Most Martin Scorsese films are ghost stories – no, not paranormal thrillers, but meditations on those memories and nightmares that haunt our psyches. Whether we’re talking guilt, remorse, regret, longing…his films are very much about people struggling to tread water in turbulent seas. Case in point: The Departed, for which he received the directing Oscar, was about two young men playing with fire: A mole in the police department who is tortured by his double life, and a cop who has infiltrated the mafia, always at risk of being found out.
Scorsese’s Shutter Island may be his greatest work to date, in terms of how it confronts those central themes of guilt and denial. Obviously the filmmaker saw in the novel – penned by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone) - all the major themes that have informed his previous efforts. The story begins out at sea, with federal marshall Teddy Daniels sailing out to a Massachusetts island that doubles as a mental asylum to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner. It’s only later, after he and his partner receive odd looks from both the patients and the wardens, that Teddy fills his colleague in on the real purpose of this visit: To seek revenge on the convicted arsonist who killed Teddy’s wife and children.
It’s a brutal and gripping book, that fueled an equally gripping movie. We sat down with Lehane to talk about the unlikely journey his novel took, from page to screen – all in the hands of Scorsese.
Is it hard to see your book, something you lived and worked with for so long, stripped down and reconceived to fit a two-hour span of time on the movie screen?
I actually think this is a great distillation of the book’s essence. I really don’t know how they do it, adapt something for a different medium. I wish I could speak to the mysteries of the process but I think it’s a little bit like what they say about pornography: You know it when you see it, and I know a good adaptation when I see it.
Did you have approval of the script? Were you surprised by how they took this story of asylums and mistaken identities and found a way to tell it all visually?
Well I think this is fast becoming a famous story but my only criticism for Leta [Kalogridis] was that maybe the first draft of the script was too respectful of the book. She was a little too enamored with my voice and I thought she needed to work with that a little bit. She had taken all these lines that I loved from the book and put them into the script. But these were very literary lines that didn’t quite work, even Ben Kingsley couldn’t say that line and make it work in a realistic way, and that was my only real critique. But what I like is that if you look at the book and the film, the movie is like a ‘movie’ movie. There’s something not naturalistic, it’s very strange and artificial and coming at you like a dream. And the book is doing the same thing. So I like that it has the same sort of feel to it.
Guilt has always been such a major theme in Scorsese’s films, do you think that’s what appealed to him here? Teddy is a character coping with such staggering, suffocating guilt.
You know, most people don’t talk about that; it’s the allegorical stuff, the gothic stuff that they focus on, where I don’t think they realize how much of this is a meditation on guilt. I approached this as a story about the ‘Greatest Generation,’ and how we’ve deified them to their detriment. You see that in all the clichés thrown around by all these hoary warmonger who didn’t serve themselves, like Dick Cheney, They’re deifying this life that they were too cowardly to take part in. But then you have all these soldiers who came back and didn’t speak about World War II. They did the right thing and saved the world but to do that, good Lord…the story in the movie about Teddy at Dachau, that’s a true story, where they executed all these unarmed men. They had to confront evil things. When I was writing it, I was having really bad dreams, and constantly these waking dreams where I would think that I had woken up, but I was still in a dream.
You seem to channel this in you work – and Scorsese has definitely worked that into the movie too. There are dreams constantly here, nightmares…
Oh man, there were times when I felt like I was writing a whole book about dreams, and insanity, and how one tries to move beyond the horrors of the past. You know, my dog never slept in my bed after I wrote that book. I would wake up and find her on the floor and I think something happened during my dreams while I wrote that book. Now, she stays in her little doggy bed under my bad. She won’t sleep with me any more. I think the nightmares must have been pretty bad.
Having seen the movie, I’m a little surprised by the way they are marketing Shutter Island. Instead of focusing on dreams and sanity, as you say, it looks almost like an action thriller in all the advertisements.
I leave that up to the marketing people. Whatever puts butt in the seat is fine with me. If you’re duping people into seeing third-rate work, that’s one thing, like movies that refuse to screen themselves for critics. But we are on the artistic side of that debate, and I think once people get drawn into the story, it takes some pretty interesting turns.
But clearly when you wrote this book you wanted to say something about a man who hasn’t fully processed what happened, in an experience as traumatic as the war.
This was in 2003, and I knew that I was living in a time of the Patriot Act, when we were witnessing a return to McCarthyism. And I started asking myself: What happens when you begin to watch what you say? Sooner or later, you begin to watch what you think. It’s a personal type of mind suppression. And I started to look at this idea of how do you suppress your mind, and I arrived at mental institution which in 1954 came up with Lithium. And I started channeling this all into a book, not fully understanding what I was doing. I thought I’ll write a polemic, but if I do it at an interesting, allegorical level then they will let a grad student do his dissertation on this.
So it all comes back to censorship, and a fear of really processing what’s going on inside our head?
I was in Poland several years ago on the day that John Paul II died. It was unforgettable, I was on the streets of Warsaw when it happened, and during my time in Poland the question I was asked by people over and over again was: After being out of the Iron Curtain for 20 years, why don’t we have any novelists? They have poets, but no novelists, which I didn’t realize. And it hit me that it’s because the novel as a format believes in continuity in a way that you never could after 50 years under a regime. It’s ridiculousy romantic, to have a beginning, middle and end and to have everything tied up. And that’s the problem in this story too. How do you begin to express or expunge your thoughts; how do you relieve somebody of doing a “good” act? You can’t. They’re sitting there, they did the right thing, and they know they did the right thing but they still feel bad. That’s the beginning of Teddy’s decline. It’s not Dachau, it’s coming back with a drinking problem and marrying an insane woman and being unable to deal with his devils, and it all just completely unravels. That’s the real horror.
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