This article was originally published on Cinephilia & Beyond
I came to it because of Ellroy. When I read ‘L.A. Confidential,’ I just got hooked on the characters, got caught up emotionally in their individual struggles with their personal demons. I wanted to capture that in a movie. Also, I found that the way I felt about the characters was near to the way I felt about the city of Los Angeles. I’d always wanted to make a movie about L.A., to deal with this city at that magic moment in the 50’s when the dream of L.A. was being bulldozed to make way for all the people that were coming here in pursuit of the very dream that was being destroyed. So I got really excited about it as a movie project… and made a deal to write and direct it. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland had written a couple things for Warner Brothers that hadn’t been produced and was also a huge Ellroy fan and was trying to get a meeting to pitch it, to tell them what he wanted to do (with the script). A long time went by and he finally got his meeting, which they canceled when they told him they’d already made a deal with me to write and direct. So then Brian set about trying to meet me. As soon as we met, we hit it off and realized we saw a lot of things the same way. We knew a lot of the content of the book would have to go, but we were also both fanatical about maintaining the tone and vision of Ellroy and putting the emphasis on the characters rather than the plot. So we teamed up. Brian and I deliberately avoided contact with Ellroy, figuring he’d already done his job… We worked on the script off and on for a year, seven or eight drafts… When I finally called Ellroy he was initially refreshingly wary. He said “My book, your movie.” When he read the script, he was so pleased and so generous… he always thought that of all the books he’d written, ‘L.A. Confidential’ was the last one that would be filmed. Rather than being a director for hire as I have been on most of my films, ‘L.A. Confidential’ is that one project where I’ve been able to cash in the chips I’ve earned from being lucky enough to have had a couple of financially successful films and saying “Okay, now this is the film that I want to make.” It’s my most personal movie. Whether it achieves any popular acceptance or not is less important to me. That’s not why I made it. —Curtis Hanson
The opening titles to Curtis Hanson’s 1997 L.A Confidential, an adaptation of James Ellroy’s sprawling period policier, adroitly adapt footage selling the dream of the “Sunshine State,” then subtly undercut it with the dope, rackets, prostitution and police corruption that the average citizen or starry-eyed girl just off the bus from Hicksville in search of stardom is yet to be exposed to. All along to Danny De Vito’s cackling Hush Hush gossip rag merchant Sid Hudgen’s click clack typing, whilst Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” invites the law abiding to look the other way, whilst pruriently perusing his pages: “Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy all-American family. You can have all this! And who knows? You could even be discovered… become a movie star! Or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles… it’s paradise on Earth. That’s what they tell ya, anyway. Because they’re selling an image. They’re selling it through movies, radio, and television. In the hit show Badge of Honor, the L.A. cops walk on water as they keep the city clean of crooks. Yep, you’d think this place was the Garden of Eden!” At 500 pages, with over 100 characters, a timeline that spanned eight years and a labyrinthine plot, Ellroy believed of his broiling, dense 1989 neo-noir of honour-stained cops in early ‘50’s Los Angeles that “The motherfucker was uncompressible, uncontainable and unequivocally bereft of sympathetic characters. It was unsavoury, unapologetically dark, untameable and altogether untranslatable to the screen.” When he was told that Warner Bros had purchased the film rights, he laughed, and waited for the cheque anyways. “Movieland self-delusion was a major theme of the novel,” he wrote. “It was only fitting that I should profit from its exercise.”
Young screenwriter Brian Helgeland was already a huge Ellroy fan, meeting him and striking a chord at an L.A. book signing. He labored for a year on his script, lobbying Warner Bros until finding it had gone to someone else—writer/director Curtis Hanson. For Hanson also, L.A. Confidential was a big deal, “that one project where I’ve been able to cash in the chips I’ve earned from being lucky enough to have had a couple of financially successful films and saying ‘Okay, now this is the film that I want to make.’”
Hanson had grown up amid the orange groves of Reseda, making extra money as a kid in his uncle’s Beverly Hills clothes shop, frequented by stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. His other exposure to Hollywood and films was through the magazine “Cinema.” His uncle, Jack Martin Hanson, bought the magazine in part to publicize the store—“the grooviest, sexiest, most altogether bonaroo boutique on Rodeo Drive,” as James Ellroy described it in an essay. From the New York Times:
“By 1964, Mr. Hanson was editing Cinema as well as taking a lot of its photographs. ‘It’s what made me comfortable with the movie camera,’ he said. His first interview was with Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten whose credits included Roman Holiday and Spartacus. Much like Peter Bogdanovich—another cinephile turned interviewer turned filmmaker—Mr. Hanson was drawn to veterans of the old studio era. ‘I interviewed people whose work I admired,’ he said, ‘which in many cases meant they were inactive.’ Like Mr. Bogdanovich, he also got his start under that one-man studio known as Roger Corman.”
He told Alex Simon he wanted “to define L.A. at that magic moment in the ‘50s when the dream of L.A. was being bulldozed to make way for all the people that were coming here in pursuit of the very dream that was being destroyed.” He soaked up the City of Angels layered dreamscape, pitching not a script to New Regency Pictures (Warner Brothers went on to distribute worldwide), but card mounted photos, illustrating the movie’s theme, and how it would look, and feel. Hanson told Contactmusic:
“I had some photos of some jazz musicians of the time, like Chet Baker and Jerry Mulligan, and I’d say ‘This is the way the movie is going to sound.’ I’d have a shot of a couple actors of the period—old publicity stills—one was a guy named Aldo Ray. ‘This is what Bud White looks like.’ And then some shots of some houses. ‘These are the houses our characters live in.’ It’s not the houses you see in the big sleep. They’re houses that were designed after World War II, and they’re modern looking. The idea being, it was true to the’50s, but putting the accent on the forward looking ’50s.” Ellroy himself later referred to the book as a “hard-boiled historical romance.”
The persistent Helgeland’s manager Missy Malkin got him a lunch meeting with Hanson “in an old bungalow on the Universal lot that had been pink slipped,” Hanson recalled, “scheduled to be torn down to make way for the Jurassic Park portion of the studio tour. I thought this was a good sign, as much of the L.A. we would need to bring to life had suffered a similar fate.” The two hit it off and realized they saw a lot of things the same way with regards to approaching the novel. Their methodology was to “remove every scene from the book that didn’t have the three main cops in it, and then to work from those scenes out.” Some were too good to let go of: the shootout early in the novel was reworked with two of the main cast parachuted in. It would take Helgeland & Hanson several drafts and three years to complete their adaptation, a moving puzzle-box of separate investigations into the same unfolding conspiracy. The screenwriters only approached Ellroy after their seventh or so draft. He liked what he saw (although he later tended to flip flop on his enthusiasms depending on his audience—I myself attended a couple of his book tours, for The Hilliker Curse and Perfidia, he initially enthusiastic of the film and later dismissive—also of Spacey, pre-scandal) and became an informal consultant from then on, “pertaining to L.A. in the ‘50s and the police corps then.”
The plot now spins off in a condensed time frame from a series of violent events in the early days and hours of 1953. As in the book, crime boss Mickey Cohen loses a few associates in a thinning out of the top hanging branches of L.A.’s crime tree, and there’s a brutal slaying of customers and staff at the Nite-Owl coffee shop, initially blamed on black youths. Both trails lead a slimy path back to corruption on the force, bluntly encapsulated in the “Bloody Christmas” scandal, when drunken cops, in a heightened state of rage, drag two Mexican suspects believed to have assaulted police officers from their cell and beat them. For the first hour or so, novel and film converge, before a genius point of divergence, which we’ll address later.
Weaved around all this is a mysterious escort service, Fleur De Lis (“Whatever you desire”) where call girls are “cut to look like movie stars,” the plastic surgery paid for by millionaire businessman and discreet pornographer Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). A recurring theme of the film is layering of image and reality, perception and deception.
Each of the three main cops are defined and corrupted by their avuncular patrician boss, chief of detectives Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), and in the case of Vincennes, by smut-merchant editor of Hush Hush magazine, Sid Hudgens (Danny De Vito). Dudley wraps a steel fist in a velvet glove, prepared to lead and condone off-the-books activities to keep mob crime out of town, his Irish brogue disarming prying City Councilmen and the press pack. He tells Guy Pierce’s Exley, “Edmund, you’re a political animal. You have the eye for human weakness, but not the stomach.” By the time the intertwining cases that sink these protagonists together in the mire are done, Exley, in his ambition and will to outstrip his murdered cop father’s legacy, will have crossed so many lines, he’s practically in the next state.
Dudley is aware of the seemingly limited abilities of tough guy Bud White (Russell Crowe), but tells him “I admire you as a policeman—particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.” Recruited as strong arm persuasion in Dudley’s Victory Motel “interrogations” (“This is the city of Angels,” Dudley tells some sap, “and you haven’t got any wings.”), Bud begins to find redemption by doing some digging of his own, spurred on by the Veronica Lake–alike Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, her character not actually put under the knife). She sees beneath the tough guy façade that shields his soft spot for women: Bud as a boy was chained to a radiator while his father beat his mother to death. (“It was three days before the truancy officer called.”). We also get a glimpse beneath the tough exterior at the very beginning of the film—a close-up of Bud’s face, outside an ongoing domestic disturbance. Yes, the calm resolution of imminent violence is in his gaze, watching this lout berate and slap his wife the other side of the window, but there’s a sadness there too, at the way of the world. A sadness and sensitivity that only women will ever get to touch. That empathy of course can also trigger volcanic rage—Bud grips a chair so tightly during the observation of the rapist’s interrogation, it snaps into tindersticks under the weight of his wrath.
Hanson stated, “I wanted unknowns for Bud White and Ed Exley because with unknowns, the audience wouldn’t know who they liked, who they didn’t like, who would live, who would die. Anything could happen. I wanted these characters to be discovered, the way you discover characters in a novel. Your feelings evolve as you go along.” The two bad men together make up one good cop.
For the role of “Trashcan” Jack Vincennes, self-loathing limelight hogger, celeb pot-buster and special advisor to cop show Badge of Honor Hanson needed someone with movie star panache—“an actor who had that charisma to play the movie star among cops, but an actor good enough to play what’s going on behind that facade. That this guy has lost his soul.” Those words have a haunting resonance following the very public fall from grace of Spacey recently, (Guy Pearce recently alluded to Spacey being a “handsy guy” on set—“Thankfully I was 29 and not 14,”) but this writer is not about to throw the collective stellar achievements of this film under the Hollywood bus because of one bad apple.
In an interview with Urban Cinefile, Hanson recalled meeting with Spacey prior to him seeing the script, in the Formosa cafe, “where we shot the Johnny Stompanato scene… and I went through my photo presentation with him to give him an idea; and I said ‘Now Kevin, when you read the script, I want you to think of two words. It’s going to sound a little odd to you.’
He said ‘Well, what are they?’ And I said ‘Dean Martin. Not the Dean Martin when he was this sort of alcoholic cliché on Celebrity Roast, but the Dean Martin who was the epitome of 50s hip: the guy who appeared to have all the answers, totally cool.’
And Kevin goes, ‘You mean the guy that we all wanted to be when we grew up.’
And he said ‘But I thought this was a cop movie?’ I said, ‘It is but think of him not as a cop but as a movie star among cops. In fact, what he does is he’s the technical advisor to Dragnet and Jack Webb is the square fifties version of him—the TV version.’
And as I said that to Kevin, he looked across the restaurant to the other side where there are mirrors and his eyes got sort of strange and he said ‘Curtis, look over your head.’ I looked across at the mirror and directly over my head was an 8×10 photo of Jack Webb. And I went ‘Whoa!’ We stood up and we were looking at it and I said the truth: ‘Kevin, I had no idea’—it was as though it was a set-up, you know—and, as we were looking at it, we turned and directly over his head was an 8×10 of Dean Martin.”
Hanson believed Vincennes “is a man who on the surface has all this ring-a-ding, you know, he’s slick and he’s cool and he’s on top of it but just underneath the surface is a man who’s going through changes and going through a moral eruption and that will ultimately lead him to the place where he realizes he can no longer behave the way he’s behaved.” Such a shame the unrepentant Spacey seems to be backpedalling on any half-hearted apologies he has made to his accuser.
On a budget of roughly $35 million, L.A. Confidential commenced shooting May 1996 in Los Angeles. Hanson determined with cinematographer Dante Spinotti to shoot it in such a way that it looked modern—it was of the period, not about the period. Bright, sunny, forward looking, but with that noir undercurrent. “We avoided set ups that would draw attention to the window dressing of the period, whether it be the car or the clothes or the set dressings.” That’s why none of the detectives wear hats. He wanted that quality of light that drew the movie makers there in the first place.
Hanson screened a bunch of period hard-boiled and noir films for cast and crew—such as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place and The Bad and the Beautiful, and Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 and The Line-Up. He wanted everyone to appreciate what the faces and bodies looked like and how they moved back then, a police force of beefy WWII vets who were used to heavy work but weren’t sculpted and trim like today’s ideal, instead they smoked and drank too much.
He and Spinotti pored over photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 book, entitled The Americans—black and white photos depicting American life in the ’50’s. Spinotti recalled, “Robert Frank always adds elements of new reality; he introduces elements he wants you to look at… maybe he shoots through reflections. The whole scene with the interrogation rooms that we see through the reflective mirror is in a way related to Robert Frank’s photographs. At one point I suggested to Curtis to shoot the movie as if we had a still camera in our hands. You’ll see a scene the way it plays out. Turn to your right and you click on a face. Then you get a wide shot. Click.”
The film was shot on real locations, little pockets of authentic-looking architecture and districts dotted around the city, although production designer Jeannine Oppewall had her work cut out disguising the surrounds (only one shot in the film used effects to remove modern buildings from the background). Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score picked up on the trumpet motif from jazz artists such as Chet Baker, who was playing in L.A. in that period. One coup was to secure architect Richard Neutra’s modernist Lovell house as the residence of forward-thinking Pierce Patchett, as opposed to the dusty old mansions of The Big Sleep and such. The Formosa cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard has remained unchanged since the days when movie stars rubbed shoulders with cops and criminals—in an amusing scene, Exley gets a drink thrown in his face rousting Mickey Cohen enforcer Johnny Stompanato for confusing his girlfriend, the real Lana Turner with “a whore cut to look like Lana Turner.”
Back to that genius point of divergence, perception and deception—“Rollo Tomasi.” That whispered valediction is up there with Keyser Soze, Rosebud, Harry Lime’s cuckoo clock speech and Colonel Kurtz’s “The Horror.” Curtis and Hanson needed something to “bridge the gaps,” as Helgeland recalled, and propel the rest of the non-excised plot to a conclusion—this was a movie, not a mini-series. Earlier, as the cops are drawn back to investigate the Nite-Owl again, Exley shares with Vincennes the tale of how his father died off duty, shot by an anonymous purse-snatcher he’s named “Rollo Tomasi”—the guy who got away, and not even mentioned in the book. When Vincennes’ conscience is stirred, he visits Dudley at home, seeking to put things right and get to the bottom of a connection that’s troubling him. “Don’t go trying to do the right thing, boyo,” Dudley twinkles, tracking around the kitchen, “you haven’t had the practice.” Vincennes gives a rueful grin, smooths his hair. Establishing Exley isn’t aware of his visit (and casually establishing for the audience if they are clued up enough to twig the ramification, that his “wife and four fair daughters are at the beach in Santa Barbara”), Dudley casually spins from the drawer and shoots him in the chest (in a brilliant little touch, Spacey is casually flicking a fleck of spilt coffee from his hand at this point). Dudley, the bad guy who has criminal interlopers tied to a chair and beaten with the understanding they beat it back to whatever rock they crawled out from, is a really bad guy?!
“Have you a valediction, boyo?” Dudley asks of Jack, leaning in. “Rollo Tomasi,” Vincennes gasps, then chuckles, the light leaving his eyes as editor Peter Honess holds forever on his face. To help Spacey slightly shift focus from James Cromwell, he had someone paint two black dots on the opposite wall to stare into, Spacey perhaps thinking back to that epiphany mentioned earlier with Hanson in the Formosa cafe—we can see the light leave his eyes, all in camera.
Dudley commences a man hunt for the killers (“Our justice must be swift. And merciless.”) before casually enquiring of this Tomasi character to Exley, who impassively reveals no knowledge of the name. Vincennes has given Exley the bad guy from beyond the grave.
When Dudley continues to tie up loose ends, so he can continue moving Mickey Cohen’s heroin himself, he lures Bud and Exley to the Victory Motel for a brutal showdown. Incredibly, they make it, with Dudley assuming he’s in custody. Does he have a valediction? “Hold your badge up. So they can see you’re a police officer.” Exley instead shoots him in the back, forswearing his values. Ever the “political animal,” now twice decorated, he helps his bosses see the need to brush the scandal under the carpet. The LAPD is modernising, and Exley wants to be the clean face of it, while a wounded Bud makes it out of the City of Angels with his wings intact, and Lynne by his side. Dudley may die, unlike in the book, but he gets to maintain his hero reputation. He’s the guy who gets away with it…
Screenwriter must-read: Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson’s screenplay for L.A. Confidential [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Brian Helgeland is one of Hollywood’s master screenwriters of intelligent crime film, and has won an Oscar for L.A. Confidential and a BAFTA nomination for Mystic River. He has also collaborated with Tony Scott (Taking of Pelham 123, Man On Fire) and Paul Greengrass. In this BAFTA Guru lecture, Helgeland urged screenwriters to ‘fight’ to assert themselves in front of commissioners and executives, argued that films should be ‘commercial’ (that is, profitable on some level) and paid tribute to Cool Hand Luke screenwriter Frank Pierson.
“For me, everything started at least subliminally the first time I saw Cool Hand Luke. It’s not a crime movie, per se, but everyone exists in it because of either a crime they committed or because their job is to keep the men incarcerated or because they have to visit those men. Whether Luke’s eating fifty eggs or digging his own grave, it had a profound effect on my creative life. As for crime itself? As the sinew of things, I like it because it strips people down to their basic elements. It gets to the hunting-gathering heart of the matter. I don’t want to write about the ennui rich people feel. I don’t want to write about how fun it is when groups of couples get together for laughs. I could care less. I want to write about what’s in people’s heads, hearts and between their legs when they either are in prison, might go to prison, have a gun in their face or are pointing one. You live or you die, literally or figuratively, depending on a few pressured choices you make. It is my firm belief that people only reveal themselves when things go wrong and crime and its cousin suspense make things go very wrong indeed. And like in Luke the guy with the code wins. It doesn’t mean he’ll live; it just means he wins. And the code isn’t a moral one. It’s just the way a character makes certain rules for themselves, has drawn lines within themselves, and then we get to watch and see if they’ll cross them or not. There’s nothing like a saint without a god as far as I’m concerned.” —Brian Helgeland
This article, Curtis Hanson—Confidentially by Alex Simon, originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Venice Magazine.
I have to ask you about The Silent Partner, which is a favorite movie of mine.
It’s funny, the first time I met with Brian Helgeland, my screenwriting partner on L.A. Confidential, he said the same thing and I immediately answered back “Well, you’re obviously a genius!” (laughs) It was a film that really became a sleeper in retrospect. The producers made a stupid deal. They were offered distribution by Paramount, but turned it down because they wanted cash up front. They went with this independent outfit that literally went bankrupt while they were distributing the movie! So it barely played here. Foreign, however, it was one of the first pictures financed by Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna, and overseas it did very well, and critically, as well. I actually wrote it to direct… and as soon as I finished it, was offered the job of adapting Romain Gary’s novel White Dog for Paramount. It was going to be directed by Roman Polanski for Bob Evans’ production company. So I wanted to do this and I let these Canadian guys option The Silent Partner for three months, thinking I’ll get the money and they’ll never get it together, but they did! And due to Canadian tax laws, the only way they could get their points was to hire as many Canadians as they could to act, direct and so on… I wound up going up to Toronto while they were filming and getting very involved in it… and after it was wrapped, they brought me back for a week of pickups and to completely re-edit it. I did all the post-production on it as well. And this led those same producers to give me this other movie to direct, which became Losin’ It, with Tom Cruise and Shelley Long… One of my great joys is that Elliot Gould, with whom I eventually became close, took The Silent Partner and screened it for Hitchcock. The prick didn’t invite me, I might add. (laughs) But he called me immediately afterward saying “Hitch loved the movie!”
Tell me some more about what happened with White Dog.
The story is about a young woman, Kristy McNichol, who takes in a wounded dog that’s been trained to attack and kill black people on sight. Then a black dog trainer, Paul Winfield, tries to retrain the dog. Originally, Roman Polanski was going to direct it but then he couldn’t come back into the country because of his legal troubles. The picture kept getting rewritten by other people. Five years later, Sam Fuller and I were hired to rewrite it again and for him to direct it… No director in America has dealt with racism as consistantly and interestingly as Sam Fuller has, so I thought he was a great choice. The whole theme of the story is that racism is something that’s taught, as opposed to a natural thing. During the making of the movie, Paramount employed a “technical advisor” from the NAACP who Paul Winfield called “a parasite”… once the movie was finished, this same “advisor” told the NAACP that the movie should not be allowed to be released because it was racist. And the NAACP backed this up without even seeing the finished movie! They said “We would prefer this subject not be dealt with. It gives people the idea and it’s dangerous.” Paramount, at the same time, was being criticized for their lack of minority employment, a completely justifiable charge. The NAACP said that if Paramount released the film, they’d lead a boycott on Paramount… Paramount then sold the movie to NBC… pressure was brought to bear and the network withdrew from the deal. End of White Dog. It was released overseas. Got really good reviews. Now when I go overseas and do publicity, I am inevitably asked about White Dog. Also they love Sam overseas. The whole controversy was totally absurd.
Do you remember what made you fall in love with movies?
I always loved reading… stories, storytelling and movies. There’s that certain point in your childhood when you realize that there’s someone who actually makes the movies… Sam Fuller was one of those guys who really captured my imagination with films like Park Row, China Gate… In terms of inspiration, the movie that stunned me most was Vertigo. It was just so hypnotic, sensual and scary at the same time. And it still is. A lot of things you see and love as a kid, you were right about.
Were you always writing as a kid?
Yeah. In the fifth grade I wrote a serial called The Man Who Wanted Money. A fine melodrama (laughs). The teacher was a little concerned about it. All the kids would get up and read their little stories and I’d read a new chapter of my serial every week. The teacher finally contacted my parents about it. I was reading a lot of things like True Detective magazine at the time… I loved crime fiction and crime stories. And I just ended up feeling that writing was what I wanted to do.
What was it like working for Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson at American International Pictures?
It was good. It was amusing. I wrote a script that they liked, which didn’t get made, but it got me the job to adapt The Dunwich Horror. I wrote that, then they wanted to change so it resembled Rosemary’s Baby more, which was a big hit at the time. I sort of left in a huff and said “I’m not gonna do that!” Someone else rewrote it and Peter Fonda was cast in the lead. They had a start date, but didn’t like the script anymore. So then they hired me back to come down and rewrite it for Peter Fonda and make it better… Literally the day I was in there with my first set of revisions… there was this commotion going on out front. We all went outside. AIP had loaned Fonda a Lincoln convertible, as their star. He had left this car sitting there with the engine running, with a note stuck on the windshield that read “You can take this car and The Dunwich Horror and shove them up your ass! Columbia has more guts than you’ll ever have!” And what that was all a bout was, Columbia had just agreed to finance Easy Rider. So morale was pretty low around The Dunwich Horror that day. Dean Stockwell wound up doing the lead instead. The project was in such a shambles, I got to go on location in Mendecino and do re-writes on the set while they were shooting. It was a great learning experience.
Tell me about Never Cry Wolf.
I was hired to write that because of my original script on White Dog. Louis Malle was supposed to direct it, who I loved. And just like with Roman Polanski, I thought “Wow, can it really be this easy?” Well, no! (laughs) Things fell apart between Louis Malle and Warner Brothers. Five years went by, then it got set up at Disney with Carroll Ballard to direct. I was directing something myself by that time, so I couldn’t go to Alaska to be involved. The shooting of Never Cry Wolf went over two years… one time while I was vacationing in the desert at Two Bunch Palms, I was swimming in the pool and someone said that Carroll Ballard was there—in the pool—taking a break from shooting! So I swam over to him and introduced myself. We’d never met. Later on, he told me he often reflected when he was back up in the tundra on the surreal humor of meeting me in that swimming pool!
Tell me about the genesis of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
One thing leads to another in this business. I never intended to make a specialty of suspense movies. The Bedroom Window led to Bad Influence, which led ot me getting sent the first draft of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Amanda Silver wrote it as her thesis in a screenwriting class. I loved the “femaleness” of it. The scene that really grabbed me was that first scene in the gynecologist’s office. Every woman I’ve been involved with has told me of feelings of discomfort, creepiness or worse in the gynecologist’s office. Only a woman would’ve thought of starting a screenplay that way. Doing research for it, I went with my girlfriend to a routine examination at her gynecologist. The doctor came in, I was introduced to him as (the patient’s) boyfriend, and as he was preparing to examine her, he said “Well, since your boyfriend’s here, I guess I’ll put on the gloves today.” (laughs) And that creepy joke gave me the idea of having the doctor surreptitiously taking his glove off during that scene.
I think L.A. Confidential is one of the best films of the year. I’m a huge Ellroy fan and I have to admit to having doubts about how the book would translate to film because it’s so complex. Tell me about the whole process of how it came together.
I came to it because of Ellroy. I’d always been interested in L.A. fiction from growing up here, authors like James M. Cain, Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler. When I read L.A. Confidential, I just got hooked on the characters, got caught up emotionally in their individual struggles with their personal demons. I wanted to capture that in a movie. Also, I found that the way I felt about the characters was near to the way I felt about the city of Los Angeles. I’d always wanted to make a movie about L.A., to deal with this city at that magic moment in the 50’s when the dream of L.A. was being bulldozed to make way for all the people that were coming here in pursuit of the very dream that was being destroyed. So I got really excited about it as a movie project… and made a deal to write and direct it. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland had written a couple things for Warner Brothers that hadn’t been produced and was also a huge Ellroy fan and was trying to get a meeting to pitch it, to tell them what he wanted to do (with the script). A long time went by and he finally got his meeting, which they canceled when they told him they’d already made a deal with me to write and direct. So then Brian set about trying to meet me. As soon as we met, we hit it off and realized we saw a lot of things the same way. We knew a lot of the content of the book would have to go, but we were also both fanatical about maintaining the tone and vision of Ellroy and putting the emphasis on the characters rather than the plot. So we teamed up. Brian and I deliberately avoided contact with Ellroy, figuring he’d already done his job… We worked on the script off and on for a year, seven or eight drafts… When I finally called Ellroy he was initially refreshingly wary. He said “My book, your movie.” When he read the script, he was so pleased and so generous… he always thought that of all the books he’d written, L.A. Confidential was the last one that would be filmed.
It sounds like this has been a real labor of love for you.
Rather than being a director for hire as I have been on most of my films, L.A. Confidential is that one project where I’ve been able to cash in the chips I’ve earned from being lucky enough to have had a couple of financially successful films and saying “Okay, now this is the film that I want to make.” It’s my most personal movie. Whether it achieves any popular acceptance or not is less important to me. That’s not why I made it.
You flawlessly recreated Ellroy’s world of the old L.A. Tell me about what you did to prepare your collaborators for the journey back to the world of the early 1950’s.
I wanted to make it clear to my collaborators—the cinematographer, production designer, all the actors—that we were not making a Raymond Chandler movie, because Chandler is the world of the 1930’s and 40’s. This was about the fifties, the forward-looking fifties, about looking forward to the city of tomorrow rather than being stuck in the past. I wanted to be true to the period, but keep the emotion and the characters in the foreground. With Russell and Guy, who are Australian, I brought them over six weeks early to rehearse and spend a lot of time in various parts of L.A. Absorbing it. Listening to the language, the rhythms… I screened a number of movies for everyone. Films of the period: Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, and two by Don Siegel Private Hell 36 and The Line-Up. So everyone could see what the faces looked like, what the clothing looked like, how they talked, how they moved, what the bodies looked like in that pre-Nautilus, pre-aerobicised time when you had a police force of WW II vets who drank and smoked and ate heavily. They were L.A. pictures primarily.
I thought Kiss Me Deadly had an incredibly realistic feel to it. I came out of that movie knowing what L.A. in 1955 smelled like.
Yeah, those street shots have the feeling that they just sort of grabbed them. The same with Siegel’s pictures, which have a lean, almost documentary style. And the actors in those films: Howard Duff, Ralph Meeker, Steve Cochran, Sterling Hayden, were all actors that I wanted our actors to see. The Bad and the Beautiful was another one we watched, to see the illusion of Hollywood. In a Lonely Place, my favorite “Hollywood” movie, shows the dark underside of Hollywood.
Any advice for first time directors?
Once you’ve gotten the opportunity to actually direct, have a story you’re dying to tell, tell it the best way you can and make that your focus and don’t be distracted by anything else. Also, be honest. If you don’t know the answer to something, own up to it. By doing that, you’re displaying an openness and a lack of fear. That’ll make actors feel very comfortable because the miracle of acting, to me, is the total lack of fear they have to have. When they sense that lack of fear in somebody else, they recognize it and appreciate it.
DANTE SPINOTTI, ASC, AIC
“I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera. I was constantly asking myself, ‘Where would I be if I was holding a Leica?’” In his quest to bring L.A. Confidential to the screen, Hanson curated a series of vintage postcards, magazine clippings and stills that spelled out the texture he wanted for the film. Studio executives, actors and members of his creative team were given Hanson’s vivid pitch, which pulled a noir-flavored novel out into the layered sunlight of the City of Angels. Spinotti quickly understood Hanson wanted neither the traditional “nostalgic haze” frequently relied on in films to suggest the period nor the clichéd smoke and diffusion of film-noir visuals so often used in urban crime stories. As Hanson eloquently put it, he wanted the “Light of Los Angeles.” As the director would later explain, “The light is very much what this place is about. It’s why the movies came here in the first place—to be shot in that light. There’s a softness to the light that perfectly complements the palette of the desert landscape.” Rather than screening film noir classics for visual inspiration, Hanson and Spinotti pored over the work of Swiss-born still photographer Robert Frank. They were particularly intrigued by Frank’s 1958 book The Americans, a collection of gritty, startling black-and-white photographs documenting American life during the mid-Fifties. Spinotti found himself moved by Frank’s “strong selection of elements, his way of bringing symbols into the shots. His work is passionate, but it is passion filtered with intellect. On L.A. Confidential, I tried to compose the shots as if I had a still camera in my hand. This is one reason I suggested that we shoot in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work. We also knew we would be shooting a lot at night. With anamorphic zoom lenses, which we used on Heat, you are limited to a stop of f5.6; with spherical lenses you can open up to f2.8, 2.3 or more and still get a very sharp image. We also wanted to have the ability to move around and use Steadicam, which is easier with spherical lenses.”
The director and cinematographer agreed that Robert Frank’s influence resonates in almost every aspect of the film’s look, from lighting and camera angles to the selection of locations. Spinotti was particularly fascinated by the photographer’s inclusion of “practical” lights in his photographs, noting, “I told the production designer [Jeannine Oppewall], ‘You will love this film, because what you select as practicals will be our major sources of light.’ In fact, practicals were quite often our key lights on this film.” Was Spinotti concerned about the problem of practical key lights “burning out” on screen? “No,” he answers. “In fact, I wish I could have burned them out more, because I like that look. As you look at Frank’s photographs, you see there is often a halo around the lights. These halos are one of the things people are often struck by in his work. I think that ‘burn-outs’ and halos worked for us as well in L.A. Confidential, enhancing the period and mood.”
Despite his departure from the classic film noir style, Spinotti did include some traditional motifs in his overall photographic approach, such as the occasional appearance of menacing, exaggerated shadows, or shadows cast on walls by venetian blinds. One of the more notable visual aspects of the picture is the cinematographer’s use of darkness to surround and highlight the most important aspect of each tableau, much in the way that early filmmakers actually vignetted the edges of a scene to emphasize its vital elements. He explains, “I like to shoot dark images. I’m drawn to the mystery of darkness with brightness in the center; that’s instinctive to me.’ With that in mind, Spinotti took advantage of the city’s natural light and worked on interior locations and soundstages to simulate and match those natural layers, giving the film a more contemporary and realistic feel. The cinematographer’s work on the picture earned him Academy and ASC Award nominations. —Wrap Shot: L.A. Confidential
Listen to a 1997 43-minute interview with writer James Ellroy & director/producer/screenwriter Curtis Hanson on L.A. Confidential.
I understood in 40 minutes or so that it is a work of art on its own level. It was amazing to see the physical incarnation of the characters—I had spent time with Pearce and Crowe in Australia when on a book tour. I knew what they looked like, knew their original Australian accents. I was startled by the film more than anything else, and happily relinquished myself to it. Then as I saw it on subsequent viewings, I got more of a sense of the depth and design of the work. For example, Basinger is noticeably older than Crowe, and it adds a maternal air to their scenes; here is a man who witnessed the brutal murder of his mother, and at the end he’s grievously wounded and being nurtured by a mature woman. A young kid could not have made this film; only a seasoned artist could have. —James Ellroy
James Ellroy selects his ten favourite crime films, Neon Magazine, July ’98.
“The making-of retraces the origin of the movie adaptation, how Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland went on deciding what to keep and what to cut from the book and what happened when they showed their first draft to Ellroy. Then the difficulty of finding the right balance for a big budget movie that has no clear lead (8 speaking characters, and both Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe were unknown Australian actors) and so many locations (45) and convince a Studio to get on board. From casting to building a cinematic language and choosing the music, there is much to enjoy from this making-of narrated by Curtis Hanson.” —Mentorless
In loving memory of Curtis Hanson (1945–2016)
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. Photographed by Merrick Morton & Peter Sorel © Regency Enterprises, The Wolper Organization, Warner Bros. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.