“Sam said we were going to do this, and we just started doing it. He knows that book, at least as well as I do,” explained Walter Mosley, the author of The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, referring to Samuel L. Jackson. The writer also adapted the novel for the Apple TV+ limited series of the same name, which the lead actor executive produced.
He continued, “Everything I did, Sam questioned with this supreme knowledge of the book, so he didn’t really have to ask me because he knew it as well as I did. We both knew that.”
Ptolemy Gray tells the story of the titular 91-year-old who suffers from dementia and is given a chance to take an experimental drug to help him remember his past. That opportunity also enables Gray to answer essential questions, including who murdered his nephew.
I caught up with Mosley to discuss why a limited series is a better fit for the source material than a movie and what it enabled him to do that he couldn’t with the book.
Simon Thompson: Ptolemy Gray is a man who has almost found a new role in life. There was an element that is like a superhero where he’s looking for justice, redemption, and securing peace.
Walter Mosley: It’s certainly not a mystery, he’s not a detective, but there are things that he needed to know. And that I needed to remember. That was why he was even interested in taking this experimental treatment that would end up killing him. There are two things he wants to know. The first is who killed his nephew of him? The second is where it is, and what can he do with, the treasure that Coydog stole for him and died for? The truth is that there’s not a novel ever written that doesn’t have a mystery somewhere in it. If you’re not waiting to find something out by the end, then there’s no reason to read it.
Thompson: What are the pros and cons of adapting your own work?
Mosley: Well, it’s really wonderful when somebody says, ‘Hey, we’re going to make a movie or a limited series out of this book of yours.’ That’s the pro. I’m really happy. We’re going to make it, I’m going to get it out there in the world, and being real about it, I’ll make some money. It’s all of that. When you start doing it, it’s really hard. I’m not sure it’s harder to do somebody else’s book than it is to do my own. You’re going to have many problems with both things. The idea is that you have to understand something about film. I’m very lucky because six years ago, John Singleton called me up and said, ‘I’m working on this show, snow fall. Can you come and be in the writers room?’ I said, ‘John, I’ve never written for television,’ and he said, ‘That’s okay. Just come in and back me up. That’s all I need.’ I came in, I did what John asked, I ended up writing some stuff, and I learned a lot. Nobody reads a film or listens to a movie; they watch a movie, so it’s all about the images you create. Taking something that’s entirely language and intellectual and making it into a vision that’s intellectual is always hard. It’s hard no matter what you’re doing that with.
Thompson: When you were writing the book, did you have a mental image of the characters?
Mosley: When I write a book, I’m never thinking about actors or that kind of stuff. You’re much more free in books because you can make anything happen. It doesn’t cost any more money to be on Mars than it does to be down the block, so it’s fun. Writing a book is very much a writer doing their job, whereas making a film or TV show is a giant collaboration. Something like 100 people are working on this thing together, so you have to give up some of your decisions. You can’t come in and say, ‘Well, I don’t like this, and I don’t like that.’ It’s more like, ‘Listen, you write this story, tell me what you think it should look like, and we’ll make it.’
Thompson: When you adapt your work for television or film, does it give you the opportunity to do things you couldn’t with the novel, perhaps revisit, or add back in?
Mosley: There are moments in the book that I got to think about again. When I revisited it, and then I started writing it somewhere else, I would think, ‘Oh, wow, I could do this or I could do that, maybe I can make this happen?’ I think the scene with Coydog’s death by just changing a little bit I made it a heroic death, which is a tough thing to do with a lynching. I think I succeeded. I was really happy about that, and if I could, I would go back and put it in the book.
Thompson: I wanted to ask you about that scene because what is the thought process behind that? You wanted to make sure everything about it, from the tone to the context and the creation, was exact.
Mosley: There are so many things involved, and one is just coming up with the concept. Secondly, is that you have to deal with actors. This is a scene where if you’re a really good actor, you’re going to feel it, and nobody wants to feel it. So how do you set it up? How much or how little do you show? There’s all this talk, and it’s not just me. It’s talking to the director and so many others. I had some people say, ‘Well, I don’t understand why this even happens.’ I have to be able to explain why it needs to happen and it happens this way. It’s done in a way that many people probably haven’t seen before. You’ve also got to explain it to the actor, and that’s a difficult thing to take them to a place where, as the character, they have to think, ‘I’m about to die. I’m going to die tonight.’ If you’re a good actor, that’s exactly how you feel, so there’s lots of work because it’s collaborative, it’s not just me, I have to give into it to one degree or another.
Thompson: On the subject of collaboration, Samuel L. Jackson, whether it’s a small project or a big project, thinks very hard about what he’s going to do with a role. How much did Sam consult you even before the cameras started rolling? Did he come to you, as much as the director, and ask, ‘Walter, am I getting this?’
Mosley: Sam is like somebody you know from down the street, someone you went to the pool halls with and was like, ‘Hey, Sam, what’s happening?’ Sam said we were going to do this, and we just started doing it. He knows that book, at least as well as I do. Everything I did, he questioned with this supreme knowledge of the book, so he didn’t really have to ask me because he knew it as well as I did. We both knew that. We talked about it now and again, and sometimes he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to do that,’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, no, we got to do this. This has to happen.’ He was in charge of his character throughout the whole thing because he’s in almost every scene. It was wonderful working with him, and it was incredibly easy. When he didn’t like something I did, he was almost always right.
Thompson: Ptolemy Gray became a limited series and not a movie. Why do you think it works better as a limited series?
Mosley: A movie as a short story. It’s a tight arc; it’s 90 minutes or maybe goes up to 100, but it’s not the full experience. You need the full experience of Ptolemy Grey. You need him in dementia, you need him coming out of dementia, you need him being clear and living that life, and you need him going back. You need all of that, and that’s a miniseries. That’s not a short story. That’s a saga.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray premieres on Friday, March 11, 2022, with the two episodes. New episodes premiere weekly each following Friday.