On 'Savages,' Oliver Stone, and Screenwriting: An Interview with Author Don Winslow

Crime fiction, with its propulsive plotting, dialogue-heavy prose, and magnetic fringe-dwelling characters, doesn't have to work as hard as its literary cousins to win readers' attention and devotion. Particularly at this time of year, when the assumption is that book lovers only have an appetite for literary snack food: beach reads that are cheap, accessible, and don't take too long to digest.

That thinking, however, fails to account for those of us forever on the hunt for the elusive ideal: an addictively compelling crime narrative set in a culturally and politically compelling milieu written with the halting staccato rhythms and unpredictability of a Cool School jazz riff. Fortunately, Don Winslow's California gothic tales of the perils of pot entrepreneurship in the age of Mexican drug cartels incorporate all of the above elements and more.

This is an auspicious time for Winslow, who collaborated with screenwriter Shane Salerno on an adaptation of his breakout novel, Savages, for director Oliver Stone. The film, which opens on July 6, stars Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as a couple of pot-trepreneurs tangled innocently in a love triangle with a California slacker beauty (Blake Lively) and more ominously in a turf war with a Mexican drug lord (lady?) played by Salma Hayek. Winslow has also penned a sequel to Savages, The Kings of Cool, on sale this week (read an excerpt here), which functions as a kind of origin story for Savages, tracing the cannabis-dealing duo's roots in Laguna Beach, l0ng before the town came with connotations of bored trophy wives and vapid, spoiled teenagers. Winslow offers a window open onto a slice of Southern California life often eclipsed by the state's resident (showbiz) showoff.

Winslow recently carved out a chunk of time to chat with Signature about learning to murder his own murderous prose, his disparate cultural touchstones, and connecting the dots between the wild frontier of counter culture seekers, stoners and surfers that was Laguna Beach in 1960s -- and the Real Housewife mecca of today.

Signature: Savages isn't the first of your books to be adapted. Why did you decide to have a hand in the screenwriting process this time?

Don Winslow: The first of my books to be adapted was The Death and Life of Bobby Z and it went straight to DVD. No one ever really got to see it. So based on that experience, I decided I wanted to have a voice at the table. So contributing to the screenplay seemed to be a good starting point.

SIG: What were the challenges of looking at your own material through a different lens?

DW: You'd think it would be easy. It wasn't. The first challenge was I found I had to make an effort to take an objective look at the story and characters and see what was needed to make a film work as opposed to narrative fiction. And that was interesting. Just because ideas work in one medium doesn't necessarily mean they work in another. The other challenge was to get a practical understanding of film structure as opposed to novelistic structure.

SIG: What were some of the crucial differences?

DW: The treatment of time is so different in a novel than it is in film. In a novel you move back and forth between spaces and time. That's not so available in film. The other challenge was that things needed to be cut and that's always hard to do. What I tried to point out to the film people was that 2000 years before you were editing, we were editing.

SIG: How'd that go over?

DW: About as well as you'd think!

SIG: You dedicated The Kings of Cool to Shane Salerno, your co-screenwriter on "Savages." Why was that relationship so significant?

DW: I met Shane maybe thirteen years ago when we were working on a TV show called "UC: Undercover." I was an admirer of his work and we became good buddies. I would tell him what was going on with my books vis a vis film and he would offer some pretty sage counsel. He has a company called Story Factory that is all about the nexus between film and book. So when I started to write Savages I sent the first fourteen pages to Shane in an e-mail saying, 'Either I'm completely crazy or this is pretty good.' And he wrote back in half an hour and said, 'Drop everything else you're doing and finish this while you're in this headspace.' We was enthralled with this from literally day one and we decided to work on the screenplay together. Shane had the idea of going outside the studio system to get the thing made with Oliver. So he's been really essential and when I sat down to write The Kings of Cool, I thought I should dedicate it to him.

SIG: Your staccato writing style seems to draw from other forms of pop culture - music and movies. There's a real musicality to your writing.

DW: I have been inspired by film, particularly New Wave film, while writing Savages. I always have a soundtrack in my head writing any book. The way we hear our stories anymore in our culture, it's disingenuous to deny the influence of television, movies, and music. We all walk around with our own personal soundtracks stuck in our ears. I do it too. It's part of what the book's about. So when I write any book, I listen to the music of the culture, I listen to the music of that era. Or sometimes it's music I'm in the mood for that relates to the emotional tenor of that book.

SIG: What were you listening to when you were writing Savages?

DW: I was listening to Eminem and Springsteen. I also listened to a lot of jazz, like late 1950s and early 1960s cool school jazz, like Stan Getz. I've been very influenced by jazz in writing both of these books. Sometimes in writing a particular scene I'll make an indentation of thirteen spaces and when we're going through the edit, I have to say, 'I want thirteen spaces and not twelve because that's the rest I hear between notes.'

SIG: The fairly cultures of Mexican drug cartels and that of Laguna Beach pot dealers figure prominently in both Savages and Kings of Cool. How did you access these esoteric cultures?

DW: Years ago I wrote a book called The Power of the Dog, which was primarily about Mexican drug cartels in ways that Savages and Kings aren't really about them. So that was a five- or six-year writing and researching project that gave me the base of knowledge, which I refreshed when I wrote these two books. In regard to Laguna Beach culture, I lived there. So I would hear the folklore and the stories. I think we sometimes need to sit around and listen and become furniture and hang out.

SIG: This book felt so timely to me because it really reflected the reality in my Los Angeles neighborhood that the only recession-proof businesses were the pot dispensaries.

DW: That and prisons - and they're not unrelated. It's a little sad. I'm fascinated by life in California. I have been intrigued by it since the first day I landed there. There are so many cultures and subcultures and I'm interested in how they interact, or don't. I wanted to write about a side of California that wasn't Hollywood or the Dream Factory. And yet, in a way it is. I think the west in literature is where people go to reinvent themselves. And California has served that role in American society. And now the cultural impact is being felt nationwide. I was walking through Times Square and on one of the corners was a surfing company. I didn't see any beach around.

SIG: California is also always reinventing itself. It's hard to relate the Laguna Beach of the '60s to the "Real Housewives of the OC" today.

DW: I know. It's strange. At the same time you can actually see those women walking around Laguna Beach. Not prototypes - those exact women. That always strikes me as a bit odd and a little jarring. In one way it's unreal but in another way it's real.

SIG: The Kings of Cool is a prequel to Savages. Do you see yourself staying with these characters fictionally?

DW: I don't know. Right now I'm working on three other books. I have no plans to get back to these characters but never say never.

SIG: Is it nice to return to narrative fiction?

DW: Yeah, it is. I enjoyed writing "Savages" and I have another screenwriting project with Shane called Satori, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio. So I still have my thumb in that pie. But I'm really passionate about these books I'm working on and I don't think I've written my best book yet.

Dip into an excerpt from Don Winslow's prequel to Savages, The Kings of Cool, here.