Boston and Los Angeles are about as far apart as two American cities can get, but Beantown crime novelist Dennis Lehane likes his new home on That Coast, where he moved about three years ago. And why not? Hollywood has a fondness for turning his books into films (Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Martin Scorcese’s “Shutter Island,” Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”).
Lehane’s latest page-to-screen transfer is “Live By Night,” with Affleck again at the helm. The film arrives at local theaters Jan. 13. The tale — the middle story in his Joe Coughlin trilogy — follows Coughlin (Affleck) from scrappy Boston cop’s son with the hots for the wrong woman (mob-boss floozy Sienna Miller) to full-fledged Florida gangster with a better taste in women (Zoe Saldana, an exotic Cuban expatriate), all set against the anything-goes heyday of the 1920s.
Lehane, 51, has written for HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire.” His 14th novel, “Since We Fell,” comes out in May.
I’m sure you often get asked what you miss about Boston. I bet it’s not the winters.
It’s a balmy 73 degrees here right now.
Nice. This is your second collaboration with Ben Affleck. Do you guys understand each other in some subtle Boston way?
Absolutely. There’s a Boston thing. It’s hard to describe unless you’re . . . from Boston. It’s like, we get each other on an elemental level.
How do you describe his directing style?
He’s a traditionalist. Ben doesn’t remind me of Quentin Tarantino as a director — he reminds me of Howard Hawks.
The director of classics like “Scarface” and “To Have and Have Not.”
Ben has embraced a wonderfully rich . . . traditional storytelling and directing approach, in which you really don’t see the director. Although a Ben Affleck film always feels like a Ben Affleck film. That’s why he reminds me of the great classic directors of the studio system.
A lot of people assume novelists have some creative control over their book when it’s turned into a movie.
[He just laughs.]
But you just have to trust the filmmakers will stay true to your vision.
There’s the key. Trust.
No! It’s not. Look, I got lucky early in my career, selling “Mystic River” to Clint Eastwood. I realized then that was the way to do it. Sell to an auteur director or producer, not just a studio and — boom — here you go, knock yourself out. Who I sell the rights to — that’s the only control I have. So I need to get in bed with people I respect. That’s what I’ve done ever since. I sold “Gone Baby Gone” to Alan Ladd Jr., who produced “Blade Runner.” I sold “Shutter Island” to Mike Medavoy, a great producer of “Apocalypse Now” and “Silence of the Lambs.” I sold this book to Leonardo Di Caprio and [his production company] Appian Way. Do that, then get the hell out of their way. Because what can you do? You’re the novelist. You don’t need to be involved in the film.
You didn’t want to write the screenplay?
No. I wouldn’t have known where to cut. It’s a big book. And what I considered the two most cinematic moments in the novel aren’t even in this film. I learned this early on. I didn’t write the screenplay for “Mystic River.” They gave it to Brian Helgeland. For me, the first 50 pages of “Mystic River” are probably my favorite 50 pages I ever wrote. It’s all the stuff set in the 1970s, when the characters are boys. I thought, “How do you get that onto the screen?” Brian did it with an image — with writing their names in wet cement. And Dave is halfway through his name when the guys pull up in the car . . . and . . . he never finishes. That’s where his childhood ends. I would never have thought of that. So I learned it’s better, most times, not to adapt your own work. Now my next book, “Since We Fell” — I’m writing the screenplay for that — but the plot is a clean, straight line. “Live By Night” is full of zigs and zags.
OK, truth time. You’re obviously a huge Boston lover. What’s something where New York has Boston beat? And . . . OK, one thing where Boston wins, hands down?
It’s the same thing — the flip side of the same coin. New York has 10 of everything and Boston has one. Sometimes you want 10. Sometimes you’re just fine with one, thank you very much. It’s like New York is Boston on crack. I love New York. But I like Boston because you can turn it off. And our Dunkin’s are better. But the cities are more similar than they think. I love them both.