Exclusive: Scott Frank explains the ‘present-day’ Travis McGee he’s making with James Magnold

It is safe to say that I am very concerned about a Travis McGee film.

That's not to say I'm automatically negative about what's going to happen, but I think it's going to be tricky to get even one Travis McGee film right, much less an entire series of them. There's no way anyone gets a chance to make all 21 films in the series, nor do I think they should. Not every one of the books is perfect. I love them dearly, but there are certainly high points in the series, books I'd need to see brought to life, like “The Green Ripper.” So if they're doing a film franchise, I'm curious how you even begin to make those choices.

This week, I'm seeing “A Walk Among The Tombstones,” written and directed by Scott Frank, and I'm really excited about it. I read that script years ago, and at that point, Joe Carnahan was going to direct Harrison Ford as Matthew Scudder, the lead character in a series of novels by Lawrence Block. There was an earlier Scudder movie, with Jeff Bridges playing him for Hal Ashby in “Eight Million Ways to Die.” That script was adapted by Oliver Stone, so you'd think that combination of talent would have made something great. Instead, it feels like a movie that is pulled in a dozen different directions, and it just doesn't work as a film. There are little moments, little signs of what Ashby might have been trying to do, places where Bridges does something interesting.

My point is that when I read that adaptation back in the Carnahan/Ford days, what excited me was that screenwriter Scott Frank got the voice of Block's Matthew Scudder books right. They're not action novels. They're not big fist-throwing pulp adventure movies. He's a sort of broken soul at the start of the series, and it's only several books into the series that he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and started really struggling with his sobriety. Like most authors who have a successful book series, at some point, Block seemed ready to stop writing about Scudder, but the public pushed and the series returned. There's a lot of continuity about Scudder and the characters around him, and “Walk” comes later in the series. I'm curious to see how they handle that in the finished film. As long as Frank doesn't contradict earlier books, he's not closing the door on telling any of those stories. If he gets “Walk” right, that's a pretty great trick, and it gives him room to tell a lot of other stories. And one of the reasons I am most curious to see how “Walk” works in the end is because Scott Frank is also the writer on the Travis McGee film that is currently in development.

When the news broke recently about Christian Bale being attached to a James Mangold version of a Travis McGee film, I was on the road and didn't get a chance to write about it. I'm still trying to imagine Bale playing the part, but more than the casting, I was curious about the adaptation. I really didn't like the version that was in development for Leonardo DiCaprio, and part of my problem was that I didn't believe that the film had anything to say about Florida. That was a big part of McDonald's work, and if you're not telling a story that is about Florida as much as the characters, then you're not really honoring the series.

In that news story about Bale and Mangold was a single line mentioning that Scott Frank was doing the most recent rewrites, and knowing just how much care he took getting Scudder right, and what a long process that was and what a careful process that was, I had to reach out to ask him what he was able to tell me about his approach to McGee.

After all, if anyone can tell me what they're up to, it's the writer of the film.

Scott got back to me fairly quickly when I reached out to him, and he told me that he had just finished talking to Mangold and Bale, and that he was hard at work on the project. My first question for him, and the most urgent question, was how hey were handling the time period. The McGee books are about Florida as the Wild West, a precursor to the rancid wilderness of the Carl Hiaasen novels, and I think of McDonald's Florida as being very much of a particular time and place.

“We”re doing it present day,” Frank told me, and he went on to explain, “We deal with the anachronistic qualities of Travis by making him a loner, a vet of the Middle East bullshit wars and now broke as shit and living on a boat. You”d be surprised by how much still works from the period this way.”

See, here's why I'm willing to give that the benefit of the doubt, even if it's a choice I wouldn't make. They're obviously talking about it. It's obviously a conversation that is active and ongoing, and they've got their approach. When you're adapting something, I don't demand that you blindly echo every choice the original made; I do ask that you consider changes if you're going to make them, and that you have a reason.

Frank went on to say, “Also, Florida is being overrun now by South American ex pats trying to hide their money. It”s the same colorful shit hole it was back then, so a lot of the issues there remain. We”ve just updated the socio-political context. We”ve amped up the sexual component to Travis as well as the stoner component. He gets high in this more than he”s sitting in bars drinking Dark & Stormy”s as he does in the books. Small things like that…”

It sounds like they're nowhere near done yet, but that they're approaching it as a team. He and Mangold are in communication, the two of them focused on this version of Travis McGee, and I'm willing to wait to see how they make all their choices before I react. I know they're going to try to make something great. Besides, Frank had one last thing he wanted to emphasize: “Bale will rock it.”

I'm not even sure which book they're doing. One would hope “The Deep Blue Good-by,” but it really could be any of them.

In the meantime, “A Walk Among The Tombstones” opens September 19, 2014.