I’m… I’m… I’m just a grifter, Tom. I’m… I’m… I’m… I’m… I’m an nobody! But I’ll tell you what, I never crossed a friend, Tom. I never killed anybody, I never crossed a friend, nor you, I’ll bet. We’re not like those animals! This is not us! Th… th… this is some hop dream! It’s a dream, Tommy! I’m praying to you! I can’t die! I can’t die… out here in the woods, like a dumb animal! In the woods, LIKE A DUMB ANIMAL! Like a dumb animal! I can’t… I can’t… I CAN’T DIE OUT HERE IN THE WOODS!… like a dumb animal. I can’t… die!”
Miller’s Crossing came to my attention via Karl Mueller, a good friend and talented screenwriter (The Divide). He had recently read The Odds and given me notes, and he suggested I check out the Coen Brothers’ classic, calling it a good inspiration for my upcoming rewrites.
Boy, was he right.
Making character passes is one of the great joys of rewriting. I think that’s more a term of art from the screenwriting world, where a writer will come in to bolster a specific character in a script, but I feel like the idea has some utility in the realm of novel-writing, too. One of my chief antagonists in The Odds, a small-time Odd named Clovis Wine (aka “the dry man”) needed quite a bit of work as I moved forward. Karl noted that I relied too much on physical descriptions:
The dry man clutched a glass of water in his hands. He gulped it down with both hands, and then his mouth forced apart the islands and archipelagos of bone-dead flesh that composed his cheeks. A smile.
He was right, especially in light of the important role Clovis plays in the larger storyline. To remedy that, Karl suggested I watch Miller’s Crossing and focus on John Turturro’s character, Bernie, aka the “Schmarter,” or “Schmata” in Irish gangster-speak. Jump to 1:06 to see him in action in this great old theatrical trailer:
Voice is key. For me, I found it all too easy to get wrapped up in the unusual descriptions, but when I went back and took another pass at Clovis, I wound up adding an entire subplot for him. I wrote the first draft entirely from the perspective of my hero, Eldridge, but that turned out to be too limiting. Adding a separate storyline about Clovis and his small-time oddsmaking (a demented kind of sportsbook) allowed me to spend more time inside his head and to get a better idea of his voice. I started with the “Schmarter” as my model, but as I continued writing, I found him to be even more talkative than I expected. I wound up writing him one of my favorite speeches in the book in a scene that recalls the “I wanna see you squirm” moment seen in the trailer for Miller’s Crossing.
Miller’s Crossing had other influences on my novel, too. It’s funny — I had seen Miller’s Crossing when I wrote The Odds, but my memory of it was pretty vague. Little did I know how much the Coen Brothers’ gangster drama had lingered in my subconscious.