Monday, February 22, 2016

Picture Books: Charles Willeford (a conversation with Johnny Shaw)

Johnny Shaw is the author of the Jimmy Veeder fiascoes Dove Season and Plaster City, as well as Big Maria and his latest Floodgate. He's also the editor of Blood & Tacos, the brains (God help you all) behind N@B-PDX and the kept man of artist Roxanne Patruznick. I've spent several hours at several Bouchercons shooting the shit with this guy and let me tell you, he knows the shit he shoots. He's an encyclopedia of crime and pulp fiction in general, B-movies and C-list performers of various stripes. I've been trying to get a Picture Books piece out of him for a while, but he's one of those gentle artistic types who needs his hand held sometimes, so the following is a shaggy dog version of the series - more of a conversation about the films based on the books of Charles Willeford. And if you think the back and forth is insufferable now check out the interview conducted between us from 2014.

Jedidiah Ayres: How did you find Willeford?

Johnny Shaw: If we're just talking movies, I saw Cockfighter first. But I didn't see it in English until after I was out of college. I caught it on one of the Mexican TV stations when I was a teenager. I actually think it works better in Spanish. 

I got back and forth on my favorite movie based on Willeford's books. But even though I have a soft spot for The Woman Chaser, I'll probably stick with Miami Blues as my favorite. I love the idiosyncratic insanity of The Woman Chaser and Warburton's performance, but give me Fred Ward as Hoke Moseley and I'm good. He was born to play that part. Miami Blues captures the balance of funny and dark that is the quintessence of Willeford.

I'm assuming Cockfighter would be your pick between the three. Just for Warren Oates.

JA: If I had to pick a still frame from any of the films it would be from Cockfighter and contain Oates, Harry Dean Stanton and Charles Willeford himself, but I too think Miami Blues is my pick of the films. I think everybody is terrific in that movie. It was my first exposure to Jennifer Jason Leigh and made me an instant and life-long fan. Hers is the performance that I keep coming back to in that film. It's hard to play somebody who is not very smart well. She's got so much heart, it hurts.

The movie Miami Blues was also my first exposure to Willeford and of course I've read the book since and love it, but I was wondering how you first found Willeford at all.

JS: My Pop was a huge mystery reader. He especially had a soft spot for Black Lizard books and anything published by Dennis McMillan. Certain names kept popping up and by association I just assumed they were people that I should be reading too: Willeford, Charles Williams, David Goodis, James Crumley, Jim Thompson, Harry Whittington, etc.  I think the first book of Willeford's that  I read of his was Pick-Up and from there I made my way to the Hoke Moseley books.

I only recently found out the hero of his novel The Hombre from Sonora (also titled: The Difference) is named Johnny Shaw. How awesome is that?

JA: Wow, that's probably how I felt when I found a character described only as a lanky douchebag in Plaster City was named Jed!

lanky douchebags
JS: I stick by that description. Although, considering that people often confuse us, I'm not sure I came out on top.

JA: So then, to the movies again - Monte Hellman, Geroge Armitage and Robinson Devore - three fairly different and distinct film makers who've adapted Willeford and each seemed to focus on a different Willefordian thing. Do you think that reflects more on the film makers or on the books they were adapting? How many types of Willeford novels do you think there are?

JS: It reflects more on the filmmakers. As you said, each one chose to focus on a different Willefordian thing, but mostly they each found their own level of realism and their own tone.  Considering that Willeford is credited with writing the screenplay for Cockfighter, it's interesting to me that it's the one that plays the closest to naturalism. The Woman Chaser goes broader, including the decision to shoot in black and white with that stylized 1940's look. I guess it's why I lean toward Miami Blues. It does something that I'm a huge fan of, dramatic tone shift. It has the widest range between comedy and drama.

I don't know how many types of Willeford books there are, although The Burnt Orange Heresy is probably the most different than the three we've been discussing. At least among the books of his that I've read. It's practically an art theory thesis posing as a crime novel. 

Also, very divisive among crime readers. People love it or hate it. I find it flawed, but I admire the moxie. And it's short enough to not press.

JA: So then for the purposes of a Picture Books piece, where we look at the film adaptations and see what we can tell about the author's voice, taken all together (the three films) what links them? What do they all posses that seems it comes from the same author?

JS: It's the characters.  Frank Mansfield, Richard Hudson, and Junior are all cut from the same cloth.  Men who can't change who they are. Frank is a cockfighter, but what has it given him? It doesn't matter, because that's not how Willeford characters decide their actions. They don't do things based on choice or the best option, but on their destiny.

Once Hudson gets it in his head to make a movie, he's obsessed. That's who he is. There's no turning off that road, regardless of whether or not there's a cliff at the end of it. Which is also essentially the plot of the movie he wrote.

Junior playing house with Susie is the most fascinating, as we're never really sure how into it he is. There are hints that he's trying, but also that he's still just the same old psychopath. That he wants things to be a certain way, because that's how they're supposed to be. It's almost a childlike quality in all the characters that once they decided what they wanted to be when they grew up, they couldn't veer away from it if they wanted to. The way he plays with Moseley's badge is at the same time criminal and childish.

In class story structure, there is often that moment when a character seizes control of their own destiny. In these characters, they seize control of the destiny they believe they are fated to, not necessarily the one they want, the one that's best for them, or even the one that's sane.

JA: Any speculations on what we missed out on with Paul Giamatti's Hoke television pilot not getting picked up?

JS: If they did it right, it probably would've had a small audience. I can't help it, but I generally associate popularity with mediocrity. While not always true, that's my initial prejudice. The fact that it didn't get picked up could have easily been a sign of its quality.

I haven't seen the pilot, but I was optimistic because of Scott Frank's ability to adapt Elmore Leonard and with slightly less success, Lawrence Block. His obvious affection for crime fiction and noir suggests he could approach the material with regard to Willeford's idiosyncratic style. Giamatti's hang-dog, already-defeated face works, but I never buy toughness from him. It always comes off as posturing to me. I'd be interested to see how he played it. Although, I would have just cast Fred Ward again.

JA: I was very excited to hear of Giamatti's casting, though I agree it's hard not to picture Ward who seems like such a natural for the role. With Ward being an executive producer on Blues, I assumed he'd wanted to do a whole series with himself as Hoke, but apparently he was originally cast as Freddie with Gene Hackman playing Hoke.

I think it's interesting to note that of the four film makers who've adapted Willeford, two of them (Scott and Armitage) have also done Leonard adaptations. Armitage did arguably the best job with Willeford and one of the worst Leonard adaptations (The Big Bounce), while Scott has done really terrific work translating Leonard for the screen (Out of Sight, Get Shorty) and his Hoke is the least successful Willeford (in that it's not even getting released at this point).

Willeford and Leonard are linked by Miami and I think Leonard is weirder than he's generally given credit for, but I don't tend to think of them as similar writers. What other writers or films you would immediately link to a Willefordian sensibility?

JS: The first author that came to mind was Donald Westlake. While not the most obvious choice, because I think it's in the parts not the whole. I don't think there's a book that's too Willefordian, but if you took a Dortmunder book and a Parker book and jammed them together, you'd get something pretty close to a Willeford novel in tone and nuttiness.

It's hard not mention John D. MacDonald. Not just because of the Florida locale again, but Travis McGee. While he's closer to a familiar detective archetype than Hoke Moseley, they could hang.  Particularly true in the later books in the series where McGee is getting older.

It might be a leap, but James Sallis's Lew Griffin novels give me the same feel, although I can't necessarily put a finger on why. The style is obviously way different, as well as the story and approach. Maybe it's the constant balance between bleakness and hope that circulates through the stories.

I'd have to think more about movies, but the movie Night Moves always felt like it could have been a Willeford story. It's got the Florida setting. Gene Hackman could have crushed it as Hoke. And it's tonally a little all over the place, which is the way I like it.

JA: So give me a quick rundown of each film and we'll wrap this up.

JS: If there's someone reading this that hasn't seen these movies, I would recommend that you see them in the order they were released. It's the way I saw them, but it also follows a tonal progression that I think really works.

I'll admit that I think of Cockfighter more as a Warren Oates movie than a Charles Willeford movie. The same way I think of The Getaway as a Steve McQueen movie, not a Jim Thompson movie. And that should be all you need to know. That said, it's true to the book and captures all of the dirt and sweat. I would love to see this movie on the big screen.

I'm trying to think of a movie to compare Miami Blues to, but I can't. The easy thing to do would have been to make Hoke Moseley the hero of the story, and technically he is, but structurally Freddie drives the story and goes through the most change. We get to watch Twister from the tornado's point of view. In many ways that's true with all three of these movies.

And The Woman Chaser is flat out bananas. Patrick Warburton's performance makes me smile every moment he's on screen and I love the style of the film. Although, that artificiality limited how absorbed I was emotionally in the story, it's a pleasure to see it unfold. Again, another movie that's hard to find a comparison to. Which is a good thing.

Johnny Shaw is the Anthony Award-winning author of Big Maria and the Jimmy Veeder Fiascoes, Dove Season & Plaster City.  His new novel Floodgate introduces the world to the fictional Auction City and its criminal justice system. He placed third in the Jedidiah Ayres Lookalike Contest Southwest Regionals, but that was only because he refused to pluck his eyebrow. 

 JA: Oh shit - only 3rd? Meaning there were at least 3 competitors? 

JS: The shaved orangutan placed a lot higher than most people thought it would.


Barry Graham said...

I must nerdily correct your statement that Floodgate introduces the world to Auction City. Bart Lessard's novel Dead Men's Teeth, published in December 2014, is set there. Shaw and Lessard came up with Auction City together, though they write about different historical periods in that fictitious setting.

Glad to see Johnny Shaw doing a picture books post of sorts—he's never steered me wrong with a movie recommendation.

jedidiah ayres said...

Where's yours, Barry?

Barry Graham said...

You only had to ask...Let me see what I can come up with.