Walk Among the Tombstones: Starring Liam Neeson

In the early 1990s, novelist Lawrence Block wrote “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” the 10th book in his best-selling series that follows the cases of troubled private detective Matthew Scudder in hi quest for redemption.

The four-time Edgar Award-winning writer readily admits that the ex-cop remains a character who simply will not leave his mind: “I started writing about Matthew Scudder in the mid-1970s.  There have been moments over the years where it’s seemed as though the series was done, but there always seemed to be more I had to say about him.”

Fortunately for readers who can’t get enough of Scudder’s dark trials and harrowing tribulations, Block has crafted 17 novels and one book-length collection of short stories based on his protagonist. In fact, the series is so popular that it has been in print for more than 40 years and been translated into more than 20 languages.

More than a decade ago, the novel was brought to the attention of Jersey Films by Scott Frank, an accomplished screenwriter with whom the production company had frequently collaborated. Frank was certain that Block’s signature book would translate into a harrowing suspense thriller, and knew that the filmmakers would be intrigued by its premise. Indeed, they were moved by the story’s tortured soul who sought redemption for past transgressions, as well as the page-turning nature of the intimately documented crimes.

Producer Stacey Sher reflects: “There are two things always going on in Lawrence’s novels: Scudder’s internal struggle and whatever mystery or intense situation that he is going through in each book. The character’s under extreme pressure, and the situations are extremely tense.” Sher’s faith in the development process was buoyed by her trust that “there is no expiration date on a good story.” She explains this dogmatic belief: “The universe protected the movie for 12 years and everything finally fell into place, which allowed Scott to write and direct it and Liam to star in it.”

The producer acknowledges that what kept her with this screenplay for so long was the extraordinary piece of writing that resulted from Frank and Block’s collaboration. “Why we’re all drawn to this story is that we love characters who navigate against all odds in search of resolution and evolution. This is a journey of a character in the middle of a thrilling, exciting genre movie.”

Producer Michael Shamberg, who partnered with Sher and fellow Tombstones producer Danny DeVito at Jersey Films during this period, extrapolates upon the thriller’s process from book to script to screen: “Scott wrote two of our best movies, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and he wanted to become a director as well. After those two, he directed a terrific first film called The Lookout, so the combination of him having written this script several years earlier, our confidence from a history together and the fact that he had now directed something made him the perfect choice.”

Frank admits that he loved the idea of taking this “old-school mystery” and adapting it into a film starring an ex-cop who struggles with not only his eight-year sobriety, but demons from his final actions on the force. He says: “Part of me had always wanted to do a classic private-eye movie, and what I liked about this book was there was a very dark element to it. It wasn’t just a mystery; there was something frightening about it, and the main character was as afraid as anybody else.”

The filmmaker walks us through the story’s beginning: “Matt Scudder is an unlicensed private detective who works off the books for people who can’t go to the police or to anybody legitimate. As Scudder puts it, he does favors for people and in return they give him gifts. We meet a drug trafficker who lives in Brooklyn and is trying to lead a quiet, hidden life when his wife is kidnapped, then killed after he pays the ransom. The dealer hires Scudder to find the men who did it and bring them to him so that he can exact his revenge.”

For Block’s legions of fans, it was mandatory that the adaptation was a faithful one. Frank explains why it was such a lengthy timeline before Tombstones got the green light, and how global action star Liam Neeson became the fixture on their short list: “Larry was excited from the beginning, and we had a number of conversations about the project. I kept him involved from the start. I spent a lot of time with him and did my research with him and talked about the characters.

Then it was just a waiting game, and when Liam finally came on, he was very excited because he was the sort of man Larry had always seen as his Matt Scudder. It was worth the wait because he ended up getting the exact guy he wanted for his character.” The prolonged development of the script, and the inherently unique needs of the two media, allowed Frank to tinker with a few details of Block’s book. For example, he decided to move the timeline up a few years and set the story in 1999, emphasizing Scudder’s technophobic ways.

The writer-director explains: “It’s right before the millennium and all the panic about what’s going to happen in the year 2000. One character says, ‘Everybody’s always afraid of the wrong thing.’ The truth is, the really bad thing that happened–9/11–was a couple years later. I always thought of these killers. They were a harbinger of things to come and nobody was paying attention. We’re usually looking at the wrong thing.”