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'American Assassin' Writer on Changes From Book to Movie, Real-Life Similarities

"For better or for worse, in some ways for worse, the world didn't change, the world headed even more in the direction I was writing from," Stephen Schiff says. "So [the movie] does feel timely, and I'm glad it feels timely."

Michael Cuesta's American Assassin is based on a book of the same name by Vince Flynn, who wrote an entire series of thrillers about counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp. But there are some key differences between Flynn's novel and the movie starring Dylan O'Brien as Mitch.

"The movie's very different from the book," screenwriter Stephen Schiff says of the changes made for the big-screen version. "There's no bomb in the book. There's no character like Ghost in the book. Most of what's in the movie is not in the book."

Perhaps most significantly, the tragedy that motivates Mitch, which in the book was the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, has been updated to the film's opening terrorist attack on the beach.

"We weren't going to go back to [the Lockerbie disaster] so I had to really create something contemporary that would be as huge and as terrible, which I think the movie conveys," Schiff adds. Still, the movie does portray the same "coming-of-age story."

"One of the things that I really felt in the whole Vince Flynn series was, if you go through all the books, he becomes a very experienced, powerful adult. You get a sense of [the beginning of] that in the book American Assassin and I wanted to convey that sense very strongly albeit through different means in our movie. I kind of wanted to do that idea justice. And I hope we did," Schiff says. "That guy on the beach at the beginning is a boy and that guy at the end is a hardened — even though he's boy-ish in many ways — he's American assassin."

Schiff, who serves as a writer and executive producer on FX's The Americans and whose film-writing credits include the Wall Street sequel Money Never Sleeps and the 1999 Michelle Pfeiffer starrer The Deep End of the Ocean, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about what attracted him to this project and the timeliness of a number of plot points, which have echoes of recent terrorist attacks and geopolitical issues.

How did you get involved with this film? I know it's been in the works for a while and took on a few different incarnations.

 

Yeah, well that's true. There were some previous scripts, and people worked on it and had various ideas for it over the years. I was approached two or three years ago, 2015 maybe. And I looked at the scripts and the book and the character and the idea of basically launching something like this, because there were a lot of books and a lot of places to go and there were a lot of changes that needed to be made, and I saw something in it that surprisingly interested me. In the approach that Vince Flynn took to the character and to all of his characters, he gets inside their heads and you watch them go through these very dire situations and you see what's inside the traditional CIA secret agent tough guy. I was struck by the idea that you could get inside the feelings that these people have and even though you would be experiencing their extraordinary competence and skill and speed and energy and athleticism and fearlessness, you'd also see what's behind that. You'd see fear, vulnerability, indecision, emotion, conflict — all of the things, all of the drama that goes on inside them as well as the drama the action scenario sets up. And trying to find that and do that really interested me. [There was also a desire] to make it feel really gritty and down to earth that we're on now, and the challenges of that interested me.