Thursday, September 10, 2009

Charles Salzberg's "Swann’s Last Song"

Charles Salzberg is a writer who lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Esquire, New York Magazine, and the New York Times. He has been a Visiting Professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, taught advanced non-fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and the New York Writers Workshop (where he is a Founding Member,) the Writer’s Voice, New York City Open Center, and the Hunter College Writing Program.

Here he shares his preferences for the lead actor and director of a film adaptation of his Shamus Award-nominated debut novel, Swann’s Last Song:
When I first began writing Swann’s Last Song, I had no idea what Henry Swann looked like, or even how old he was. But I did know he wasn’t going to be the stereotypical slick, handsome, charismatic private eye whom women swooned over and men wished they could be, the ones played by Paul Newman, Robert Redford, or George Clooney. Just the opposite, in fact. I wanted a down and out, living on the edge, marginalized, cynical loser whose aim was simply to make enough money to pay the rent on his seedy office and seedier apartment and maybe buy a few rounds of drinks for himself and his boys at the Paradise Bar and Grill, across the street from his office.

And so, the first thing I did was make him a forty-something year old skip tracer who made his living repossessing cars and finding deadbeats who skipped on their bills, their wives or both. His clients weren’t high-class movers and shakers, but mostly women on welfare, which is why he had a sign in his office, Foods Stamps Unacceptable as Payment.

As I wrote, a clearer picture of what Swann looked like began to develop. The interesting thing is that I first began writing the book twenty-five years ago and so, in terms of actors who could play the part, that’s changed over the years. I didn’t want someone who was conventionally handsome, and so the first actor I thought of was Dustin Hoffman, who’s amazing at transforming himself. But he’s a too old now, as is Gene Hackman, another guy who could have pulled off being an appealing anti-hero.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the perfect actor might have been Robert Mitchum. But we’re in the 21st century now and so other actors come to mind—all of them top rate, but each of them bringing something else to the table. Alec Baldwin, for instance. Sure, he’s good looking, but he can also dirty himself up, especially when he’s put on a few pounds. He’s a terrific actor and he’s got an edge, which is important for Swann. Philip Seymour Hoffman can do no wrong. The extra weight he might bring to the role would be more than made up for by his chameleon-like ability to inhabit any part he plays. Stanley Tucci is another actor who can transform himself. He’s not classically handsome, but he’s got the kind of charisma that makes you like him even when he’s playing an unlikeable character. On the younger side, there’s Liev Schreiber, Robert Downey, Jr. and John Cusack, all of whom, now that they’ve aged a little and added character to their faces, bring similar assets to the table. Of this group, Downey would probably be best at bringing life experience to the role—he’s certainly had his share of ups and downs. But I’d be happy if any of these were cast as Swann.

As far as directors are concerned, I know who I wouldn’t want on the film: guys like Michael Bay. Nothing blows up in Swann’s Last Song, and I want to keep it that way. Sidney Lumet. That would be one choice. His body of work, running from Dog Day Afternoon to Prince of the City to Find Me Guilty and the incredible Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is mind-boggling. And since a good part of the book takes place in New York—the other locales being L. A., Mexico and Germany—I couldn’t do any better than Lumet in terms of portraying this city.
Read more about the book and author at Charles Salzberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue