City of Angles

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

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?'

"They sense the change in the dynamic; they appreciate the commitment. And from a studio point of view there's a lesson to be learned. If the studio would commit to a movie they would get stars and it would get made, which is how studios used to do it."

The Art of Coincidence
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 his L.A. Confidential script, 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 Chand-ler-based movies, like Gen. Stern-wood's house in The Big Sleep.

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 a private 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 ended up firing 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 woman's clothing store named JAX -- a favorite of Hollywood actresses in the '50s -- and lived in a Beverly Hills mansion; Curtis was pals with his 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."

It strikes me that much of Hanson's work (including his script for the cunning 1978 cult thriller The Silent Partner) is about characters who find themselves dogged by skewed spiritual brothers. I start to tell Hanson that others besides Jack in L.A. Confidential echo elements of his extended family story, when he interjects: "There's no question that with this movie I was involved with these characters and involved with their struggle. There's an honesty to Bud White -- he's pure emotion straight from the gut and is crippled because of his past. Ed Exley is repressed emotion and operates from the head. And underneath it all they are like brothers, opposite sides of the same coin. And, like the city they live in, all the characters are different than they appear to be at first glance."

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