Elmore Leonard’s Criminal Records

BBC documentary on the mystery/crime author Elmore Leonard. It details the meticulous research Leonard conducts for his books and also features Leonard and people close to him reading excerpts from his books.

00:00Copy video clip URL Slate.

00:25Copy video clip URL “Arena” open.

00:44Copy video clip URL Close-up shot of Elmore Leonard’s hands as he reads his favorite letter from a disgruntled reader. The reader was so angry about his use of profanity that she threw the book out, “so that no one, not even [her] husband, could read it.” Leonard responded to the letter: “I explained that I try to be very realistic in the way my characters talk.”

01:58Copy video clip URL Title: Elmore Leonard’s Criminal Records. Footage of Leonard shooting at an outdoor gun range with an instructor, while a voice-over provides details about his career. The camera cuts back to Leonard, who talks about his early fascination with guns. “I’m quite sure that I was inspired by Bonnie Parker, of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ fame,” he explains. Such “desperadoes” of the Depression would feature in his later work.

03:58Copy video clip URL Leonard drives around Detroit while listening to a tape of ‘Get a Gun, Elmore Leonard,’ recorded by a rock band in Finland. He talks about the city’s economic decline.

05:28Copy video clip URL Leonard pulls into his driveway. The camera cuts to a shot of him writing at his desk, and he talks about his career. He started out writing Westerns in the 1950s, but switched over to crime when the market for print Westerns dried up. In 1985, he made the cover of Newsweek. Footage of Leonard at a Detroit police station.

08:22Copy video clip URL Gregg Sutter describes reading Leonard’s novels two pages at a time while working at an Oldsmobile plant. He would later work for Leonard as a research assistant and wrote an article about Leonard’s research methods. From a rooftop, Leonard points out many important locations from his books.

09:50Copy video clip URL Sutter talks about “52 Pick-Up,” the first Leonard novel he read. He was drawn to its depictions of “the mean streets of Detroit.” “This was the most godforsaken place,” he says. “You wouldn’t think anybody would take the time to write about it. I mean, New York grit is New York grit–it’s New York–but Detroit grit, it seemed to me, escaped the attention of most writers, and here was a guy writing about these streets.”

11:40Copy video clip URL Cut to the inside of a Detroit bookstore. Odell Waller, a bookseller, talks about how difficult it is to categorize Leonard’s work. “His books are about people that get caught in a bind,” he says. “Ordinary people put in extraordinary adventures, and I think the spirit of his books typifies the basic Detroit spirit.”

12:41Copy video clip URL Cut to the inside of Galligan’s, a bar featured in Leonard’s books. Leonard chats with three homicide detectives he consulted for research: Jimmy Harris, Dixie Davies, and Dick Newcomb. “His writing depicted the way that we talk to each other,” Davies attests. “He puts down in writing the way that real policemen talk to each other…and the way they feel.”

14:55Copy video clip URL The three detectives talk about the worst parts of their job. Harris remembers a crime scene he visited with Davies, where a body had been decomposing for two weeks in the August heat. “Very few of our cases had no malice or forethought,” he says.

16:43Copy video clip URL Leonard talks about the Property Room of the Detroit Police Department. The camera cuts to Leonard and Gary Lee, a police officer. Lee gives Leonard a tour of the space, showing him seized narcotics, weapons, and other crime scene ephemera. “Everything in here is evidence,” he explains. Leonard picks up an envelope containing a condom, firecracker, and a threat note.

18:22Copy video clip URL Lee shows Leonard the ‘Dope Vault,’ stocked with seized drugs.

20:14Copy video clip URL Leonard talks about his ‘MacGuffins,’ or objects like suitcases full of money that move the plot along. “I don’t think of my books as particularly violent,” he says.

21:23Copy video clip URL A voice-over explains that Leonard writes about guns often, but has never owned one and relies on expert help to get the details right in his books.

23:12Copy video clip URL Leonard talks about H.N. Swanson, his agent. “Swanny was once asked which kind of writing makes the most money, and he said ‘Ransom notes.’ He likes my writing because it sells!” Leonard explains that almost all of his books have been optioned for films.

24:21Copy video clip URL “Within the satire, there are germs of truth, and that’s the marvelous thing about Dutch’s writing,” says Walter Mirisch, a film producer. “Get Shorty” is dedicated to Mirisch.

27:13Copy video clip URL Cut to Miami Beach, Florida. Leonard reads from his novel “La Brava” and talks about how he found inspiration in Miami. “There’s such an interesting mix of people here,” he says. He lays out his writing process: “I don’t sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna write a crime novel.’ I’m gonna write what I write. I’m gonna write a book about the lower end of society, what’s going on here, and how some guy with an idea for a hustle is gonna see if he can make it rich.”

30:41Copy video clip URL Leonard is drawn to the stories of criminals we see every day in the news, and wants to bring them to life for the average reader. “I can’t imagine participating in any of my scenes,” he says. The camera cuts to a shot of him working at his typewriter. He explains that he doesn’t have a word processor and has no interest in learning to use one.

32:35Copy video clip URL Gregg Sutter is more comfortable with technology than Leonard, and uses a word processor and laser printer to present his research. He also makes videos of interviews and locations that he and Leonard can watch together.

34:01Copy video clip URL Cut to the office of Mike Sandy, a bail bondsman in West Palm Beach, FL. Leonard is visiting his office to get information on the bail bond business. James McGrady, a bail enforcement agent, talks about how he tracks down criminals who skip bail. Sandy and McGrady show off the guns they use.

36:30Copy video clip URL “It’s like preparing a big banquet of data,” Sutter says of his research for Leonard. “I don’t know how this information is going to be used, I just collect as much as possible.” Leonard would later use Sutter’s house as the backdrop for his novel “Killshot.”

41:07Copy video clip URL Joan Leonard talks about how the women in her husband’s books have changed over time. “When I first started reading Elmore, I think the ladies were wore white gloves, were a little more sedate,” she says. “Now I feel they’re more contemporary, more real.” The Leonards discuss the way in which they work together to improve his dialogue and characters.

44:20Copy video clip URL Leonard goes to great lengths to make his characters realistic. “I’m put off by the sneering ugly heavy that we see so much of in movies and TV–the guy who is so obviously bad that it just glows from him. This isn’t, to me, the bad guy. I’ve met people in prison, I’ve met ex-convicts–no one would know that they are unless you read their sheet.”

46:38Copy video clip URL Leonard reads a letter from an inmate at a federal prison, detailing what different kinds of prisoners like to read. In this prison, Leonard is popular among heroin dealers and users.

51:15Copy video clip URL Leonard rides along with Karen Trambley, a probation officer, as she visits parolee’s houses. “I don’t feel sorry for them,” she says. “We get sad stories, but pity is not something these people need.”

53:13Copy video clip URL For the character of “Maximum Bob,” Leonard drew from the experiences of judge Marvin Mounts. “We try to inject a little bit of humor in the courtroom–not any kind of song-and-dance kinda stuff–but that’s a tense and a stressful setting. Human lives are being affected greatly in there.”

56:20Copy video clip URL Cut to footage of underwater mermaid performers at Weeki Wachee Springs. Leonard wanted to use Weeki Wachee somehow for a character’s back story, and became fascinated with the mermaid performers. Mermaid Lana Cofer talks about her job and her husband falling in love with her from her mermaid act.

59:02Copy video clip URL “I want the reader to feel they are looking through a key hole…not to be aware of writing. When I’m editing, if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

59:35Copy video clip URL Credits roll.

1:00:23Copy video clip URL End of tape.



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