City of Angles

How Curtis Hanson brought James Ellroy's epic crime novel L.A. Confidential to the screen

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." When Helgeland finally got a meeting, it was canceled two days before -- 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," says Helgeland. "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 plot lines, 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 Hush-Hush magazine, the celebrity dirtmonger 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 like] 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. (Crowe was actually born in New Zealand.) 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 and 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."

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