the vulture transcript

Savages Author Don Winslow on Getting Confused for a Porn Writer and Working With Oliver Stone

Don Winslow. Photo: John M. Heller/Getty Images

There’s more to the story than Oliver Stone’s new movie Savages could tackle. With almost any film adaptation of a book, there’s tons of plot that is shuffled off to the side. In this case, though, author Don Winslow thought ahead and provided a prequel in advance of the film’s release. The Kings of Cool provides the backstory of Laguna Beach, California, drug dealers Ben and Chon, their mutual girlfriend O, the Baja Cartel, and a two-faced DEA agent — as well as a whole host of other characters, some of whom were intended for the film (Uma Thurman’s Real Housewife of Orange County wannabe Paqu, for instance), and some who never made the grade. Winslow, a former private investigator who previously chronicled the drug war in The Power of the Dog, also wrote the Savages screenplay along with his frequent collaborator Shane Salerno and the director, so we went to the source to ask about his process — and he took us to the very beach spot that inspired both the books and provided scenes in the movie. Walking along a mini-boardwalk by the volleyball players and sun worshippers, he chatted with Vulture about his P.I. days, the drug war, sex and violence in Savages, and the porn writer with whom he’s often confused.

When you lived in New York, you worked as a private investigator. One of your jobs was to find pickpockets at movie theaters. How do you spot a pickpocket? And did observing criminals help you in writing crime novels, to get inside their minds?
Well, they behave in very particular ways, and they’re not who you think they are. They’re usually middle-aged guys who are well-dressed. Those are the ones you need to look out for, the pros. And they wait until the movie comes on, when it’s dark, and you can see them move from seat to seat, looking for the woman whose bag is open, or the guy sitting like me, with the wallet in his pocket. But I don’t know if there’s such a thing as the criminal mind, other than sociopaths or psychopaths, you know? I think with those two very large exceptions — whoa, did you see that?! [Points to a killer wave.] — that people go into crime for a whole variety of reasons. I think everybody has his or her point of view, and we may disagree with it, we may not like it, but I don’t think it’s good enough, as a writer, to say, “That’s a bad guy.” That might be a really bad guy, by any moral standards, [laughs] but as a writer, that’s not good enough. You have to attempt to see the world through their eyes.   

Well, you’d have to do more than that — there’s a lot of research involved. For instance, how the cartels operate, or how to find and run a grow house, what the cops look for, what to tell the Realtor so you don’t get busted — you have the ultimate guide book in Kings of Cool.
[Laughs.] I hasten to add, I do not have a grow house. I don’t even smoke dope. I’m a boring person! But I like to look at a phenomenon through a slightly different angle that might be more interesting. I don’t think anybody thinks about, Okay, how do I get a grow house? What happens when I do? I was fascinated to learn all this stuff. You need so much power that you’re going to get the attention of the utility company, so you need your own generator, so you need a basement, and then you need air conditioning [to solve the cooling and odor problems], and then you have all these other needs. So I took Ben’s green awareness and consciousness and blend that in with that, and say, Okay, not only does he want a grow house, but he wants to have a green grow house, and what does that mean?

So how did you learn all that?
[Doubles over laughing.] People! I talked to people. Yeah. That’s always the best research. And different people have different opinions — it’s like chefs. They’ll slag each other’s recipes, even marijuana growers. It’s kind of funny — they’re all kind of prima donnas. There are some definite Top Chefs in the marijuana world! Absolutely.

If it were legalized, they could have a reality show, Top Chef: Marijuana.
That’s a whole other issue. Don’t get me started. It should be legalized. It should have been legalized yesterday. And I think that so much of the violence around the drug world comes from the prohibition of it. And so you create a much more horrible monster than what you had hoped to kill. It’s Beowulf — when you slay this monster, it releases a much worse monster. And I think for adults, nobody has any business telling me what I cannot ingest. I mean, I’m crazy on drunk driving — I think we should adopt the Swedish model, where it’s one strike and you’re done. You get arrested for drunk driving and your license is revoked. You’re on the bus for the rest of your life. So it’s not the drugs, but the behavior that rises from it. That we can regulate.

A lot of people are going to think Savages is a satire, but being from Orange County, California, I know people like this, minus, say, the violence. I had a roommate like O.
Well, there’s Ben and Chon right there [pointing to volleyball players]. I’ve been here since ‘89, and you hear about the Brotherhood and all of that. Everybody knew somebody who was in the Brotherhood [which becomes the Association in the books], because it’s a small town. To me, the combination of this beautiful scenery, people having fun and in some ways, the innocence of it, with the drug smugglers and marijuana growers was sort of chiaroscuro, and it was irresistible, the light-and-darkness. And also it had the advantage of being true. Look, it’s funny — no offense, but New Yorkers, they don’t get it. They don’t. They go, “I don’t believe that people are like that or people talk that way.” Okay — get on an airplane. I’ll pick you up at John Wayne Airport, and if I can’t show it to you in 45 minutes, you win. Bingo. If you can’t walk around here [points to beach], and can’t come up with a story, or hear a snatch of dialogue, or see somebody, you’re not looking. You’re not listening. Because it’s there for you.

There are moments in the movie that are more savage than the book — Chon stabbing a federal agent, or being forced to stick a gun in his mouth. But then there are moments that are a lot less savage than the book — pretty much anything involving Lado or the robberies. Plus, Ben and Chon skipped the ex-presidents and the Lady Gaga and Madonna masks in the movie. You’ve got the Mexican masks instead — so no Point Break reference!
I know, I know. [Laughs.] I miss those masks. The bulk of it is definitely filtered through the lens of Oliver Stone. It was an intense collaboration, I can say that. The discussions about the violence were more theoretical. It’s violence, but no more violent than the headlines, and so I think it reflects that world. At some point, you have to realize they are two different mediums. If they shot every page of Savages, which is a relatively short book, it would be three and a half hours. Nobody wants to see that. So you realize there has to be some changes, and I get all that. But that’s a good point, sometimes it’s hard for the novelist who’s lived with the book to see things freshly. It’s a little harder in execution than in theory.

What were the discussions about doing both endings — the original book ending plus the Hollywood ending? Did you do both endings in the movie to leave room for a sequel? Because Dennis doesn’t meet his train …
That’s a really funny way to put it! [Laughs.] You know what, I used to be the guy with the attitude, Take the money and run. Wait on the side of the fence, let them toss it over, and get away, at least until the searchlights get me. But then they made a movie of one of my books, [The Death and Life of Bobby Z] — that character pops up in The Kings of Cool, right where those waves are breaking right there [points to ocean]. But I was surprised how much it bothered me [when they made the Bobby Z movie and it failed]. I thought it would be easy. I thought I could cast it off, but no. And Shane and I have been friends for a long time, and we finally said, “Let’s do it,” and we started [working together via Shane’s production company] the Story Factory, and that’s how the film came about. We said, “Let’s not go through the usual studio development hell. Let’s really be very particular about how we do this.” And Stone was the guy. And eleven months from the time we made the deal, it started shooting. Am I ever going to have 100 percent control? Of course not. But to have a real seat at the table, that’s important. But I put Bobby Z and Frankie Machine in Kings for a very particular reason — I kind of hoped that if you took my California books and put them all together at some point, they would tell a connected story about the history of crime in this area.

Sort of how Elmore Leonard does with Detroit and Miami, and James Ellroy with Los Angeles.
I’m sort of working Newport Beach south — I’m working where the fish tacos are! [Laughs.]

Did it disappoint you that Uma Thurman’s scenes as O’s mother were cut?
Yeah! I saw some of the footage. Those scenes were straight from the book, arguing about the way she is. There was a scene about her wanting to become a life coach, and wanting O to become one, too, and O says, “Can’t I just be a life cheerleader?” When I started writing Savages, I was writing from the point of view of a twentysomething Orange County woman, which I’m not. At least, I’m pretty sure I’m not! [Chuckles.] But I felt this immediate affinity to O, and what I like about her so much is that she’s so honest and so capable of stepping outside it all, to comment on it, sometimes viciously, sometimes — I hope — comically, but most of all, accurately. And so I like her being the commentator, the observer, because she has such a voice. Why throw it away?

Since you were a producer on the film, did you get any say in casting? At one point, Jennifer Lawrence was cast as O, so when she dropped out, who suggested Blake Lively? Are you a closet Gossip Girl fan?
I was involved in the conversations, but not the decisions. I think it’s a terrific cast, and I’m happy with them, and I was certainly pleased when she came up. She was great in The Town. She’s tough in The Town. But I’ve never seen Gossip Girl! [Laughs.] I’m probably not who they’re going for!

It’s kind of a guilty pleasure for those of us who live in New York,  since it’s shot in the city and a lot of the local hot spots are on the show, just as they were on Sex and the City
Here’s how I’m a really good husband: I took my wife to the Sex and the City movie. It was absolutely packed, 500 people in the theater, and only five of them guys. I counted them. I didn’t do a poll, but I think they were mostly boyfriends or husbands who had done something really wrong and were being punished. [Laughs.] After about the 38th wedding dress, I heard this guy say, so loud, “For the love of God, will someone please shoot me?” My wife and I cracked up. But she went to the second movie by herself. I’m not that good of a husband. I could tell you why I had to watch it with her — the night before, I was at the L.A. Book Expo for an event, and spouses were not invited, so I couldn’t take her. I was having dinner with Barbara Walters, and I felt really guilty, so I took the train home and I said to her, “Babe, I feel horrible. Anything you want, we’ll do.” And she said, “Great. I’ll pick you up at the train and we’re going to Sex and the City.”

You asked for it.
I literally asked for it. But I’ve been married 27, 28 years to the same woman. I know Oliver called me strange in the New York Times. I don’t know if you read that.

For being married to the same woman for 28 years?
No. Just arbitrarily.

Oh, you mean when he said there were “moments of difficulty” working with you, and he called you “a strange one.”

How are you difficult?
Do you think I’m difficult? [Laughs.] He called me something else. A strange word. “Hermetic.” I don’t know. Who knows? I heard Oliver said that he was “crazy for many years,” so I don’t know. Maybe he lives in Bizarro world — I do watch Seinfeld. [Laughs.] I also watch Game of Thrones, which shocks me, because it’s the last thing in the world I’d be interested in. I’m not a fantasy guy

But it’s not a fantasy show. It’s about power.
It’s about power. And it’s so well done. And Peter Dinklage is so damn good. Do you hear Richard Burton when he speaks? I do. And you know, there’s a lot of drugs on that show. They’re always drinking opium. The milk of the poppy, which I got right away. [Laughs.] “Wait a second!” I’m reading the books right now, and I’m in book five. It’s the last thing in the world I ever thought I’d be reading. I never read Lord of the Rings, I’ve never read The Hobbit — elves and fairies weren’t my thing. But I saw Game of Thrones and it was just riveting and so beautiful to look at. So I finally broke down and bought the books — under a different name! [Laughs.] I used an alias.

You could have just used cash. No one would know!
I’ll tell you a shameful story — there’s another Don Winslow who writes porn books. It’s ruined my life. If you go on Amazon, you’ll see. I did not write Slave Girls of Rome, Katrina in Charge, Ironwood one through nine, the continuing saga of a boarding school for girls.

Impressive. You have the titles memorized.
I was five books deep into my so-called writing career, I was down in San Antonio, and I had the night free, and I’m a dweeb — my wife says she never has to worry about me spending the night in strip clubs or brothels or singles bars, because I go to bookstores. I’ll be in Paris, and I’ll be looking for where James Joyce lived for eight seconds or something. So I’m in a bookstore, and I’m wandering through the fiction section and I see Ironwood IV by Don Winslow. I don’t remember writing Ironwood I, II, or III! You know? It’s the milk of the poppy, right? Maybe I could forget writing one of them, but four? So I take this book off the shelf, it’s a paperback from Blue Moon Books, and I open it up and I’m like, God! It’s a porn book! And not just a porn book, but a S&M porn book! It’s whippings and beatings and spankings. It’s Patrick O’Brien meets Anaïs Nin, because nothing is accomplished in this story without whelps. And being the Catholic boy that I am, I’m stuttering to myself, and I’m thinking, I better show this to my agent. I need to get this book. So I go to the counter with it. And then I think, The only thing worse than getting caught buying porn, is getting caught shoplifting porn, so I think I better buy it.

Here’s an occasion where you don’t want to use your credit card. They’ll recognize your name.
That’s where I’m headed. But I’m thinking, I’ll buy this book but a ton of other books to cover it up. So I bought an Updike novel, a mystery, the New Testament, and I’m standing in line. There are three tellers. One’s a middle-aged guy who looks like he might read sleazy porn — that’s the guy I want. There’s a stern librarian type, and also a 17-year-old Texas girl with big blue eyes and blonde hair, and a crucifix, and that’s the one I get. So she’s scanning the Updike, the mystery, and then she comes to Ironwood IV, and she turns beet red. All I want is out of the store at this point. So I lay down my credit card, AmEx — don’t leave home without it! So she looks at that, she looks at the books, she looks at me — and I go berserk. I’m hopping [starts hopping to demonstrate] like Rumpelstiltskin. “It’s not me! I’m not this guy! I’m not this Don Winslow!” I’m pointing to the mystery section. “I’m that Don Winslow!” It’s bad. Bad.

Okay, if you were an actor, one of the two of you would have to start using an initial to distinguish yourselves from the other — union rules.
We don’t have to, because it’s not the same. And the problem was, I was already five books, maybe six books deep into my career. And he’s written tons! He’s still writing! The guy’s like 80 years old, and it’s not even his goddamn name! He had to pick my name! He lives in Philadelphia, so every once in a while, I go on the Philadelphia city website to check obituaries to see if he’s dead, which is probably so wrong. [Laughs.] He’s ruined my life! My sister one time called me up, “Do you need money?” “No, thanks. Why are you asking?” “Why are you writing these sleazy porn books?” My sister! And the parent-teacher conference for my kid, in the third grade. I go in, and the teacher says, “Well, Thomas is doing very well, but we have some concerns about you.” I said, “What are you driving at?” She said, “Thomas said his daddy was a writer, so we looked you up on Amazon,” and guess what she found? So I’ve spent a lot of time denying that I am not in fact this guy.

Wouldn’t it be more fun to just say, “Yes. I wrote these, so what?”
Not even for a joke! I get hate mail from feminist groups! I think he must be really pissed about the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, because that’s what he writes. Have you read that?

Tell the truth. I told you the truth. I love your body language right now. “No! I’m the one woman in America who hasn’t read that book!”

I’ve read other things like that, but just not that book.
Okay. Like 9 1/2 Weeks? I mean, you’ve read my books — I’m no prude, but come on! [Laughs.] I once named a character Richard Holder. I was 400 pages into it before someone pointed it out that his nickname would be Dick Holder! It just never occurred to me! I was so embarrassed. How could I not have gotten that?

Author Don Winslow on Working With Oliver Stone