hanson Interview

07 January 2009

Proud director Curtis Hanson calls

Proud director Curtis Hanson calls "L.A. Confidential" his biggest picture

In the 1950s there were two cities of Los Angeles. Thesunshine and orange groves Los Angeles that was being sold through postcards and movies, and the unforgivingly urban Los Angeles that was beingcreated by mowing down those orange groves to make way for all the peoplewho were sold on the image.

Director Curtis Hanson has a penchant for this kind ofduality. In his films he likes settings and characters that are not whatthey seem at first to be, like the psycho nanny in "The Hand ThatRocks the Cradle" or the dark deviant drifters in "Bad Influence"and "The River Wild."

In "L.A. Confidential," adapted by Hanson andwriting partner Brian Helgeland from the best-selling crime and corruptionnovel by James Ellroy, he finds this duality everywhere.

On an emotional level, the film delves deeply into thetwo 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 detectiveBud White (Russell Crowe), who dispenses vigilante justice against wife-beatersand rapists to help quell his own childhood demons. There's Lynn Bracken(Kim Bassinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute with dreams of openinga dress shop, and Jack Vincennes, whose happiness revolves around his imageas the Hollywood vice cop.

On a visual level, he creates an atmosphere that is heavilyinfluenced by the film noir detective movies of the movie's period, the1950s, but had to be filmed in modern L.A. .

In San Francisco on a press tour, the lean, unshaven Hansonsmiles openly and energetically shakes hands, but it's only 9 a.m. andhe looks a little sleepy while he finishes his morning toast.

We begin by talking about the cars in the movie, sinceI have a 1949 Plymouth and spotted one passing by in the film, but noticedit was a color that wasn't used in 1949.

"The first thing was to try to have colors that fitwithin our pallet that Dante (cinematographer Dante Spinotti) and I wanted,"Hanson said. "So that would eliminate certain colors, but beyond thatwe tried to stick to the colors that were in fact authentic to the period."

Contactmusic.com: Well, now that that's out of the way, onething 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. Iappreciate that, because it's a movie I'm very fond of myself. It's a morepersonal movie to me than the two that followed it, which I did for otherreasons, more as a director for hire. "L.A. Confidential" isactually the most personal I've done, and prior to that "Bad Influence."

S: You wrote seven drafts of the script for thisfilm.

CH: (My writing partner) Brian Helgeland and I spentabout a year on it. It was a mammoth job doing the screenplay. We put ina lot of serious time...

S: Yeah, I imagine. Trying to whittle that 500 pagebook 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 thingsso that we could be as true as we could be to the characters. The otherway to go, if one was just trying to be true to the plot, would be to havea movie with non-stop exposition. That's not what interested me. What grabbedme 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 thedifference between how thing appear and how they are. Image versus reality,etc.

In "Bad Influence" you've got this yuppie, upwardlymobile who has all the accouterments he could want and yet has this gray,soulless existence. Then along comes the other character who is so charmingand seductive, and is temptation. What that movie is really about thematicallyis a character being introduced to the dark side of his own personality.

That theme carries through, for instance, with the idylliclooking family in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," which isactually a very fragile situation because the family has never been tested.Or Kevin Bacon in "The River Wild." This guy appears to be avery viable alternative to the husband. Both for her and for the littleboy.

But this is much more full-blown in "L.A. Confidential"because not only is it about the characters who appear to be one thingas you meet each of them, most obviously with Lynn Bracken who looks likeVeronica Lake. But Bud appears to be a mindless thug. Ed appears to bea political opportunist masquerading as an idealist. Jack appears to beMr. Cool, who meanwhile is losing his soul.

Also the city of Los Angeles, which I've always wantedto 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 beingdestroyed to make way for all the people that were coming there lookingfor 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 whatevercommercial credibility I had earned by being lucky enough to have a coupleof successes, to step up and say, "OK, I'm not a director for hireon this one. This is the picture I want to do." I found the book andinitiated it, and made it happen.

S: Talking about the way L.A. once was, one of thenotes I took during the movie was "GREAT location scouting."This movie looks so period. I was so impressed with all the details. I'msure you had to shoot things just right so you didn't get the skyscrapersin the background.

CH: We did. And interestingly enough there is onlyone shot in the entire movie where we used computer effects to eliminatesomething in the background.

The thing about the locations...well, first of all, I grewup 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 JamesSpader to the dark side of L.A. The other world that Spader doesn't knowexists. But it was limited. In "L.A. Confidential" it's the reasonto be there.

It starts with that first frame, that old post card ofLos Angeles. When you say "L.A." and you say "period"and then you say "crime," everybody immediately thinks "TheBig Sleep," "Chinatown," Raymond Chandler, film noir, etc.While I love that, I didn't want to do that. I didn't want this movie tobe perceived by my collaborators as being about that.

So I put together a group of 15 photographs and mountedeach one on a piece of posterboard -- the first one was that postcard that'sthe first shot of the movie. And what the cards did, I would sit with eachcollaborator -- 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 themovie.

The first one I did it with was Arnon Milchan, who financedthe movie. He hadn't read the script, and when I finished he said "Let'smake the movie."

The opening montage that Danny DeVito narrates grew outof this, where he's saying here's the image of L.A. -- the endless orangegroves, the wide, expansive beaches -- well I had these photos that werea shot of the orange groves, a shot of the beaches, a shot of a freewayopening, 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 themovie is going to sound." I'd have a shot of a couple actors of theperiod -- old publicity stills -- one was a guy names Aldo Ray. "Thisis what Bud White looks like." And then some shots of some houses."These are the houses are characters live in." It's not the housesyou see in the big sleep. They're houses that were designed after WorldWar 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 collaboratorto see what the movie would feel like and look like, and then said, "Nowwe're going to keep the period stuff in the background. We're going toshoot it in such a way that it's contemporary." We avoided set upthat would draw attention to the window dressing of the period, whetherit 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, andideally let the audience, on a scene by scene basis, forget that it's aperiod 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 didwear hats in 1953. But I have them not wearing hats because that wouldremind you. If you were watching Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce or Kevin ina hat, you'd be going, "Oh, look. It's a guy in a costume." Whereas when they're not in (an obvious) costume, it feels real.

The same with the locations. We wanted to avoid the sortof landmark, historical L.A. locations -- Union Station, etc.

S: You were going for neighborhoody...

CH: Neighborhoody, exactly...It was an enormousjob, 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 periodfeel without being overbearingly period, it also had a certain traditionalsymbolism. The best example is Lynn's hair -- when it's in a pony tailshe'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. Theidea was, in her Veronica Lake mode she's creating an image. When she stepsout of that mode, the other times you see her, then that's the woman behindthat image. The idea of the pony tail was that it's as far from the VeronicaLake look as you can get and still have long hair.

S: One of the things I loved about the movie wasthat it's fun to get lost in. You know everything is going on, but yournot sure where you're going.

CH: I wanted, and Brian Helgeland, my screenwritingpartner wanted, to have a clarity to the story, that if one was payingattention they could follow it. At the same time, we didn't want it tobe that that was what the movie was about. The more interesting thing ishow 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 stopbeing concerned about what happened to Sean Regan, the chauffeur that they'reall 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 Brianworking on it and trying to have a clarity, but not at the expense of thecharacters. That was the balancing act.

S: Tell me a little bit about the casting. I readthat both Guy Pearce's and Russell Crowe's screen tests were shown to theproducer and he said "Wow. That's it."

CH: It wasn't quite that I showed it to him andhe said "That's it." I put Russell on tape and took him to Arnonand said "This is my Bud White." And Arnon said OK. Then I tookhim 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 theboat.

S: By the way, when I read that you'd cast Guy Pearce,I thought of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and said "Thatwas the guy that was completely flaming!"

CH: Which I never saw, by the way. Guy came in asjust an actor coming through the door. He asked me (at one point), "Whatin '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 tohave my vision of Exley shaken by seeing him in a dress.

I didn't tell Arnon he was Australian, but he asked "Arewe going to have any names in this picture." I said yes. Jack Vincennesis a movie star among cops, and to play that part I need somebody who canbring that kind of charisma.

See, with Ed and Bud I wanted unknowns. I wanted peoplethat the audience could discover as the story went along in the same wayI discovered the characters as I read the book. It's very hard to do thatwith a movie star because you already invest the character with what themovie star brings to the part. But with Kevin, I wanted an actor who hadthat charisma to play the movie star among cops, but an actor good enoughto play what's going on behind that facade. That this guy has lost hissoul.

S: How much did you work with Ellroy?

CH: Zero. I avoided it.

S: You must have been excited when he liked thefilm enough to come with you on press junkets (Ellroy was staying in thesame hotel and I had just finished interviewing him.)

CH: I was thrilled. When Brian and I were writingthe script, I'd never met him. I didn't want to meet him or talk to himbecause he had done his work in creating that book which was the inspirationfrom which Brian and I worked. Our task was different and I didn't wantto be influenced by a writer's possessiveness or defensiveness or whateverit might be. When we had a draft, after working a year, that we were happywith, I took it to the studio and said, "This is the movie I wantto make," and I also sent it to Ellroy.

I can't exaggerate how much the pleasure it was when Ellroyreacted as positively to it as he did. There were things about it he didn'tget, that he didn't get until he actually saw the movie. But Brian andI were thrilled. He was the inspiration, and with all the things that wedid to it, we wanted it to be true to the inspiration and to his voice.


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