Proud director Curtis Hanson calls "L.A. Confidential" his biggest picture
In the 1950s there were two cities of Los Angeles. The sunshine and orange groves Los Angeles that was being sold through post cards and movies, and the unforgivingly urban Los Angeles that was being created by mowing down those orange groves to make way for all the people who were sold on the image.
Director Curtis Hanson has a penchant for this kind of duality. In his films he likes settings and characters that are not what they seem at first to be, like the psycho nanny in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" or the dark deviant drifters in "Bad Influence" and "The River Wild."
In "L.A. Confidential," adapted by Hanson and writing partner Brian Helgeland from the best-selling crime and corruption novel by James Ellroy, he finds this duality everywhere.
On an emotional level, the film delves deeply into the two sides of all it's major characters. There's Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the upstanding Boy Scout-like cop who learn to play politics, and detective Bud White (Russell Crowe), who dispenses vigilante justice against wife-beaters and rapists to help quell his own childhood demons. There's Lynn Bracken (Kim Bassinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute with dreams of opening a dress shop, and Jack Vincennes, whose happiness revolves around his image as the Hollywood vice cop.
On a visual level, he creates an atmosphere that is heavily influenced by the film noir detective movies of the movie's period, the 1950s, but had to be filmed in modern L.A. .
In San Francisco on a press tour, the lean, unshaven Hanson smiles openly and energetically shakes hands, but it's only 9 a.m. and he looks a little sleepy while he finishes his morning toast.
We begin by talking about the cars in the movie, since I have a 1949 Plymouth and spotted one passing by in the film, but noticed it was a color that wasn't used in 1949.
"The first thing was to try to have colors that fit within our pallet that Dante (cinematographer Dante Spinotti) and I wanted," Hanson said. "So that would eliminate certain colors, but beyond that we tried to stick to the colors that were in fact authentic to the period."
SPLICED: Well, now that that's out of the way, one thing I gotta tell you before we get on to "L.A. Confidential" is that I really liked "Bad Influence."
Curtis Hanson: I like hearing that. Thank you. I appreciate that, because it's a movie I'm very fond of myself. It's a more personal movie to me than the two that followed it, which I did for other reasons, more as a director for hire. "L.A. Confidential" is actually the most personal I've done, and prior to that "Bad Influence."
S: You wrote seven drafts of the script for this film.
CH: (My writing partner) Brian Helgeland and I spent about a year on it. It was a mammoth job doing the screenplay. We put in a lot of serious time...
S: Yeah, I imagine. Trying to whittle that 500 page book down to a two, two and a half hour movie...
CH: Right. Not only obviously eliminate things -- subplots, back stories and so forth -- but to also re-invent certain things so that we could be as true as we could be to the characters. The other way to go, if one was just trying to be true to the plot, would be to have a movie with non-stop exposition. That's not what interested me. What grabbed me when I read the book was the emotional reaction I had to the characters. Relevant to that influence, a theme that has always interested me is the difference between how thing appear and how they are. Image versus reality, etc.
In "Bad Influence" you've got this yuppie, upwardly mobile who has all the accouterments he could want and yet has this gray, soulless existence. Then along comes the other character who is so charming and seductive, and is temptation. What that movie is really about thematically is a character being introduced to the dark side of his own personality.
That theme carries through, for instance, with the idyllic looking family in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," which is actually a very fragile situation because the family has never been tested. Or Kevin Bacon in "The River Wild." This guy appears to be a very viable alternative to the husband. Both for her and for the little boy.
But this is much more full-blown in "L.A. Confidential" because not only is it about the characters who appear to be one thing as you meet each of them, most obviously with Lynn Bracken who looks like Veronica Lake. But Bud appears to be a mindless thug. Ed appears to be a political opportunist masquerading as an idealist. Jack appears to be Mr. Cool, who meanwhile is losing his soul.
Also the city of Los Angeles, which I've always wanted to deal with as a city that has a manufactured image in the first place, an image that was sent out over the airwaves to get everybody to come there, as in the main title sequence. The truth of that image was literally being destroyed to make way for all the people that were coming there looking for it. It was being bulldozed into oblivion.
So this was a theme that I wanted to deal with, and "L.A. Confidential" was an opportunity to deal with it in a full-blown manner. It's without a doubt my most personal movie. The one where I used whatever commercial credibility I had earned by being lucky enough to have a couple of successes, to step up and say, "OK, I'm not a director for hire on this one. This is the picture I want to do." I found the book and initiated it, and made it happen.
S: Talking about the way L.A. once was, one of the notes I took during the movie was "GREAT location scouting." This movie looks so period. I was so impressed with all the details. I'm sure you had to shoot things just right so you didn't get the skyscrapers in the background.
CH: We did. And interestingly enough there is only one shot in the entire movie where we used computer effects to eliminate something in the background.
The thing about the locations...well, first of all, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I always wanted to make a movie about Los Angeles. I touched on it in "Bad Influence" when Rob Lowe introduces James Spader to the dark side of L.A. The other world that Spader doesn't know exists. But it was limited. In "L.A. Confidential" it's the reason to be there.
It starts with that first frame, that old post card of Los Angeles. When you say "L.A." and you say "period" and then you say "crime," everybody immediately thinks "The Big Sleep," "Chinatown," Raymond Chandler, film noir, etc. While I love that, I didn't want to do that. I didn't want this movie to be perceived by my collaborators as being about that.
So I put together a group of 15 photographs and mounted each one on a piece of posterboard -- the first one was that postcard that's the first shot of the movie. And what the cards did, I would sit with each collaborator -- Dante for instance, Jeannine Oppewall, the production designer, and in fact each of the actors -- and I would go through these pictures, and they represented how the movie would look, feel, and the theme of the movie.
The first one I did it with was Arnon Milchan, who financed the movie. He hadn't read the script, and when I finished he said "Let's make the movie."
The opening montage that Danny DeVito narrates grew out of this, where he's saying here's the image of L.A. -- the endless orange groves, the wide, expansive beaches -- well I had these photos that were a shot of the orange groves, a shot of the beaches, a shot of a freeway opening, then I had this very salacious cover of Confidential magazine, and I said this is where our characters live.
Then 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 names Aldo Ray. "This is what Bud White looks like." And then some shots of some houses. "These are the houses are 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.
The long and short of it all was that I wanted each collaborator to see what the movie would feel like and look like, and then said, "Now we're going to keep the period stuff in the background. We're going to shoot it in such a way that it's contemporary." We avoided set up that would draw attention to the window dressing of the period, whether it be the car or the clothes or the set dressings.
S: You wanted the characters in the forefront.
CH: Character and emotion in the forefront, and ideally let the audience, on a scene by scene basis, forget that it's a period movie, so they're just in there with the characters. So (for instance) there's a minimum of people wearing hats. Detectives, a lot of them did wear hats in 1953. But I have them not wearing hats because that would remind you. If you were watching Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce or Kevin in a hat, you'd be going, "Oh, look. It's a guy in a costume." Where as when they're not in (an obvious) costume, it feels real.
The same with the locations. We wanted to avoid the sort of landmark, historical L.A. locations -- Union Station, etc.
S: You were going for neighborhoody...
CH: Neighborhoody, exactly...It was an enormous job, by the way. There are 45 location in the movie. Eighty speaking parts. I mean, by far the biggest movie that I've ever made.
S: In addition to the locations that had the period feel without being overbearingly period, it also had a certain traditional symbolism. The best example is Lynn's hair -- when it's in a pony tail she's sweet and pure and when it's down she's vampy. You know what I mean?
CH: I know what you mean, and in a general sense, yes. But not quite as specific as you're saying in terms of intent. The idea was, in her Veronica Lake mode she's creating an image. When she steps out of that mode, the other times you see her, then that's the woman behind that image. The idea of the pony tail was that it's as far from the Veronica Lake look as you can get and still have long hair.
S: One of the things I loved about the movie was that it's fun to get lost in. You know everything is going on, but your not sure where you're going.
CH: I wanted, and Brian Helgeland, my screenwriting partner wanted, to have a clarity to the story, that if one was paying attention they could follow it. At the same time, we didn't want it to be that that was what the movie was about. The more interesting thing is how the characters are developed and reflected through the plot structure.
There are certain movies, take "The Big Sleep" for example. There's always a certain point in that movie where I stop being concerned about what happened to Sean Regan, the chauffeur that they're all asking about. Instead I'm caught up in what's going on with the characters. Not to criticize "The Big Sleep," but it doesn't make sense. You never do understand what happened to Sean Regan. (laughs.) You know? No matter how careful you're paying attention.
I don't care as a viewer, but as a filmmaker I do care. I wanted this movie to make sense and I spent a lot of time with Brian working on it and trying to have a clarity, but not at the expense of the characters. That was the balancing act.
S: Tell me a little bit about the casting. I read that both Guy Pearce's and Russell Crowe's screen tests were shown to the producer and he said "Wow. That's it."
CH: It wasn't quite that I showed it to him and he said "That's it." I put Russell on tape and took him to Arnon and said "This is my Bud White." And Arnon said OK. Then I took him Guy Pearce and said "This is the guy I want for Ed Exley." I didn't tell him he was Australian, because I didn't want to rock the boat.
S: By the way, when I read that you'd cast Guy Pearce, I thought of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and said "That was the guy that was completely flaming!"
CH: Which I never saw, by the way. Guy came in as just an actor coming through the door. He asked me (at one point), "What in 'Priscilla' made you think I could do this." I said, "Guy, I haven't seen 'Priscilla'. And I'm not going to." I didn't want to have my vision of Exley shaken by seeing him in a dress.
I didn't tell Arnon he was Australian, but he asked "Are we going to have any names in this picture." I said yes. Jack Vincennes is a movie star among cops, and to play that part I need somebody who can bring that kind of charisma.
See, with Ed and Bud I wanted unknowns. I wanted people that the audience could discover as the story went along in the same way I discovered the characters as I read the book. It's very hard to do that with a movie star because you already invest the character with what the movie star brings to the part.
But with Kevin, I wanted 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.
S: How much did you work with Ellroy?
CH: Zero. I avoided it.
S: You must have been excited when he liked the film enough to come with you on press junkets (Ellroy was staying in the same hotel and I had just finished interviewing him.)
CH: I was thrilled. When Brian and I were writing the script, I'd never met him. I didn't want to meet him or talk to him because he had done his work in creating that book which was the inspiration from which Brian and I worked. Our task was different and I didn't want to be influenced by a writer's possessiveness or defensiveness or whatever it might be. When we had a draft, after working a year, that we were happy with, I took it to the studio and said, "This is the movie I want to make," and I also sent it to Ellroy.
I can't exaggerate how much the pleasure it was when Ellroy reacted as positively to it as he did. There were things about it he didn't get, that he didn't get until he actually saw the movie. But Brian and I were thrilled. He was the inspiration, and with all the things that we did to it, we wanted it to be true to the inspiration and to his voice.