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Director Scott Frank Walks Among New York’s Boroughs to Scout Film

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Scott Frank on the set of Walk Among the Tombstones. (Photos by Atsushi Nishijima).
Scott Frank on the set of Walk Among the Tombstones. (Photos by Atsushi Nishijima).
Longtime screenwriter Scott Frank had directed one previous film, The Lookout, when he came aboard his new film, A Walk Among the Tombstones. However, one aspect of making the film would precede all others, including adapting Lawrence Block‘s book into a screenplay. “Before I wrote a word,” Frank said, “I spent a week in New York, walking where [the lead character, Matt Scudder] walked. Laurence Block writes about real places. I got on the train and went where he went. We were scouting, and I knew where to shoot because I had been there. I had an insanely good location scout [Ryan Smith]. The locations hadn’t been shot so much before. We kept finding these places that were really great and felt like New York with their own flavor. We shot in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, Green-wood Cemetery, College Point for Borough Park. His apartment is right off of Times Square. Washington Heights was the whole beginning scene set in 1991.”

A Walk Among The Tombstones
A Walk Among The Tombstones
After familiarizing himself with New York, Frank dove into the project headlong. “I had always wanted to do a straight up private eye movie,” said Frank, who had written such scripts as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Minority Report among others. “It was one genre I had never done. It was also very scary. You don’t often see that combination. You see thrillers or mysteries. The tension I really liked.”

As with most books which are translated into films, the project began with acquiring the rights. “I brought the book to Jersey Films – for whom I wrote Out of Sight and Get Shorty,” said Frank. “We took it to Universal in 1999, and Universal snapped up the rights. It took 13 years to get made.”

Originally, Harrison Ford was set to star in the film with Frank writing and another director on board. “This was going to be his next movie,” Frank said of Ford. “This kind of movie fell out of favor. It’s an adult thriller. They don’t make these kinds of movies. Harrison Ford dropped out. [Liam] Neeson came in, and then I was going to direct it. My agent said, ‘Why aren’t you directing this?’ The same thing had happened on The Lookout. I thought, ‘Why aren’t I directing it?’”

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With Universal on board, Frank wrote the script in 2000, carefully adapting Block’s words. “You have to make it your own and figure out what it’s about for you,” Scott explained of the original text. “There are huge passages in this book where Matt Scudder [Neeson’s character] is walking around and thinking. You need to render the book cinematic – trying to find the way to make it its own thing and your own thing.”

During the writing process, Frank delves heavily into an original book as he’s outlining what he will transform into a screenplay’s structure. “I mark every thing I want to keep in the book,” he described. “I mark things I am going to cut, especially, so I don’t keep reading it over and over. I go through the book a lot; I write a lot of new material. In Minority Report, all that’s left from the short story is the ideas. It’s all so intermeshed – it’s hard to say that anything is original because it’s all influenced by the book. All of the books I’ve adapted have been rich with good stuff.”

A Walk Among The TombstonesAs Frank wrote the lead character, he realized he was creating a compromised hero. “Matt Scudder is not a warm and fuzzy guy,” Frank stated. “Everyone lives in a gray area. The idea that your hero is not necessarily heroic is way more fun to write – you have somebody who is complicated rather than someone who is always good. The one place I don’t go is that he’s never tempted to drink. He’s a recovering alcoholic.”

To prepare for directing A Walk Among the Tombstones, Frank studied classic films in the genre. “I looked at Klute, Dirty Harry, Sidney Lumet films,” he said. “I knew we were going to shoot and cut that way. And I made the actors watch those movies too.”

Additionally, Frank endeavored on his own aforementioned personal unofficial location scout to inform his choices as both screenwriter and later director. “For the most part, the research I did was being in the place itself,” he said. “It made you want to write to that stuff. Greenwood Cemetery is bigger than Central Park and designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead as well. An incredible place. I had never seen monuments like this before. I loved all the water, the ponds and things around it. It was like a beautiful golf course with graves.”

A Walk Among The TombstonesShooting took place over 50 days in March, April and May of 2013 including 10 nights. Frank noted that the shoot was brisk and economical, enhanced by cuts to the script made on location. Assisting the fast pace was Frank’s symbiotic relationship with Neeson. “He really understood the part,” Frank related. “It was mostly us reinforcing each other about who he was. He got it. It was a guy Liam could do really well. It allowed me to focus on the movie. He’s very good at policing himself in terms of keeping consistent. If you have the right people, you don’t have to do a lot of takes. With Liam, we didn’t need to do a lot of takes.”

Frank actually finished editing the film with editor Jill Savitt in October of 2013, but Universal held onto it nearly a year. “It’s a fall movie,” he said of the delay. “The only spot was going to be fall. The yearlong wait went by fast, and I did a TV pilot.”

Since the pilot, which starred Paul Giamatti did not get picked up, Frank has been working on a novel and may direct a Craig Mazin script based on a German children’s novel about a flock of sheep trying to solve the murder of their shepherd, called Three Bags Full.

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