Gary Hawkins had been well versed in the real and fictional worlds of Larry Brown long before his screen adaptation of Brown’s critically acclaimed novel Joe premiered earlier this month. Yet, even a decade after writing the screenplay, the North Carolina-based screenwriter and filmmaker (the Rough South series) had no idea there was a “real” Joe.
The story of a hard-edged, hard-drinking ex-con (played in the movie by Nicolas Cage) who finds himself helping a beat-down teenage boy named Gary, Joe is deeply rooted in the harshest realms of Brown’s own rural South. A decade after Brown’s death and Hawkins’s writing the screenplay, Joe came to the attention of director David Gordon Green, a former directing student of Hawkins’. The movie was filmed last fall. Still, it wasn’t until Hawkins was in Mississippi for the film’s premiere this month that he finally learned of Joe’s real-life inspiration, through Brown’s wife, Mary Annie. The man—Hawkins declines to reveal his name out of respect for his privacy—was “Larry’s true mentor, the man who showed him the ropes when he needed it most.”
“We paid a visit to the Real Joe and sure enough he had a ‘mean-ass dog’ guarding his house, a grey one that looked part wolf.” The Real Joe is 74 years old now, Hawkins says, “and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had square, solid shoulders and big hands. You could tell he’d been a prizefighter in the day. He had to put his teeth in before we sat down to talk, and he moved real slow. An episode of Bonanza was playing on the television, and he didn’t bother to turn it down.”
Hawkins asked him if he drank a lot like the title character does. “He said he used to. He said he’d drink all day and when the bosses came around he’d take a swig of Old Spice. I said, ‘You mean swish it around and spit it out?’ and he said, ‘Naw, drink it.’ ”
Hawkins appreciates the way the story of Joe was passed from one creative contributor to another. “[Larry] wrote the novel in his dining room, typing all night, getting every word right. I adapted it in my textile factory-turned-office, typing all night, getting every word right.” Green shaped the story further as director of the critically lauded film. And Cage inhabited Joe on the screen.
“I often wonder what Larry would think” of the movie, Hawkins says. “I think he’d get off on how far and wide his words have traveled.”