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The Boston Phoenix Being Cool

"Dutch" Leonard and Chili Palmer move into the rock business

By Nicholas Patterson

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  "Look at me!" With this command, Elmore Leonard's supremely confident shylock-turned-movie producer, Chili Palmer, took charge in Get Shorty and bent mobsters and film-industry types to his will. Nine years later, Leonard and Chili are back with Be Cool (Delacorte Press), a droll adventure in which Chili dives into the music industry in search of material for movies. In the process of his research for the new book, Leonard turned up a Western Massachusetts band, the Stone Coyotes, who provide some of the novel's music-industry background. Leonard and the Coyotes are in town this weekend for a reading and joint performance.

Be Cool is Elmore "Dutch" Leonard's 35th novel. His hot streak began with his breakthrough best-seller, 1985's Glitz. Since then, he's consistently produced expertly crafted, best-selling crime fiction at the rate of a book a year, all of it filled with idiosyncratic but believable characters living on the fringes of society. Beginning with Get Shorty in 1995, Leonard has also had a string of his novels (Jackie Brown, Out of Sight) made into well-received A-list movies. Leonard even graced the cover of a recent Lands' End catalogue cover. Eight and a half million copies of the first chapter of Be Cool are being distributed in six- and 12-packs of Diet Coke as part of an extravagant promotional campaign. The key to this critical and financial success, and the reason it took Leonard more than three decades to arrive at it, is his commitment to character-driven, rather than plot-driven, storytelling.

"I realized early on that I didn't want to write in the classic novel style with an omniscient narrator," Leonard told me recently in a phone conversation from his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Village. "I don't have the language for it. I don't like to explain too much in books. I let the dialogue between the characters explain it. My writing is more realistic than expository. I tell stories from the characters' points of view. I don't start with a plot. I start with people in a general situation, and then as I get to know the characters, the plot comes out of them and they move it along."

This attention to character development puzzled many of the readers of his Westerns and early crime novels, who were used to tight, thrilling plots acted out by cardboard characters, à la John Grisham. "I develop an affection for the characters," Leonard explains. "I see them as human beings, not just bad guys or good guys; they're people. I don't judge them. This is what I do, and if people like it, that's great. I wasn't going to change my style to get a bigger audience. I figured I liked what I was doing, and people would have to catch up."

Leonard, now 73, began writing in 1949 while attending the University of Detroit and working at an advertising agency. Seeing that there was a market for Westerns, Leonard produced 30 short stories and five novels about the Old West between 1951 and 1961. Though he still lived in Detroit, he subscribed to Arizona Highways magazine so that he could get familiar with the area he was writing about. In 1961, he dedicated himself to writing full time after the Western Writers of America chose his novel Hombre as one of the best Westerns of all time. By the beginning of the 1960s, however, Westerns had slipped in popularity, and Leonard had to fall back on writing educational films for the Encyclopedia Britannica and producing advertising and sales material.

In 1967, Leonard switched over to crime with The Big Bounce. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he slowly built a devoted readership with such novels as Fifty-two Pickup, City Primeval, and LaBrava. Although crime stories paid better than Westerns, sales were still so small that he supported himself primarily by writing screenplays and selling the film rights to his books. But readers slowly became addicted to Leonard's Detroit- and Florida-based fiction and started gobbling up each new book, hungry for more stories of disciplined stickup men, naive kidnappers, crooked judges, psychotic rednecks, and surprisingly tough suburban housewives.

Leonard learned that a substantial number of actual drug addicts jones for a fix of his fiction. "I received a letter from a prisoner who told me that I'm catching on with the heroin dealers, but that I haven't caught on with the crack cocaine crowd, because they are younger, wilder, and less educated," Leonard says with a laugh. "I have to work on these crack people, see."

Although Leonard's books have interested filmmakers for a long time, until recently most adaptations beefed up Leonard's plots, made cartoons out of the characters, and jettisoned all authenticity. "Finally, when [director] Barry Sonnenfeld got hold of Get Shorty and read the book, he realized how to do it," says Leonard.

Sonnenfeld's movie focused on the characters' personalities and interactions, and retained Leonard's witty, biting dialogue. The commercial and critical success of the post-Shorty movies (Scott Frank, the screenwriter of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, just received an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of the latter book) has guaranteed that more quality films are in the pipeline. The Coen brothers are finishing an adaptation of Cuba Libre, and Leonard says there is a strong possibility that Barry Sonnenfeld and John Travolta will sign on to do Be Cool.

Be Cool picks up where Get Shorty left off. Having based his first movie, Get Leo, on his life experiences and made an unsuccessful sequel, Get Lost, Chili Palmer needs new material. After talking on the phone to Linda Moon, a woman from an escort agency, and deciding he likes her voice and attitude, he discovers that she's an aspiring singer and soon liberates her from Raji, her violent manager. Before long, Chili is playing Raji, Elliot Wilhelm (his gay Samoan bodyguard), a mobbed-up record promoter, a gang of gangsta rappers, and the Russian mob off against each other while leading Linda Moon and her band, Odessa, to stardom.

It's not difficult to see Chili as Leonard's alter ego. "In the first chapter, Chili explains his process: 'I have to wait for the characters to come along and see what they are going to do,' " says Leonard. "That's what I do."

But Leonard doesn't hang out with Mafia hit men and Samoan bodyguards who like to throw people out of high windows; instead, he has Gregg Sutter, his assistant of 20 years, help him out with his leg work.

"I'm not his danger man," Sutter says during a phone interview from his LA office. "There are categories of research I do for him. I get background information. I don't go out and interview bad guys. I interview rogues: bail bondsmen, bail enforcers, guys who are on the fringe. I find out how these guys talk. What's the jargon of a particular trade. Recently, we went down to a prison in Florida and met with a group of women serving time for first-degree murder. One woman had beat her husband to death with a frying pan. . . . I also add little details, like the kind of baseball bat Raji uses to beat [Mafia hitman] Joe Loop to death.

"Be Cool was about the music biz, so we spent the summer of 1997 meeting different industry people. We sat in on a Red Hot Chili Peppers rehearsal and saw Don Was at work in the studio," adds Sutter.

Sutter sees a definite similarity between the way Chili develops a movie and the way Dutch writes. "Be Cool is sort of an autobiography of a writing process. Like Chili, Elmore cannibalizes reality. He uses people he meets, and [people] I tell him about, as the basis for fictional characters, and then brings them to life."

Chili's relationship with Linda Moon and Odessa bears a strong similarity to Leonard's relationship with Barbara Keith and the Stone Coyotes. Leonard met the Massachusetts-based Stone Coyotes (which consist of Barbara, her husband Doug Tibbles on drums, and her stepson John Tibbles on bass) in the Troubadour, an LA nightclub, in August 1997.

Leonard's interest in rock has also drawn him into a friendship with the members of Aerosmith (they have small speaking roles in Be Cool). He's also checked out different "girl singers" -- Alanis Morissette, Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson, Jewel. "Finally, I saw the Stone Coyotes and with their first song, I knew that was it. I like the beat, I like everything about it. That twang with the rock. So I talked to Barbara Keith after, and told her what I was doing, and said, 'I'd like to use your music if we can make some kind of arrangement.' "

Leonard ended up using the lyrics to four songs the band had already written and asked them to write a new song called "Odessa." He did not, however, draw from the band's interesting personal history: Barbara's songs have been covered by Tanya Tucker, Barbra Streisand, and Olivia Newton-John, and Doug wrote episodes of The Munsters, The Andy Griffith Show, and Bewitched. Instead, as Barbara Keith explained during an interview from her home in Greenfield, "he used our lyrics, images of how we play, and our musical philosophy of a stripped-down approach to rock and roll."

Flipping through the script, Barbara sees aspects of Chili in Elmore. "Elmore has a Chili-ish quality," she says. "He has taken us up as a cause and seems to genuinely like us and what we represent. He has gotten us a tremendous amount of publicity we wouldn't have gotten otherwise."

In addition to including the Stone Coyotes' lyrics in Be Cool, Leonard is taking the band on tour with him to Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. "He reads for half an hour with us standing behind him on stage," explains Barbara. "Then he gives us a cue and we walk up behind him and play our whole set."

Leonard has just begun his next book and is waiting for its characters to tell him what it will be about.

"I thought I would concentrate on a personal-injury lawyer who manufactures accidents that are all choreographed," Leonard says. "He teaches the people how to act like they have a sprained back. Then I thought, what if there's a woman who works out whatever the injury is? What if she is in prison and she comes out and she wants to do stand-up comedy using what she saw in prison as the material? Then the lawyer she works with has a brother who is a priest in Rwanda and flies to LA to see his brother. When she meets him and sees what he's about, she sees a way to use him in a fraud scheme to make a lot of money. So that's where I am. I've got three characters in mind. There will be more later, but that's just the way I start."


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