It premiered this past weekend to positive response at the Toronto International Film Festival, a launching pad for Oscar hopefuls. Lehane also expanded the story into a novel that hit shelves last week.

Lehane said he was cool with the “Brooklyn decision,” but he did throw in surprises for the Boston faithful, such as the character played by Noomi Rapace working at Ashmont Grille, a Dorchester eatery.

“I left a nugget here and there. It wasn’t going to hurt anybody,” he said, smiling.

“The Drop” might be Brooklyn-set, but the film is classic Lehane, full of plot twists, moral ambiguity and conflicted characters. It stars Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”) as a lonely bartender who works at a “drop bar” owned by his cousin Marv (Gandolfini, in his final film) but controlled by Chechen mobsters. The film’s other star is a pit bull puppy that Hardy’s character finds in a trash can.

“It was Chapter 1 of a failed book. and then I decided I loved the characters, I loved the setup, I loved the idea of this guy finding this dog,” Lehane said. “It was this whole idea that he’s rescuing the dog, but the dog is his rescue, too. I wrote it then as a short story, and the short story was adapted to a screenplay, and the screenplay became the movie, and they asked me to write the movie as a book, and I went ‘Oh, that’s cool. This is really a full circle.’ I want to close this circle, I want to come all the way back.”

And he does, returning the setting to its proper place: East Buckingham, the fictitious Dorchester neighborhood in Mystic River.

Lehane, who grew up working-class in Dorchester, has penned 11 books. “Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island” were turned into successful movies with directors Affleck, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, respectively. Another, “Live By Night,” is headed to the big screen, with Affleck set to write and direct.

“I’ll never adapt one of my novels,” Lehane said. “Clint and I discussed it for ‘Mystic River,’ but I very quickly said ‘no.’ Thank God. ... I realized I didn’t have the perspective to do it. I shouldn’t be the guy asked to cut something I just spent a year of my life, two years of my life, three years of my life, creating as a novel.”

Being a short story, “The Drop” was a different animal.

“I knew I could have a lot of fun with this. And maybe I could finally understand what story I was trying to tell back in 2001. It’s a totally different way to do an adaptation. You’re building out, you’re not cutting.”

Exploring the dark side of human nature – child abuse, murder, people making poor choices – is Lehane’s signature. His interest in it developed as a child, Lehane said.

“The thing that probably formed me more than anything in the world is busing,” Lehane said. “And seeing what it brought out in people and seeing the ways in which it tore the city apart and ultimately how the city healed from it.

“Underneath the smiling face of that nice neighborhood grocer on the corner is a guy who will say ‘get those n----rs outta here.’ I remember my next-door neighbor attacking a guy who sold his house to an African-American family. …I saw that and I was probably 10. So there became this utter fascination in my work. There’s a line in ‘The Given Day’ that sums it all up: ‘You see the best in the worst of people, and the worst in the best of people.’ If you point out somebody and say you should admire that person, I’m immediately staring, going, ‘No, they beat their dog.’ But if you say to me, ‘Stay away from that person, they’re a scumbag,’ I’m immediately like, ‘Oh, no, I need to talk to this person. I need to know who this person is.’”

“The Drop” was Lehane’s first movie script, but he’s written plenty for television, including the acclaimed “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Wire.” “My favorite line that I ever wrote was from the fifth season of ‘The Wire’: ‘A lie is not a side of a story. A lie is just a lie.’”

When he’s not crafting crime dramas, Lehane said, he loves a good dark comedy, like “Bad Santa,” “Bad Words” or “Kingpin.” His favorite film of the year – besides ‘The Drop’ – is Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

“I’ve seen it five times. ‘Take your hands off my lobby boy,’” Lehane says in his best Ralph Fiennes impersonation.

“I’m all down with comedy, but it’s just not what I do. I love satire, but I can’t write satire,” he said. “I seem to do epic stories about small lives in extreme circumstances. That’s seems to be my gift.”

Lehane still has a home in Boston, but like Whitey Bulger, Santa Monica has become a hideout as he works on a prequel to “Shutter Island” for HBO and an Irish series titled “Love Hate” for Showtime.

He noted that California just got its first Dunkin’ Donuts.

“I couldn’t get in,” he said. “The line was so insane. It went on all day. People slept out. It was like a Beyonce concert. I wasn’t waiting an hour and a half for a regular.”

One thing Lehane doesn’t miss is Boston traffic, especially the commute from the South Shore.

“I’ve been asked why I never moved there. Because it’s 15 miles from here (downtown Boston), it’s Sunday and it just took 90 f-ing minutes to get here,” he said, laughing.


Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com. Follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.