Toronto closing film Life of Crime is adapted from Elmore Leonard’s The Switch.
For his third full-length feature, director Daniel Schechter was charged with a heavy task—one that has fallen on the shoulders of many like-minded filmmakers before him: adapting the work of legendary American-novelist Elmore Leonard.
But according to the directorial newcomer, turning the Peabody Award-winner’s prose into a suitable script was a lot easier than you’d imagine.
“I didn’t have to do much developing of this screenplay,” Schechter admitted during a press conference Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival in support of the closing night film, Life of Crime. “It was based on one of my favourite books of all time, by my favourite writer of all time…I think if someone were to read the book today they’d see 80 percent ended up on screen.”
That book in question is The Switch. Originally published in 1978, the prequel to the popular Rum Punch (which inspired Jackie Brown), fills in the gaps where the original left off. Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) are a pair of life-long con artists fresh out of prison. Upon discovering the existence of Detroit property developer Frank Dawson (the inimitable Tim Robbins), the duo decides to kidnap his wife (Jennifer Aniston) and hold her for ransom. But when word gets out she may no longer be the object of his affection, the criminals begin to devise a backup plan in this quirky comedic caper.
When the time came to bring it to the silver screen, Schechter admits there was some initial hesitation.
“He (Leonard)’s notorious about being brutal about the ones he doesn’t like,” he said. “I would probably put an enormous amount of pressure on myself for anything I ever make, but when you’re taking someone else’s material, there’s all that more pressure.”
But according to producer Lee Stollman, the acclaimed novelist was more than willing to give the directorial newcomer free rein.
“Elmore said after he read the script that other than Scott Frank and Quentin Tarantino, this was the best adaptation,” he said. “So he gave Dan the free option, which is almost unheard of in the business, especially from an author of that stature.”
To fully capture Leonard’s original vision, Schechter travelled to the novelist’s native Detroit to meet with the author and explore the city’s suburbs, which inspired much of the book’s original set pieces. After spending time with the author and his accompanying research assistant, Schechter began the arduous task of drafting the script and finding a cast.
For Robbins and Aniston, signing onto the project was a no-brainer.
“It was riveting and wonderfully written,” Aniston gushed about the project, with Robbins adding it was the ideal narrative for both of them to tackle at this stage of their lives.
“In this stage of my career, I’m more interested in quality stuff,” Robbins said. “I’d rather play a part in a really nice project and good script. I just wish more films were being made like this.”
Sadly, that may not be possible—Leonard passed away from a stroke this past August, leaving behind a literary catalogue all but completely plundered by Hollywood’s elite.
But although the acclaimed author was never able to see the finished project, Schechter says he couldn’t be happier with the novel’s cinematic reimagining.
“We kissed a lot of frogs to get to our princes,” he said. “But somehow luck was on our side every way with this film.”