Hap and Leonard: From East Texas to Hollywood
A brief oral history of the new television show based on Joe R. Lansdale’s books—and how Hollywood learned to love the Nacogdoches native.
If the universe were fair and Hollywood were wise, then Joe R. Lansdale movies and TV shows would be a cottage industry by now. The 64-year-old Nacogdoches novelist, whom we recently profiled, writes the kind of books ideally suited to screen adaptation: swaggering outlaw characters, punchy down-home dialogue, a Tarantino-like affinity for mixing laid-back hang-outs with gory gun battles. (Lansdale’s characters might be discussing the merits of Hank Williams in one moment and charging kamikaze-style into a Dixie Mafia encampment in the next.) Despite all this, there have been only two feature-length adaptations of Lansdale’s work to date—2003’s Bubba Ho-Tep and 2014’s Cold in July—and while both films were well-liked, they got limited releases and played to niche audiences.
“Studio big shots want tried and true, especially stories that emulate previously successful movies,” Bubba Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli, who had to self-finance that movie, told me. “And that ain’t Joe.”
Tonight, the studio big shots are finally giving Lansdale his due. At 9 p.m. CST, SundanceTV will debut Hap and Leonard, a new series based on Lansdale’s novels about a crime-fighting East Texas odd couple (Hap: white, liberal, straight; Leonard: black, Republican, gay).
The show isn’t just TV’s first major foray into Lansdale’s world; it has a chance to be a genuinely big deal. The series’ co-creators, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, are the same director-writer team that turned Lansdale’s Cold in July into a scrappy, scary Sundance Film Festival hit, and now they’re working with a bigger budget and a cast made in prestige TV heaven. Michael Kenneth Williams (best known for playing the iconic stick-up man Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire) brings wounded-boy pathos and a live-wire crackle to the role of Leonard; Christina Hendricks (who played Joan Harris on AMC’s Mad Men) inhabits the sultry, calculating Trudy, Hap’s bad-news ex; and James Purefoy, a veteran English actor with extensive TV credits (Rome, The Following), gives a soulful, regret-soaked performance as Hap, Lansdale’s alter ego.
Watching the shaggy and supremely fun Hap and Leonard makes you wonder why no one made something like it sooner—like twenty years ago. It’s not as if Hollywood hasn’t been aware of Lansdale’s dynamic duo. From the first Hap and Leonard novel onward—1990’s Savage Season—studios have bought options and commissioned scripts and even gone so far as to attach actors and directors to various Hap and Leonard projects. But before today, all of that had come to nothing—the two characters had never lived anywhere other than the page. Below, our conversations with Lansdale, Mickle, Damici, Purefoy and others about how they finally brought Hap Collins and Leonard Pine to the screen—and how they struggled to get it right.
Before they could film Hap and Leonard, Mickle and Damici needed to prove that they could make Lansdale work on the big screen.
Joe Lansdale: I’ve been fortunate in that ever since the late eighties, I’ve had film options on my books constantly, but for whatever reason, nothing would ever get made. I guess the time was never right, or things just did not come together correctly. Nothing until Don Coscarelli made Bubba Ho-Tep. Cold in July had been under option before. John Irvin, who directed The Dogs of War was supposed to do it, and I even wrote a script for it. But like everything else, we could never get it off the ground. Then I heard from Jim Mickle.
Jim Mickle (co-creator, Hap and Leonard; director and co-screenwriter, Cold in July): That was in late 2005, early 2006. At that time, I had just finished my first movie, Mulberry St, which is a very New York movie, and I was kind of looking to cleanse my palette a little bit. I remember I had a stack of Joe’s novels—there’s no better way to get New York stories off the brain than to read a stack of Joe—and Cold in July was in that stack somewhere. I thought, This is the one. So I reached out to Joe, pitched him on how we wanted to make a Cold in July film, and I sent him a copy of Mulberry St. It hadn’t even premiered. I didn’t know if anyone was going to dig it or not.
Lansdale: [Mulberry St] was real low budget, practically shot in this guy’s house. But the movie was terrific. I just said, “Guys, you’ve got it. You can do Cold in July.”
Mickle: We found out quickly why Joe’s stuff was always stalling out: people were just a little bit afraid of the tone. They didn’t understand how all those genre elements were going to mix together, and they just thought it was a little bit darker than felt safe. So it was tough. We had to go to him a couple times and say, “Hey, we’re going to make another movie, but it doesn’t mean Cold in July isn’t going to happen. In fact, we hope it’s going to be sort of a stepping stone to get Cold in July made.” And kudos to him, he trusted us.
Nick Damici (co-creator, Hap and Leonard; co-screenwriter, Cold in July): We were doing other movies, but that whole time Mickle just had this thing up his ass about making Cold in July.
Mickle: Our third film, We Are What We Are, opened it up for us. People started to really pay attention to us, and then Michael C. Hall read our Cold in July script and got very excited about it. Once he came onboard, that attracted Don Johnson and Sam Shepard. Then it was a dominoes thing.
Lansdale: They had it for seven years, but they finally did it.
After the success of Cold in July in early 2014, Mickle, Damici, and Lansdale dared to think bigger.
Lansdale: Hap and Leonard had had interest. I’d optioned the books before. Ted Tally, who did The Silence of the Lambs, had done a script on Mucho Mojo [the second Hap and Leonard novel]. It was supposed to star Josh Lucas and Don Cheadle. But it fell apart. Over the years, I wrote a script for Two-Bear Mambo [the third Hap and Leonard novel], but that didn’t get made either. And Savage Season [the first Hap and Leonard novel] was optioned by another screenwriter, and at one point, John Badham [director of Saturday Night Fever and WarGames] was going to make it. But then the last I heard with that Badham project was that they were going to move Hap and Leonard to Colorado and have it take place in some whitewater rapids. I thought, What? Thank goodness that never got made.
Mickle: We were literally finishing up post-production on Cold in July when we met with SundanceTV and pitched them on a Hap and Leonard series. They weren’t sure about it. They were like, “We love this concept, but we’re not sure how the show would work.” Some SundanceTV executives came to the Sundance Film Festival when Cold in July premiered, and I think that did it. I remember seeing them at the party afterwards, and they were really in love with how we translated Joe’s tone to the screen. From there we started writing a pilot for them. Then it was a year-long process of writing that pilot and waiting for their response. We still weren’t sure it was going to happen. It all came together Thanksgiving 2014.
James Purefoy (actor, Hap in Hap and Leonard): I got involved with it because of my friend Michael Kenneth Williams. We’d worked together before, and, purely by chance, we happened to be at the same party in New York. I was asking what he was doing, and he was telling me that he was working on this Hap and Leonard show. I think they had someone else in mind at that stage to play Hap. Then a couple of days later that actor dropped out, and Michael called me and said, “I’d love for you to come do this job with me.”
Michael Kenneth Williams (actor, Leonard in Hap and Leonard)*: James and I first got a chance to work together on a project that we filmed in South Africa. We trolled around Cape Town and had a lot of fun. I always felt it was unfinished business between him and me, so I was really happy that we were able to reunite for this.
Purefoy: I loved the character of Hap. It seemed to me that he was a new kind of man. He was a guy who worked very much off the back foot. He wasn’t a front-foot kind of person, throwing himself into situations. He was a man who would look at a situation and try to figure it out before doing anything about it. There was a wisdom to him. And he was a man who spoke his feelings and wasn’t afraid to show fear. To me, all of that is a lot edgier than macho, cool, and sarcasm. I wanted to explore that.
Mickle: I remember we did a table read with the network. The whole cast was there, a lot of the department heads were there, and we asked Joe to come and read [the stage directions] in the script. It was really cool, because it was kind of a cross between a script reading and a live reading by an author. People loved it. His voice really set the tone of what we were doing.
*From Sundance TV’s press kit. Williams was unavailable for an interview.
Even a studio green light and a top-notch cast didn’t guarantee that a Brit and a bunch of New Yorkers were going to be able to pull-off a quintessentially East Texas show.
Lansdale: When we got to set in Baton Rouge, I gave out copies of Whut Makes You Thank Teksuns Tawk Funny? to Michael and James. Karen bought it for them. They needed it.
Pamela Lansdale (Joe’s niece, retired Smith County homicide detective, and Joe’s personal assistant on Hap and Leonard): There was a dialect coach, but that didn’t go so well. The actors would come to Joe. Christina [Hendricks] has some Southern roots, and she seemed to pick it up easier, but James [Purefoy] would come to Joe a lot. Right before filming, he’d come over and say, “Joe, how would you say this?” Joe would laugh and say, “Look, there’s no trying to sound like me, because nobody can sound like me. But this is how I’d say it.”
Purefoy: I had a lot on my plate because obviously, I’m an Englishman playing Hap, and the East Texas accent is notoriously hard even among American actors. But the truth is that Joe’s accent is much stronger than television will allow. One of the irritating things that happened is that I learned his accent, and then the network went: “We know he sounds like that, but we’d rather you just backed off from it a little bit.” Joe’s accent is really extreme.
Mickle: Even more than the accent, people hear Joe’s voice and just instantly catch some of that vibe and some of that tone. That was really great to have.
Purefoy: I would go to Joe for a lot of things, not just pronunciation. It was everything from “How would Hap feel about this?” to “Give me a move, Joe.” You know he’s a martial arts expert, right? In the script we had a direction that Hap punched someone. I didn’t think Hap would throw a big haymaker. So I said to Joe, “Give me something fast and efficient here that will disable someone and take them to the ground so that they’re not dangerous anymore.”
Damici: I never met an author that I really liked that much, and I’ve met a few authors in my time. But Joe is different. When we were shooting Hap and Leonard, he was there a lot, and me and him really got to hang out. It’s weird. I’m about 10 years younger than Joe. He’s from East Texas, and I’m from Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. You couldn’t get two more opposite people, but it felt like we were raised by the same family. We have the same sense of humor. Every time we were together on set, all we did was laugh.
Mickle: When he was there, Joe would constantly say, “This is yours, make it yours.” That’s pretty brave for somebody who’s watching his 25-year-old series be turned into something by somebody else.
Damici: You could tell it was emotional for Joe. There’s one scene where Hap is diving into the water, and he doesn’t come up, and Leonard just yells, “Haaaaaaaaaaaap!” When we were shooting that, I looked over at Joe, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “That’s it. That’s the love between Hap and Leonard. You guys got it.” So that felt really good.