We chat with the author regarding the joys and frustrations surrounding the Hollywood adaptation process, as well as the potential impact genre fiction can have on our culture.
Last week, shortly after President Trump pardoned Jack Johnson, we learned that Ridley Scott’s production company was finally going forward with their adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Big Blow.” The novel is a fictionalized account of Johnson’s 1900 bout with wannabe great white hope, Jim McBride, and is set against the horrific hurricane that nearly leveled Galveston, Texas. The project has been brewing in Hollywood for almost twenty years, bouncing between filmmakers like David Lynch, Oren Moverman, and now, Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Waiting around to see your story brought before the big screen might torture some authors. Not, Lansdale. He’s experienced too much to blindly believe the promises of producers. He’s happy to option his stories and cross his fingers.
Following a friendly Twitter exchange regarding a slight error in my news story (I failed to mention a pass he made on “The Big Blow” screenplay), Lansdale agreed to chat with me regarding the long journey that his Jack Johnson has taken just to get to this point of “maybe.” I’ve been an obsessive fan of his work longer than this arduous gestation process, and it was a genuine hoot to talk to the man, hisownself. Hopefully, I maintained some semblance of professional decorum.
Lansdale is no stranger to Hollywood’s game. He’s seen his stories translated several times before (Bubba Ho-Tep, Cold In July, Hap & Leonard) and he’s patiently waiting for others to take off. He recognizes that his stories are their own separate entity, and he’s as eager to see how others interpret them as much as anyone else.
Late Sunday night, we had a long conversation over the phone. We talked about the winding adaptation path of “The Big Blow,” it’s inception and the importance of experiencing life beyond your own through fiction. In an age of outrage and confusion, novels and films have the opportunity to aid us in understanding. His work has always stirred the pot, and he has no plan at stopping anytime soon.
Here is our conversation in full:
When Deadline announced that The Big Blow was pushing ahead once again. You tweeted, “The Big Blow supposedly to be filmed. Been here before, but…maybe.” What’s your emotion behind that tweet?
It’s not particularly hot or cold either way. It’s just sort of like between it. I think part of that is that I’m sort of that way anyway. I’ve been doing not only prose, but also film related things, whether it be options or scripts since probably the 80’s, but certainly the early 90’s. I know how this works but, one thing with that one, good grief I bet it’s been about 20 years if it isn’t it’s close to it. David Lynch had it for 2 or 3 years before.
Uh huh, and then Millard Kaufman did a script, which they decided not to go with. Then I did a script for Jake Scott who was supposed to direct it, and for whatever reason that never happened. Then along the line, Oren Moverman did a script and that was supposed to happen and then it didn’t. Then mine popped up again with another director who I don’t know if I should name, or not, he wasn’t able to make a deal over there, although they wanted him. He said the only way I want to do this, but I want to do it with Landsdale’s script because he had read it before. So it popped up. Then now they’ve got the Moverman script and all that’s going on, it’s gone through so many cycles it’s hard to have any kind of solidified view on it or it could get worked up or worked down.
When did this process start? Did you sell the options after the original short story came out?
I think I must have sold the Novella because I later did a novel version of it. Which was really not a whole lot different, a little bit longer, had some extra scenes in it. I believe after the Novella came out, it was optioned for David Lynch. It was there 3 years, I think 3 years. Then it went to Scott Free and it’s been there for a long time. Like I said, I think it’s been under option including the original about 20 years.
That’s kinda amazing.
It may not be quite that many, but it’s close.
Where did the inkling come from? When did Jack Johnson …
Well, I’ve always been a fan of boxing. I’ve done martial arts and boxing and wrestling and all sorts of stuff ever since I was about 11. I wasn’t very good at it until I was about 14. I got really involved in it and still teach martial arts. I teach private lessons. I’m older, so I’m not doing it at quite the intensity I once did, but I’m doing it regularly. I’ve always loved it. Boxing is part of the martial art I teach. I was always interested in that, and like I said I used to box a little, in training anyway.
I was always interested in Jack Johnson and the fact that he was a Texan. And, this great hurricane that happens. It’s a real hurricane that essentially is like wiping out Atlantis. There was a point in time when Galveston was probably 2nd to New York to being the most cosmopolitan city in the United States. It had all kinds of advancements. People looking to it to be this next big thing, then the hurricane came, and it never recovered in the same way although it’s certainly a successful city now. It never regained that kind of position that it had because other cities in the meantime went on and grew and became more prominent, at least that’s the way it’s thought of normally.
Yeah, the hurricane. The Big Blow.
I just thought that this hurricane, sort of mirrored this whole idea of racism and violence and boxing. So, I wrote a story because it was not entirely clear if Johnson was there during the hurricane. He might have been, he might not have been. He was born there. One of the funny things is that he once decided to leave, and he got on a train and fell asleep. When he woke up, it had just brought him back to where he started. There used to be this old land bridge that went across from Galveston Island to the mainland. I guess he was expecting to end up there, but he didn’t. He was back in the station.
Johnson lived one of those larger than reality type lives.
Pop Culture-wise, a version of him is the center of The Great White Hope and James Earl Jones’ amazing performance there.
Absolutely. One of my favorite actors, by the way.
Oh, so good. He’s so good in that movie. But Johnson hasn’t had a strong foothold in cinema.
Ken Burns did the Unforgivable Blackness documentary, which was great.
Yes, it was.
But now, he might be coming back in a big way here. Why is there an interest in him now?
I think a lot of it is a combination of things. I think, not to get political, but I think Trump being in office is part of it. It has made people look at these things more clearly and realize this hasn’t gone away. It’s been under the surface, and now it’s being inflamed. The flames are being fanned by these kinds of ridiculous attitudes. “Oh my God, the black people are taking everything away from white people.” Being white has never hurt me in the least. I just find that all of that, in combination with all the events that’s been happening, and the fact that this has all been boiling under like some kind of rancid soup for many, many years…means that now it’s time.
I think too that we’ve had so many hurricanes that have been devastating I think that probably at least subliminally that’s part of it as well. And, I think that people are willing to recognize Johnson’s contributions, not only as a boxer but as an icon. Because he was doing what he was doing long before people did that and could even get away with it. He was fearless. Muhammad Ali obviously I think was inspired by Johnson, not only to some extent his style of boxing but, in how he lived his cultural and social life and was willing to stand up against institutionalized racism. Overt racism.
Both of those guys were heroes of mine, just because of their courage, that it took for them to stand up. Which is, a lot more courage than a white guy standing up and saying things. Because it’s them that have their feet to the fire. Especially back in Johnson’s time. I’ve always been thrilled to learn things about him and try to make him better known in my minor way.
He ultimately never escaped that persecution.
What are your thoughts on Trump being the one who finally pardoned him?
How ironic. How ironic. The guy that’s responsible for so many racist tweets and support and all that is the guy that finally pardons Jack Johnson. Who should have been pardoned many, many years ago, for a crime that in these days no longer even exists as a crime? I think it’s ironic, but I think he did it for celebrities. The fact that Obama didn’t get it done, I think he’s always out to try to step over Obama. I don’t care what he did it for, I’m glad he did it. I think it was an important and long overdue thing. I think it may have put a little heat under this project, though, I’ve seen it come and I’ve seen it go. I think my script, too, was very close to the book. I think it was really dark and powerful, and I think they’ve been afraid of that a little bit and I kind of understand. Hopefully, Moverman, of course, I haven’t seen the script, I’m hoping that he’s found a way to present it in a powerful way that gets across the messages that we want to talk about.
No matter when you’re writing, you’re always writing about your time. I don’t care if you’re writing about the early 1900s, the 1800s, whatever because you’re own experience goes into it no matter how much research you do and how hard you try to be disciplined to be of that era that seeps through. I think that is the message for this moment.
Social science-fiction and social horror films are coming back in a big way.
I think you’re right. I’ve been doing it for years. I did the Hap and Leonard series, and I think of that as an entertaining series. I always felt that had something to say, though it was funny. It had all these social and cultural, and to some extent political things, that I was doing with that series. I didn’t feel that a lot of people were recognizing that early on. Finally, when they did the TV series that became more prominent. People are willing to discuss those things more. Bill Paxton and I were trying to film “The Bottoms”, which is exclusively about the 1930s and racism. Bill’s gone now, which makes me sick every day, but I think we’ve got that on the front burner, and a number of things.
So “The Bottoms” is still a go without Paxton?
It’s hard to get me to say anything in film is going to happen. I’ve had them where they were about to shoot and they didn’t happen. I’ve had them where they were going to start production on this and then, no you’re not. We have the actors and now it’s not going to happen. I always come to these things with a certain amount of reluctance as far as saying yeah it’s going to happen. I think the odds are pretty good for that one as well as 3 or 4 other things I have under option and/or that I’m working on or even producing to some extent.
The first story of yours I’ve read was “The Night They Missed the Horror Show.”
Like you said, everything you’ve written for the most part has been addressing social issues, racial conflict.
Right. Gay rights, women’s rights…all of those things. You don’t always do them in such a way that you feel like you’re preaching. Sometimes you take it from the negative side. I would get to feeling so strange about the serial killers I would see interviewed and how banal they seemed. I once wrote a story where the two serial killers are in a car with a dead body and they’re just talking. All of their concerns are banal. They’re not like these great geniuses that are doing all this incredible, turning people into suits and things like that. Which, of course, some did. But, most of them are really just banal people. I load it from their perspective and how they were upset with the way things were going in their life, but yet, they didn’t think a thing about what they had done.
I think sometimes, to make a powerful point, and this includes racism, this includes “The Big Blow,” you got to come at it either direct or you got to come at it from another unexpected pocket that’s in a darker corner. There’s some people that can’t see that, they see a certain word, or they see a certain attitude with a character…they immediately just go to pieces. I’ve actually seen much of it having grown up in the south. I don’t want to just brand the south…but it certainly was an ugly laboratory for a lot of this when I was growing up. If you can’t sometimes just put it out there like it is, or was, or still is, then you’re not making your point. I don’t want to have a sensitivity coach sitting beside me while I’m writing. I don’t want that because then I don’t tell the truth. Writing’s not about pretty manners. It’s about trying to tell the truth as you see it. That means sometimes you’re talking about scary, ugly things. And, racism’s a scary, ugly thing.
As somebody who’s been working out these concepts through their fiction, do you think social genre fiction has had an impact on society?
When I first started writing, I said I’m going to write the serious books. I found out that I couldn’t do it. Genre fiction I grew up with, and I loved genre fiction so I wanted to write that as well. I didn’t think about it, it started coming in through the fiction itself when I wrote the first Hap and Leonard. It actually opened up a lot of things I was thinking about but I wasn’t able to figure out how to put them in fiction in a normal, well, in a way that seemed as profound or interesting. I found that it worked better that way.
I never felt for sure that anybody would be impacted by it, or care about it but it turned out I was wrong. “The Bottoms” is sometimes taught in high schools and colleges. Some of my other books as well. So I feel like I was fortunate enough to finally be able to make those aspects of my fiction recognized.
I think that we have pulled our heads out of the sand. I think the time was right, I think that it was something that always concerned me. I grew up in the 50s and the 60s so I saw people drinking out of separate water fountains and taking stairs up to the balcony to go to the theater, all of those things. It just impacted me. I’ve written about this, I don’t need to write about it but it’s a scar that’s on our experience.
I myself, I’m not saying I’m feeling guilty, but I am feeling responsibility for caring. You want to care about people, especially when you see them maligned, mistreated, ignored, not given the same opportunities. That’s been important to me, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. I’ve learned a lot more about myself and about my past experiences. I think writing is like that, a kind of therapy. That’s why I said I don’t want a sensitivity coach there, I want to be able to work these things out in the fiction and perhaps help some other readers do the same.
I think about growing up watching Star Trek or reading “Mucho Mojo.” Those are the stories that shaped my morality. We need to read more books, watch more movies, and experience as many points of view as possible.
In the 60s when I was growing up you saw racism and people referring to black people as the N word was just common. Even people that were not considered racist probably didn’t think of themselves that way and maybe in some cases weren’t. It was just a common word. I would see these things like I said the water fountains and all that. It’s part of your culture. What you grow up with. But, then you either evolve or you don’t.
I remember reading “Huckleberry Finn” and going, Oh! I’ve heard some people say we should get rid of that it’s a racist book, which is ridiculous. It is probably the book that turned me on to understanding what was going on. It gave me an epiphany or at least something that I recognized. When Huck’s talking about how he knows that he should turn Jim in because that’s the Christian thing to do. But, he’s not going to do that because that’s his friend, he’s just going to go to Hell. It clicked in my head. I know what we’re talking about here. “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” all historical fiction…certainly the films for “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and other things, of course, they have impact. In the Heat of the Night which came along later, but still, all of those things have impact and people who think they walk a mile in other people’s shoes often walk a mile in their own shoes and watch this other going on from a distance. They just don’t know how far apart they are.
I have a black friend whose name I won’t mention because he may not want me to, I don’t think he’d really care…When we go out we’re walking along, I can see people going “well, you know, that guy looks big, and he’s black so, I’m going to be careful about tucking my purse up.” Whatever. You see things like that and you don’t think of it when it’s just you. But, this is every day for him. Going to the bathroom before you go out, in case you end up in jail you don’t have to go. Things like that are horrible. They’re only comical in the satirical sad sort of way.
We congratulate ourselves on the civil rights movement, and we assume that we’ve progressed but, there’s just so much work still to do.
They’ve progressed in the sense of the law. But, they haven’t progressed in the sense of ethics and morality. I’m not talking about religion. I’m an atheist, so I’m not coming from that. I’m talking about common human decency and morals. That’s something that comes later. You’ve got to remember that when the Civil War ends, supposedly that was it, the slaves were free. But, we had Jim Crowe. That was during my life in the south. It was almost just like slavery. They were segregated and they often were paid little to nothing to do jobs that were some of the dirtiest, rottenest jobs you could imagine. They were often called lazy, and they’re the guys that are digging the ditches and plowing the mules and all that stuff. When I was growing up, people still did a lot of mule plowing out in the country. They’re doing all this hard work. They’ve got an opportunity now they’re free. We were all happy. We had our own place in the world. But, that isn’t true.
It’s like when people want to go back to the nostalgic 50s they forget the gay people would be in a bad mess, women for that matter, anyone that wasn’t rich. Black people, Hispanic people, almost any group of people who were not in the majority, it was a totally different world. It’s not that wonderful Happy Day’s version that so many people have of it. It was never like that, unless you were on the outside of what was going on and I wasn’t, being poor. They say the white people always kind of put themselves on a pedestal even if you had more in common with the black person. You were separated constantly by politics. They tried to tell you it was better than that other group. That way you could always have somebody to look down on.
If we had gotten together, blacks, poor blacks, poor whites, man…what a powerful voice we would’ve been.
Well, before I let you go, I want to just go back to the adaptation idea.
I’m sorry I strayed off.
No-no, I’m happy you did. This is all great.
You’ve seen Bubba Ho-Tep adapted, you’ve seen Hap and Leonard adapted.
Cold in July.
Oh man, Cold in July is such a great movie. Loved that flick.
I did too. Incident On and Off a Mountain Road that Coscarelli did for Showtime, was also quite good.
When you see these things take on a life of their own, beyond your page, what’s that feeling?
I’m excited, but I’m never really completely happy. [Laughter] I get happier over time. Actually Bubba Ho-Tep I’m extraordinarily happy with. I am completely happy with it. I think it’s the best adaptation of my work. I thought Cold in July might be, til I went back and saw Bubba Ho-Tep and it’s almost the story I wrote. There’s very little difference in it. In fact, they pulled things out of the prose and used it in the dialogue. I like to feel like I know what I’m doing.
I know that everything can’t be adapted literally. I said to Jim [Mickle], “I may not write the best dialogue in the world, but I write the best dialogue for my characters.” They don’t always follow your story. But in the end, when I’ve signed on the dotted line, I get to say what I want; but they get to do what they want. I think that’s the way it works. I’m only a part of the process, up to a point. I’m being honest with you. But that doesn’t mean I’m disappointed. It means that I like all of those things.
There’s always a part of you that’s looking at what you started and there’s all these people sticking their fingers in your pie. You can recognize it as the pie you baked, but you can also recognize that when you weren’t looking somebody got their fingers in it. I find that over time I become more comfortable with the adaptations. I think Jim Mickle and Nick Damici will tell you I can be really cold about some of the stuff, and sometimes funny about it. I’ll say man what are you doing? That’s my way of venting, or expressing what I think could be done. But, once they make that decision, I’m done. I’m good. I move on. You got paid, you signed the contract. But, all of those experiences have taught me that I want to have more and greater involvement in my work when I can. Which is not always going to be the case. Certainly, The Big Blow won’t be one because that was a long time ago.
So, the Hap and Leonard TV series comes out, but you’re still writing Hap and Leonard novels. When you’re writing those guys, does the show inform them from now on? Or, is it a separate entity?
No. Separate entity. They’re alternate universes. I can see where they cross. I wouldn’t have pictured James [Purefoy] and Michael [K. Williams] in those roles, but once I saw them on there I thought – that’s them. That’s the alternate universe versions of those characters. It’s an alternate universe because I can hear somebody say a line, and I think that’s not the way I meant for that to be said. That’s a ridiculous part on the writer’s part because you hear it in your head and you visualize these people in your head.
As for an alternate version of it, I just think they’re absolutely wonderful. I think everybody that’s been on it, I mean, Christina Hendricks, Pollyanna McIntosh, Jeff Pope, Doug Griffin, Neil Sandilands, and Bill Sage – my goodness how wonderful was he? Tiffany Mack, and I know I’m leaving somebody out, there’s so many people in there besides the guest stars and things. It’s my universe. It may not be exactly my story, but I feel like it’s my universe. I recognize that universe, and I fell comfortable in that.
But, to answer your question more clearly. Does that affect my writing? Not at all. When I sit down, I enter in to that universe. It’s different. It’s a different. They met differently. They don’t have the same background they have in the TV series. There are some things that are the same. Leonard’s a much chattier person in the books. There’s a lot more going on between them, which you can’t really do all that the TV shows or you’d have to have 20 episodes just to get through a story. People might get distracted by the dialogue. When I sit down to do the books, it’s a different world. I have a new one that came out this year, and I have one coming out after that. But, I don’t know if I’ll write them again. I always write them for a while, then I leave them. Then, if I have the urge to come back, I do.
I would imagine that would be hard to achieve.
No, it’s really not because you’ve got to remember I spent almost, good grief, the first one was in ‘90 or maybe somewhere in there. You got to think how long I was writing them before there was ever a television show. So, those became the real characters to me. People say, well you know, you weren’t doing this before. I go well, if you go back to “Savage Season” you’ll look right there and you’ll see that I am, or “Mucho Mojo.” Those things, that’s the things that they borrowed from me, which I’m very happy about. But, my books and my stories, they’re separate. When I sit down that’s a different alternate universe and is the one, of course, that is closest to my heart.
Well, I’m really curious to see how The Big Blow turns out, or you know, if it even happens. I hope so.
Yeah, yeah of course. A lot of the people I know who are really dedicated screenwriters or whatever, they wake up every morning thinking everything’s going to happen. I don’t. That’s because a lot of the time it doesn’t happen. If that was the only outlet I had that would cause me to go “Oh, Hell. I can’t get up another day and do this and nothing else.” But I think if that’s the only outlet you have, you have to have that mindset. That’s the opposite of me. But, I love the prose first. You have to be able to get up in the morning and believe that it’s going to happen or, you would never be able to continue in that business.
Joe R. Lansdale’s latest Hap & Leonard novel, “Jackrabbit Smile,” is now available at wherever books are sold.