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HANSON, CURTIS: LA Confidential

It’s not your simplistic corrupt cops story: L.A. Confidential is complex and smacks of a time when Hollywood movies put character first, as director Curtis Hanson has done. NICK RODDICK asks him how hard it was to sell that idea today. And a few other questions . . .

Q. In your film, L.A. Confidential, characters seem to reverse themselves, yet not on a good/bad axis.
A. Look, the heart of this movie for me - the reason that this picture is by far the most personal that I’ve made - is that I really care about the characters. Typically, as a director for hire, you get the picture and then you do the best you can with it. You know, you try and make the characters meaningful, not only unto yourself, but to other people. This was not that kind of situation. This was the movie where I took whatever credibility I had earned by being lucky enough to have had a couple of commercial successes and said, ‘OK, now I want to do my thing and my thing is sort of the opposite of that: it’s starting with characters that are interesting.’ That’s why it’s hard to sum up LA Confidential from a plot point of view in one line, whereas The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or The River Wild is very simple, because that’s what the movie’s about.

Q. Well, I was going to ask you that: was there opposition to doing something that can’t be summed up as a two-sentence pitch?
A. There’s opposition in the sense that it’s harder for people to get a handle on to want to make it. It’s hard for them to get a handle on the confidence that they’ll know how to sell it. As I say, I was able to push my chips into the centre of the table and say, ‘OK, this is what I want to do’. The fact that I had earned those stacks of chips sort of made the opposition go away. Now, if the movie turns out to not make any money, then there would be much greater opposition next time. It’s more like, ‘Oh, OK, now let’s do something that they want to do’.

Q. I am amazed by the fifties look of it. I’ve shown people stills from it - I’ve got black and white stills here - and they look like stills from a fifties movie, particularly Kevin. The shape of the face somehow fits. Was that a very difficult thing to achieve?
A. It was a monumental casting job, because there are approximately 80 speaking parts, again in contrast to The River Wild where there were maybe five. Mally Finn, my casting director, did an outstanding job. What I did, to help not only her but all my collaborators, was put together about 50 stills mounted on poster board and I would make a little photo presentation. They represented what I felt the picture should look and feel like and they also represented, on one level, the theme of the movie. I would go through this with each collaborator that came on board. Whenever I could, I would do it before they read the script actually, then they would get that impression of the movie. Then, once we were actually in pre-production, once a week I screened a movie that I thought was good for everyone to see. These were, of course, fifties movies and specifically, in terms of casting, it was to let Mally see what the faces and body types were like in the fifties.

Q. Any particular movies?
A. Oh yes, movies you’ll be well familiar with. But my Number One directive to everybody was that, while being accurate to the period, to shoot the movie in such a way that we kept the period in the background, so that we were concentrating on the characters and the emotions rather than on set dressing and the cars and so forth. The best thing to make that point was to look at movies that were shot in the fifties by people like Don Seigel and Robert Aldrich who were being efficient storytellers and had no interest in what one might call the window-dressing. So, for instance, the pictures were two Seigel movies, Private Hell 36 and The Lineup. The Aldrich picture was Kiss Me Deadly.

And think of those actors in just those movies: Ralph Meeker and Howard Duff and Steve Cochrane in Private Hell 36. It’s obvious that each of them is a World War 2 veteran, which cops were at that time. You know, almost 95% of the LAPD was made up of military veterans. And they all had that kind of beefy, masculine look that was in the pre-aerobic nautilus era. We know these guys never worked out in any way, apart from maybe some push-ups or something. But they drank heavily, smoked heavily and they had that kind of beefy, square quality to their faces and body. Certainly, if I could have cast anybody again - you know again, we’re just talking types. . .I had a publicity shot of Aldo Ray. I showed that to Russell Crowe and I said, ‘This is Bud White’. The last thing I would want Russell or any actor to do is to actually imitate another actor’s performance so I would never show them a movie and say ‘Play it like Steve Cochrane’, but to show him that image of Bud White was helpful. Other movies I showed were Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful.

Q. Did you find it difficult to recreate the background?
A. Well, I’m from LA. I grew up here and that’s one of the other reasons I wanted to tell this story. I’ve wanted to make an LA story and deal with the city of memory, for me - those images you have as a child of this adult world that exists out there. In LA, this is also complicated by the fact that, not only do you see what you saw with your own eyes, but then you watch movies and television shows and you saw LA there too, with all this weird behaviour that was going on in the adult world. That was the task and the opportunity: to go out in this city that has so little respect for its own past and find those enclaves where you could kind of patch everything together and create LA in 1953. And yet appear not to be trying that hard.

That’s the other thing when you look at those movies. They’re just shot in what appears to be a very haphazard way That’s what I meant by trying to get it and, at the same time, let the audience feel you’re not working at it so that they can, once they’re in a scene, react to it in the way they would to a contemporary movie.

By the way, I feel that way about Ellroy’s writing: when you read his books, you don’t for a moment feel that you’ve happened to pick up a book that was written in 1954. It may be taking place then but it’s very much through his contemporary and somewhat twisted view. It’s through his eye that you’re seeing that world.

Q. It does portray a very unpleasant society though, doesn’t it? You are remembering LA but also projecting a kind of LA that he has created. There aren’t any nice people around in the movie that I can think of - straight-through nice people.
A. Not straight-through, but they’re people who are doing the best they can in a tricky world. It’s the fact that they’re trying that makes me care about them and like them. For instance, when we were doing our temp dub, to take to Cannes (for the film’s special screening there), and we were racing through the movie in one day to lay down the sound and so forth, the woman who was the effects mixer - we were about 40 minutes into the picture at that point where Exley (Guy Pearce) is being the political opportunist, ratting on his fellows and so forth and being very smug about it - she turned to the sound-effects cutter and said ‘This guy is such a dick’. Now the sound-effects cutter, of course, knew the movie and so he just sort of smiled over at me when she said that. And sure enough, a couple of hours later when we’re another 50 minutes into the movie, she says ‘You know, I’m starting to like this dick’.

Q. But I mean, he’s such a dick because he’s doing the right thing. But because he’s doing it smugly...
A. He’s an opportunist who’s masquerading as sort of an idealist. He’s hiding behind his being an upstanding guy. That’s the difference between him and Bud (Russell Crowe). There’s an honesty to Bud because Bud is straight from the gut. You can’t like it, but it’s honest emotionally. With Exley, it’s all calculated from the head. Exley is sort of the fifties because he’s repressed all of his emotions.

Q. And it wasn’t that complicated then anyway.
A. Right.

Q. But the kind of post-Rodney King LA, the idea of the cops sticking up for each other takes on a different twist. Do you think that’s just kind of secondary and not really relevant to the movie?
A. No, I think actually it’s all very relevant to the movie. It gets back to why is it appealing to make a movie set in LA in that period? It’s the period where many things were starting that are still very much with us today, such as the freeways, the idea of suburbia, television, the birth of tabloid journalism... just a lot of things in that post-war boom, that LA looked like the city of the future, in a sense. One facet of that was that the LAPD was being changed very deliberately and also, in addition to being changed in actuality, was being changed in a very conscious PR move, through many means but most famously with the TV show Dragnet, from the old-fashioned police force to the new LAPD which was based on a military model. The LAPD became clean, in the sense that they weeded out the typical corruption that one might have - cops on the take and so forth - and it became clean: but dangerous in a different way through its power.

Q. And its esprit de corps...
A. Exactly. There’s a line at the end of the picture where the chief says, ‘Next year we’re going to move into our new facility and LA will finally have the police force it deserves’. That’s where it’s heading - into very much the police force that then produced the Rodney King situation: the police force that, in effect, felt it could do no wrong.

Talking about the police roles, did you give Kevin Spacey any particular pointers as to how to play Jack Vincennes?
I gave him one particular pointer which I think was one of the best pieces of direction I’ve ever given to an actor, actually, in hindsight. You see, we had cast Russell and Guy first, and it was kind of extraordinary really, that (producer) Arnon Milchan had agreed to let me go with those guys. As he said when I brought this tape of Guy to him, ‘Are we going to have any stars in this picture’? So we were, at that point, very anxious to get Kevin in particular, into that part. I met Kevin prior to him looking at the script, in a booth at the Formosa Cafe, which is where we shot the Johnny Stompanato scene... and I went through my photo presentation with him to give him an idea; and I said ‘Now Kevin, when you read the script, I want you to think of two words. It’s going to sound a little odd to you’.

He said ‘Well, what are they’? And I said ‘Dean Martin’. ‘Dean Martin’?

And I said, ‘Not the Dean Martin when he was this sort of alcoholic cliché on Celebrity Roast, but the Dean Martin who was the epitome of 50s hip: the guy who appeared to have all the answers, totally cool.

And Kevin goes, ‘You mean the guy that we all wanted to be when we grew up’.

And I said, ‘Exactly’.

And he said ‘But I thought this was a cop movie?’

I said, ‘It is but think of him not as a cop but as a movie star among cops. In fact, what he does is he’s the technical advisor to Dragnet and Jack Webb is the square fifties version of him - the TV version.

And as I said that to Kevin, he looked across the restaurant to the other side where there are mirrors and his eyes got sort of strange and he said ‘Curtis, look over your head’. I looked across at the mirror and directly over my head was an 8x10 photo of Jack Webb. And I went ‘Whoah’! We stood up and we were looking at it and I said the truth: ‘Kevin, I had no idea’ - it was as though it was a set-up, you know - and, as we were looking at it, we turned and directly over his head was an 8x10 of Dean Martin.

So I gave him the script and he went off flying to San Francisco and I went back to the office and called Arnon Milchan and I said, ‘Arnon, we’ve got Kevin’. And he said, ‘What you do mean? How can we have him. He hasn’t even read the script yet.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got him’. I’m too superstitious not to take that as an omen!

I then incorporated Dean Martin singing a couple of times over scenes of Jack Vincennes.

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Curtis Hanson
(Photo by Judy Kopperman)

"I really care about the characters"

‘This guy is such a dick’

Guy Pearce on set with Curtis Hanson

"The fact that I had earned those stacks of chips sort of made the opposition go away."

"It’s very much through his contemporary and somewhat twisted view"

"I had a publicity shot of Aldo Ray. I showed that to Russell Crowe and I said, ‘This is Bud White’."

" Bud is straight from the gut"

"It’s the period where many things were starting that are still very much with us today"

‘Now Kevin, when you read the script, I want you to think of two words. "Dean Martin"’ Curtis Hanson to Kevin Spacey

"I then incorporated Dean Martin singing a couple of times over scenes of Jack Vincennes."

See Paul Fischer's interview in Toronto with GUY PEARCE

Also Read our LA Confidential REVIEWS

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