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Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid”

August 25, 2016 2 comments

Once upon a time, it was possible to be assigned depth stories about authors, artists and musicians by various Nebraska newspapers and magazines. Alas, those days are long gone in this age of byte size, SEO-rich content that favors style and graphics over substance and text. One of the few print sanctuaries for long-form features left in the state is the New Horizons newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. This monthly may not be on your reading list or radar but it should be, I dare say, for the long form features that Nick Schinker, Jeff Reinhardt and I do for the publication. If you like to dig into a subject, then you will have your fill and then some, especially when it comes to my New Horizons stories, which are four or five times the length of today’s average feature. A perfect example is my new profile of author Ron Hansen in the September 2016 issue. That Hansen profile is featured in this post. The Omaha native is a highly respected novelist, short story writer and essayist. He is a true literary star on the national scene and yet in his hometown he and his work are not well known outside perhaps the most informed literary circles or the Creighton Prep and Creighton University communities – he is a graduate of each school. I did a fair amount of writing about Hansen in years past but it had been awhile since the last piece. It’s been good to re-engage with him and to once again share his work with others. My new story about Hansen largely focuses on his new historical novel “The Kid” about Western outlaw Billy the Kid. The well-reviewed book is being released this fall by Scribner. The Old West and its outlaws have been subjects of two previous Hansen novels: “Desperados” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The latter was made into a fne film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

For this new story Ron generously sat down with me for a long interview, just as he’s done in the past, and he later answered several more questions via email. I am grateful to New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt for giving me the space I need to explore subjects as rich and complex as Hansen and his meticulously researched work. The September 2016 New Horizons with my cover story on Ron Hansen will be hitting the stands and arriving in mailboxes the end of August. Make sure to pick up a copy or two. You can subscribe to the paper for free. My extensive profiles of fascinating Nebraskans have appeared in its pages for 20-plus years and represent some of my favorite work about some of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever met. You can find many of those stories on my blog.

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively, in the film adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

 

 

Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the September 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Ron Hansen, the author of such esteemed novels as Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) and Atticus (1996), long ago joined the ranks of Nebraska literary greats such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris and Loren Eiseley.

The Omaha native is also a among Creighton Prep graduates to have made their mark in arts and letters, including Alexander Payne, Richard Dooling and Conor Oberst. Hansen’s Jesuit education continued at Creighton University. The 1970 graduate went on to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was a student of American novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp), and Stanford University.

Hansen is a devout Catholic and permanent deacon in the church. His work is funneled through the prism of faith and morality. Even though he writes about deeply flawed souls who are sometimes psychopaths and murderers, he doesn’t caricature them. Instead, he creates multi-dimensional characters through careful observation rooted in context and circumstance and tinged by occasions of grace. He has a historian’s penchant for the truth rather than some convenient approximation to satisfy the story.

Writing is his vocation for not only expressing his Christianity but his boundless curiosity and creativity.

His humanism and Catholicism are most evident in some of his essays: Hearing the Cry of the Poor: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvado; Affliction and Grace: and The Pilgrim: Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Yet there’s nothing overtly religious about his fiction with the exception of Mariette and even it’s framed in spiritual, psycho-social, emotional terms, not religious.

Hansen lives in Northern California with his wife, novelist Bo Caldwell, and teaches at Santa Clara University.

He’s the author of acclaimed collections of essays (Stay Against Confusion) and short stories (Nebraska Stories) and historical fiction books across wide subject matter and eras. Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was also a PEN/Faulkner finalist .

His novels often draw on historical figures and incidents. One that does not, Mariette in Ecstasy, details the intense inner journey a postulate faces when the stigmata appear on her body and the experience causes a crisis of faith in her and in her convent. Hitler’s Niece imagines the romance the dictator may have engaged in with a niece with whom he was infatuated. Exiles explores what made a tragic ship wreck the inspiration for a famous poem. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion examines what led illicit lovers to plan and commit murder in a real-life case that inspired Double Indemnity.

Hansen’s particularly fond of the 19th century, owing partly to his late grandfather being a conduit to its Old West legacy. His latest novel, The Kid, is in his estimation the most accurate portrayal of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid yet produced.

“All the events in it are true,” Hansen said.. “In some ways they’re my interpretation of what occurred. I think there’s a lot of newness to what I did with this book as opposed to all of the other accounts. For one thing, this is the only time you see him with a sweetheart. None of the other treatments have had him speaking Spanish.”

A Publishers Weekly review called it  “entertaining and lively,” adding, “Hansen’s colorful description of the New Mexico Territory as a lawless land of lying politicians and thieving businessmen is historically accurate, resulting in an excellent, transportive read.”

 

 

The life and times of William H. Bonney have inspired many writers and filmmakers but they usually ignore facts for sensationalism. Disregard for history rankles Hansen, who takes great pains hanging his story on actual incidents. He authentically recreatsd the way people spoke and dressed then. Like all great storytellers, he immerses you in that world.

The Kid completes Hansen’s western trilogy that began with  Desperadoes (1979) – his take on the Dalton gang. He continued the outlaw theme with Jesse James  (1983) – another subject oft-interpreted in print and film. The latter book was closely adapted by Andrew Domink into a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as his assassin Bob Ford. Though a critical success. the film struggled at the box office. Hansen was delighted with the adaptation. Dominik consulted Hansen during the writing process and had him on set the entire shoot in Canada. The script is so close to the book that many passages from the novel are spoken verbatim in the film as voice-over narration or dialogue. Hansen was on hand to ensure costumes, sets, lines were historically correct.

He also enjoyed being an extra in a scene where he played a frontier dude reporter.

It wasn’t the first time a Hansen novel made it to the big screen. He adapted Mariette himself for a 1996 film directed by noted cinematographer.John Bailey. Hansen said he admired Bailey’s original vision but the film was taken out of his hands and “mangled by higher-ups.”  The book’s also been adapted to the stage, including an award-winning theatrical play in Chicago.

On a spring visit to Omaha for his Prep 50th class reunion, Hansen spoke at length about his work. He especially focused on The Kid, for which he has great hopes.

“I’m hoping at least it becomes a miniseries because there’s so much story to tell. I couldn’t imagine how to turn it into two hours. It could easily be six hours.”

He also touched on other projects, some realized, some not, and what we can expect in the future.

 

Ron Hansen

 

Billy: The Man and the Myth

To belong.

To be liked.

To be famous.

To be feared.

Hansen has Billy say those four things to a trail mate who asks The Kid what he wants. They’re the aspirations of a mercurial man-child who lived fitfully and died violently at 21.

“In the movies especially he’s often portrayed as illiterate and a psychopath and when you read memoirs of other people they never say that about him,” Hansen said of Billy. “They say he was really smart, loved to read and was always very pleasant to be around. Billy obviously was very intelligent because even with very little schooling you can see in his letters he was very literate. He wrote a lot of letters actually. Maybe six have survived, mostly because they were letters he sent to the territory’s governor, Lew Wallace.”

Billy, like other outlaws, also enjoyed reading stories about himself to see where fact left off and fiction took flight.

“He once wrote an editor after reading an article about himself and said, ‘Whoever wrote that had a very vivid imagination because I didn’t do all those things,'” Hansen noted. “But he could have been denying what he really did do, too. That’s the way criminals act.”

For a lover of words like Hansen, it’s important he capture the richness of language people used then,

“There was a kind of grandeur to speech. Most of the time in Westerns people talk very simply, not very interestingly, but reading these accounts you realize people were very literate and very self-conscious about the way they wrote. They took time with things. For a lot of cowboys, their literature was basically the Bible and so there was an ancient sound to a lot of their language because that’s the only thing they’d read or heard. It was a different kind of education then and maybe a reverence for the written word that caused people to be careful how they spoke and wrote.”

Saying the wrong thing to Billy could be fatal, Hansen said, if The Kid’s “dark side” erupted after Insult or injury.

“That complexity naturally draws a novelist to show the shadings and not try to explain it really, just experience it.”

He said like other famous figures “Billy is basically everybody’s wild invention.” “Nobody can pin him down. It’s like Jesse James – everybody has an attitude about him. For some, he’s still a hero and they name their kid after him. And I think the same thing is true of Billy the Kid. He was very charming in real life. Everybody talked about what a nice smile he always had, so it makes him more likable than a lot of the outlaws.”

“So you have the possibility of two faces – the angry killer and the sweet guy all the women loved and liked to dance with. He learned Spanish somehow and the Hispanic people liked that  he would speak to them in Spanish and that he knew the Old World customs, so they protected him,” Hansen said. They thought what the authorities said was all untrue. In fact, it was trumped up a lot of the time. The newspaper accounts show how the description of Billy changes. He has black hair when they make him a negative figure and he has blonde hair when they make him positive. The journalistic slant is so clear. He starts out as this viper, really awful man. and then as accounts go on and people start having a yearning or romantic feeling about the Old West, he starts to take on a different coloring.”

The Kid’s legendary status was secured as soon as he died at the hands of sheriff Pat Garret.

“Almost immediately after his death there were five books about Billy the Kid and he was largely a figment of people’s imaginations even then,” Hansen said. “Then he faded from memory until Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid. It became an immediate best seller. A movie followed that. There’s been something like 30 movies about Billy the Kid.”

Hansen said the Burns book makes The Kid “this very romantic hero – like a knight-errant,” adding Burns had the advantage of starting “on the research when a lot of the people were still alive, so he actually had first-hand accounts.”

Hansen read all he could find about The Kid, including the Burns book. Another resource he used to get a handle on him was the Enneagram of Personality Types. Applying what he knew about The Kid, he determined he fit the melancholic type.

“I sprinkled those aspects throughout the book,” he said.

Part of that type is wanting to be noticed and Hansen said that fits with a studio photograph of Billy dressed shabbily – a direct contradiction to how folks garbed for special occasions. Hansen has someone ask Billy, “You want to be photographed in that?” and The Kid replies, “I don’t want to be ordinary.”

Another trait of the melancholic, Hansen said, is having one hurt in life that can’t be assuaged. For Billy, he said, it was the loss of his mother, to whom he was devoted. The more Hansen dug into his subject the more he discovered what a complicated figure his protagonist was and how bereft he felt after losing her.

“He never really had a father and then she married this other guy who he didn’t get along with. The guy made him change his name from William to Henry. He never had much connection with his brother either. So, Billy basically had his mother and then she died and so he felt like an orphan.”

Hansen believes the fires raging inside Billy were fueled by abandonment and rejection. Billy also caught much grief for his slight build and fancy, fussy ways. When bullied, assaulted or cornered, he could be deadly. The great conflict within him was a desire to be accepted, even respected, and an urge to rebel.

“It was a real hot and cold thing going on with him,” Hansen said. “I think I have Paulita Maxwell, who was almost certainly his girlfriend, toward the end telling him he attracts people and repels them at the same time. They never know where they stand and they make him more and more anxious to please him. That’s why he became the leader of almost any group he was in – nobody could quite figure him out because of those contrary aspects of his personality.”

Given his charms, it’s no wonder The Kid won over a dandy land baron in the New Mexico Territory named John Tunstall, whose high breeding did not prevent their hitting it off. Tunstall became his boss and benefactor, remarking to others his admiration for The Kid’s wit and guile. When Tunstall was killed by arch enemies, Billy swore revenge and got it,

 

 

Western stirrings

There’s no telling if Hansen would have developed his same interest in the Old West without the influence of his grandfather. But there’s no doubt that crusty old man and his tales stirred something in him.

“My grandfather Frank Salvador had a ranch in eastern Colorado. He was from Spain originally. He and his mother and father seem to have sailed from France to America and settled in Utica, New York, where his mother died, then his father — in a gruesome mining accident.”

As a child Salvador was put on an orphan train bound for Iowa.

“Orphan trains began conveying children from the East — mostly New York City — in the early 19th century and didn’t stop until after World War I.,” Hansen said via email  “The idea was to get orphans out of the slums and into better living conditions of the wide open spaces farther west. Unfortunately, children sometimes became indentured servants to farm owners, as was the case with my grandfather on the farm near Adair (Iowa).”

While there, his grandfather swore he had a close encounter with an infamous outlaw.

“My grandfather told the story of when he was really young a group of guys rode up to the farm to water their horses. Then they heard galloping in the distance – it was a posse after them – and they jumped on their horses and ran off. He thought that was Jesse James. Jesse James actually robbed a train in Adair. It could have been another outlaw gang. But he was convinced of it and he had a reputation for being really honest.”

Salvador settled a score, peacefully, before lighting out for the West to make his own way.

“When he was in his late teens, my grandfather filed suit against the farm owner who’d misused him and never paid for his labor. The court ruled in his favor and he left Iowa for eastern Colorado where he bought land with his court settlement and called the ranch ‘Wages.’ He was a real interesting character because he was a 19th century man essentially. He would go someplace and nobody would see him there again for a year and they’d still remember him because he was so charismatic. He chewed tobacco and always carried around this coffee can he’d spit tobacco juice into, and I was charmed by this. Once I got a bee sting and he put a wad of chewing tobacco on it to take the hurt away and maybe it was a child’s imagination but I thought it really did work. The sting went away after he applied that poultice.”

The impressionable Hansen loved hearing the old man’s yarns and perhaps inherited some storytelling prowess from him.

“He would tell me stories – how some hands still wore their Civil War overcoats. He must have worked on horseback for a good while because it was only when he became prosperous he bought the first tractor in the county. He was also the first rancher (there) with indoor plumbing. He still had a bunkhouse that must have held at least 12 men. It was remarkable to visit there and think what a different life that was back then. So I felt like I had contact with the 19th century just through him.”

Naturally, once a writer Hansen drew on his grandfather – making him the subject of the essay A Nineteenth-Century Man. He’s the model for the title character in Atticus. Hansen said, “Some of his attitudes survive in Jesse James and all my Westerns have some element of my grandfather.”

There were other Western models in his life, too.

“There were a lot of farmers in my family and I remember visiting them and hearing them talk and they had a completely different vocabulary than the people I knew in Omaha. I think even being in Omaha you have a sense for the past you don’t have in other cities. Like where I am, the city of Cupertino, California, it didn’t exist really until 1970 and so there’s such a newness about it, whereas here (Omaha) you can still see houses and buildings from the 19th century. It would only take me about five minutes from West O to be in cornfields.”

He said growing up in Omaha in the 1950s, “the West was very much alive” because open country was just beyond the then city limits of 72nd Street. Plus, the stockyards in South Omaha found ranchers bringing livestock to market in epic volumes.

Hansen also saw his share of Western movies as a kid. Though steeped in images, artifacts and stories, he didn’t burn to write about the West until poverty sparked inspiration.

“I was really poor and I thought what can I think I can sell to a magazine, and I ran across this book about the Dalton gang. I knew they weren’t well known. They were a violent gang. I was charmed by the fact they tried to rob two banks at the same time in their hometown where everybody knew them. I thought that’d be a great story. I was writing it as a short story and then I realized I had like 30 pages and I hadn’t even touched the whole story, and so I decided I’ll write this as a novel.”

That story became Desperadoes.

“The same thing happened with Jesse James,” he said, when a short story he started morphed into his novel about the outlaw.

Much as he came to be with Billy the Kid, he said, “I was entranced by the differing opinions about Jesse James – how the newspapers thought he was the worst guy possible and then you saw memoirs where people said how gentle and fun he was and that he was very witty. Those kinds of complexities of character draw me to writing about these characters.”

 

 

Billy the Kid’s West

That rascals and varmints inhabited the West and that deadly conflicts happened with alarming frequency is not surprising given the conditions of that wild place.

As Hansen explained, “The area of Lincoln County (New Mexico) was the size of the state of Connecticut. It had one lawyer and one sheriff to cover all that, so people had to make do on their own basically. They had to be the law themselves. This was open range with no fences, Cattle would run away all the time – mavericks they called them.”

People claimed, worked and defended land they had no clear title to. When questioned or challenged, disputes arose, and with no practical legal remedy in sight, opponents often settled things with a gun. The same held for disputes over cattle, cards and any number of other things. If you killed someone in a conflict, you invoked the Code of the West, which roughly translated to, “He left me no choice.” Billy used that one himself.

Men protected their honor by any means necessary. Feuds often resulted in bloodshed. A wanted outlaw might take his chances with the Army, a sheriff or a posse. Hired guns targeted anyone, wanted or not, their employers wanted “regulated.” Frontier justice could mean death by assassination or lynching. On the run, dangers included Indians and bandits. At one time or another, Billy was on every side of these fights and pursuits.

“New Mexico residents thought of the government as being in Washington and they were their own government, so in some ways it was almost like the secession the South did with the North. They were rebels against this government that was being imposed on them,” Hansen said. “There weren’t telephone lines, there weren’t fences, there weren’t roads. There were trails, so it was really open country. The Apaches and the Comanches were still on the warpath and you constantly heard about people losing their lives. It affected Billy, too. He was attacked by Apaches and they stole his horse once. I don’t know how he got away with his life but he did.”

Billy specialized in stealing cattle and Army horses. Hansen said neither practice was uncommon. “A lot of people did it back then,” he said. “What’s ironic is that when Pat Garrett started his own herd of cattle, they were all stolen.”

Then there were the big ranchers who acquired their holdings by various expedient and questionable means. Hansen said, “Billy saw all that and thought, Why can’t I do that, too?”

Hansen makes no apologies for Billy’s crimes but insists he “kept getting blamed” for things he didn’t do. “Anytime he was around he got blamed for the murder when in fact many times he didn’t fire his gun. Partly that’s why he became so famous – that round up the usual suspects. He was always one of them.”

Not all outlaws are created equal.

“Jesse James was far more of a psychopath than Billy the Kid,” Hansen said, “because Jesse James was very violent – and intentionally that way. When we were shooting the movie Andrew (Dominik) and I both agreed it’s not really a Western, it’s really a gangster story. Typical of the gangster movie, a guy has accumulated wealth and power and all that stuff but then he gets paranoid and he starts killing off all the guys who made him famous. That’s what was happening with Jesse James. He was looking up all the guys and killing them.

“Yet he had these kids he loved and his wife loved him and all that. But at the same time he was capable of murder and robbing banks and trains. His wife must have known what he was doing but she pretended he was a cattleman and made money in the stock market.”

Hansen said though “Billy the Kid was like that, it was more impetuousness, especially when all these people were out to get him. He was constantly facing mobs and a lot of times they didn’t have warrants, and so in some cases it’s justifiable homicide. He was not as vicious as Jesse James. I have that scene where Jesse James meets him and Jesse gets vicious with him and then he finally gives up and walks away and Billy thinks, ‘If that’s an outlaw, I’m not an outlaw.’ Sure he was stealing cattle to make a living but so did almost everybody. That was the way people started their herds. That was the natural way of doing things back then.

“Billy’s crimes were never against people unless they shot at him or were trying to kill him, and then he shot back. He had lots of reasons for killing Bob Olinger, who was really nasty to Billy. Plus, Bob killed one of Billy’s best friends. He didn’t really want to kill Jim Bell but he felt forced to because they were going to hang him. So there were all these mixed motives going on.”

Billy’s death wasn’t accepted by everyone even though he clearly did die at the hands of Garrett.

Hansen said, “All these people who knew Billy were on this committee or jury that Pat Garrett urged be put together to say that the body was that of Billy the Kid and he did get killed by Pat Garrett – but it was justifiable homicide.”

Further evidence The Kid’s life ended then, Hansen said, was that his flame, Paulita, never saw Billy again.

The author finds Paulita an intriguing figure. Despite coming from a respectable family, she fell for this brash miscreant and after he was gone she denied being his girl.

“She thought of all the reputation Billy was carrying with him,” Hansen said. “In the Walter Noble Burns book she comes off as a woman wrongfully accused of being Billy’s sweetheart. She said she liked him very much and if they had been sweethearts she would have run off with him. So I actually have her say some of the things in the book she said to Burns. I don’t think she realized because of the book and the movies how famous she was going to be. She kind of hid out for the rest of her life.”

Years later. people claimed to be Billy under assumed names.

The same claims attended Jesse James after his death. “Officials finally did do a DNA sample and found out Jesse really was in that grave in Missouri,” Hansen said, “but I always knew he was in that grave because he was well known as a good family man and yet he left his wife destitute and it’s very unlikely he would have allowed that to happen.

“People just don’t want these legends to die.”

 

 

 

Projects

Just as no two outlaws are alike, no two writing projects are either. One constant of the craft is that it’s hard work. But some projects are more enjoyable than others. Though it took much research and imagination, The Kid was a relative breeze.

Hansen said, “I had more fun writing this than almost any other book I’ve done just because there’s such a variety of activity – so many different things are described. He’s a fascinating character. My wife was kind of irritated because I was writing in earnest for one year and she’s been on her book for four years. But it just came quickly to me.”

Not all his books perform as well as he’d like, including his 2011 historical novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion drawn from a real life “case of the century” that saw a tryst lead to a 1927 murder. The culprits, Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, were both executed at Sing Sing in 1928 after being found guilty of killing Ruth’s husband Albert Snyder.

Hansen happened upon the case and couldn’t shake it. There was a wealth of material about the crime and the trial. Gray even wrote a memoir about it while awaiting execution.

“Judd Gray was a corset salesman who had dropped out of high school,” Hansen said, “and yet at the trial the judge said, ‘We can see what a well-educated man you are.’ While in prison, to make money for his daughter, he wrote a very literate memoir about how he ended up killing Albert Snyder.”

Hansen’s own book about the case “didn’t do very well at all,” he said, which he attributes to early negative reviews in trade publications that outweighed later positive reviews. “I thought it was going to be a movie and it didn’t become a movie but people who have read it liked it. I like it.”

He had been with Harper Collins before parting ways and going to Scribner, which published Wild Surge. “Then Scribner published my book of stories She Loves Me Not  (2012). I wanted them do a paperback of it and they said we won’t until you give us a novel, so I decided to write The Kid.”

Then there was the feature film script he co-wrote with good friend and fellow novelist-short story writer Jim Shepard (The Book of Aron). Their script Lie Down with Me, which tells another 19th century story, though this one in the East, was written for Casey Affleck to produce and direct for Relativity Media. Everything was a go before things fell apart.

“Casey Affleck was counting on doing this as a labor of love and in the same week we were expecting our writing checks in the mail, Relativity declared bankruptcy.”

Hansen said Affleck still wants to get the movie made and is trying to secure a name actress in the key role of Abigale.

“It’s set in farm country in upstate New York in the 1850s. He wants it filmed in all four seasons, so he would get people on the set for one week and let them go home and get them for another week, and so on. It’s much voice-over. He wants it to be basically a diary of Abigale, who’s telling all these things that happened. It has very ornate language because she’s concentrating hard when she’s writing her diary, but when she’s talking it’s very plain language.

“A female actress would really be intrigued by this project just because it’s so much her (Abigale). Virtually every page is her and there aren’t many big parts like that for women.”

Asked why he’s so drawn to the past, Hansen said, “Some of my fascination as a fiction writer is the requirement to imagine so much more than if I were writing about a contemporary world or from autobiographical experience. I have to take on unfamiliar roles in unfamiliar settings, so I feel more creative. Even the spoken language is different. And it’s intellectually satisfying that there’s so much learning that needs to go on in order to persuade the reader that a scene must have happened pretty much as I present it.”

As for a next project, he said, “I want to do a sequel to Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette would be like 80 years-old and she will have moved from upstate New York to Big Sur, California, but I don’t know anything else about the plot. The idea for a sequel just came to me. People like Mariette in Ecstasy a lot and wouldn’t it be nice to see what she’s up to. That was a book I liked writing. I had kind of a ready-made plot with that and I don’t have a plot with this.”

It’s a chance for his imagination to take full flight with one of his favorite characters whose life details he gets to fill in. Sounds like a state of bliss for the author.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 
 

Ron Hansen’s masterful outlaw blues novel about Jesse James and Robert Ford faithfully interpreted on screen

July 27, 2012 4 comments

One of my favorite films of the last decade is long and slow, inexorable and unrelenting, poetic and profound.  It is equally expressive in its visuals and sounds as it is in its verbal narrative storytelling and dramatized actions.  The film is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is about as literal a screen adaptation as you can find of a great novel, in this case the same titled book by Ron Hansen.  The following story for The Reader is based on interviews I did with Hansen, who worked closely with the film’s writer-director Andrew Dominik.

 

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively

 

 

Ron Hansen’s masterful outlaw blues novel about Jesse James and Robert Ford faithfully interpreted on screen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader

 

Consider complete the much ballyhooed return of the Western with the new Warner Brothers film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and a deep supporting cast. Opening everywhere October 5, it comes fast on the heels of 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and the multi-Emmy Award-winning TNT mini-series Broken Trail.

Like these other oaters, Assassination is a big-budget, star-laden picture. Unlike them, which slavishly conform to or outlandishly bend genre conventions with action-packed fictional stories that pose as fact, Assassination is a subdued, ruminative tone poem anchored in history. It owes much of its restrained authenticity and power to native Omahan Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author, whose much-admired 1983 novel of the same name the film closely adheres to.

Assassination is more a Western by proxy, its psychologically complex characters and events drawn from thoroughly researched figures and incidents that just happen to be of the Old West. Hansen, a Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad, steeped himself in the history, just as the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, studied Hansen’s book and did his own digging into the Jesse James-Bob Ford canon.

Prior to this project, Hansen, the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, had less than satisfactory experiences with adaptations of his work. Atticus was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Missing Pieces, that he thought missed the point of his novel. He adapted Mariette In Ecstacy for a feature film that ended up re-edited against his and the director’s wishes. It’s never been released. A writer’s adaptation of Isn’t It Romantic? so displeased Hansen he did everything in his power to stop the film being made. He succeeded. Assassination proved a pleasant change.

 

 

 

Ron Hansen

 

 

 

“Andrew Dominik has made a very faithful adaptation,” Hansen said simply. “Virtually every word in the script is mine.”

Unusual for Hollywood, Dominik (Chopper), whom Hansen described as “fairly reclusive,” consulted with the author from the completion of the first draft of his screenplay all the way through a second draft, the actual shoot and the final edit. Not only Dominik, but actors sounded out Hansen for advice. The author twice visited the set, was made an associate producer and even has a walk-on bit — as a reporter remarking to a photographer making a wet plate image of Jesse’s corpse.

“About 60 reporters hover around watching the process, and I’m in the shot at the extreme left, midway up the screen, wearing a fake mustache and a bowler hat, just watching. You only see it for a few seconds, but I nailed the part. Andrew gave me one line, ‘You’re going to make a lot of money from this, Alex,’ but the line didn’t make it into the final cut.”

He’s pleased with how rigorously accurate the film is.

From wooden knobs for hanging clothes to vintage children’s toys, he said, “the attention to detail is very impressive. The sets and the costumes are just tremendous. It’s not going to look like a typical Western because,” contrary to popular depictions of those times the film shows, “people didn’t wear cowboy clothes back then. Jesse James wore kind of a bowler hat, a businessman’s suit, a watch and a fob and all that. They wore boots and they rode horses and they packed guns, but they didn’t look like a lot of the portrayals of Jesse James.”

Hansen and Dominik take a dim view of previous screen renderings of James, feeling the gritty complexity and downright danger of the man and the times was ignored.

“The film’s costume-production designer, Patricia Norris, really knows her stuff, so she didn’t have to consult with me…In fact, she ended up teaching me,” Hansen said. “The last robbery of the James gang was the Blue Cut (Mo.) train robbery and she has this train interior unlike any you’ve seen before. It looks so totally different but obviously based on her own research. It’s just jam-packed with people and in the place where you would normally put luggage people are lying as if on palettes.”

It’s rare a writer gets carte blanche access to the making of a film based on his work, especially when the adaptation’s by someone else, in this case Dominik, a New Zealand-born Aussie.

 

 

 

 

 

Hansen’s involvement began with a phone call in early 2004. It wasn’t the first time someone showed interest in his James novel. But this time was different.

“I got word from my agent somebody was interested in doing this. It turned out to be Warner Brothers. And from the very first Andrew Dominik was going to write the screenplay. Maybe around June my agent said Andrew wanted to see some of my screenplays and earlier books, so I sent those on to him,” he said. “Then around September Andrew showed me his first draft of the screenplay, which I really liked.

“Every once in a while I’d have a quarrel with a word and then realize he’d taken it right out of the book. I talked to Andrew a good bit about that (first draft) and then he did another draft and sent that to me, and we talked about it, too. Then I met him in December at the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Pasadena.

“We had conversations frequently after that and then the next thing I knew it was greenlighted and he was just about to head up to Canada.”

Dominik spent the first half of 2005 scouting locations in Edmonton and Calgary. Before cameras started rolling in late summer, the filmmaker wanted Hansen’s input on some casting decisions.

“He would consult with me about various actors…especially as they were interviewing people for the role of Robert Ford. ‘What do you think of this guy?’ ‘Have you seen anybody you like?’ And I would mention people I’d seen who looked like him. Andrew had two scenes for the auditions for Bob Ford. One was early on, when Bob first contacts Frank James about being his sidekick on this train robbery.

The other’s 10 years later, when Bob Ford’s alone in Creed, Colo. and has his own saloon and is about to hire a dance hall girl and she asks him what Jesse James is like. Some people could do the first, but not the second scene. Some could do the second, but not the first. Finally, Casey Affleck seemed to be the best choice.”

On his visits to the closed set Hansen was given free reign to “wander around” and to “watch scenes” unfold. “I visited the set in Edmonton September 12-15, when they were shooting scenes in Heritage Park of Jesse and the gang at his Kansas City (Mo.) home and of the aftermath of his killing in St. Joseph (Mo.). Then I went up to Calgary October 3-6 for scenes with Jesse and the Ford brothers in the house on ‘Confusion Hill’ in St. Joseph.”

He spoke to many of the principals, including Pitt and Affleck. More than making small talk, these exchanges allowed Hansen to “give them my ideas and maybe change some wording that was difficult for them.” This interaction actually began months earlier, before filming commenced.

Said Hansen, “An actor would call me up and want to know more about his character. Or about why a particular word was used. What did it mean. Would it be OK if they said this and not this. That kind of continued when I was on the set. The actors really liked having me around because they could come ask, ‘Is there something else I can say in this scene?’ Then I could just throw out a line and a minute later I’d be hearing the line said.

“Actors ad-libbed on occasion, otherwise the dialogue and voice over are straight from the book,” he said.

He’s impressed with the work of the two leads. He particularly feels Pitt’s malleable performance captures Jesse’s instability, which gave Dominik many options.

“You would see maybe seven takes of one speech he gives and he would do it in subtly different ways each time,” Hansen said. “He was really prepared for the various shadings of Jesse James’s character and to explore this guy who was really a psychopath, but a charming one who could be scary and funny and admirable within moments. And that’s true of several scenes Brad Pitt plays with Casey Affleck. He (Pitt) gets all the nuances and all the expressions. James kept people off-balance by constantly shifting his mood and Pitt does a great job of presenting that. James was a vital presence and that’s what Pitt brings. He’s constantly surprising you. You can’t anticipate what he’s going to do next.”

As in Hansen’s book, the film considers James in counterpoint to Ford, his antithetical alter ego and killer. Much has been written about each man and their relationship and motivations. Hansen finds both to be fascinating enigmas.

“Ford kind of hitched up along with the James gang because they were famous and because it seemed like easy money. He ingratiated himself with Jesse James,” Hansen said. The legend that grew in the aftermath of the two men’s fatal last meeting branded Ford a coward, but the book and the film “show that Robert Ford really wasn’t a coward, he was an opportunist,” Hansen said. “When he was threatened and felt like he was going to be killed himself, he turned on James, but it wasn’t as though James wasn’t going to turn on him either.”

 

 

 

Andrew Dominik conferring on location with Brad Pitt

 

 

“A lot of people still admire Jesse James,” the author noted, “and I wanted to impress on them he really was a psychopath. I wanted to do a kind of character-in-the-round the way Shakespeare does, where you see both his good and bad sides and get to appreciate what draws people to him. He was a star in a lot of ways, and he used it. If he entered a room all eyes would be on him.”

As for the James-Ford dynamic, Hansen said, “I think they were oil and vinegar in some ways, but at the same time they were feeding off each other. Ford was really intrinsic to the last days of Jesse James. It was almost as if James knew death was necessary and he was looking for the person to kill him, and he decided on Ford.”

Expectations will be challenged by the moody film, he said, which eschews “bullets flying around” and “blood” for “a character study of this dance with death between Jesse James and Bob Ford.”

Hansen, his wife, writer Bo Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father), and his step-children attended the film’s New York City premiere on September 18 at the Zeigfeld Theater.

“I thought the movie was superb,” Hansen said.

Reviews have been wildly enthusiastic.

All this means new life for Hansen’s 24-year-old novel. Harper Perennial has reissued a mass market paperback edition and a trade paperback version with an added postscript on the writing of the book and the making of the movie.

Meanwhile, Hansen’s other Western novel, Desperados, is under option with filmmakers. His new novel, Exiles, is slated for a May release by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It tells the story of a 19th century shipwreck, the English poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’ obsession with it and the famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, he wrote about it.

Dissecting Jesse James

October 10, 2010 1 comment

Jesse James, famous American outlaw.

Image via Wikipedia

If you are like me and you admire the film adaptation of Ron Hansen‘s masterful novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then welcome to a decided minority.  I know why most folks have problems with the movie.  It’s unusually long, slow, and deliberate.  Its two main characters are enigmatic, inscrutable, unlikable figures. There is a sinister pall of death around all the proceedings.  The work is uncompromising in taking its meandering, even indulgent path to the end, one that the very title of the film signals.  And while I would not choose this film among the few I want with me on a desert island, I do believe it is as masterful in its own medium as Hansen’s novel is in literature.  I think the film’s reputation will grow over time.  Of course, you may be among the vast majority who haven’t seen the film, as it was an abysmal box office failure.  I definitely recommend it.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) appeared in advance of a screening of the film that concluded with a Q & A with Hansen, who closely consulted the film’s writer-director, Andrew Dominik.  Hansen loved how faithful Dominik was to his novel and the author was invited to be on the set for much of the shoot.  You can find more pieces by me about Hansen on this blog.  If you haven’t read his James novel, do so, because it is a superb piece of literature that, unlike the film, moves quickly.  In fact, I recommend anything by Hansen, who is one of America’s finest writers.

Dissecting Jesse James

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so faithful to the Ron Hansen novel the author might well have adapted it himself. Filmmaker Andrew Dominick generously included the Omaha native in the process. Hansen read script drafts, offered notes, observed scenes and answered dialogue questions from stars Brad Pitt (James) and Casey Affleck (Ford).

Dominick’s fidelity to Hansen’s work resulted in as literal a translation of a full-length novel as film constraints allow. Hansen feels deep ownership in the movie. On August 23 he will take questions from Omaha novelist Timothy Schaffert and audience members following a 1 p.m. screening of James at Film Streams. The program previews the Sept. 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest Schaffert directs.

The cinematic quality of Hansen’s novels has long attracted filmmakers. James marked the third and most successful screen adaptation of his work. As “a visual writer more concerned with scene than voice,” he said, “the images come first,” not the words. “I try to make it as tangible as possible for the reader, and that’s why I employ simile and metaphor. If you just rely on the sentences to take care of themselves, it becomes kind of an amorphous, abstract kind of writing.”

“As I developed my interest in film I saw how close-ups and strange angles could actually create interest for the reader,” he said, “so I think there’s more variation of focal length and angle in my writing now than there used to be. For example, two characters in a room just staring at each other and talking is not as interesting as if the camera is on one of their lips and then sees the glint in the other one’s eye. I think that actually gives energy to the fiction writing.

“Like in Mariette in Ecstasy (the author’s 1992 novel), there’s one moment where a young nun is caring for Mariette after her first trance-like stigmatic experience, and I point out what her lips look like. When she puts Mariette’s hand into the water I describe how the blood kind of twists out of her wound into the water and pinks the water. Those things are essentially close-ups. I talk about the sound of her breathing so intricately you understand the camera’s very close to her mouth to hear that. A lot of times I do an overall picture of the landscape but then hone in, on, say, a mosquito landing on some water and its tiny ripple marks. That’s an example of going from deep focus to an extreme close-up.”

Schaffert admires how Hansen’s work “is so poetic for prose. The attention he gives each word, each sentence, each expression of the characters is just so expert and masterful. You definitely become spirited away by his imagination. There’s a marriage between the images and the language so that it’s not just vivid description but images that come from the words themselves.”

In the 4 p.m. Q & A Schaffert plans asking Hansen “what it means to write something with an image in mind and then to see someone else make that image happen. As a writer myself the idea of taking an image, bringing it into words, working it into narrative and then communicating that into someone else’s mind is just rife with failed possibility.”

Hansen’s precise prose in James amounted to cutting in the camera.

“Most of the time the prose was so clear about what the actions were they could only have happened in a limited number of ways,” he said. “Now, there’s always going to be changes in camera movements and so forth. For example, before Bob Ford goes in to kill Jesse James he’s out in the backyard washing his face from a pump. I just had the water sloshing down his temple, but Andrew had the camera go way above to look down at the water in a bowl or bucket, with Bob’s face reflected in that water. I would not have considered that, but it’s of a piece of how films are made — taking a scene from lots of different angles.”

Hansen wishes he could avail himself of filmmakers’ resources when writing a novel.

“I really envy the information they have access to. Art director Patricia Norris knew exactly what kind of clothes people would wear. I was laboring in a total vacuum in that regard. In my bit part as a journalist they had me wear a suit from the 19th century. That is so useful to know exactly what those pieces of clothing feel like, and novelists never have that. When they dressed the set for the train robbery they had a railroad car from that period. For interior scenes there were real antiques. I didn’t have access to that stuff, so in terms of scene setting it was really remarkable. That kind of attention to detail was all the way through the film. That’s what a novelist relishes.”

Critics knocked the film’s slow takes but Hansen likes that it disrupts our rapid-cut expectations “by setting a more 19th century mood.” He likes the music underscoring the film. He feels Pitt and Affleck hit all the right notes in their roles.

Schaffert hopes his work gets the same filmic treatment one day.

 

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