The King of Cool, Don Winslow

How the SoCal transplant became a best-selling author by delving into Laguna Beach's legends

After finishing those first 14 pages, Winslow immediately emailed the proto-Savages to his friend Shane Salerno, the A-list Hollywood screenwriter who penned Armageddon and the Shaft remake, among others. The two had previously collaborated on a TV series called UC: Undercover, which was canceled after one season in 2001. "This is either really good or it's horrible," Winslow wrote. "Either I'm nuts or I'm on to something."

Salerno still remembers his first glimpse of Winslow's new novel. "It was explosive," he says.

About a month earlier, Salerno and Winslow had talked about the latter's frustration with writing books that, while huge successes in the publishing world—achieving best-seller status in the U.S., Europe and Latin America—never seemed to be appreciated by Hollywood. "Listen," Salerno told his friend. "Forget about the rules. Write about whatever you want, and let it rip."

Don Winslow, Laguna's taco bard
John Gilhooley
Don Winslow, Laguna's taco bard
Winslow helped to scout Laguna locations for the film version of Savages
John Gilhooley
Winslow helped to scout Laguna locations for the film version of Savages

When he read what became the first two chapters of Savages, Salerno knew he had a film on his hands. "It just grabbed your throat off the page," he tells me. "I emailed him back: 'Drop everything you're doing, and finish this while you're in this headspace.'"

It was clear to Salerno that Winslow was under the grip of visions or being driven by some hideous passion. "He has never adequately explained to me or anyone else where this voice came from," Salerno says. "I believe he channeled something. I've known him 13 years, and he's always known where things have come from.'

By the time Simon & Schuster published Savages in July 2010, Salerno had already arranged for Oliver Stone to direct a movie version of the book. He set up the deal as a testing ground for his recently formed production company, the Story Factory. Salerno knew that, as with Winslow's previous novels, Savages could easily be sold to a studio, but he convinced his friend to forgo that process and package the deal.

"That's how we came to Oliver," Salerno says, referring to Stone, who ended up co-writing the Savages screenplay with both Salerno and Winslow, which led to a bidding war between Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios, which won. "From the time the book came out to the time it got sold was 11 months," Salerno says. "From Universal buying it to shooting was three months. We did it in an incredibly efficient manner."

Salerno arranged for Stone and the film's cast to meet with several DEA agents and former drug traffickers. "We actually spoke with someone who had been kidnapped by the cartels and someone who was a girlfriend of a cartel figure," he says. "I had met some of these people on another project, and they did a really good job of bringing reality to Don's fiction."

Before shooting began, Salerno and Stone accompanied Winslow to do some location scouting in Laguna Beach, checking out specific spots from the book such as Main Beach and Reef Point. They met the director at the Montage resort somewhat late in the day, and being that it was winter, the sun was already getting low in the sky as Salerno, who was driving, steered the team along Coast Highway.

"It was so funny," Winslow recalls. "The sun is going down, and Oliver is like, 'Shane! You gotta go faster—we got so much to cover!' So Shane would speed up, and I'd say, 'Over there is the beach where...' and Oliver would say 'Shane! Jesus Christ! Slow down! We're trying to see stuff here!'" After this happened three or four times, Salerno finally pulled over, stopped the car and turned around in his seat, according to Winslow. "Oliver," he said quietly. "I can go faster. Or I can slow down. I can't do both. Which is it?"

Working with Stone on the screenplay meant allowing the book's focus to filter through the director's idiosyncratic lens, but Winslow is happy with the results. "It's a good movie with some terrific performances," he says. But despite working with one of Hollywood's top screenwriters and most celebrated film directors, Winslow never allowed himself to believe the movie would actually be made until the first day of shooting. "I'm that way about life itself," he remarks. "It's maybe not the best thing about me, but I never really believe in anything until after it has happened."

He certainly never stopped working. In a 15-month period, Winslow not only wrote Savages, but also completed two screenplays and three other books, including a draft of an unpublished novel whose topic Winslow prefers not to discuss. He also wrote 2009's The Gentlemen's Hour, about surfers in San Diego, and Satori, published in 2011, a prequel to Trevanian's best-selling 1979 martial-arts novel Shibumi. Thanks to Salerno's Story Factory, the latter project is already being developed as a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Despite his hectic schedule—when I met him for tacos in Laguna Beach, Winslow had already been back and forth to New York twice within the week and was about to fly east again—he still adheres to a strict writing schedule. He wakes at 5 a.m. every day, works on one book for several hours, then hikes in the hills for 5 or 6 miles before coming home to work on another book for several more hours.

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