Traveling the Road to Perdition with Max Allan Collins
By Michael McCarty
Reprinting this interview of Max Collins that was originally in the book Esoteria-Land, which is now out of print:
From comic books to cinema, from pocket pin-ups to trading cards of serial killers in the pen, from mystery novels to music CDs, Max Allan Collins is truly a Renaissance writer. That is why it is no mystery that the Muscatine, Iowa man is such a multitalented writer.
Mystery and horror novelist, movie producer and director, screenplay author, comic book and trading card scribe, and musician – he is successful in everything he does.
The author of over seventy-five books, Max is a two-time winner of the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus award for his Nate Heller historical thrillers.
Max Collins has also gained recognition for his movies. He wrote the screenplay for The Expert, wrote and directed Mommy and Mommy’s Day, and also wrote and directed the documentary on Mickey Spillane called Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.
His graphic novel, Road to Perdition, was turned into a movie starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks. He recently wrote the movie novelization of X-Files: I Want to Believe. He is also finishing some Mickey Spillane books because the mystery writer didn’t have the energy to complete them. The Goliath Bone was the first Mike Hammer book that Collins finished for Spillane. He is currently working on two more Mike Hammer books – The Big Bang and King of the Wheels.
Taking a breather from his extremely busy schedule, he explained his penchant for horror, mystery, and movies.
When did you start writing?
MAX ALLAN COLLINS: I started seriously trying to send stuff out in the mail since junior high and high school. I usually spent my summers in junior and high school trying to write a book. Then I’d spend the school year trying to market it – with no success. Then I would start all over again.
I sold my first book, Bait Money, the last week when I was in college. That was a little moment of triumph for me.
You had written several manuscripts before Bait Money was published. What was it about that manuscript that got the book published?
COLLINS: Bait Money drew upon my own life, whereas my earlier books – with the partial exception of Mourn the Living, which was eventually published – drew from books and movies I loved, and not my experience. The Jon character in Bait Money was a kind of hippie kid, and this was a first in crime novels. The bank stuff (including the term “bait money” – that is, marked bills given out to bank robbers by tellers) came from my wife Barb’s experience working in a bank.
How did your graphic novel, Road to Perdition, go from that format to the silver screen? Also, the Quad-Cities were downplayed in the movie. And John Looney’s name was changed to John Rooney. How did you feel about those changes?
COLLINS: Road to Perdition was shown by my literary agent to a Hollywood agent, who was smart enough to see the father-and-son connection and submitted it to Richard and Dean Zanuck, a father-and-son producing team. Richard Zanuck, one of the true surviving greats in the business, showed it to Steven Spielberg who loved the graphic novel, and, of course, everything else fell into place.
I have no problem with any of the changes in the movie. It’s a great film and will be watched and discussed as long as movies are watched and discussed. Our graphic novel stands on its own and benefits from this wonderful treatment. Some changes made by Sam Mendes and David Self, director and screenwriter respectively, are improvements, others are not; but each is its own work, and I believe both will stand the test of time.
The Looney change is ironic, and relates to the graphic novel (i.e., comic book) source material – Hollywood found the name too “comic booky,” not understanding its reality. Earlier cuts of the movie included more Quad-Cities identifiers –the opening at one time had a superimposed “Rock Island, Illinois, 1931.” The scene in which Hanks kills the gangster at the gambling joint/whorehouse/nightclub is in Davenport, Iowa (the Government Bridge is in the background of the establishing shot).
Speaking of movies, what are the differences between the book and the movie of Mommy?
COLLINS: When we join the characters in the movie, a lot has already happened. With the book I went back several months to another key point in the story of Mommy and her daughter. The first third or more of the novel is material that is not in the movie. Thereafter, it follows the movie fairly closely, but is also expanded.
The Mother’s Day Weekend when you released Mommy’s Day must have been busy for you….
COLLINS: Of course (laughs). A lot of things were going on. There was an audio book of Mommy and Mommy’s Day read by the star of the movie, Patty McCormick, that came out. Leisure Books published the Mommy’s Day book and it was timed with the popularly-priced release of a collector’s edition of Mommy and Mommy’s Day from VCI Home Video. There was a little Mommy mania that sparked some interest in the property. And who knows, maybe we’ll do a third movie one of these days.
If you were to go back and redo Mommy and Mommy’s Day, what would you do differently?
COLLINS: There are subtle things in both movies. Any time you do a low-budget movie, you are on a tight shooting schedule and time is against you. I can look at Mommy’s Day and see where one day we tried to do too much. Every one of those scenes, I feel we could have done a little better. Because of time, not grabbing every shot that you could have gotten. There’s one point I wish I had a close-up of Patty to cut to. It’s the little stuff like that.
Generally speaking, I’m very satisfied with both pictures. What I’d do different about Mommy is I would spend less budget. I know that sounds funny (laughs), since they are both low-budget films. I believe I could make Mommy over today and have it look better and spend half the budget. Mommy’s Day literally had less than half the budget that Mommy did, and people think it looks better. The second picture was extremely well laid-out; we did it in three weeks as opposed to the first picture, which was shot in four. If I make a Mommy 3, I will probably shoot it in two weeks.
You and your wife Barbara worked on a novel together called Regeneration for Leisure Books. That was an interesting medical thriller story line – tell us a little about the book.
COLLINS: It was based on a short story we wrote in Hot Blood X. It’s a novel that deals with the Baby Boomer generation growing older and having lived a life that hasn’t prepared them for retirement. They haven’t saved their money or anything. This is my generation and it is a very selfish generation.
The book is about a company that takes aging Baby Boomers and through plastic surgery and various drugs give them new identities and lives – teaches them how to appear to be younger and enter into the Generation X world of business.
Of course, there were some sinister elements in this. We find out that the company is milking these people out of 50 percent of what they earn. These Boomers are now retreads, regenerated people in their fifties, and they make them look like they’re in their thirties so they can bilk them until they drop. It gets fairly nasty.
The Nate Heller series is interesting because it’s fiction, but the mysteries are based on true incidents. What was the real-life mystery behind Blood and Thunder?
COLLINS: Blood and Thunder is about the assassination of Huey Long. I came up with a theory which is probably the closest to solving the case. That’s part of what I try to do with the Nate Heller books. I take crimes from the Thirties and Forties that have never been solved – or whose general conclusions are thought by many to be incorrect. Then I dig into these cases. I research them as if I’m writing a nonfiction book. I get all the facts together. I develop my theory of what really happened with the crime. Then I tell the story through the vehicle of Nate Heller, an American private eye in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlow/Mike Hammer tradition. It’s a great combination of history and mystery.
You have written several movie novelizations, or movie tie-ins. Is there more room or freedom in these to develop a character than in a motion picture? Can you take a lot of liberties?
COLLINS: It varies. It’s a very tricky rope to walk. One of the reasons I’ve become sort of a ticket in that odd little pocket of popular literature is because of the approach I take. I try to create a book that reads like a book – I just don’t refry the screenplay or the movie.
If you vary much from the script, you can get in trouble, because you’re writing the tie-in to a licensing product of the movie. Almost everybody who reads the novel will have seen the movie. The author will not have seen the movie – the movie isn’t out yet.
One of my favorite novelizations of yours is The Mummy. Both the tie-in and movie were spectacular.
COLLINS: From the author of Mommy – The Mummy (laughs). It was a remake of the Boris Karloff classic and it has, as you might have seen, been extremely reworked.
There are some Indiana Jones elements inserted into this. The hero is a real solider of fortune type. The movie has its gory horror elements but there is also humor. It reminded me of Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 type of movies. You don’t just get one mummy – you have an army of living-dead mummies.
The Mummy is an interesting character. We see him early on. The first part of the movie takes place in Ancient Egypt and we see him before he is a mummy. Like my character in Regeneration, he also generates as well, by consuming various body organs of the people who disturbed his slumber.
I liked the humor and the real horrific stuff, the way it was put together like Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) at his best. It is also fun doing something with one of the Universal classic monsters.
Besides writing the movie tie-in to Dick Tracy you were also a film consultant for the movie….
COLLINS: Yes. I wrote the novelization. They actually took some stuff from the novelization and did some reshooting and looping of dialogue. They told me later I had helped fix some potholes that they were having trouble with. That is a real rarity, but a real compliment to me: the movie, in part, was based on its own novelization.
You scripted the Dick Tracy comic strip for fifteen years. Do you miss doing it now?
COLLINS: No. I thought I would, but I don’t. I’ve never been busier. It was a tough thing to lose. I didn’t like the circumstances under which I lost it. But in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Did you get a chance to meet any of the stars from the Dick Tracy movie?
COLLINS: Yes. Warren Beatty was really nice to me. The most down-to-earth person and the most fun was Dustin Hoffman. He was just real sweet. He had his family there with him at the premiere of the movie at Disney World in Florida. Dustin played Mumbles in the movie. I was doing a Mumbles story at the time. We talked about the current story with Mumbles in it. He got a kick out of doing the Mumbles dialogue. I told him the dialogue I just put in the script and Dustin read it back to me as Mumbles – that was a thrill.
With your Mommy movies and having Road to Perdition turned into a major film, shouldn’t you be living in Hollywood instead of Iowa?
COLLINS: The secret to what we accomplished with Mommy is that we did it in Iowa. My goal isn’t to use this as a stepping-stone to get to L.A. My dream is to make low-budget, high-quality suspense and horror movies in Iowa, with the Iowa crews and enough Hollywood name actors to make sure we’re marketable. If my plan works, we’ll see it on cable or home video. I hope to make another and another and another.
How did you meet Patty McCormick?
COLLINS: I just tracked her down. I first wrote Mommy as a short story that would later appear in the anthology Fear Itself. I sent it to her. She said she would commit to it, but she had to see a script first. So I wrote the Mommy script: I wrote it just for her. She said yes. Then we went out and raised the money for the production of the film.
The comic book mini-series for Dark Horse with your artistic collaborator Terry Beatty (Johnny Dynamite – Underworld) featured cameos by Ed Wood, Jr., and you wrote this long before Tim Burton’s Ed Wood movie came out. Are you a big fan of the late director?
COLLINS: Yes. I like Ed Wood. My favorite film would probably be The Bride & the Beast. Ed Wood movies were some of the first things I got on videotape. He’s been cultishly popular among psychotronic movie buffs for a long time.
I’ve heard that word before. What does “psychotronic” mean?
COLLINS: It’s a term that describes any oddball movie, particularly science-fiction, horror and other films from the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. It includes movies by Ed Wood, Jack Webb, and Mickey Spillane. Anything that has a lot of personality and is a little raw.
I’ve written a lot of video box copy for a company called Something Weird, which releases real oddball stuff like strange horror movies and nudie-cutie movies. I’m very much against the idea of movies that are so bad they are good. I don’t see Ed Wood as a terrible filmmaker. I have seen thousands of movies by directors worse than Ed Wood.
What did you think of the Ed Wood movie?
COLLINS: I liked it a lot. There were some people who thought it was condescending – but I thought it was a real Valentine to him. I saw it twice at the theater. I haven’t seen a movie twice in the theater for a very long time.
Do you hope Mommy will become a cult classic?
COLLINS: It’s aimed at the TV and home video audience. It’s not designed for theatrical release. The cast is hand-picked: people I was able to connect with. Mickey Spillane did it as a favor to me. Majel Barrett is in it from the Star Trek TV series. I knew Majel through Techno Comix. We got Jason Miller – he’s from The Exorcist – a good horror connection. I think it’s a terrific cast.
Speaking of Mickey Spillane, you two have done several projects together. Was it exciting to work with your idol?
COLLINS: It’s one of the great joys of my life, knowing him. He’s really my idol. When I was 13 years old, it was reading Mickey Spillane books that made me want to become a writer when I grew up. Having him in my life was a dream come true.
What is the key to writing a good mystery?
COLLINS: The character is the most important thing. If you put the puzzle or the mystery first, you’re in trouble. People will find a mystery satisfying, even if it wasn’t terribly hard to figure out, as long as the characters are interesting.
Any advice for beginning writers?
COLLINS: The secret to my success is that I began when I was young. Write and learn to write in school where you can practice the craft and get some feedback. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to follow trends. By the time it’s a trend, it’s over. You’ve got to try and make your own trends.
COLLINS: My literal last words will probably be, “Ask the editor for a two-week extension.”
If you like this interview with Max Collins, please check out my book:
MODERN MYTHMAKERS: 35 INTERVIEWS WITH HORROR AND SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS AND FILMMAKERS
by Michael McCarty
The links for MODERN MYTHMAKERS:
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