American novelist and screenwriter Don Winslow’s latest novel is The Kings of Cool, a prequel to a 2010 novel which he recently adapted for the screen. With Oliver Stone behind the camera Savages was one of the year’s highly anticipated films.

Winslow’s work is attracting a lot of attention in Hollywood and for any writer it is the adaptation process which determines how their voice finds itself on screen. With both Savages and his next screenplay, Satori, Winslow is deep in the process of adaptation, aligning himself with people as passionate about the story as he.

Here the author talks about the distancing of the movie and its source, how it feels as a writer to have his character brought to the screen, and which of his previous novels might be heading to a cinema soon.


HeyUGuys: When writing your books, do you write them imaging them turned into films and did you always hope it would get picked up?

Don Winslow:  I do not write them imagining them as films but I am deeply influenced by films. I have always been convinced that there is a strong interplay between noir and cinema, and personally I think that my writing has been heavily influenced by the big screen unconsciously because I grew up with the films, because they have been consciously contaminated by the work of directors like Truffaut, Fellini and Woo and others. Films like 8 ½ and La Strada encouraged me to take risks with the creative structure of my novels, especially Savages.

I am fortunate in that all of my books have been optioned for the movies and by wonderful filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Peter Berg and Robert De Niro but getting them made has proven very difficult.  In Hollywood they call it “development hell” and that is a good name for it. Ultimately that tortured history is why we decided to take a very different path with Savages.

When you were writing Savages, did you ever think that Oliver Stone would end up buying the rights to it?

Savages screenwriter/executive producer Shane Salerno was the first person to read the first fourteen pages of the Savages novel.  After the book was completed and he read it, Shane called me and said that he did not feel Savages would survive studio development.  He wanted to sell it directly to a filmmaker, develop it privately and then sell the entire package to a studio.  It was a bold plan given that we had generous offers on the table.  Shane worked with CAA to sell the project to Oliver Stone and that strategy allowed us to develop the film quickly outside the studio system.  When the script was ready we put the entire package out and Universal, Fox and Paramount engaged in a bidding war.  From the sale to Oliver Stone to the first day of shooting was only eleven months so Shane’s plan worked very well.

You’ve worked alongside Shane Salerno and Oliver Stone in adapting the book for the screen. Do you prefer the scriptwriting process to prose?

I prefer writing books.  I was grateful to have Shane to work with as well as Oliver Stone.  There were passionate debates about what to keep, what to change and what to lose and ultimately Oliver had the final word.

I just finished working with Shane on the screenplay of Satori for Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Brothers.  It is a huge spy thriller set in Japan, China and pre-war Vietnam.   The book is 550 pages and the current screenplay is 118 pages but the critical components of the story and specifics of the character are all there.  Shane worked very hard to get this material into DiCaprio’s hands and I never thought he would commit.  I’m thrilled to be working him.  He is a fantastic and completely versatile actor.

What was your reaction when you first found out that John Travolta and the rest of the fabulous cast were lined up to play the roles you’d created in the movie?

It was very exciting.  There was a number of wonderful actors who came in and met with Oliver for each role.  A lot of big names even for the smaller roles.  I think Travolta did a great job.

Now when you think back to the novel, can you imagine it without those actors playing the roles?

The novel and film are really two entirely different things to me.  It is hard when a core element of the book is dropped.  I disagreed and was disappointed to see Uma Thurman’s role cut from the film because I felt she did a great job as Paqu.  I also felt that her story was really essential to understanding O’s story.  It was cut for time.  I miss it.  I am excited to see the extended version of the film coming on DVD/Blu-ray in November.  It contains some scenes that I think are critically important to the story.  I hope people agree.

Would you have felt comfortable seeing your work adapted had you not been involved?

Not with Savages.  I was coming off a tough experience with the adaptation of The Death and Life of Bobby Z which I sold to Warner Brothers.  Years later, without my knowledge, it was sold to a small independent company that made a low-budget film I was not happy with.    I didn’t think it would hurt as much as it did to have a bad film made of one of my books.  After ‘Z’ Shane encouraged me to have more of a presence on the film versions of my books.  I won’t always co-write the actual screenplay, but I do want a serious voice at the table.

Would you like to work with Oliver again?

Oliver Stone is a world class filmmaker.  He has made some truly landmark films including Platoon, Born On the Fourth of July, JFK, Wall Street and Scarface.  We have both been candid and said it was not always an easy road but ultimately I supported the film because I believe it is a good film.  I was glad to see Roger Ebert give it three and a half stars and for The New York Times to name it a Critics Choice.  We received strong reviews from the Associated Press and Entertainment Weekly and others.  A lot of major reviewers praised the film while some others gave negative reviews.  That’s Oliver Stone.  His work provokes a strong response.  As for the future, it would really depend on  the project.

What’s the status of your book The Winter of Frankie Machine? In the past, Robert De Niro and Michael Mann have been attached to developing it into a movie, is that still a possibility?

We are moving forward with The Winter of Frankie Machine which is a project that fans around the world have been waiting years for.  We came close with Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann and I’m certain both would have delivered terrific films.

Which of your novels would you like to see adapted next?

California Fire and Life is in the works.  But The Power of the Dog is the one that I want to see done more than any other.  I spent six years writing that book and I believe it has tremendous potential.

What’s next for you?

Three new books!  I’m finishing the first one by Christmas and I am very excited about it.


Thanks to Don for taking the time to answer our questions.