Exclusive: 'Shutter Island' creator Dennis Lehane on B-movie Horror

Novelist Dennis Lehane will be the first to admit he’s led a charmed life compared to most novelists, at least in terms of film adaptations of his work. His books Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone were turned into Academy Award-nominated films from directors Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck (respectively). And his bestselling homage to b-movies and gothic and pulp novels, Shutter Island, is hitting theaters this month in a screen adaptation from no less a filmmaker than Martin Scorsese. I sat down with Lehane a few days ago to discuss the author’s love of genre and how he used it to craft one of the most unconventional thrillers in recent memory. Check out our conversation below.

Shutter Island seems to have grown out of your desire to create an evocative, pulpy thriller and infuse it with the real-world concerns of the 1950s’ Red Scare.

An evocative, pulpy, neo-Gothic thriller. That’s really where I was doing a soup. I just wanted to have a lot of fun. And being in, mentally, not necessarily the happiest place when I came up with that idea, [I thought], “Barring that, can you have fun with this? Can you just let this rip?” The bar that I set for Shutter Island in a lot of ways was to write really at a demented level in terms of drama, and take a risk. If that failed, it was gonna be really bad. There was no middle ground on the missteps on this one. It was either gonna be a home run or a disastrous embarrassment.

In so doing, you found a way to incorporate the stylized manner of speaking in pulp literature and film. How did you go about bringing that sensibility to the story?

I just wanted Teddy and Chuck to have a certain banter level that was a throwback to 1940s and 1950s movies, where people spoke… It was borderline iambic pentameter, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] There was a poetic rhythm to the speech. It may have been slightly ham-fisted, but there was an established rhythm in the way that so many actors had come out of the studio system and been voice-trained. So they all spoke with that sort of uniform… there was something a little bit arch about it all. I played with that in the book, particularly when Teddy and Chuck were talking.

What reference points did you find yourself drawing from in creating a gothic story?

There was a lot. If you find yourself looking at the checklist of gothic, it’s… cliffs – check, mansion – check, storm – check, woman in a cave – noted. That was something that I was definitely riffing on. I like to play in a traditional form. I like to respect it, but then I like to play with it, and get a little playful within its boundaries. So that’s what I was doing with Shutter in terms of the gothic. I was riffing off of the Bronte sisters and Frankenstein, and this guy Patrick McGrath – a neogothicist, he has a great novel called Asylum, among others; he has another one called Doctor Haggard’s Disease, another one called Spider. So I was riffing off that in terms of the gothic, and then in terms of the pulp was where I went into my ‘50s B-movies, like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor; and arguably one of my five favorite movies of all time, The Manchurian Candidate. Not the book – I’m not gonna be a literary snob on that one. I’ve never read the book. I’m just a fanatic about Frankenheimer’s film. And Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man. Not the horrendous remake, but the original from 1973.

Thinking back on it now, I can see how that film’s paranoia-filled investigation could inform Shutter Island… Which of the elements you’ve mentioned did you see Scorsese focusing on in the film?

He’s definitely riffing on the pulp b-movie conventions of 1940s and 1950s b-movie horror films. Bedlam comes to mind. He was definitely having a lot of fun with that. Beyond that I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to his process. I just think that he’d be the guy to answer that question.

Can you comment on the visual equivalent he found to your prose?

Without a doubt I thought that the visual palette of the film… Certainly he was paying a lot of tribute to the movies that Val Lewton produced in the ‘40s, like Curse of the Cat People and Bedlam. I also saw a lot of a film called Don’t Look Now in there. So that’s definitely where he was tweaking the cine-geeks in us, those of us who knew that. But in terms of the palette, what he was saying right off the bat – within the first frame, when you open up with them on that boat – is “This is a movie. This is not naturalism. This is not reality as you understand it. Nor will it ever be.” And the film comes at you very much in this sort of dark fairy tale, dark metaphorical way. As opposed to something naturalistic like Raging Bull. That’s what I saw.

Having deliberately tackled certain subgenres in Shutter Island, can you see yourself returning to them again some day, or do you prefer to explore different strains as you write?

I just go book to book. I really do. The only thing I seem very comfortable knowing is I’ll never write a romance and I’ll never write science fiction. But beyond that, I just go where the material takes me. The material dictates what I write. So my last novel, The Given Day, was a historical epic, because that’s what the material dictated. But its sequel, for example, is a classic rise-and-fall gangster novel. So everything’s dictated by the material. Am I gonna be walking down the street some day and get a great idea for another freaky head trip? If I get it, sure, I’ll do it. I don’t believe that you’re really in competition with anything but the muse I guess. So I don’t believe there’s anything I shouldn’t do. At the same time I also know my process; and my process is I usually don’t think of things until I’m doing them. So I can’t say, “Five years from now I want to try that.”

Can I ask what you’re working on now?

I’m just finishing a book that’s sort of a return to the series I did ten years ago. My first five books were an interconnected series of private eye novels, and this is the sixth private eye novel. It’s a direct sequel to Gone Baby Gone. I’m psyched. It’s going back to the same areas twelve years later.

Going back to Shutter Island for a moment, did you find that any of your inspirations differed from those of Scorsese?

They didn’t differ, [but] he was shocked that I wasn’t riffing on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I had to admit to him that I’d never seen it, which is a terrible admission. He wouldn’t believe it at first. Then he finally was like, “Okay, alright.” But otherwise, he was like, “Well, Manchurian Candidate, of course.” And I was like, “Of course.” [Laughs.] And he was like, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers, well of course.” He was like, “Have you seen Bedlam and Shock Corridor?” I was like, “Yes, I have.” It was like that. For the most part, we were definitely kind of mind-melded in terms of the influences.

Growing up, did you find yourself drawn to any one genre more than others? Or did you regard, for example, crime and horror in equal measure?

My favorite books were always urban novels. I would look at books like Richard Price’s The Wanderers, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Pete Dexter’s God’s Pocket. Mario Puzo had a really great early novel called The Fortunate Pilgrim, long before The Godfather. Those books were what drew me. Those were my number ones. Those were like, “Oh wow. This is the world I want to be in.” Then secondary to that would be anything that happened in those types of worlds that was a crime novel. So private eye novels set in Boston, Elmore Leonard, a guy named Richard Stark – a lot of really cool books that were set in these urban milieus that were crime novels. Then horror was a couple more down. I blew through Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and some Peter Straub. But that’s kind of it if you look at my list of horror novels. [Excepting] the V.C. Andrews novels that we all read when we were in seventh grade. It wasn’t a big influence. Then I read the classics – the Bronte sisters and Shelley.

Did you find horror films made more of an impact on you than horror literature?

It depends. There’s certain types of films. I love really well-done horror films, but bad horror films are like bad comedies. I can’t fucking watch them. I find them just excruciating. So this whole torture porn thing that we got into in the last five years with the Saw movies and Hostel and all that shit, I could just care less about. But if you give me something great and clever like Blair Witch or The Sixth Sense, something that’s got some serious game to it – Paranormal Activity – then I’m into it. When I think of horror films, the granddaddy of them all for me is John Carpenter’s Halloween. I know I’m supposed to say Psycho. But I was too young for Psycho – I saw Psycho later. So I look at films like Halloween, The Exorcist, and, yes, Psycho. Those are the films that could really make me jump.

Halloween is so beautifully directed it’s almost poetic.

Yeah, and that it cost as little as it did – two hundred thousand dollars. It’s an amazing piece of work. I’m always stunned that Carpenter never… I mean, he did The Thing, which I think is brilliant, but he never quite really became the director he could have become.

One last question… In real life, what’s your greatest fear?

Oh, I never discuss that. Because that leaves you vulnerable. [Laughs.] I mean, what if some psycho comes and plays off your greatest fear? No thank you, my friend. But I could definitely put… In the tandem there’s a tie. I won’t talk about one half, but the other – I’d say fire. Fire sucks.

Is that because of any personal experience you’ve had with it?

Yeah, I saw The Towering Inferno when I was nine and it freaked me out. I had this great moment where I had a conversation with Robert Wagner about a year ago, and I said, “Dude, I never got over your death in Towering Inferno. That fucked me up for days. I had to leave the movie theater. I was like nine, and I had to leave the movie theater.” Fire’s scary. But you don’t have to have an experience with drowning to be afraid of drowning, you know? So I think that being trapped in a fire, particularly a skyscraper fire, that’s pretty grim.

Yeah, even with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen there to help.

Yeah, because you gotta be like Wagner, you end up trying to save your mistress, and then you end up burning up and she jumps out a window. She does, she jumps out the window rather than burn! And she falls – it’s like the moment in Die Hard: “Boy, I hope that’s not a hostage.”

It can be a problem… Dennis, thank you so much for your time.

It was a pleasure, Joe. Thanks.