After first making a splash with his original scripts for Little Man Tate and Dead Again, Scott Frank entered the adaptation racket, with screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty that perfectly captured the jazzy, hard-to-parse riffs of author Elmore Leonard. In town recently for his striking, stark directorial debut The Lookout, Frank talked about getting back to the basics.

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I remember reading about The Lookout a few years ago, on a list of legendary unproduced scripts. When did you originally write it?

It goes back to the mid-’90s, I guess. I sold the idea to a studio, and then went off to adapt Out of Sight, which took me away for a year or so. Then I came back, and finished the script, which happened probably in 1999. Sam Mendes came on to direct it, right before American Beauty was released. He and I worked on it for a while, and then he left to do Road to Perdition. So then the script languished for a bit, with me occasionally taking it out and working on it. Then David Fincher came on to direct. He and I worked on it for quite some time, and I just had a great time collaborating with him. David eventually fell out—it was going to be an expensive movie, and we were talking with Leonardo DiCaprio to star, and the studio was hemming and hawing about using that much money, given the type of movie that it was. So Fincher left to do Zodiac, and I really wasn’t sure if I was ready to refashion the material for another director. I was also at a point in my life where I was ready for a change. I had a real comfortable writing life, and had worked with some fantastic directors, which kind of delayed my own ambition, because I really felt well served by those guys. But, finally, I realized that I was getting older, and I figured that the best way to feel younger was to really scare the shit out of myself. So that’s why I decided to direct it.

How close is the final script to that original draft?

It’s much shorter, for one thing. There were a lot of subplots that we removed. I’d say that it’s largely the same story, but much tighter.

One of the things that impressed me about the film was that tightness. It’s very clean. There’s not a lot of wasted space.

One of my pet peeves is when movies feel too long. I think that a lot of movies these days feel self-indulgent or undisciplined. There are some movies that need to be long, in order to properly tell their story, but, you know, this one didn’t.

The movie also feels retro, in a way. There’s none of the post-Tarantino meta-commentary that so many crime movies fall into these days. Now, you’ve written two of the defining movies of that genre, with Get Shorty and Out of Sight. Was moving away from that tone a conscious decision?

Those two scripts, I think, were very specific animals. They were both adaptations of Elmore Leonard books, and those movies, although very different from each other, can definitely be located in the same genre. My problem with continuing along those lines was that I could feel the films becoming too self-referential. They were hip, but kind of soulless. I enjoyed writing things of that nature, but they were more exercises in form. I’m really more interested in character. It’s more satisfying for me to write people, than it is for me to create a vibe. The thrillers that I really enjoyed growing up were things like Dog Day Afternoon. Yeah, it’s a bank robbery movie, but, you know, it’s really about those guys in the bank. There’s a full-bodied quality there that a lot of modern thrillers seem to lack.

The visuals really seem to follow the tightness of the script. There’s a restraint there that feels unusual these days.

Yeah, I tried to be really conscious of that. I’ve seen a lot of first-timers really stand on their head to be cute, visually, and, you know, try to declare themselves as directors. I had long conversations with my cinematographer beforehand about how I wanted it to be classically shot. When we worked up a shot list, the word tableau came up a lot. You know, just letting the actors act, and the action happen, within these big wide frames. I was very influenced by Capote, recently, which was also set in Kansas, and, like us, filmed in Winnipeg. [Laughs.] The beauty of that movie was that it was a first-time director who really understood restraint. The performances come through, and the story comes through, but it also had a distinct look and feel. For us, we had a really specific color palate, and shot in widescreen, with a lot of dark spaces. There was a studied look to it, but the main idea, visually, was just to get out of the way. My feeling towards directing was that I don’t know enough to reinvent the aesthetic, or to be really cool with the aesthetic. I wanted this movie to be an extension of myself, and I’m old-fashioned.

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