This post was written by Gary Hawkins.

I met Larry Brown in the early ‘90s when he was on tour with Joe, his fourth book in as many years. Larry was a former firefighter from Mississippi who’d risen to prominence with an intense book of short stories called Facing the Music.

I was enormously impressed by those stories and wanted to film a few of them for a literary series I’d launched (and would eventually abandon) called The Rough South.

My first installment, The Rough South of Harry Crews, had won a few awards, including an Emmy, so I was confident I could put together funding for an episode on Larry. For his part, Larry had become an attractive subject with the critical and financial success of Joe.

The Beginning of the Story

Joe Ransom, played by Nicolas Cage, and Gary Jones, played by Tye Sheridan, sitting by a barn in 'Joe'


Credit: Roadside Attractions

We spent too many years on TheRough South. The narrative had expanded when his wife, Mary Annie asserted herself during one of my visits to Oxford. With her input, the story morphed from an author bio to what it’s like to be married to an author.

We dramatized three of Larry’s short stories: "Boy and Dog," an action piece narrated by Vic Chesnutt, "Wild Thing," a noirish photo roman featuring Paul Schneider, and "Samaritans," a grotesque comedy featuring Will Patton.

I really got into Larry’s head during this process, and I read Joe a a few times, thinking it would make an excellent film. It was unavailable though, because Paramount had optioned it and hired Larry to write the screenplay from his own novel.

We finished up The Rough South of Larry Brown in the late ‘90s and premiered it at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Some time afterward, Larry contacted me with news that Joe had gone into turnaround at Paramount, that the exec he’d been working with had died, and that someone else had picked up the option, but they’d ceased making payments. In short, the property was available.

Script Turnaround

Joe Ransom, played by Nicolas Cage, in front of a blue pickup truck, 'Joe'


Credit: Roadside Attractions

I told Larry that I didn’t have the cash to pay him a proper option, but with a handshake, I’d write it one spec and get him the payment once I’d formed a package. (Note to young writers: always get everything in writing, especially from your friends, and never write anything on spec, not unless you’re willing to chalk it up to a learning experience.)

Joe is a good-father, bad-father story with a young innocent stuck in the middle. Joe (Nicolas Cage) is the good father, Wade (Gary Poulter) is the bad father, and Gary (Tye Sheridan) is the innocent.

My first step was to get realistic about the chore before me, I had to remove 300 pages from a 344-page novel. That meant I had to jettison as much of the non-Joe narrative as possible, which hurt because Wade is one of the best villains in all of literature. He’s a completely selfish force of nature, comparable to Judge Holden, Humbert, and Iago. Half the time, you can’t believe the guy’s doing what he’s doing, and with zero qualms, unlike, say, Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Pitching the Movie at Parties

Joe Ransom, played by Nicolas Cage, in front of his pickup truck with a coffee mug in 'Joe'


Credit: Roadside Attractions

So most of Wade had to go, and Gary, too. The second major reduction came as a result of a cocktail party conversation. A friend, who is also a writer, asked me what I was working on.

I told him about Joe in two to three sentences. (Note to young writers: always be able to tell someone what you’re working on in two to three, non-boring sentences.) I told him about Joe, and he said, “Oh, it’s about an old Samurai searching for a right death.” And there it was, handed to me.

I thanked my friend, returned to the novel, and asked, "What is Joe’s right death? How is he moving towards it? How is he meandering? What scenes are necessary to move him in that direction, and what scenes can be jettisoned"

The narrative underwent several drafts on its long journey to the screen, but the essence of right death remained intact. I’m a little foggy about what happened next, but I remember getting a call from Larry’s agent telling me that the party who had allowed the option to lapse had resumed payments and that the novel was no longer available.

A Great Script Never Dies

Joe Ransom, played by Nicolas Cage, and Gary Jones, played by Tye Sheridan, in 'Joe'


Credit: Roadside Attractions

I remember being very unhappy with the agent and Larry, basically feeling that I’d been played for leverage. I chalked it up to a learning experience and we parted ways. In November of that year, Larry died of a heart attack. As promised, I formed a crew and returned to Oxford to film Mary Annie’s final comments. A few months later, we re-released The Rough South of Larry Brown with an obligatory ending.

I figured I was done with Joe. I’d moved on to other projects and never gave it a thought. But one day–with some prodding–I took the initiative to track down the owner of the Joe option. It was Phil Walden of Capricorn Pictures, a division of Capricorn Records based out of Atlanta, Georgia.

I contacted Walden and assured him that my adaptation of Joe was better than any version he was holding. I just said it, straight up, and I believed it. Phil told me to send it his way. Turns out, he had no Joe screenplay in his possession. He’d rejected Larry’s version because Paramount wanted too much for it, and he’d been fishing around for a Southern screenwriter.

A week or so later he phoned, telling me that he loved it, that it was a real "page-turna", and that he wanted to pay me top dollar for it. I guess writing the spec script was worth it, after all. But I still wouldn’t recommend it. I was paid roughly twice the WGA minimum in three installments, which came in very handy at that point in my life.

All Writing is Rewriting

Joe Ransom, played by Nicolas Cage, pointing at a dog in 'Joe'


Credit: Roadside Attractions

Walden was a really colorful character. In fact, one of my many regrets is not meeting him soon enough to produce a documentary about him. Walden was once Otis Redding’s manager, and he’d founded Capricorn Records, the Allman Brothers label. He had a rock star history, and the stories he told me were off-the-charts nuts. He spoke with a thick, Old South accent, called me GAY-ree, and was fond of making smooth, unnecessary overtures like:

  • “Where you from, bud?”
  • “-furniture town called Thomasville.”
  • “GAY-ree, I’m gone make you famous like Otis. When folks drive into Thomasville, they gone see a sign that reads, Thomasville–Home of GAY-ree Hawkins.”

I told Walden that I wasn’t all that keen on being famous like Otis and that I just wanted him to like what I wrote, which placed me in an awkward position regarding his notes. He’d say, “Now can you add a 3-page scene in the early going where Fay (Wade’s teen daughter) takes a bath in a pond?” I’d say, “Sure, Phil, I can do that. But what three pages have to go?” I’d knocked the script down to a lean, mean one-thirteen by that point, and I didn’t want to add pages. In fact, I’d streamlined the narrative by having Fay abandon her family on page 11. By the second draft, I’d removed her altogether.

We went back and forth for a while, but I finally got it written to Walden’s specs and to my liking, and a year or so later, Walden died of cancer. I think it was a brain tumor, that he'd run off the road in Atlanta and was taken to a hospital and never left. But I could be wrong about that. Either way, a second exec was dead and the project along with it.

Production and Release

Joe Ransom, played by Nicolas Cage, smoking a cigarette in the rain in 'Joe'


Credit: Roadside Attractions

In July 2012, roughly eight years after I adapted the Joe screenplay, a former directing student, David Gordon Green, formed a production company called Rough House Pictures. We communicated, and I mentioned Joe, and he asked me to send it over. A few days later he got back to me, telling me that he really liked it and wanted to pursue it. I told him about Walden at Capricorn Pictures and the script at Paramount, but it didn’t faze him.

The next step was a flurry. David talked up Joe at CAA, and Nicolas Cage's agent down the hall said, "Hey, send it to me," and the agent read it and contacted Cage in Germany with the news, "Nic, I've got that script you've been looking for.” Cage read it and contacted Green in Austin with, "I am Joe, and I have a 30-day window in November.” Cage and Green worked it out and we had a film.

If I’m asked how long it took to get Joe made, I’m prone to answer, “Eight years and an afternoon.”

The Joe production ran smoothly, but a month or so after it wrapped, the man who played Wade, a first-time actor named Ozzie Poulter, died in a Home Depot parking lot.

Joe was released and received accolades at Vienna, Deauville, Munich, and Edinburgh. Anthony Lane, reviewing for The New Yorker, wrote, “(Joe) is the strongest feature to date from David Gordon Green, with a forthright performance from a grizzled Nicolas Cage...”

Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert wrote, “Cage is amazing here as Joe–fully divested of the quirky mannerisms that have dogged most of his performances of late, he has created a characterization that is as spare, lean and undeniably effective as anything he has ever done.”

Cage himself said on NPR Morning Edition, “When I read Joe, right away there was an implicit connection with the dialogue where I thought, ‘Wow, I understand this man and I can play this part in a way where I wouldn’t have to act.’”

That’s how it got made. Those are the high points and those are the low points.


I returned to Mississippi for a screening of Joe at the Oxford Film Festival. At lunch, Mary Annie told me a few things I didn’t know about the novel. She said, “You knew that the boy in that novel was really Larry, didn’t you?”

I said, “No, I didn’t know that. Who is Wade?”

“Larry’s real father.”

I groaned, then I asked, “Who is Joe?”

“Ron Sockwell.”

I said, “Who the hell is Ron Sockwell?”

She said, “Oh, he’s a fella that lives in a trailer a few miles from my house. You wanna go see him?”

We drove out there, to Sockwell’s trailer in the woods, and found him just as Larry had described him–older now, but still fit, wouldn’t want to tangle with him, piercing blue eyes, no shirt, fierce but reasonable, straightforward. He invited us in and we brought up Joe, and Sockwell said, “Oh yeah, I have that thing around here somewhere,” and produced a hardback copy Larry had signed and given to him. It didn’t look like he’d ever opened it, but he did mention that he’d asked Larry if he was getting paid for his contribution. Larry told him, “No, Ron, it don’t work that way.”

At some point in the conversation Mary Annie asked, “Mr. Sockwell, are you aware that a movie was made about you?”

“No,” he said.

“It stars Nicolas Cage.”

Sockwell sat there a long moment, then he said, “Well... how’d he do?”

We left and a few months later, right on cue, I got a call from Mary Annie telling me that the original Joe, Ron Sockwell had died.

Read and Download a Copy of the Joe Screenplay Here:

  • Joe-- Screenplay by Gary Hawkins

This post was written by Gary Hawkins.