Local Author Has a Keen Interest in the Oscars

When the Oscars are announced Sunday night, one Rye resident will be rooting a little harder than most of us. 

David Grann, author of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” on which the Martin Scorsese movie of the same name is based, will be watching the Oscars on Sunday from the home in Rye Neck he’s lived in since 2018.
Published March 7, 2024 5:41 PM
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When the Oscars are announced Sunday night, one Rye resident will be rooting a little harder than most of us for a movie with multiple nominations. 

David Grann, author of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” on which the Martin Scorsese movie of the same name is based, will be watching from the home in Rye Neck he’s lived in since 2018, after moving from Mamaroneck. Grann will be pulling for a best actress award for Lily Gladstone (the first Native American woman to win a nomination), for Martin Scorsese to win best director, and for “Wahzhazhe” (“A Song for My People”) to win best song, which would be the first song written by a Native American composer to win an Oscar. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is nominated for a total of 10 awards, and any wins will be gravy for Grann, whose best-selling book has become one of the biggest movies of 2023. 

“Killers of the Flower Moon” tells the story of white settlers who moved to Oklahoma in the 1920s after oil was discovered on Osage land, which made the Native Americans living there wealthy. The settlers devised a plan to systematically kill members of the tribe and become the inheritors of their wealth. When Grann, 56, a longtime New Yorker writer and book author, went to Oklahoma in 2012 to visit the Osage Museum, he never imagined that his curiosity about a large 1924 photograph on display would lead him to write a best-selling book that would attract the attention of Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The photograph looked like part of it was missing. “I asked the museum director, Kathryn Red Corn, what had happened to it. She said it contained a figure so frightening that she decided to remove it. She pointed to the missing panel and said, ‘The devil was standing right there,’” Grann recalled. She then went down into the museum’s basement and brought up an image of the missing panel. “It showed one of the worst killers of the Osage peering out very creepily, and he was the devil. I kept thinking about that photo because the Osage had removed it not to forget what had happened, but because they couldn’t forget. And I was thinking about how so many Americans, including myself, never learned that history. We’ve never been taught it — and it was essentially excised from our consciousness. And so that was really what prompted me to write the book.” 

Robert DeNiro and Leonard DiCaprio in "Killers of the Flower Moon."
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

Grann wrote the book hoping only to tell the truth of this shame-ful history — never expecting Scorsese to come on the scene. But he’s happy with the result. “It’s been amazing to see that this film, with the caliber of its cast and director, is able to reach around the country and worldwide to spread this story. And that helps ensure that the history is not forgotten and leads people to learn more about it. If people learn more about Osage history and culture and learn more about our history, for me, [that] is the most important outcome of the movie — beyond, you know, it’s amazing to see a movie based on your work,” Grann said. 

Grann’s work has drawn other filmmakers. His book, “ The Lost City of Z,” published in 2009, became a 2016 movie starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson, and followed the ill-fated story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who in the 1920s searched for an ancient lost city in the Amazon. His 2003 New Yorker story about a man who couldn’t stop robbing banks became the 2018 movie “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford. “

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder,” Grann’s latest book, was published in April and is already Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s next project. It tells the story of a British naval ship that goes missing off Cape Horn in the 1700s, and the harsh and unspeakable events that ensue: savagery, murder, and cannibal-ism. If that weren’t enough, the story follows the survivors back to England, where a court martial yields shocking results. 

Though “The Wager” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” have radically different plots, Grann said that perhaps what makes them interesting to filmmakers is the same thing that makes them inter-esting to him as a storyteller: their examination of human nature. “All of these stories tend to reveal something larger about either the human condition or human nature. And something larger about soci-ety,” Grann said in a telephone interview (which was interrupted briefly when his 16-year-old daughter Ella locked herself out of the house and had to be readmit-ted.) “I write nonfiction. I don’t write fiction. The stories you choose are so important because you are not imagining the story, you are excavating the story. You are finding the truths that are buried and hidden and peeling back the layers to reveal what is there.

“And what I find interesting about these stories is you can be writing about ‘The Wager,’ a ship-wreck in the 18th century, or writing about the systematic killing of the Osage Nation for oil money in the 20th century, but all of these stories, I think, have elements that transcend time and that are about humanity and human nature. You want a story that, even if it’s set in the past, connects to and informs the present. You could change costumes, countries, geography, or go back in time, but human nature is human nature and there are constants there. So, I hope people learn from these stories and I know it is a cliché, but it’s true that when you learn from the past, you don’t repeat things.” 

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in the movie "Killers of the Flower Moon."
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in the movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Grann describes himself as an “obsessive researcher” who spends months on a single magazine article and years on his nonfiction books. (It took five years to write “Killers of the Flower Moon.”) Whatever the subject, his method remains the same: find an interesting story that will transcend time, speak to the condition of being human and at the same time share a tale few have heard before. He starts by visiting archives and combing through records, journals, and other first-person accounts. Then he visits locations to learn more and to visualize his subjects.

“I have been to different parts of the country, trekked through the Amazon, spent months in Oklahoma. For ‘The Wager,’ I hired a small, rickety boat and traveled to this island off the Chilean coast to Patagonia” (a harrowing trip that helped him understand the roiling seas that his subjects experienced).

Then, he said, he returns to his home office, where he builds “a little discrete library. It starts off fairly bare, but I have so many documents that by the end of my research, you can barely get to the desk,” he said, with a chuckle. In that cluttered office he completes his research and writes his books. 

That’s where living in Rye comes in. It gives him two things he needs to do his best work: places to walk and places to kayak. Grann’s topics are often gritty, grim, and gruesome. He usually works for 10 intense hours at a time, staring at a computer or “just rewriting the same sentence.” But then he goes for a walk. 

“I go for walks regularly to clear my mind and think about things,” he said. “I usually do three to five miles, and I take dif-ferent routes. During Covid, I took up kayaking, and I have become a very avid kayaker off the coast here.” Sometimes he launches from Mamaroneck Harbor or from the beach near his home. “It has become a way to clear my thoughts and think about things like structure and how to solve problems. But also, sometimes a time to not think about anything. That for me has been a boon, and why I really love living here.”

Although he travels frequently, Grann likes to connect with the community, something he did in the spring of 2023, when he vis-ited Rye High School to speak to students who had read “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

Grann’s latest book, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder,” will be Martin Scorsese’s and Leonardo DiCaprio's next project.
Grann’s latest book, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder,” will be Martin Scorsese’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s next project.

“The students interviewed me, prepared all the questions, and I was deeply impressed by their close reading of the book,” he said. “I got questions about writing and structure, and different elements of the work. It is so interesting to talk with students about searching for the truth, talking about how to assess the truth, how to do research and corroborate, and judge the reliability of information. It’s something kids have to do every single day with social media. They are getting deluged with information that is not always reliable and that is sometimes half information, half propaganda, incriminating information that is quite literally disinformation from foreign countries trying to cause chaos. You know, even if you’re not a writer or a historian, it’s something we have to do in our daily lives.” 

Grann’s wife, Kyra Darnton, a former producer with 60 Minutes, is committed to that idea as well, serving as vice president and executive producer of Retro Report, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating videos to help young people improve their media literacy and discern fact from fiction. Grann and Darnton are parents to Ella and Zach, their 20-year-old son.

Grann’s next project has yet to be revealed, but at least for this coming weekend, he knows where he will be: in front of the television waiting to see how many Oscars “Killers of the Flower Moon” can rake in.

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