Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson portray marijuana growers in Oliver Stone's "Savages," based on Don Winslow's novel.

Story highlights

Author Don Winslow had a hit on his hands with the 2010 novel "Savages"

Friday, "Savages" will come to life as a film adaptation directed by Oliver Stone

Winslow collaborated on the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno

Winslow spoke with CNN about adapting the book, and how he came up with the story

CNN —  

In the trailer for Friday’s “Savages,” a potential moviegoer can glean that the film involves: 1) a kidnapping plot; 2) marijuana; and 3) a pair of successful pot growers, portrayed by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, who share a girlfriend in Blake Lively’s “O.”

But what some watching may not know is that Oliver Stone’s latest is based on the acclaimed 2010 novel of the same name from writer Don Winslow.

The story follows two Laguna Beach-based best friends and entrepreneurial businessmen: Chon, a trained Navy SEAL and war vet, and Ben, an idealistic Berkeley grad with a brilliance for botany. Winslow writes in his novel that the two developed a plant so dope it “could almost get up, walk around, find a lighter and fire itself up.”

Something that potent presumably wouldn’t stay within the confines of Southern California for long, and Ben and Chon become so successful that the drug business south of the border takes notice.

When Ben and Chon’s wealthy, slacker girlfriend O (short for Ophelia), is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel known for decapitating those who cross them, Ben’s nonviolent stance is called into question.

CNN recently spoke with Winslow, who shares screenwriting credit for the film with Shane Salerno and director Stone, about adapting his work, how he crafted a story as violent and haze-filled as “Savages,” and the creation of the infamous O.

CNN: In “Savages” you play with format a lot – you take some trajectories into writing it like a screenplay. What was your philosophy with that?

Don Winslow: I just wanted to write a book the way I heard it in my ears and saw it in my mind. If any given scene I saw it more as a film at that moment, I wrote it in screenplay form. If I heard it as poetry or saw it as a narrative, I wrote it that way.

One thing I was trying to get at was the fractured nature of the way we receive information these days. It’s constant and it’s in short, jagged bits. Even the way we talk to each other. … Any given moment, we’ll have the television on, but we’ll also have our computers on. Someone’s tweeting us, someone’s calling us, someone’s texting us, someone’s Skyping us. I just think that society these days gets its stories from multiple directions, in multiple ways at once, so I was trying to reflect some of that.

CNN: Ophelia uses a lot of acronyms, almost talking in text-speak.

Winslow: That was very deliberate. And of course, we now have tweets. I think there’s just a new language out there, particularly on the West Coast, but also all over the country.

CNN: So what was the process like to adapt your work?

Winslow: It was challenging, more kind of intellectually than any other way. … One thing we all immediately agreed upon was we wanted to keep the characters consistent to the book. You knew a few of the story elements would have to change – the core elements of the story are all there – so I had to adjust a little bit.

CNN: How did the story come to you? You have a varied background, but it doesn’t involve the drug trade.

Winslow: Can we italicize that? Neither as a customer – I don’t even do drugs.

I read a lot, but that was the least of it. About 2005, I’d done a book called “The Power of the Dog,” which was a tome about the evolution of the Mexican drug cartels.

The base of my research came from that book. That was 5½, six years of work, and I had an extensive library of articles, court records, police records, intelligence records and interviews with DEA people, cops and drug users and, yes, drug dealers and gang bangers and all that. I had to update it for “Savages,” and for [the recently released prequel] “Kings of Cool,” there are flashbacks to the 1960s and ’70s, so I had to go back in time.

A lot of it was a matter of talking to people – and that’s almost misstated; a lot of it was listening to people.

CNN: I think it’s a powerful story not only because of the topic, which is something that’s resonating in the headlines everyday, but also because of the characters, especially Ophelia. What were you going for there, how did you develop her?

Winslow: I typed that first chapter [of “Savages”] – “F*** you” – with no idea what it meant, who was saying it, [or] why. I had no story, no nothing. I hit page break and just started typing, and then all of a sudden I’m typing from the point of view of a twenty-something Orange County woman, which I’m not, but I know a lot of them, I’ve hung out there a lot.

I wanted to have a character that was, one, unabashedly in charge of her own sexuality. You know? It’s just out there. She is who she is, she’s going to do what she wants to do, and she’s not apologizing for it. And that’s been controversial. I also needed that sort of commentator that could comment on the story and comment on society and … do it in an honest way that’s hopefully funny.

I just got really fond of her. I didn’t start taking notes and say that O should be [like this]. It just sort of took over, really … that’s tough to explain from a guy.

CNN: Reading a character like that, especially from a male author, the assumption to me is that perhaps the author is infantilizing her. But she does become more complex to me as the book goes on, in regards to her sexuality, by having a relationship with two men – there are layers to her. What’s been the feedback?

Winslow: Oddly enough, most of it was positive. I was in Heathrow Airport when The New York Times review came out, which was of course terrifying, but it was an absolute rave and Janet Maslin, who is obviously a woman, loved that character. And that gave me I think, frankly, a layer of protection.

But sure, there’s been a lot of negative commentary, I’ve had people come up to me to proactively tell me how much they hated the book. … And that’s fine.

Listen, if a guy is with two women, he’s a hero, right? He’s a stud. But when you flip it, a lot of hypocrisy comes in. But so be it. I just wanted to write it the way that I heard it.

CNN: After writing the novel, the screenplay and seeing the movie, what’s your takeaway on what it means to be savage? You play with that word a lot.

Winslow: I think you walk down certain roads, and that’s a road toward savagery, and it’s taken a step at a time. And then I think you’re there and I don’t think there’s a going back. I think that’s true of individuals, true of organizations, and of countries.

In the beginning of “Savages,” I was trying to get this duality going of the savagery of these drug cartels, which is certainly very real, and what I would think of as the economic savagery of a certain strata of Southern California, which is savage in its own way. The endless consumerism, and the endless materialism at other people’s cost.

It’s funny, we look at other societies and we call them savage, but their families all live together, they take care of their kids and they take care of their old people. They might be technologically primitive, but I think they might look at certain aspects of our society, particularly lately, and think, “that’s savage.”

CNN: That was the most interesting part of the story, to me, because you’re left with the impression that any one of us could behave in that way, if we had the right reason to.

Winslow: I think so; I’m afraid that’s true.

CNN: What made you decide to pick these characters back up again with the prequel “Kings of Cool”?

[In “Savages”] I pick them up late in their arc, and I always knew their backstories, I knew from moment one who they were, what their families were like, how they grew up. By the time I finished “Savages,” a lot of people wanted to talk to me about those characters and the hows and the whys, so I wanted to write the origin story.

I also wanted to write, and this sounds very pretentious, a book that had something to do with America. “Kings of Cool” is largely their search for their origins, and decoding, if you will, their mythology. I wanted to do a little bit of that with America over the decades, and talk about the evolution of the drug trade, and how it’s affected the country and how it’s changed as the country’s mood has changed, and I wanted to deconstruct some of that mythology as well.

CNN: In “Savages” you say that Ben could have been the director of the Peace Corps if he’d been born in a different generation, but then you see in the prequel that the generation before him was involved in the same thing Ben ended up doing. What was the connection there?

Winslow: You have to pay strict attention to history. People don’t just come out of nowhere. They come out of a specific place and a specific time and they come out of a specific family. There are always reasons.

CNN: Do you think you’ll adapt “The Kings of Cool” into a screenplay?

Winslow: It’s not on my mind right now, we’ve been so, so busy. I did another screenplay with Shane Salerno called “Satori” with Leonardo DiCaprio; Chuck Hogan from “The Town” and I are doing an original screen story; and I have three books I want to write right now. So we’ll see.

CNN: Are you sticking with the crime genre, or do you see yourself venturing off?

Winslow: No, no, I live in my neighborhood. Some people tell me that I live in the borders, but I’m a crime writer. I like where I live.