So I met Elmore Leonard on one of the only junkets I ever covered for The Georgia Straight. I was with a group of just over a half-dozen journalists in LA and we’d screened Get Shorty and when we got to the Four Seasons Hotel to do the junket interviews everyone was psyched to talk to John Travolta. So when Leonard walks in with screenwriter Scott Frank and they sit at this roundtable with us in the funky little boardroom no one says a thing.
I’m new to this whole junket scene, but when I see no one else wants to start I ask the first question about what it’s like having someone adapt your work. Leonard says something about how this was a rare occasion where he liked working on an adaptation because the writer got it. Then the two kid each other like old buddies. Frank talks about loving Leonard (his imdb listing shows he wasn’t joking – he later did Out of Sight and Karen Sisco). Leonard talks about how he’s used to people screwing up his stuff, but this guy got it right. And I wait like a polite Canadian for someone to ask the next question thinking, Leonard’s an American icon, everyone must have something they want to ask him. No one does.
After an awkward pause I ask the next question, then the next, then the next and get what sure feels to me like a private master class on adapting books for screen. When the two writers finally leave I’m feeling guilty about monopolizing the interview and a bit confused (these journalists ain’t shy about asking questions or butting in on interviews) and as I’m thinking I ought to apologize one of the junketeers thanks me for taking the lead on that one. Then another one nods in agreement. “Yes,” he says. “Writers are so boring.”
That was the moment that made the whole thing unforgettable. I remember thinking, yep, in Hollywood we really put our writers on pedestals, don’t we.
Elmore Leonard RIP.
I never did get to write about Leonard and Frank — my editors were also more interested in Travolta — but here’s the story I filed on Get Shorty (which I can’t believe was hiding in an old file on my laptop). And Travolta talks a bit about being lured to the project not by the script, but by the book – and only agreeing to do the movie after the screenplay was revised to include more of Leonard’s original dialogue.
BEVERLY HILLS — John Travolta is in a good mood.
When he bursts into the room at the Four Seasons Hotel wearing a blue Armani suit he borrowed from Bruce Willis for the occasion, Travolta’s already laughing as he declares in a dead-on impression of child’s voice, “hello, my name is John, what’s yours” before singing “let me entertain you.”
Travolta certainly has reason to be laughing these days. After launching his career on the sit-com Welcome Back Kotter in 1975, Travolta became a major star with movies like Grease, Urban Cowboy and his Oscar nominated performance in Saturday Night Fever. His career then nose-dived with Travolta virtually vanishing in the 1980s before he scored another hit with Look Who’s Talking in 1989. But with duds like Look Who’s Talking Now, Chains of Gold and The Experts, Travolta’s career path seemed to be veering dangerously close to a Kotter reunion. Then came Pulp Fiction — a star turn complete with an Academy Award nomination in one of the most acclaimed movies of the decade and suddenly Travolta’s back with a vengeance.
Of course, Travolta “came back” once before and then leapt at roles in movies that seemed destined for disaster. But the odds seem pretty good that Travolta’s star won’t be tarnished by Get Shorty. The movie, based on Elmore Leonard’s best-selling comic crime novel, stars Travolta as Chili Palmer, a smart small-time mob enforcer and movie buff who goes to Hollywood as an enforcer for a loanshark and ends up as a movie producer. Get Shorty also stars Gene Hackman as a B-Movie producer looking to get respectable, Danny DeVito as the bankable star needed to make the respectable movie happen, Rene Russo as an aging B-Movie actress who wants to start producing before she’s too old to appear in the obligatory shower scenes and a series of uncredited famous faces in cameo roles that prompted Travolta to compare the film to a cross between Pulp Fiction and The Player.
Despite the fact that Pulp Fiction put him back on the map Travolta (who will be on view again soon as a renegade bomber pilot in Broken Arrow) says he didn’t feel any pressure about choosing what to do next. “I don’t know if there was pressure as much as there was wanting to get to work and hoping that there was something good that came my way. But pressure, I gotta be honest with you — I gave up on that years ago because it’s unpredictable to a certain degree,” says Travolta. “If you’re savvy about this stuff you make the best decisions that you can at the time and if it doesn’t work out — even Tom Hanks supported the idea — who better to make a comeback than me?”
One of the projects Travolta initially passed on was Get Shorty, but Pulp Fiction’s writer-director, didn’t think that was one of Travolta’s more savvy decisions. “Quentin Tarantino called me and said listen, this really is the one you should say yes to, not the one you should say no to. And I said why? And he said, “did you read the book?” And then Danny DeVito called me and confirmed I should read the book because they were really hell-bent to get me into this thing and I read it and I said, oh I know, now I know why — it’s because all this tasty dialogue has been paraphrased to some degree. If you can get that tasty dialogue back in the script perhaps I’d be more interested in it.”
“And they said, “Well, for instance?” For instance — the opening scene — I go to the coat closet and in the first script it says, “Where’s my jacket? It costs $400.” In the book it has, “where’s my jacket, black leather, fingertip lining, the kind Al Pacino wore in Serpico. It cost $379 at Alexander’s. My ex-wife bought it for me.” All that is funnier — $379 is funnier than $400, buying it at Alexander’s is funnier than not saying it at all, bringing my ex-wife into it, that’s interesting. So they got the idea.”
Travolta says once he made his point there weren’t any objections to making the changes. “They were so in love with the book that I think they saw that they needed to put some of the book back in, they did and they did it beautifully.”
With comparisons to Pulp Fiction inevitable and — from the producer’s standpoint desirable — there are definitely similarities in Travolta’s roles. In some ways Get Shorty feels like a movie for audience members who were disappointed when Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, was blown to smithereens in Pulp Fiction. Both characters are charming , stylish, violent gangsters. However, Travolta says there aren’t that many similarities. “I see them as distinctly different. I don’t even think Chili would like Vincent Vega. If someone sent Vincent Vega to Chili Palmer he would say, “Oh my God, this is a loose cannon, unpredictable. I can see he’s a heroin addict — get him out of here, he’s gonna goof things up for me in a big way.”
DeVito, who was one of the producers of Pulp Fiction — and who was originally considering playing the role of Chili Palmer — was delighted to sign Travolta for his first post-Pulp role. “Right after that (Pulp Fiction) we talked about hoping to find something. We were just fortunate that this was available for us..”
Travolta’s other Get Shorty co-star, Gene Hackman believes there is something unique about Travolta that helps explain why his career isn’t likely to vanish again. “John is a movie star. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way either, he’s also a fine actor — but he also has this thing that very few people have. I don’t know what you call it,” says Hackman emphasizing the word “it,” “but he’s a real movie star and people enjoy that. They see this character that’s bigger than life and handsome and confident and all that and that’s very rare.”
Told of Hackman’s comments, Travolta says that’s certainly not the way he sees himself. “I think I’m okay looking. I think I’m a character actor. But if I play a role like Chili Palmer who loves movies and loves movie stars I’m gonna behave like a movie star. If you look at White Man’s Burden (an upcoming Travolta film in which he co-stars with Harry Belafonte) you’d say, “that’s not a movie star.” When you look at me you’re gonna say that is a down and out, kind of okay if he were cleaned up looking guy that’s in terrible trouble. But Chili Palmer is food for behaving like a movie star. But do I have the image of myself as a movie star? I kind of feel like an actor who’s kind of goofy who likes to have a good time and laugh a lot.”
MOVIE NOTES # 1:
When Rene Russo was called in to interview for the part of a B-Movie horror actress in Get Shorty, she didn’t think she was a big enough actress for the role. She assumed that the producers would want someone a little more buxom. Says Russo: “I’ve used my body my whole life to make a living, I haven’t used my breasts because they’re not really, ummm, usable — which I thought was one very interesting thing that they cast me for this film because I don’t have breasts. You would think that for this movie you would just want to see her as that girl in the strapless dress with those breasts that are right out there smiling at ya. So we had to get a Wonderbra and then I had to put pads in the Wonderbra and then I had to put more pads in the Wonderbra and then, I swear to God I looked at the film clips and I said oh my God I look average, how is that possible?”
MOVIE NOTES # 2:
It’s tough to imagine Danny DeVito and John Travolta going up for the same role, but DeVito was originally slated to play the Travolta part in the new gangster comedy, Get Shorty. However, director Barry Sonnenfeld says it’s not as illogical an idea as it may appear. “I just saw Danny because Danny is the single most self-confident person I ever met — truly self-confident — and for me from the day I started to read Get Shorty, the over-riding image I had of this character, more than size or the way he looked or anything was here is a man whose total power and strength comes about because he’s the only one in the book who has self-confidence who isn’t desperate, who isn’t desperately trying to grab something else and because he’s not desperate he gets everything and that’s Danny to me as a person. It made no sense in terms of physicality, in terms of audience acceptability, but as I read this book I imagined Danny because that’s who Danny is as an individual. He is Chili Palmer — he’s a straight talking, self secure, centered individual. As it turns out so is John, but I didn’t know John at the time.” Sonnenfeld also recalls another project he directed where the second choice for the part was very different from the first. “When I was hired to shoot Big, Robert DeNiro was hired to play the Tom Hanks character and people say how could that happen, but in a way it would have been really interesting to see DeNiro playing a kid. The only problem with having Danny playing Chili was who you would get to play Shorty? Michael J Fox?”