by Brian Clarey
I must have given away all my Larry Brown books back in the days when I used to entertain at my place, often late at night but sometimes in the early morning, and we’d argue about literature and music and the Human Condition. We were so young, so green, we had nothing else to talk about.
Probably, just as the sun came up, I handed a copy of a Larry Brown book to my most favored companion of the evening, imparting it like a piece of secret knowledge, followed up with a moment of frankness and clarity declaring Larry Brown’s writing to be what it’s all about… or something like that.
Brown started publishing books right around the time I started writing: the late 1980s, though he had been pecking away on his typewriter for years by then. He came on strong, because even in the early days his writing stood out. It was Southern — way Southern — with a bleak Mississippi vibe similar to Faulkner’s, though seen from the other side of the tracks, and the muscle of Harry Crews but more relatable. The characters in Brown’s short stories carried coolers of ice in their pickups to keep their beers cold in between drives to country bars. They fought with heart and loved in a way both sad and beautiful.
By the time Joe, his second novel, came out in 1991, Brown had begun to tease a sort of morality from his cast. The story — about family, love and despair, because aren’t they all? — tethers a leathery foreman and a callously cruel antagonist to the fate of a child who holds onto hope even as things keep getting worse.
By the time Gary Hawkins wrote the screenplay for Joe 10 years ago — he says he hasn’t changed a word — he had already made a documentary about Brown, The Rough South of Larry Brown, and turned three of Brown’s stories into shorts while he was on the directing faculty at UNCSA School of Filmmaking.
He made one of them, “Boy & Dog,” with a crew of his students at UNCSA. Among them were Jeff Nichols, whose work Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, screened at RiverRun last year; and David Gordon Green, perhaps the school’s most famous recent graduate, who wrote, produced and directed George Washington, All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express and several episodes of “Eastbound and Down,” among a horde of other projects.
Green directed Joe, and he’ll be on hand for the screening Saturday night at the UNCSA Main Theatre. Hawkins, who now works at Duke University teaching screenwriting, acting for the camera and nonfiction filmmaking, will be there too.
Hawkins’ first exposure to Larry Brown was Facing the Music, a collection of short stories that launched Brown into the literary world. Hawkins had just released The Rough South of Harry Crews when Brown’s publicist Katharine Walton slipped him a copy.
That night, while driving on 15-501 in Chapel Hill, he found himself glancing at the cover.
“I pulled into a dry-cleaners in a strip mall and read Facing the Music,” he says. “I read the first story, then I started skipping around.”
He says he couldn’t stop.
“I read the whole book in a parking lot under a sodium light and then drove back home,” he says.
When he got there, he sent Brown a copy of his Harry Crews documentary.
“Larry called it ‘a thing of beauty,’” Hawkins remembers.
Brown spent the night in Hawkins’ Carrboro home shortly after the book came out. The first thing he asked for was ice, Hawkins says. Then Coke, then the location of the nearest ABC store.
“We just started drinking and smoking cigarettes and it was like meeting an old friend,” he says. “There was not much ice to break.”
Brown, he says, “drank me under the table really fast,” then asked if they were anywhere near Quail Ridge Books. Hawkins told him it was two cities away.
“We need to be there in 20 minutes,” Brown said.
Hawkins remembers Carolina was playing that night, that the state fair was running and that it was pouring rain. When they got to the bookstore where Brown was to do a reading, Hawkins looked for an aisle to curl up in.
“I slept it off in the children’s books section,” he says. He remembers the author kicking him awake a couple hours later.
“He said, ‘Come on, bro. Kay [Gibson] wants to go drinking,’” Hawkins remembers. It makes him laugh, and maybe a little sad, too.
Over what turned out to be some of the last years of Brown’s life, Hawkins constructed his doc, The Rough South of Larry Brown.
“All I saw was work ethic,” Hawkins says. “Hard work. The first time I went down there, he was writing in his dining room at the time. Larry used a typewriter. He eventually moved into a utility room across the garage. His ‘cool pad.’ The last time he had moved into the shack, about three or four miles from his property.”
Brown built the shack himself, board by board, during the filming of Rough South.
The film came out in 2002. Brown died in November 2004. He was 53.
To understand the man, Hawkins had to travel south. All of Brown’s work is firmly rooted in Mississippi red dirt.
“[There’s a] sense of place,” Hawkins says. “There’s a feel to it you couldn’t quite put your finger on.
“It’s real hot. That gulf sky is real busy. I’ve been to Brazil, Uganda. I’ve been to some real unique places and Mississippi is one of them.”
The original Joe screenplay, the one Hawkins wrote 10 years ago, takes place in the state’s north country, on its desolate highways and endless pulpwood forests.
He trimmed down the novel to fit into a feature length screenplay, roughly 40 prose pages. Joe the book is an ornate, detailed character study while the film by necessity works in broad strokes and subtle detail.
Hawkins kept his eye on the main characters and theme — the story — and tried to stay true.
“Larry had all this stuff going on that came back around,” Hawkins says, “and it was beautiful. There was all this stuff with Wade [the father in the story]. I knew that at some point, Joe goes his way, Gary [the son] goes his way and Wade goes his. It’s a lot more like life that way.”
When he wrote it in 2004, he says, “I was in a bad place. I wrote it then, and I didn’t change a word.”
Ten years later he sent it off to his former student, David Gordon Green, who told Hawkins that he should think twice before letting it go.
“He advised me not to let go of it,” Hawkins says. “But, he said, ‘On the other hand, if you do let go of it, I will make you a hell of a movie.’
“Green made it a personal film,” Hawkins says, “but I’ve never seen the guy do anything else, and I’ve known him since he was a freshman in college.”
Their relationship began during Green’s freshman year at UNCSA, then known simply as the School of the Arts. Green approached the film professor on campus.
“He said, ‘I hear you have a framed letter from Terrence Malick on your wall,’” Hawkins remembers, “And he showed me a picture of Malick he had in his wallet. David Gordon Green carries around a picture of Terrence Malick in his wallet.”
“There are two kinds of students,” he continues. “Ones who get Malick and ones who don’t.”
So he trusted Green’s decision to move the setting to Austin, Texas and change some details of the story accordingly.
“I moved to Austin years ago,” Green says. “I’ve had an amazing experience working with the film community and I just really wanted to ride that wave of momentum and stability by keeping it local. In doing that, I didn’t want to pretend I was in Mississippi. I was casting Texas accents, which are much different than Mississippi accents.”
“The novel is untouched,” Hawkins says. “A movie is just a third thing — there’s the novel, the screenplay and then the film. It’s not hooked to the novel. You can say it is, but it isn’t.”
“It was a book then a screenplay then a production then an editing effort,” Green says, “and now it’s a marketing effort. These are the various lives that a film can have. It can go on and on and on. I look at it like I was making an adaptation of Gary’s script adapted from Larry’s novel.”
Hawkins also appreciates the contributions of a genuine Hollywood star, Nicolas Cage, who plays the lead character in the film.
In typical fashion, Cage immersed himself in Brown’s body of work to prepare for the role, but because of the way he practices his craft, Cage’s Joe is sort of a mix between the scripted character, the author and Cage himself. Hawkins allows that Cage’s interest is what made the project an immediate go.
“It took 10 years and one afternoon” to get this film made, Hawkins says.
And as soon as he let it go, “the property did what it wanted to do.”
“It’s called an ‘intellectual property,’ but it’s an idea,” he says. “Ideas want to be known. That’s the goal of an idea. It’s as if I was holding it captive.”
I can’t find any of my Larry Brown books in my overstuffed and chronically disorganized bookshelves, except for a paperback copy of Big Bad Love, his second collection of stories.
I know at one time I had them all, but I must have given them away, one at a time, my impulse to spread them out into the world stronger than the one that compels me to mount the books I’ve read on my shelves like trophies. Stories are just ideas. And ideas want to be known.
There will be a special screening of Joe on Saturday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the UNCSA Main Theatre. Director David Gordon Green will be in attendance, as will his old professor, Gary Hawkins.