City of angles

How Curtis Hanson turned James Ellroy's epic crime novel L.A. Confidential into one of the year's best films

But Milchan stood up for Hanson. Contends the director, "His backing me at the start about those two guys empowered me with every move I made from then on. It put me in the unique position of going to Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito and saying, 'I'm making this movie that I love. We start shooting in three weeks. Do you want to be in it?'"

Hanson likes to say, "When you're working on a project, a lot of coincidences come together." But what he describes as coincidence translates to outsiders as an appetite for research, an eye for details, and a knack for pulling them together in a pattern that comes to seem inevitable.

He thinks it's a coincidence that, while writing L.A. Confidential, he wandered into a New York photo exhibit of Robert Frank's poignant, veracious The Americans and used it as a touchstone for work that is equally "period" and immediate. He thinks it's a coincidence that L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art put on a display about "case study houses"--'50s homes of the future for American Everymen--when he was considering them as a design key for the movie, in pointed contrast to the '20s mansions of Chandler-based movies.

Hanson is so rational and modest that referring to "coincidences" may be his way of deflecting any talk that he was the ideal choice to direct and co-write L.A. Confidential. Both of Hanson's parents grew up in L.A.; they met at Hollywood High. His father taught at the Harvard Military School, where many Hollywood bigwigs sent their kids. "George Stevens Jr. was a student of his," Hanson recalls. "Zanuck's kid, and Wayne's kids, tons of them. My father was an extraordinarily gifted teacher, one of those teachers who countless students say changed their lives; even today people will say, 'Oh, you're Bill Hanson's son,' and I'll hear this tale." But Hanson's father was a conscientious objector during World War II, and the school fired him. He got a job at Reseda Elementary, and the family moved to the San Fernando Valley.

Hanson's mother adored movies, but his Uncle Jack was the person who brought him to the "periphery of show business." Jack Hanson owned a women's clothing store named JAX--a favorite of Hollywood actresses in the '50s--and lived in a Beverly Hills mansion; Hanson was pals with Jack's son. Hanson describes hitchhiking to Beverly Hills from the Valley as being "like the fable of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Jack had this tennis court, and everybody would be there playing tennis, and then I'd return to Reseda or Tarzana."

Hanson was the main connection between his father and his uncle. "They were very different men, and they had totally different lifestyles. When my dad was in the hospital, my Uncle Jack wouldn't come to visit him, and his excuse was, 'I never go to the Valley!'"

How did young Curtis handle jumping between Beverly Hills and the Valley? Did the gap piss him off? "No, I liked it. I was being exposed to a lot of other stuff. The Jack Vincennes character, being on the outside and wanting in, I saw a little of my Uncle Jack in that guy--Jack who was making more money than he knew what to do with but always wanted in."

Hanson dropped out of high school in his senior year, perplexing his parents. He says he didn't like the discipline. As a reader of Dickens, Twain, and Conrad as well as Southern California melodramas, he loved storytelling. He moved to Hollywood and since then has lived all over Los Angeles. "It's hard to imagine," he says, "how wonderful this place undoubtedly was in the '20s and '30s. When you see the vestiges of it, you see the houses that survived have this proximity to everything--people lived here, worked there, everything was so close. This way of life was destroyed and replaced by something ugly and gray by comparison, this whole freeway thing. But the city of the past is still out there. You drive around Silver Lake, Echo Park, East Hollywood, and you still see the remains of that period. It's like watching a movie that you really love on late-night television when it's been butchered, cut up for commercials, and re-edited: You still can connect to the movie you love, and still get an emotional charge from it, if you just weed out all the other crap."

Ellroy, the hard-bitten bard of lower-depths L.A. in novels like The Big Nowhere, now happily makes his home in affluent digs in Kansas City. "I have enough crazy shit in my head to last another 49 years, anyway," he says. When Warners optioned L.A. Confidential in 1990, his reaction was, "Thanks for the dough!"

Ellroy says his interest in movies "doesn't reach beyond their depiction of crime. I love a lot of the classic film noir shit, from '46 to '59. But I can't sit through comedies or Westerns or outer-space flicks; if you want to put me to sleep forever, just set me down in front of a John Ford movie. My books are not written to be films; a lot of their strength as novels comes from their dense structure and their complexity, the internal access I give to the characters; there are interior monologues in all the books."

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