Film and TV

Phoenix Author James Sallis on His Book-Turned-Movie, Drive

Phoenix-based author James Sallis has been through the Hollywood wringer discussing his novella Drive. 

Sallis' 200-page book was picked up by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Next week, the book goes to the silver screen in a neo-noir flick, directed by Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.

Between Hollywood screenings and everyday life -- writing, teaching at Phoenix College and playing with his band Three-Legged Dog -- Sallis sat down with us to talk about Drive, which tells the story of a double-crossed stuntman and getaway motorist, known simply as Driver, seeking revenge.

Read the Q&A and see the trailer after the jump.

Did it ever occur to you, while writing it, that this could be a movie?
I write the books I want to write, because that's really all I can do. Drive was written while I was incapacitated. I'd had surgery and I was housebound. I had had the idea awhile back and the idea for me was to recreate those pulpish paperback novels from the '50s that you'd buy for 25 cents at the drugstore. I loved those books. I grew up on them.

I had been thinking, wouldn't it be interesting if someone wrote a novel like those with that kind of momentum, where it's like flying down a chute? You start the book and you're right out the other end. But updating it and making it more contemporary, with more depth and giving it faster movement. I never imagined I would do that, but being housebound, I was sort of going back and forth between two books and decided to write this one.

Does Ryan Gosling fit the bill for Driver? Is he how you imagined him?
I wouldn't have thought. I think of him as in Lars and the Real Girl, and as a sort of lighter, comic or kick-back kind of actor. From the first time you see his face to the end, he's just absolutely stunning.

Driver (the main character) is a classic, strong-jawed, Steve McQueen. Where did he come from?
He is really an icon. That is a stock character from all of those novels. The strong, violent guy who just does his job and doesn't meddle with other people and expects them not to meddle with him. And one of the ideas of updating was that I was going to take that iconic character but make him real and give him depth. And that's what a lot the flashbacks are for with the mother and father and all that. That's trying to make the character real.

Nick Refn has actually talked about the movie as a fairy tale and as a story about a white knight. And there's an element of truth to that. What Nick has done is he's really upped the romantic angle. Driver is getting into all of this because he's trying to take care of the damsel in distress. That's implicit in the book, but I don't lean on it that hard. Nick did and he created a film that, on one hand, is about this romantic, chivalric urge that Driver has to take care of the Carey Mulligan character. And on the other hand it's about this person who's very, very violence-prone and it's definitely going to go down the tubes, and you know that from the first page.

How does the book to film process work? What's the trajectory?
Well it works differently all the time, but with this one the book just kept finding people who were really in love with it, and willing to sell it and work with it. It was a very, very slim little book that was actually rejected by New York publishers and was finally published by Poisoned Pen Press here. They published it, and published it beautifully, and they sold out of the first edition very quickly because, for some reason, the book was really speaking to people.  

For a long time they were trying to make a blockbuster film with Hugh Jackman aboard. They had the first two or three versions of the script. It just wasn't quite working. It's a very slim book.

At some point Hugh dropped out and Ryan Gosling came aboard. Marc Platt asked Ryan who he wanted to direct. Ryan said he'd love to have Nick Refn. From there it all just dominoed ...

Reading Drive, the story seems so straight out of the '40s or '50s with its crime-noir feel. But it's almost as if you couldn't tell when the story is happening, if not for a few little references in there. Like how Driver enjoyed the film Road House, or noting that a car was made in the '80s.
I wanted it to be apparent that it was contemporary. But one of the problems with reading the pulp stuff is that it is so dated. I wanted to give it that authenticity and versimilitude of knowing when and where you are. But I didn't want to use brand names or anything that would make it seem dated in a few years.

What are you working on now?
What I'm working on, I'm almost ashamed of it, is a sequel to Drive. I never meant to write sequels. 

Drive is so self-contained one would just assume that was it. But it's a funny, funny thing. Drive's production people asked my agent if I was planning to write a sequel. And I said, of course not. And an hour later I sat down and wrote the first page.

It's a completely different book. It takes Driver seven years into the future when he's established a normal life. But his normal life comes apart in its first page because someone comes after him, apparently to kill him, but kills his fiancee. It sort of explains how he goes from who we see in most of Drive to the Driver that we see in the last page of Drive. The guy who goes down in a Tijuana bar at three o'clock in the morning.

Drive opens in theaters on September 16. 

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski