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Crime Novelist Dennis Lehane

He's written five novels featuring the working-class Boston private detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. They include A Drink Before the War, Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, Gone Baby Gone and Prayers for Rain. Lehane abandoned the duo for his book about the effect of an abduction on a group of boys. It's a thriller, Mystic River, and it's been made into a new film directed by Clint Eastwood.

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Other segments from the episode on October 10, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 10, 2003: Interview with Dennis Lehane; Review of OutKast's new double album "Speakerboxxx;" Interview with Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller; Review of the film …

Transcript

DATE October 10, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Dennis Lehane talks about his best-selling
novel "Mystic River"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

The Clint Eastwood thriller "Mystic River" opened this week. It stars Sean
Penn as a man whose daughter has been murdered, and Laurence Fishburne and
Kevin Bacon as detectives assigned to the case.

(Soundbite of "Mystic River")

Mr. KEVIN BACON: (As Sean Devine) We've been interviewing witnesses,
canvassing people that might have been in the bar. We've run into more than a
few of them who were questioned before us by one or more of the Savage
brothers.

Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Jimmy Markum) So?

Mr. BACON: (As Sean) So the Savages are not policemen, Jim.

Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) Yeah, some people don't talk to policemen, Sean.

Mr. BACON: (As Sean) With all due respect, Mr. Markum, and just so we're
clear, this is our case.

Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) How long?

Mr. BACON: (As Sean) How long what?

Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) How long before you catch my daughter's killer? I need
to know.

Mr. BACON: (As Sean) Are you bargaining with us?

Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) Bargain?

Mr. BACON: (As Sean) You giving us a deadline? We'll speak for Katie, Mr.
Markum, if that's OK with you.

Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) You just find my daughter's killer, Sergeant. I'm not
standing in your way.

BIANCULLI: Dennis Lehane wrote the novel on which the film is based. He's
best known for his series of private eye novels featuring the team of Patrick
Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

But "Mystic River" isn't part of that series and isn't a private eye novel.
It begins in 1975, when three boys are fighting in the street and a couple of
cops drive by to break it up. Two of the boys flee. The third is picked up
by the cops, who actually turn out to be child molesters posing as cops. The
boy is released after several days and returns home traumatized. The story
picks up 25 years later and follows the lives of the three childhood friends.

Terry spoke with Lehane in 2001 after "Mystic River" came out. She asked him
if the abduction in the novel relates to anything that happened to him as a
child.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. DENNIS LEHANE (Author): No. I'm not a big believer in autobiographical
fiction, if you will. I believe in, you know, the place and the flavor of the
world you grew up in. But I don't believe in the particulars. I don't
believe in, `Oh, remember when, you know, Johnny Sullivan did this? And he
had this certain way of smiling. Let's take that and put it in a book.' I
don't do that. But I do try and capture sort of, again, the texture and the
flavor of the world I grew up in.

This incident happened, actually, to myself and a friend of mine who were, you
know, not quite arrested but we were taken off the street. We were getting in
a fight when we were kids, and in the sort of heat of the moment neither of us
thought to ask for a badge. It turned out the gentlemen were cops, but that
was something that always stuck in my head, I think, because my mother looked
so terrified.

TERRY GROSS (Host): She suspected that maybe they weren't cops?

Mr. LEHANE: No, she just didn't--she thought the whole incident seemed weird
at the time. It turned out they were police officers, everything, but I'll
never forget the fear when, you know, she said, `Of course you saw their
badge, right?'

GROSS: Now it's this abduction that sets everything in motion in your new
novel.

Mr. LEHANE: Yep.

GROSS: There's sexual abuse in an earlier book "Gone, Baby, Gone"...

Mr. LEHANE: Yep.

GROSS: ...where a child's abducted. You were briefly, I think, counseling
children...

Mr. LEHANE: Yes.

GROSS: ...who have been abused. What kind of work did you do?

Mr. LEHANE: I was a therapeutic counselor in a treatment facility. We would
take kids from--we would, you know, review the files in juvenile hall and we
would pick kids who we thought were sort of in the grey area between when a
victim turns into a victimizer, and we would try to get them before they
turned into victimizers and help them. And that was what we did and that was
the place I worked.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you learned during that experience
that you used in your writing?

Mr. LEHANE: Well, I remember a woman I was dating at the time said, you
know, that she had never seen me angry until I took this job. You know, that
I was a pretty, you know, even-keel type of guy. So I discovered a capacity
for anger at, I think, just the waste that I'd see. I also discovered a very
sort of dirty secret of social work which was, you know, nine out of 10 times
it's the parent; you can trace it back to the parent. A bad seed is a very
rare thing. And it's not society and it's not Marilyn Manson and it's
not--you know, it's kids who were abused or kids who were neglected or kids
who were badly parented who turn out to be, you know, the kind of kids who
shoot up schools or the kind of kids who become bullies or become murderers,
become anything. And then it just depends upon the level of abuse. That can
dictate a lot of things, because if the humanity is beaten out of you or
sexually exploited out of you, then it's silly to expect that that humanity
will be recovered.

GROSS: My guest is writer Dennis Lehane.

Your new novel, "Mystic River," is different from your other novels in that,
although there are crimes at its center, it's not about private detectives and
it's not part of your private detective series. Why was it time for you now
to get out of that series and write a book that's independent of that?

Mr. LEHANE: Oh, I think a lot of times it's just dictated by--you know, I
wish we had a word for it--the inspiration, whatever you want to say. I was
not inspired to write a book in the series. There was nothing there. The
well was dry. And this book had been sort of gently rapping on the window for
about five or six years, and then it began to really bang on the door about
two years ago.

GROSS: What was the message as it was banging?

Mr. LEHANE: You know, `Make a hole, make it wide. Let us in.' I always
start with characters. I very rarely have a plot. And so it was just the
characters. And there was this one line, `Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus
like crazy, loved her like movie love,' and that line just kept spinning
around in my head for years--I mean, five years probably. And so it just--and
then gradually, I got this second line which was, `It occurred to him as he
was shaving that he was evil.' And those two lines began to sort of become the
building blocks of the book.

GROSS: Where do they actually turn up in the book?

Mr. LEHANE: `Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy,' is the very
first line of the present day chapter--first chapter in present day. That's
the first line of chapter three, which is the first chapter in the 2000
section. And then the, `It occurred to him while he was shaving that he was
evil,' shows up in the last chapter.

GROSS: So let me to ask you read that line that first came to you before the
novel was written and now it's that first line in the first chapter set in the
present.

Mr. LEHANE: Sure. `Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy; loved her
like movie love with an orchestra booming through his blood and flooding his
ears. He loved her waking up, going to bed, loved her all day and every
second in between. Brendan Harris would love Katie Marcus fat and ugly. He'd
love her with bad skin and no breasts and thick fuzz on her upper lip. He'd
love her toothless, he'd love her bald. Katie: The trill of her name sliding
through his brain was enough to make Brendan feel like his limbs were filled
with nitrous oxide, like he could walk on water and bench press an 18-wheeler,
toss it across the street when he was finished with it.

`Brendan Harris loved everyone now because he loved Katie and Katie loved him.
Brendan loved traffic and smog and the sound of jackhammers. He loved his
worthless old man who hadn't sent him a single birthday or Christmas card
since he'd walked out on Brendan and his mother when Brendan was six. He
loved Monday mornings and standing in line at the RMV. He even loved his job,
though he wouldn't be going in ever again.'

GROSS: So you used that sentence, that first sentence that came to your mind,
to very good effect in this passage that you just read. Have you ever had a
first sentence that came to your mind that you ended up not using by the time
you actually got to writing the book?

Mr. LEHANE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I think that so often you start with
something and all it is is a way to get you into a book. Like my next novel,
which I have begun, I sort of already know that the first 10 pages I've
written will never make the book, you know. But I had to put it in to sort of
figure things out for myself. And the trick is you fall in love with some of
the sentences and you just got to remember that Orwell line, you know, `Murder
your darlings.'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LEHANE: So...

GROSS: What do you like about writing familiar characters when you are
writing your private eye series?

Mr. LEHANE: Oh, it's wonderful because there's a--I think the same reason
readers read these books, is because gradually there becomes this almost
tender familiarity with these people. And they're like old friends and it's
like saying, `Come on by, have a drink,' you know. You say, `Come on into the
book. Oh, we haven't seen him in a while. We haven't seen him in 400 pages,
since, you know, book number four.'

GROSS: What are the limitations?

Mr. LEHANE: The reason I read and the reason I write is to discover things
about characters. Plot is just a vehicle to do that. That's all plot is.
It's just the actions by which a character is explicated. And I think
gradually the more you write about a character, the less you don't know about
them. And the more you read about a character, the less you don't know about
them. And that's why, I think, that it's very rare you hear somebody speak
about a series and say, `Yeah, but the 15th book is the best.' Nobody ever
says that. They'll all say that the fifth book is the best or the third book
is the best. And I think that's because the characters have become overly
familiar and there is no sense of a journey, there are no epiphanies left to
have about this person. So I think that's the point when you got to pull the
plug.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LEHANE: I don't know if I've reached that point yet. I don't think I
have, but I think I'm near it.

BIANCULLI: Dennis Lehane speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. We'll be back
with more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Back with more of Terry's interview with Dennis Lehane, whose book
"Mystic River" has just been made into a film by Clint Eastwood.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Did you have any relatives who were cops...

Mr. LEHANE: No.

GROSS: ...or friends' fathers who were cops? Not to just blow on cliche but
you grew up in an Irish neighborhood and, you know, a lot of--particularly
when you were growing up, probably, a lot of Irish fathers were cops.

Mr. LEHANE: Oddly, no. No, not with my friends. One of my closest friends'
uncle was a rather prominent cop, but I had very little contact with him. My
wife's family are all cops but I didn't grow up around cops. I grew up around
laborers. You know, my father worked for Sears and Roebuck. Most of my
friends' fathers worked--you know, they were truck drivers and occasionally a
postman. But, no, we didn't grow up with that law enforcement vibe around us.

GROSS: Did your opinion of or relationship with cops change from childhood to
adulthood?

Mr. LEHANE: No. I think one of the greatest things about growing up in the
inner city, if you see it correctly, was that we always knew the places never
to go and, say, drink, for example, when you're 17 years old; under-age
drinking or smoke pot or whatever. The places never to commit crimes were
small towns, because they always had the absolute toughest cops. Because they
had--our opinion at the time was they had nothing better to do, where in the
inner city we had police officers and they were, a lot of times, putting their
life, you know, pretty much on the line. They were the ones dealing with
gangs. They were the ones dealing with shoot-outs and homicides, etc.. And
so they tended to be very easy to deal with if you weren't in their face. And
I think that was because they had a relative sense.

So if they caught a couple of under-age kids drinking beer, they took your
beer and they walked away. They didn't have anything to prove, I guess. So I
think that gave me a respect for the city cop, for the guy who really has to
go out and literally put his life on the line, whereas small-town police, to
some extent, is a bit of a Napoleon complex.

GROSS: Dennis Lehane is my guest.

There's a passage describing the neighborhood that the characters in your book
grew up in that I'm going to ask you to read.

Mr. LEHANE: Sure. `They all lived in East Buckingham, just west of downtown,
a neighborhood of cramped corner stores, small playgrounds and butcher shops
where meat, still pink with blood, hung in the windows. The bars had Irish
names and Dodge Darts by the curbs. Women wore handkerchiefs tied off at the
backs of their skulls and carried mock leather snap purses for their
cigarettes.

`Until a couple of years ago, older boys have been plucked from the streets as
if by spaceships and sent to war. They came back hollow and sullen a year or
so later or they didn't come back at all. Dazed mothers searched the papers
for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to the bars. You knew everyone.
Nobody, except those older boys, ever left.'

GROSS: Is that an accurate description of the neighborhood you grew up in?

Mr. LEHANE: Yeah, I think that's pretty close. If you look back--my brother
and I, we're always stunned to look back at pictures taken of us in '71, '73
and we look like we just, you know, stepped off Main Street in Mayberry. I
mean, you know, we still had the buzz cuts, still--you know, the clothing was
much more what you would think of in, say, 1963, Brooklyn. You know, just the
look of everything. It was, you know--and then right down the street
practically--you know, a couple of miles away, essentially, there's, you know,
student sit-ins at Harvard. And Harvard Square looks like what you expect
Harvard Square to look like circa 1971 and '72. But none of that reached the
neighborhoods.

GROSS: Why do you want write about that neighborhood now?

Mr. LEHANE: In your 20s, if you're a writer, you spend a lot of your 20s
discovering your strengths and your limitations. And what I discovered is
while I could write about any place and do it adequately, the stuff that
struck a chord, that really reached people at a very gut level, was the stuff
I set in, you know, inner-city, Northeastern neighborhoods. Gradually you
just go, `You know, well, Fitzgerald never wrote about poor people really
well, and Faulkner never wrote anything set outside of Mississippi that was
any good. And so maybe that's my limitation. Maybe I shouldn't be trying on
all these hats. Maybe I should go to my strength.'

GROSS: When you were a kid in the early '70s with the buzz cut, looking like
you were in Mayberry RFD, what was your attitude about the college students
protesting on Harvard? What did you think of them?

Mr. LEHANE: Oh, well, we had, I think, a very neighborhood attitude, which
was--you know, this was also when busing was ripping the inner city apart, and
there was this very--a siege mentality took over, because the attitude of the
establishment, certainly the establishment newspapers, was that it was a
racial issue, where the people who were in the neighborhoods felt it was much
more of a class warfare issue. It was about people who didn't live in the
neighborhoods making decisions that affected the neighborhoods and then
stepping back and letting the neighborhoods suffer.

And I think certainly the sense of the--you know, when you would see the news
and we'd see what was going on at Harvard or what was going on at, you know,
Berkeley out in California, or wherever, there was a sense of they're
dilettantes, you know. They're the fortunate sons, where the people who are
truly suffering for this aren't protesting because they're dead or they're
dying because they couldn't afford to go to college, etc. So I think that was
certainly--there was never a sense in my neighborhood that anybody thought
Vietnam was a good idea. You know, never. I remember it was very clear, my
father was--you know, if my brother ever got to that age, which he neared just
as the war ended, you know, my father was ready to put him on a plane to
Canada.

GROSS: The characters in your new novel "Mystic River" don't go home at night
and, you know, read novels.

Mr. LEHANE: No.

GROSS: Were you a reader as a child?

Mr. LEHANE: Oh, God.

GROSS: And was that unusual in your neighborhood or in your family?

Mr. LEHANE: Yes, it was in both. Well, my brothers were readers, my older
brothers. You know, they read a lot of, you know, S.E. Hinton and, you know,
Robert Ludlum and things like that. So, no, there was read--and my sister
read a lot of classics. So there was reading in my family, certainly. And I
just picked it up at a much more ferocious clip. I mean, I started reading
when I was six. My mother took me to the library when I was six, and it's
still the most pivotal event in my life; you know, changed everything. And so
did it seem a little odd to the neighborhood? Yeah, definitely. But the
great thing is that everybody was pretty cool about it, too. You know, it
wasn't like everybody said, you know--well, I didn't wear glasses. But I
wasn't ostracized for being a reader. It was just, you know, `That Lehane
kid's a little odd,' you know, in the same way that you'd say it about, you
know, the kid who would, every winter, stick his tongue to the pole.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LEHANE: You know, `He's all right but he's a little odd.'

GROSS: Now you've written or are writing, I believe, a screenplay based on
one of your private eye novels.

Mr. LEHANE: Yes.

GROSS: So do you have in mind the type of actor you'd like to play your
private eyes Patrick and Angie? And I'm wondering, do you want them to be
ultra-attractive or just to have a lot of screen presence?

Mr. LEHANE: Oh, no, I like--I'm much more of a character actor guy. I like
people who just--that whatever it is they got, nobody else has it. You know,
and I'm not talking star power but, say, a guy like Will Patton, for example.
I don't even know if you know who that is, but...

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

Mr. LEHANE: Now there's a guy, you put him on the screen and you know nobody
else is going to going to give a performance like him, nobody. Will Patton is
Will Patton, you know. So I tend towards character actors, which would make
me a very bad Hollywood producer because I wouldn't get, necessarily, bankable
stars. I think a perfect Patrick would be Ray Liotta. Although he might be a
few years older than him, I think he'd be great. But I don't think Hollywood
considers him an A-list star, if you know what I mean, the way they would,
say, a Ben Affleck...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LEHANE: ...or a Tom Cruise or something like that. So, yeah, I have my
theories but I also know they're rather impractical.

GROSS: Is the movie being made?

Mr. LEHANE: Well, it's certainly in development with Paramount. I have to
turn in the second draft of the script next week.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

Mr. LEHANE: So we'll see what happens with it. But it's not an
experience--I think having done it and worked extremely hard on it, I don't
think I would ever do it again, which is adapt one of my novels.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. LEHANE: It's just too--it's asking you to turn it into a Reader's Digest
Condensed Book. You know, it's asking you to perform a--I wouldn't go so far
to say an abortion, but it's asking you to perform an operation in which large
pieces are going to be removed, and the last person who should be asked to do
that is the person who created that body in the first place.

GROSS: So you worked so hard to get it right and now you have to completely
undo it.

Mr. LEHANE: Yeah, it's like books on tape, and they always ask me to approve
the abridged copy.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LEHANE: And I always say on the phone, `OK, it's approved.' And they
say, `No, we're sending it to you.' And I say, `I'm just going to throw it
away. I'm not going to look at it. I'm not even going to look at it for a
second.' Why would I do that? I just wrote a 400-page novel. Why would I
look at, you know, a 190-page abridgement. That's just insane. I understand
from a business perspective why you must do this and I have no problem with
it, but don't ask me to sit there and read a butchering of my novel.'

BIANCULLI: Dennis Lehane speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. His novel
"Mystic River" has been adapted into a film. Lehane's newest book, "Shutter
Island," is also a departure from the work he's best known for, the Kenzie and
Gennaro private eye series.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of "Saturday
Night Live." We talk with Tom Shales and James Miller. Also, Ken Tucker
reviews the new album by the band OutKast, and David Edelstein reviews the new
film by Quentin Tarantino.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: OutKast's new double album "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

OutKast's new release is an unusual double album. It's really two separate
albums, one each by the group's two leaders, Andre 3000 Benjamin and Antoine
Big Boi Patten. Big Boi's is called "Speakerboxxx" and Andre's is called "The
Love Below." Rock critic Ken Tucker says the resulting package is music that
is less schizophrenic than you might expect.

(Soundbite of "Bowtie")

Mr. BIG BOI PATTEN (OutKast): (Singing) Girl, you ...(unintelligible). Girl,
you know, you ...(unintelligible) Crocodile on my feet, fox fur on my back,
bow tie 'round my neck, that's why they call me the gangsta mack in the
Cadillac, yeah.

KEN TUCKER reporting:

The Atlanta, Georgia, duo that forms the heart and brains of OutKast seems to
be going in opposite directions this time around. On the track I just played
called "Bowtie," Big Boi Patten hews closely to OutKast's roots in funk music,
while Andre is going for something more pop, even acoustic, in a song like
"Hey Ya!"

(Soundbite of "Hey Ya!")

Mr. ANDRE 300 BENJAMIN (OutKast): (Singing) One, two, three. My baby don't
mess around because she loves me so and this I know for sho'. Uh, but does
she really wanna, but can't stand to see me walk out the do'. Don't try to
fight the feeling 'cause the thought alone is killing me right now. Thank God
for Mom and Dad for sticking through together 'cause we don't know how.

Hey ya, hey ya. Hey ya, hey ya. Hey ya...

TUCKER: This is the opposite of a group effort. The OutKast members even
recorded their albums in different parts of the country, Big Boi in Atlanta,
Andre in Los Angeles. Big Boi's guiding musical mentor would seem to be
George Clinton's P-Funk, while Andre is expanding his sound to include pop and
jazz. In a charmingly self-indulgent moment, he offers a passable version of
John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things." But here's a musical quiz.
Which one of them made this?

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BENJAMIN: (Singing) Today I might snow, tomorrow I'll rain, 3000's always
changing but you say the same. And I need that. Hey, I need that in my life.
When I feel washed up and inadequate and throw all my songs away, no matter
how mad I get, you make me smile. You make me smile, you make me smile, you
make me. You're the anchor that holds me down. When my ship is sinking, you
won't let me drown. And I'm grateful. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow. Behold
a...

TUCKER: It turns out that that's Andre, but its gutbucket funkiness is a
quality he still shares with Big Boi. They also share certain lyrical themes,
such as an infatuation with women that expresses itself both romantically and
sexually, with a deceptively casual intensity.

You never know what to expect listening to these two records. Big Boi raps
hard, but he's never as hard-core as Andre is on the song called "Spread."
In the past, OutKast has evinced a gift for topical material that pays off as
music as well as message. I'm thinking of songs like "Rosa Parks" and the
prescient "Bombs Over Baghdad."

On their new effort, music itself is most often the subject, exercises in
genre, as in this bit of funky gospel called "Church."

(Soundbite of "Church")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Sometimes life can keep you down, but you can't
fall in the dirt. But if you feel that love's divine, you need to get up and
go to church.

Unidentified Women: (Singing in unison) Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
Hallelujah.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Big, slide into the mode, time to drop a load.
My life is going downhill like some cardboard in the snow. My bank account is
frozen. I don't think that I can get out this hole. Feel like the figure
four leg-lock, like the jury went away and they came back deadlocked. I can't
move, I can't eat, I can't even breathe, can't even buy a decent sack without
the stems and the seeds. No trees, no P's to ease the stress of everyday
living, but homeless people got to suck it up wherever they livin', the
unforgiven or the unwilling, live a life of sinning and expect to be as pure
as an infant in the beginning. But what about repentance? What about the
tension? What about you eating dinner in the devil's kitchen? What about
repenting? What about committing the same sin over and over again and again
and again and again...

Unidentified Women: (Singing in unison) Why are we here? Hmm? Hmm? You
thrill me. What are we here for?

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Life is nothing but a...

TUCKER: Although they're doing interviews saying things like, `OutKast is
forever,' and, `It's about growing up, not breaking up,' Andre and Big Boi are
giving these interviews separately. And while Big Boi is happy to continue to
find new crunchiness in nuggets of hip-hop, Andre is striving for a new
ambitiousness, recently insisting that hip-hop has to move on. His comparison
was that hip-hop is to jazz as his new music is to bebop, more experimental
yet still playful and tuneful.

I hope these two guys stay together, because they're never as good as when
they're making music from inside an OutKast framework.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed the new double-CD album from OutKast.

Coming up, uncensored "SNL." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller discuss their
book, "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday
Night Live"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

"Saturday Night Live," the late-night NBC variety show that began in 1975, is
now a TV institution. Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller have written a new
book about that institution called "Live From New York: An Uncensored
History of Saturday Night Live," as told by its stars, writers and guests.
It's now out in paperback.

Shales, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his TV criticism in The Washington Post,
is one of the few TV critics still working who was around when the show
premiered 28 years ago. I'm another one, but I digress. Shales also reviewed
movies for NPR's "Morning Edition." Miller has written for TV and the movies,
and is the author of a book about the Senate.

Both Miller and Shales think the funniest "SNL" cast was the original one:
Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine
Newman and Gilda Radner. Here's some of their work.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Actress #1: Yes?

Unidentified Actor #1: Mrs. Owlsburg?

Unidentified Actress #1: Who?

Unidentified Actor #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Actress #1: Who is it?

Unidentified Actor #1: Flowers.

Unidentified Actress #1: Flowers for whom?

Unidentified Actor #1: Plumber, ma'am.

Unidentified Actress #1: I don't need a plumber. You're that clever shark,
aren't you?

Unidentified Actor #1: Candygram.

Unidentified Actress #2: I just think that--well, you should from now on try
to do your best, OK?

Unidentified Actor #2: Oh, yes, and I'm very, very sorry. And I promise from
now on I will do my best.

Unidentified Actress #2: See that you do.

Unidentified Actor #2: Bitch!

Unidentified Actor #3: (Singing) I'm gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the
whities I see. I'm gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whities I see.
When I kill all the whities I see, that whitey won't bother me. Gonna get me
a shotgun and kill all the whities I see. Then I'll get a white woman who's
wearing a navy blue sweater.

Unidentified Actor #4: Thank you. Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #3: (Singing) Then I'll get a white woman who's wearing a
navy blue sweater.

Unidentified Actor #4: Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #5: Eggs. Couple of eggs.

Unidentified Actor #6: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Actor #5: Eggs. Couple of eggs. And over lightly with sausage.
Coffee, coffee?

Unidentified Actor #6: No, no, no, no. No eggs. Cheeseburger.

Unidentified Actor #5: When do you stop serving breakfast?

Unidentified Actor #6: Now. No breakfast.

Unidentified Actor #5: No breakfast?

Unidentified Actor #6: Nope.

Unidentified Actor #5: All right, I just want a couple of eggs.

Unidentified Actor #6: No breakfast. Cheeseburger, huh?

Unidentified Actor #5: Pick that up. I don't want a cheeseburger.

Unidentified Actor #6: Come on, come on, come on, don't give me that. Come
on. Let's go. Let's go. We got to have turnover. You want a cheeseburger?
Come on, everybody get a cheeseburger. You want cheeseburger? You want
cheeseburger?

Unidentified Actor #5: I don't want a cheeseburger. It's too early for a
cheeseburger.

Unidentified Actor #6: Too early for cheeseburger? Look, cheeseburger,
cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger...

Unidentified Actor #5: Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Tom Shales and James Miller last year when their
book, "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,"
was first published.

(Soundbite of interview)

TERRY GROSS, host:

One thing that seems consistent through the years on "Saturday Night Live" is
that there's always one or two people who are telling you about how they'd go
home at night and just cry because it was so frustrating. Either nothing was
being written for them or what they were writing wasn't getting on, or they
felt that things were too competitive and they weren't looking good. Can you
talk about that a little bit?

Mr. TOM SHALES (Co-author, "Live From New York"): Well, Lorne has always
operated a competitive ship, and the competitiveness is built into it, and
people who can't take it do sort of fall by the wayside.

Mr. JAMES ANDREW MILLER (Co-author, "Live From New York"): It is not a
nurturing environment. If you are a person that craves feedback, you're at
the wrong place.

Mr. SHALES: And Lorne is notorious for withholding praise. Whether he does
this as part of a strategy, whether it's just part of his natural sort of
shyness and standoffishness, I don't know. But he is not the easiest person
in the world to work for. On the other hand, he can be very caring and
attentive to people and their problems, and this has endeared him to many of
those who work there now and many of those who worked there in the past. And
even people he's fired, in the book, say nice things about him. You know,
`Sure, he fired me, but I still admire him.' I find that quite amazing. I
find Lorne quite amazing.

Mr. MILLER: One of my favorite things that Conan O'Brien said was that when
he was a writer on the show, he would be walking down the hall and Lorne would
pass him and just look at him and say, `Still with the show, Conan?' You
know, it's that kind of environment.

GROSS: "Saturday Night Live" has had its ups and downs over the years. What
do you consider the worst year, the worst cast?

Mr. MILLER: I think that there was probably--in my opinion, I guess there
were two. One was the cast that started in 1980 when Jean Doumanian took over
after Lorne and the original cast had left, and that was when she was going to
build the show around Charlie Rocket, which--that was...

Mr. SHALES: The rocket that never launched.

Mr. MILLER: The rocket that never launched. And then in 1985, Lorne's first
year back, he had decided to take a page from Dick Ebersol who, the year
before, had--rather than pick unknowns, he had put together, like, Billy
Crystal and Marty Short and Chris Guest. That was a fantastic year. But the
next year, 1985, Lorne picked a bunch of people who really weren't ready for
"Saturday Night Live," even though they had done other movies. And Michael
Hall was in that and Randy Quaid. And...

Mr. SHALES: It was a weird grab bag. And Al Franken told us one of the
problems was you couldn't do a Senate sketch, you couldn't do a presidential,
political sketch because there were nobody to play those parts. They were
just--either these untried kids, including Robert Downey Jr., who tried many
things as the years would go by, or else Randy Quaid, who stuck out like the
proverbial sore thumb. It was a weird group. I would completely agree with
Jim that those were the two worst casts. I would also say that the people...

GROSS: It's funny because Robert Downey Jr. and Randy Quaid are both really
good actors, although they didn't work on "Saturday Night Live" very well.

Mr. MILLER: Well, that's part of the legacy of "Saturday Night Live" as well,
because look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is incredibly talented and kept us
laughing for 10 years on "Seinfeld." She was on "Saturday Night Live" and,
you know, really was like a Porsche going 40 miles an hour. She never, ever
really got to do anything that showed her talents. And anybody looking at her
during her time there would have thought, you know, `Well, this is just
somebody who's really not going to make it.' Luckily Larry David, who created
"Seinfeld," was one of the writers at that time--and he saw something in her
that, you know, you really couldn't see from the sketches. Sometimes
"Saturday Night Live" is not the best vehicle for figuring out whether
somebody's truly talented.

Mr. SHALES: But, you know, remember Bill Murray--it took months for Bill
Murray to finally put himself over on the air. And one way he had to do it
was to sit down and talk into the camera and say, `My name is Bill Murray.
I'm not really making it on the show. I don't quite understand why.' And he
had this little dialogue with viewers, and it worked. And then suddenly his
kind of character was something new, and people began to see what was funny
about it.

And today I would say the most imitated performer in the history of "Saturday
Night Live"--and I may be wrong--is Bill Murray. You can still see on ESPN,
in commercials, on other sitcoms, there's always a guy trying to be that kind
of hip, disconnected, irreverent, supercool guy that Bill Murray played way
back when. I think he was the prototype. I think he invented a new comic
character, and it's become just part of American folklore.

GROSS: One of the more bizarre moments on "Saturday Night Live" was a few
years ago when the singer Sinead O'Connor, after doing a song, held up a photo
of the pope--or a picture of the pope and then tore it to shreds in front of
the camera, something I understand was not rehearsed. What was that about?
What happened behind the scenes afterwards?

Mr. MILLER: Well, the first thing that happened was Dave Wilson, who was the
director, made sure that they didn't push the applause sign. So there was
dead silence in Studio 8H. It was a terrifying moment for a lot of people
there because it was so unexpected. She had not told anyone, not even Lorne.
I mean, no one expected it. And she had just done the dress rehearsal about
an hour before, and, you know, everything was fine. And then she said between
dress and air that she was going to show something at the end of her song, and
so she wanted the director to be aware of that so they would get the close-up.

Mr. SHALES: I think she specified a picture of a hungry child or something.
Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: Right.

Mr. SHALES: And even had one at dress rehearsal. They had a picture of a
hungry child.

Mr. MILLER: But no one knew what she was going to do. So the immediate
reaction was just, you know, nobody could believe it happened. The great
thing about Lorne, though: Afterwards, instead of being really ticked, he
said, `Well, that was awfully courageous of her.' And he just--somehow he
saw, you know, her gumption and...

Mr. SHALES: He admired the gesture, but he did not admire being tricked or
being lied to.

Mr. MILLER: Right.

Mr. SHALES: That made him mad. And they had set it up so methodically where
they said, `Now can you just have one camera on her? You know, don't have any
other cameras to switch to.' So they were trapped with one shot of Sinead
O'Connor. The only thing they could have gone to would have been a reaction
shot of the audience, which would have been worse, I suppose, at that point
when she tore up the picture. So Lorne may have admired the gesture in a
philosophical way, but they were just furious that she would lie to them and
trick them. And I don't think she's ever been invited back.

Mr. MILLER: No.

Mr. SHALES: In fact, her career didn't exactly skyrocket after that.

GROSS: I bet one of the things you asked a lot of people from "Saturday Night
Live" was to share their nightmare moments, the moment that was just like the
worst moment of their career on "Saturday Night Live." Can you tell us about
a couple of the nightmare moments?

Mr. MILLER: Actually, a lot of the nightmare moments on the show wind up
happening behind the scenes. I think that when you get to the sketch stage of
the show when you're live at 11:30, things are pretty well nailed down.

Mr. SHALES: Lorne doesn't like ad-libbing, and he doesn't like breaking up
over a sketch. And he thinks it looks phony. And so when that happens, I
think he sometimes chastises people. But on the other hand, sometimes it's so
good-natured and inescapable--you know, Brendan Fraser was on and his wig fell
off and drooped down over his head, and somehow they all got the giggles and
the audience began to laugh. The audience likes being there when something
goes wrong because they think they're privy to this secret information, which,
of course, is going out to 14 million homes.

But, anyway, it seems like something--you know, these days if you watch
"Saturday Night Live" live, you may see the show that way that time only. It
may never again be repeated in that form because if something does go wrong,
Lorne now has the option--they tape every dress rehearsal. So he has the
option of pulling the sketch out of dress rehearsal and plopping it into the
space where it was in the live show. He can re-edit shows for when they're
rerun later. And so "Saturday Night Live" is still an event in the sense that
this could be the only time the show is performed exactly that way, complete
with those mistakes.

I remember once they did--this sounds so trivial, and it is--but they did a
sketch with that horrible Tom Green, who brought his own writers and nobody
liked him. But, anyway, they had a little baby pig in this sketch, and the
pig squealed and squealed and squealed and seemed so unhappy and miserable.
And I was at home and I was furious, thinking, you know, it's not funny to
torture any animal, even a pig. And Lorne had an angry letter from some girl,
a little girl in the audience, posted outside his office for weeks after that.
Well, anyway, that was never seen again because they simply threw that out and
picked up the same sketch from the dress rehearsal where the pig was not in
distress and plopped that into the space where it had been. Does that make
sense?

GROSS: Yeah. Did they ever rerun the show with Sinead O'Connor? And what
did they do with that?

Mr. SHALES: Yeah, they rerun it all right, but they put the dress rehearsal
performance in.

GROSS: Huh.

Mr. SHALES: So never again will you see her, except in a news program, in
news footage--never will you see in "Saturday Night Live" her tearing up a
picture of the pope.

GROSS: Tom Shales, as a TV critic for The Washington Post, what do you think
of "Saturday Night Live" now?

Mr. SHALES: I love it. It's an amazing phenomenon. It's a cliche, but it
reinvents itself all the time. And it has its down years, and then it bounces
back up again. And I have never been one to get hysterical or, you know, to
say that the world is ending like Chicken Little, you know, when they go
through a slump, except for the time when Jean Doumanian took over the show.
And I was proud of the lead I wrote for the--because everybody else was
writing `Saturday Night Dead,' but what I wrote was `Vile from New York, it's
Saturday night.' I did an anagram. But that was the only time I lost all
hope for the show, and even then it came back. So I think the amazing
self-rejuvenation properties of that show are very encouraging.

BIANCULLI: Tom Shales and James Miller speaking with Terry Gross in 2002.
Their book, "Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night
Live," is now out in paperback.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: Comin' to ya on a dusty road. Good lovin', I got a
truckload. And when you get it, you got something, so don't worry, 'cause I'm
a-comin'. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man.
Play it, Steve! A soul man. I'm a soul man. Listen, I was brought up on a
side street...

BIANCULLI: Coming, David Edelstein on Quentin Tarantino's new movie, 'Kill
Bill." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Quentin Tarantino film "Kill Bill"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

It's been six years since Quentin Tarantino's last feature, "Jackie Brown."
He's back with an extravagantly bloody martial arts movie called "Kill Bill,"
starring Uma Thurman as an avenging warrior known as The Bride. Film critic
David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

When he's told in one of his movies that sex without love is an empty
experience, Woody Allen says, `Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of
the best.' And that's how I feel about Quentin Tarantino's fourth film, "Kill
Bill." That doesn't mean the movie is totally empty. It's just on the
elemental end of the dramatic spectrum.

It's about a woman, played by Uma Thurman, whose entire wedding party is slain
by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or DIVAS, which is commanded by a guy
called Bill. We don't know what the pregnant bride did to merit execution,
but we see enough shrieking flashbacks to know that the assault on her was
bloody and protracted and excruciating. We know why, once the bride awakens
from a four-year coma, she wants to hack her way through all the DIVAS, up to
the title character, who put a bullet in her head.

She doesn't make it to Bill in this volume since "Kill Bill" was itself hacked
into two parts when Tarantino and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein thought a
three-plus-hour gutbucket revenge flick was a contradiction in terms. I
agree. But it's important to say that for all its invocation of Hong Kong
martial arts and Japanese Shogun assassin pictures, "Kill Bill" doesn't
replicate the '70s urban, scuzzy grind house experience. It's too playful in
form. Its narrative syntax is too artfully scrambled. It's too visually
resourceful. It's too beautiful.

What differentiates the movie from its models is the novice enthusiasm that
Tarantino brings. He's never done pure action before. He kept the violence
offscreen or at a distance in his last film, the funky and way underrated
"Jackie Brown." This time, he throws himself whole-hog into the carnage. As
the severed limbs fly, you can practically hear him cackle, `This is so cool.'

Uma Thurman isn't a typical martial arts heroine, either. She's a tall woman,
and she doesn't have that superhuman nimbleness of Beijing Opera-trained
fighters. But I loved watching her. The character's strain and the actress'
strain are in sync. Here she is confronting her "Volume 1" nemesis, a gang
lord called O-Ren, played by Lucy Liu. The Bride has just divested about 30
of O-Ren's henchmen of their limbs, using a sword handmade by a character
played by Tarantino's idol, Sonny Chiba. You'll hear some really loud
clattering sounds in the middle. That's about 60 more assassins pouring into
the room.

(Soundbite of "Kill Bill")

Ms. UMA THURMAN: (As The Bride) So, O-Ren, any more subordinates for me to
kill?

Unidentified Man: Yah!

(Soundbite of clattering sounds)

Ms. LUCY LIU: (As O-Ren Ishi) You didn't think it was going to be that easy,
did you?

Ms. THURMAN: (As The Bride) You know, for a second there, yeah, I kind of
did.

Ms. LIU: (As O-Ren Ishi) Silly rabbit. Tricks are for kids.

EDELSTEIN: That's some pretty campy dialogue. But the rest of the movie
isn't quite so obvious. In an early scene, The Bride kills one of her
adversaries in front of the woman's young daughter, and the moment hangs, ugly
and unresolved. The Bride tells the little girl that if she's still feeling
raw in a few years, she can come for her.

Then there's a flashback. It's animated, in the style of a Japanese anime, in
which we learn that Lucy Liu's O-Ren became an assassin after avenging her own
parents, who were murdered in front of her eyes. It's like a revenger's
tragedy hall of mirrors. The heroine of one vigilante saga becomes the
villain of the next.

"Kill Bill" will not be to everyone's taste. I've read some tut-tut reviews,
like the one by David Denby in The New Yorker that ends, `I felt nothing. Not
despair, not dismay, not amusement. Nothing.' Well, I felt glee. I felt the
way I sometimes do at a Mark Morris dance piece that reshuffles a lot of
familiar showbizzy moves into something new and funny and unexpectedly
gorgeous. "Kill Bill" literally becomes a dance movie in the course of the
final battle. The lights go out and The Bride and a horde of massed assassins
are suddenly blue silhouettes gyrating against a great grid. It's "An
American in Paris" with arterial spray.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein reviews films for FRESH AIR and the online
magazine Slate.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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