Dennis Lehane, the St. Pete Stalwart Behind Ben Affleck’s New Movie

January 14, 2017 by DAVID MORRIS | LITERATURE
Author Dennis Lehane, right, at the premier of The Drop. Photo courtesy of Dennis Lehane.
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Live By Night, Ben Affleck’s new film about Prohibition-era gangsters in Ybor City, goes into wide release this weekend. But you might not know that the film’s creative genesis is owed to a writer with deep connections on the other side of the bay in St. Petersburg.

Dennis Lehane is a powerhouse author, whose books have previous been turned into acclaimed films including Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and Shutter Island – the latter two directed by Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorcese. Lehane, who is by now used to working with Hollywood royalty, launched his career after graduating from St. Pete’s Eckerd College in 1988.

Lehane was a longtime writer in residence at Eckerd, and 12 years ago co-founded the annual Writers in Paradise conference with Eckerd writing prof (and take-no-prisoners storyteller in his own right) Sterling Watson, who has been something of a mentor to him. Lehane also co-directed the WIP program (which returns this week ) until recently. Despite all that time in Florida, Lehane’s early successes were largely set in his native Boston. But Live by Night is derived from a book of the same name in a Florida-centric trilogy about fictional gangster Joe Coughlin. Coughlin, like Lehane himself, migrates from Boston to Florida – but Coughlin, instead of education, makes the move to pursue rum-running.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

That puts him in contact with some real-life Ybor City hustlers of the Prohibition era, and turns the film into a window on the unique dynamics of Tampa at the time. One of the film’s throughlines is race, as Coughlin learns the contours of Tampa’s segregated landscape, and tangles with violent bigots. Our friends over at Creative Loafing particularly praise the Live by Night’s sociological insights – though Affleck’s central performance comes in for some heat.

Though his books often qualify as detective or crime stories, Lehane is always concerned with deeper issues, race prominently among them. The child of Irish immigrants, Lehane was raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts. As he told Boston.com, he transplanted his experience of racial tension in the Northeast to Tampa for Live by Night. Lehane believes that “the story of America is the story of race,” and that it is in moments of strain that those tensions are most heightened.

Lehane wasn’t much involved with the transformation of Live by Night from novel to film, but not for lack of screen know-how. He’s helped adapt several of his books in the past, and he’s also been a writer one some of the most critically respected television projects in history, including Boardwalk Empire and (my personal best-ever-show) The Wire.

Now, Lehane’s ambition is to move onward and upward to run a prestige TV show of his own, one major reason he sold his St. Pete house and moved to Los Angeles full-time in 2014. But he’s still frequently spotted around the area – in fact, he made a surprise appearance at WIP last year, so who knows what’s in store this time around.

Unfortunately, it does look like Lehane is letting go of his literary dalliance with central Florida, at least for now. He told the Tampa Bay Times in early 2015 that he was “done with Tampa,” after publishing the final book in the Joe Coughlin series, also set in Ybor.

And of course, one of the tragic ironies of Lehane’s relationship with Tampa Bay is that it is drawing to a close after a film that wasn’t made in Florida. In part because the Florida legislature has not renewed film tax credits, Affleck chose to shoot Live By Night in Savannah, Georgia, on a set designed to mimic Ybor City.

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