City of angles

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

Bernardo Bertolucci once dubbed Los Angeles the Big Nipple. Writer-director Curtis Hanson has been suckling at it all his life. Just how much nourishment he's drawn becomes clear in his terrific new L.A. film, L.A. Confidential. Now 52, Hanson has been a talent for critics to dead-reckon with for 20 years, displaying snappy craftsmanship and a welcome air of irony in movies as different as the 1983 coming-of-age comedy-drama Losin' It (with Tom Cruise's best performance) and the 1990 anti-yuppie thriller Bad Influence (with James Spader's best performance).

But he's never before generated the kind of heat inside a picture--and out of it--that he has with L.A. Confidential. His mounting of James Ellroy's maze-like crime saga draws audiences into a startlingly close bond with three morally tainted L.A. cops. They stumble toward redemption in the City of Angels in the giddy decade following World War II.

Or is that the City of Angles? Each of the three antiheroes is playing one. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) tries to edge into the spotlight as the technical advisor to a Dragnet-like TV show called Badge of Honor. Bud White (Russell Crowe) rescues abused women to settle a private psychic score. And Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a canny precinct politician posing as a clean-cut idealist. The story traces the unholy yet virtuous three as they investigate a massacre of six people at a late-night coffee shop--even after the department closes the case.

In run-of-the-mill films noir, any one of these men would serve as the flawed central hero drawn to a voluptuous woman and driven to righteousness for once in his life. But L.A. Confidential explodes into a panorama of mixed motives: All three end up serving justice. And if two men fall for the same sadder-but-wiser beauty, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), they both wind up better for it. She's a femme fatale with a healing touch, and Jack, Bud, and Ed are rogue cops with nagging consciences.

Hanson sets their mutual crucible bubbling in a 1950s Southern California that's oddly hopeful and inviting. It's also unlike anything else in the genre that's now known as "neo-noir." The only one peddling the sultry romance of the '40s in this movie is Lynn Bracken, whose millionaire pimp has made her over to look like Veronica Lake.

Over lunch two weeks ago a short hop away from his home and office in Marina del Rey, Hanson said, "I didn't want to make a movie that was a homage to a style of the past. Quite the contrary. I made it despite the fact that it was set in the past and was about cops."

His interest was in Southern California fiction--Chandler, Cain, John Fante (The Brotherhood of the Grape). "I'd read half a dozen of Ellroy's books before I read L.A Confidential," Hanson said. "I got hooked on the characters, not the plot, and part of what hooked me on them was that, as I met them, one after the other, I didn't like them--but as I continued reading, I started to care about them.

"I also found myself thinking about the city. Ellroy gave me the opportunity to set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the '20s and '30s, was being bulldozed; the area was changing from this group of individual little communities to the megalopolis that the freeways created. The mood after World War II was very un-noirish. It was one of optimism and economic boom. And there were a lot of things starting here, new and exciting, that for better or worse are still very much with us today. The freeways, the whole idea of suburbia. Television, tabloid journalism. It's the period that I lived through as a child, and this seemed to be an opportunity to tell a story about these characters and that city all in one."

Hanson's co-writer on L.A. Confidential, Brian Helgeland, originally signed with Warner Bros. to do a Viking movie with director Uli Edel. (Helgeland jokingly refers to it as Last Exit to Oslo.) He then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story and got typecast as "the sword guy" at the studio. Unlike Hanson and Ellroy, Helgeland hails from southern Massachusetts. But he was a longtime fan of Ellroy's writing, and what he saw in L.A. Confidential was the chance to do, as he put it, "epic, swashbuckling noir." In the typical noir, he says, "Guys are poking guns at each other in drab rooms and dim hallways. In Ellroy's book, it's more like Lawrence of Arabia."

When he heard that Warners had acquired the book, he lobbied to script the film: "Unfortunately, I was just 'the sword guy,' and they were seeing big writers." Helgeland finally got a meeting, but it was canceled two days before it was to occur--Warners had decided to go with a writer-director, Curtis Hanson. But Helgeland continued to push. He and Hanson ultimately got together at a bungalow at Universal, where Hanson was at work on The River Wild. And they found that along with their enthusiasm for Ellroy, they shared the same concept of how to lick the novel: "Basically," says Helgeland, "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."

They labored together for roughly two years. "Curtis had a doggedness about him," Helgeland says. "He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free. Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

Ellroy approved: "They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes. The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain."

Next, Hanson had to sell this as a commercial proposition. L.A. Confidential would be an ensemble piece, a period piece, and a film noir (a genre yet to produce a blockbuster)--three strikes to any major studio. So Warners executive Bill Gerber squired the script to Michael Nathanson, CEO of Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions, which had an umbrella deal at Warners. Nathanson loved it; then it was a matter of getting Milchan on board.

Hanson prepared a presentation. He'd always collected postcards and pictures of L.A. He put together a group of 15 mounted on poster-boards and made his pitch to Milchan. He paraded shots of the orange groves and the beaches, of tract homes in the San Fernando Valley and the opening of the Hollywood Freeway. He told Milchan, "Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live." He produced a cover of the scandal-rag Confidential--"a particularly salacious issue"--to show the roots of Ellroy's Hush-Hush magazine, the celebrity dirt-monger that framed their script. He analyzed "the famous shot of Mitchum coming out of jail on his marijuana charge, where he looks incredibly handsome and buffed out; it allowed me to talk about the whole image machine, the spin that was put on celebrities. I had shots of the jazz musicians of the time--Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker--saying this is the music people listened to, and this is the way some of the people dressed, making the point that these guys look up-to-date.

"I made the point that the leads were not going to wear hats. I had publicity stills of [postwar leading men such as] Guy Madison, Aldo Ray, and Steve Cochran. I said, instead of remarking on how quaint they used to dress, men in the audience will be thinking, 'I'd like to be dressed like that' or their girlfriends will be saying, 'I'd like you to be dressed like that.'"

Hanson continued: "Always, I emphasized that the period would be in the background, the characters and emotions in the foreground. And I said there would be something lurid and flashy and fun about it. Near the end I brought out a couple of old movie-star glamour things, including one of Veronica Lake, and said, 'This is what we're not doing, except when Lynn Bracken is selling it to the suckers.' Then I wrapped up with a couple of modern shots by Helmut Newton of sexy women today wearing retro-style clothes, to show why the guys in the audience would be going, Yeah!

"When I finished, Arnon said, 'Let's make it.' 'Just like that?' I asked. `Yeah,' he said. 'I see the movie in your eyes.' And he never wavered."

Hanson put Milchan to the test with his casting choices. Both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are Australian. And moviegoers think that the fourth-billed James Cromwell is Australian, since his most famous role was Farmer Hoggett in Babe. (In L.A. Confidential, he plays police captain Dudley Smith.) "My little fantasy," Hanson says, "was to try to replicate for the viewer of the movie the experience one has in reading a book--or in life. You meet a character, and you don't know what to make of them; you make all sorts of assumptions based on what you see he or she is doing; and then you find out whether you're right or wrong. And since I was portraying L.A. as a boomtown, it felt right to have fresh faces."

Hanson had seen Russell Crowe play a neo-Nazi skinhead in Romper Stomper and found him "repulsive and scary but captivating." Crowe fit his visual preconception of Bud White as "someone who could feel like Aldo Ray, a brute but a little kid inside." Guy Pearce "walked into the office like anyone else to read and just was very much what I had in mind for Ed Exley. When I learned he was in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I didn't want to see it--casting another unknown Australian was a decision being challenged, and I didn't want my confidence in him rocked by seeing him run around in drag." Milchan mock-whimpered, "Is this movie going to have any stars?"

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."

Hanson's entering the project piqued his curiosity: "In the two films of his that I had seen then, Bad Influence and The Bedroom Window, I found him a competent and interesting storyteller. He's not some bullshit auteur.

"I figured that if he wanted to talk to me, he'd find me. He did find me, but he found me when there was a reasonable chance of it getting made. That made me feel I was dealing with a mature man right away. I told him it was my book, but it was his movie, and even if his movie fucked up my book beyond redemption, it would sell books of mine. And even if it was a piece of shit, I wouldn't be quoted on that for attribution when the film came out."

Hanson retains the Film Generation's erudite infatuation with the medium. He doesn't separate movie art from the rest of storytelling, and his tastes are particular and refined. He never enrolled in college or film school, but began writing on film for Cal State L.A.'s campus paper. He also worked as an unpaid gofer for one of Uncle Jack's least-lucrative enterprises, a swank-looking movie magazine called Cinema. Eventually he became its editor.

Cinema clenched his ambition to tell stories through pictures. During his years on the magazine, he befriended a number of filmmakers he revered, including masculine genre specialists Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) and Sam Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor).

From the late '60s on, Hanson amassed an eclectic body of experiences. His photos of an unknown actress named Faye Dunaway helped producer-star Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn cast her in Bonnie and Clyde. In 1970 he co-wrote a low-budget version of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror and wrote and directed a small-scale psycho-killer film called The Arousers. He did patch jobs for Roger Corman while angling to direct A movies. In his years of struggle, he did score a couple of bull's-eyes, including his cunning script to the Elliott Gould-Christopher Plummer thriller, The Silent Partner, and his deft direction of the Tijuana fable, Losin' It. But few Americans saw The Silent Partner, and Losin' It typecast him as a director of teen-oriented movies (including the TV film The Children of Times Square).

To get on the adult track, he wrote a deft Hitchcockian pastiche, The Bedroom Window --and writer-director Robert Towne, an acquaintance from his days on his Uncle Jack's tennis courts, godfathered it into production with Hanson at the helm. More directing jobs followed: on Bad Influence and the evil-nanny shocker The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (a commercial smash) and the rousing white-water adventure, The River Wild (with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon).

To capture the L.A. he needed for L.A. Confidential, Hanson screened his favorite '50s films to his Confidential collaborators both for points and counterpoints. He used Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful to epitomize the glamorized Hollywood they were hoping to avoid, except in the depiction of Lynn Bracken. He showed Nicholas Ray's volatile Bogart film about a pent-up screenwriter, In a Lonely Place, to evoke the emotional wasteland behind the glamour. Siegel's The Line-Up served to highlight "the faces of men who'd been through World War II and drank and smoked and never worked out." And with Robert Aldrich's rock 'em, sock 'em piece of pre-postmodernism, Kiss Me Deadly, Hanson proved how cutting-edge and anti-nostalgic '50s pop culture could be.

He and cinematographer Dante Spinotti knew they would shoot wide-screen, so they studied two exemplars of expressive CinemaScope--Douglas Sirk's adaptation of William Faulkner's Pylon, Tarnished Angels, and Minnelli's adaptation of James Jones' small-town saga, Some Came Running. Spinotti also screened each of Hanson's own features, deciding that their signal characteristic was the director's fix on his characters' points of view. "I like strong point of view in movies," admits Hanson. "That's part of their visual attraction; suspense in particular works well when you get the audience involved in a single point of view. The challenge of L.A. Confidential was to use multiple points of view to get the audience invested in several characters instead of one. Bud White, Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes--each is a leading man in his own story. Then the stories come together."

Ellroy saw the movie at a "blue-collar" test screening in Tacoma, Washington. He and his wife, former L.A. Weekly critic Helen Knode, flew out for it. Ellroy was delighted. "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."

Ellroy thinks the movie is a time-jump to an age when "people looked different and were coiffed different, and buildings weren't so big, when people weren't so self-conscious, and just accepted a lot more things than we do now. It's a trip back to that world, but one that tells you those weren't better times. And, frankly, who wouldn't want to visit those times?"

Curtis Hanson is philosophical about his newfound heat: "From the advance reaction, I feel that we're getting the benefit of a reverse backlash. People are saying that they miss, in most movies, something we worked hard to have in this movie--an old-fashioned respect for narrative. Writers and directors used to be encouraged to develop their narrative skills; it's no accident that directors like John Huston and Howard Hawks got better as they went along.

"If they came up today, there would be nobody to encourage them; now, too many people make their best movies first and shoot their wads. The fact that nobody on a studio level values narrative makes it harder to bounce around from genre to genre. What one envies about the careers of Huston and Hawks is they could do all sorts of movies. I know as a fan of somebody that if they can do a really good job with a Western, there's no reason they can't do a really good job with a Raymond Chandler story or an adult relationship picture. But that's because I value and recognize storytelling. If you don't, the tendency is to go, well, they did a good comedy...they can only do a good comedy."

Since they first teamed up, Hanson's co-writer, Brian Helgeland, has also become hot. He wrote the original script of the summer's underrated suspense-romance, Conspiracy Theory, and rewrote Kevin Costner's dry-land post-apocalypse, The Postman. He's now preparing his directorial debut--Parker, a variation on Point Blank set to star Mel Gibson.

He already misses his anonymity: "I mean, the new Stanley Kubrick movie goes out with huge expectations; everyone's been following it. But when Curtis and I began work on L.A. Confidential, we weren't top writers or directors in this town. With this film, we didn't say we were going to make a great movie, but we thought we had the raw material to make a great movie. And we got to do it without being under the spotlight." For the moment, he laughs at the image the two must now project to the industry: "Hanson and Helgeland--who knew?"

L.A. Confidential.
Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger. Written by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland. Directed by Hanson. Opens September 19.

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