In November 2012 production began on Joe, a film based on the novel by the late Larry Brown. The screenplay was written by filmmaker Gary Hawkins, an instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies whose writing and directing credits include the acclaimed documentaries The Rough South of Harry Crews and The Rough South of Larry Brown. Joe is directed by David Gordon Green and stars Nicolas Cage as the title character, an ex-con who becomes an unlikely role model to a teenage boy—Tree of Life actor Tye Sheridan as Gary Jones—in small-town Mississippi. Publishing intern Joel Mora recently sat down with Hawkins to talk about the process of adapting a work into a screenplay, how the film went cowboy, and watching Nicolas Cage morph into Larry Brown, among other things.
Joel Mora: This is your second project dealing with Larry Brown. What’s the draw?
Gary Hawkins: It’s all the same draw really. When I launched the Rough South series several years ago I was looking for self-educated southern authors who wrote themselves into prominence. My archetypal author was Mississippi fireman Larry Brown, who began to write in his spare time at age thirty and quit his day job when his publications began to pay. I read all of Larry’s work and adapted three of his short stories into films—”Boy & Dog,” “Samaritans,” and “Wild Thing.” Joe was just another adaptation, a longer one. Larry’s writing lends itself to adaptation because it’s so visual and physical. Someone is always doing something.
JM: What was it about Joe that made you want to adapt it into a screenplay?
GH: Of Larry’s novels, Joe was best suited for adaptation because the story is concerned with Joe’s ultimate destination, not just his journey along the way. The other Brown novels don’t seem to be as oriented toward the ending, and you must have a firm destination in mind if you’re going to assemble a screenplay that stands a chance of getting made. You have to be able to answer the question, “Where is all of this headed?” If you can answer that question, you’ll discover quickly what you can jettison and what needs to stay. At every step of the way you can ask yourself, “Is this getting me closer to Joe’s destination,” and if the answer is yes you can keep the scene. Joe is that kind of novel. Everything rushes headlong to a precise conclusion. You look back and you say, “Yes, it had to happen this way. This is where we were headed all along.”
JM: When you read the book did you recognize the central story right away?
GH: I did, but then I had to go back and see how much I could lose without compromising Joe’s action line. You see, Joe is a good-father, bad-father story. There is Joe and there is Wade and Wade’s son, Gary. The novel devotes so much time to each character that you could almost call it Joe, Wade, and Gary, but the title is Joe so most of the Wade and Gary stuff had to go. And that’s too bad, because I was losing wonderful writing. As a villain Wade is as sinister and distinct as Iago or Judge Holden or Humbert. And Gary is the archetypal Innocent. Perfectly written. But lots of pages had to be thrown out to make the length manageable. Screenplay form utilizes a specialized format that converts a single written page into one minute of screen time. It doesn’t always convert per page, but tends to average out over the course of a 115-page screenplay, which is the length of a feature. If a feature screenplay converts to roughly 40 pages of prose, and my copy of the novel is 342 pages, I’m required to remove 300 pages from a 342-page novel. If Joe’s story hadn’t been there all along, the whole endeavor would’ve fallen apart early in the process.
JM: Give us a little background—how you got the rights to adapt, when it got picked up to film….
GH: It’s a long, boring story, so I’ll just hit the high points. I wrote the screenplay a long time ago and I sent it out, but no one optioned it so I threw it in a drawer for almost a decade. Last year David Gordon Green and I were talking and he asked me if I had anything I wanted him to read, so I sent him Joe. He loved it, and when his agent learned that David loved it he spread the word through CAA [Creative Artists Agency]. Cage’s agent is also at CAA, so he sent the story to Cage and Cage loved it, so he contacted Green. I don’t know the specifics of the shoot dates, or why a six-week window opened in November 2012, but it did and we took advantage of it.
JM: You wrote it ten years ago, and that’s the version that went to Green?
GH: Yes. I didn’t change a word. It’s funny actually. I’m getting congrats now, because one’s chances of getting a film made are very slim, but I did the real work a decade ago.
JM: Is that disappointing?
GH: Somewhat. But that ship has sailed, and I like the way it validates my efforts years ago, back when it seemed like nothing was working. The writing was working, it just wasn’t competing in the market.
JM: Why did Green stage the story in Austin, Texas?
GH: That’s where David lives and he knows the area. Larry based the novel in Mississippi—his home—and when I adapted it I kept in mind the Piedmont area of North Carolina. It’s just a matter of going with what you know I suppose.
JM: Were there changes in the script that reflected the change in locale?
GH: Texas and Mississippi aren’t just different states, they’re different countries. Different social and geographical regions. The crickets in Mississippi are so loud you have to raise your voice to be heard. The forests are dense and the culture is largely blue-collar southern. When David restaged Joe in Austin the whole thing sorta morphed into cowboy. Southern became cowboy. The Texas I saw was a flat expanse of black dirt with a big sky. Rattlesnakes, sure, but very few crickets. The dense Mississippi undergrowth became desert scrub. But the good news is, Joe‘s narrative is archetypal cowboy anyway. Shane. There are differences of course. The danger to the family in Shane comes from the outside, not the inside, and Shane rides into town while the family in Joe literally walks into town, but the narrative tensions are the same. Shane is one of my favorite films by the way, and David’s too, and Larry Brown named his second son, Shane, so there you go. It transposes neatly. The folks in Oxford, Mississippi, might not like it, but I think it works. It could work in the Australian outback too, or in feudal Japan. It’s cowboy. Samurai. Joe is an old Samurai searching for a “right death.”
JM: I think what you capture best about Larry Brown’s writing are the things you learn by what isn’t said. You develop the characters more through their actions than their dialogue. Was that hard to do?
GH: Yes. You have to think cinematically, and cinema in this case means the conveying of narrative through moving images. It really helps to have that down. To be able to conjure up the visuals in your mind while writing the screenplay. If you’re writing it correctly the action should play like a film in your mind’s eye with no blind spots. You see it all as the words go onto the page. It helps enormously that I’ve made films.
JM: A screenplay seems to require a lot of faith in the actors to get it right. What does Nicolas Cage bring to the lead role in terms of capturing the essence of who Joe is?
GH: When a star comes aboard what you get is a star performing a role, not an actor inhabiting a character. Well, okay, you get both, but the star’s persona tends to dominate. So Cage comes aboard and Joe becomes Joe-ish Cage. If Russell Crowe had played the role you’d have gotten Joe-ish Crowe. That’s just how it works. And that’s where the action line is essential because your only recourse as a writer is to string together a set of visceral, visible actions—things that only Joe would do and say—and hand them off to the actor and director. By doing this it’s possible to subtract from the star’s heroic essence, because you can put him to work behaving in questionable ways. The character, Joe, was not altogether ethical, or let’s just say his ethical code was very personal, especially with regard to self-reliance. And that was one of his flaws as a man, the way I saw it. His reticence to help out when it wouldn’t seriously cost him. But then he grows into the role and gives of himself entirely in the third act. He finds his “right death” through sacrifice. It’s a universal idea. You see it in Shane, in Yojimbo, even Karl in Sling Blade. The family is threatened so an outsider steps in to fix things, but not until it’s almost too late.
JM: Did Cage bring that to Joe?
GH: Well, yes and no. Because it was definitely on the page. If he brought the words and actions that were written on the page, he brought Joe. Having said that, I thought Cage’s Joe was a lot more agitated than my Joe, or Larry’s Joe. I saw Joe as a fundamentally unhappy man, but still capable of enjoying certain earthly pleasures. Cage’s Joe wasn’t getting a lot of joy out of life, but then maybe that’s called for in a film, which is closer to a short story than a novel. You have to get on with it. There’s that great line from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners as pertains to a novel versus a short story—“I emerge from a dense forest only to be set upon by wolves.”
JM: When you saw Cage, did you see the Joe you envisioned?
GH: Physically, Cage looked the part. He’d made a real study of Larry Brown, read the novel three times, saw my bio [The Rough South of Larry Brown] several times, and more or less made himself up to look like Brown. It was funny how he jumped past the fictional character, Joe, right to its inventor, Larry Brown. Cage has the same forehead as Larry, grew a salt and pepper beard, dressed the same way I had Larry dress. But Larry was a small man and Cage has the size and strength of a professional athlete. He’s two of Tye Sheridan, maybe three.
JM: When you were writing the screenplay did you have an actor in mind for the role?
GH: Not an actor, no. I’ll tell you who I had in mind—my father, Bill Hawkins. He was a welterweight champ, 82nd Airborne, smart and funny, but violent, in and out of jail a lot. Fought with the deputies, same as Joe. Drank a lot, a good-looking ladies man, which got him into a lot of trouble. He looked like William Holden, except a lot more formidable. Through it all he was a great protector and provider though, even if he didn’t mesh well with groups. Stayed off to himself, same as Joe. The truest similarity was probably a shared nihilism. So there wasn’t a big gap between the character Larry dreamed up and the man who raised me. None of that was foreign to me. I never had to wonder, “Now why in the world would he do that?”
JM: You visited the set in early November, correct? What does it feel like to see the words that you adapted being acted out in front of you?
GH: Yes, I visited the set in Taylor, Texas. It’s a small town roughly forty miles northeast of Austin. I hung out a few days and saw the scenes where Joe visits Merle’s house. I have to say, I was most impressed by the crew, especially Tim Orr’s camera crew. That was a happy, hardworking, smooth-functioning machine if ever there was one. And Tye Sheridan completely inhabits Gary Jones. He’s perfectly cast. But back to the Merle scenes—in my screenplay it’s an insignificant little shack in the Mississippi woods, not much larger than a doublewide. But David found a rather grand if derelict plantation estate and turned it into the best little whorehouse in Texas. The set was almost Lynchian, Blue Velvet-y, the kind of place where Frank Booth would turn up. Anyway, most of what I saw that day amounted to Cage mixing it up with the madam, Merle. Green likes to direct while the camera is rolling, jumps in here and there, almost joins the conversation, keeps it stream of consciousness, so that was interesting, too. And take three seems to be Cage’s take. He speaks the truth on the third take, or at least he did that day. The following day they shot the scene where Joe tosses Gary the keys to his GMC and tells him about his prison record. Cage’s scenes with Tye Sheridan were remarkably good. That’s gonna be your movie, right there. If Joe performs well, if it melts hearts worldwide, it’ll come down to Cage and Sheridan, what they offer one another and gradually grow to accept.
JM: As a filmmaker what is it like to see someone else direct what you envisioned?
GH: David’s rendition of Joe is nothing like the Joe I would’ve directed, but I have plenty of other stuff in the works so I’m not troubled by it. I like to think of the process as collaborative in a hand-me-down way. Larry Brown stared at the blank page and came up with a new world with depth and extension. I took Brown’s novel and formulated a blueprint for the filmmakers, converting as much text as possible into cinematic action. David ran with my blueprint, adding his own ideas along the way, and Cage interpreted David’s direction in a way that made sense to him, occasionally tweaking the direction to accommodate his performance. And all four of us are fundamentally divergent thinkers, so there was a lot of door-opening along the way, too.
JM: Any advice to writers, especially screenwriters?
GH: My advice to writers is always the same. If you want to learn to write, you must live life and you must write. Those are the two things that you absolutely must do. You learn to write by writing. The same goes for living life. I don’t count watching television, texting, doing anything on a computer, or hanging out in a coffee shop, living life. You have to get out there. And working two dozen crummy jobs wouldn’t hurt you either. That’s if you really want to say something.
JM: What’s next for you? Any more adaptations? Any new docs?
GH: I’m deep into another screenplay, a thriller set in New Orleans, but I can’t say much about it, and I’ve just written a coming of age baseball story. I have a quasi-doc project in the works, but I can’t say much about that one either. I’ll surface soon enough.