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L.A. Memories

L.A. Confidential
Merrick Morton

The Boys in Blue: James Cromwell (from right), Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey in 'L.A. Confidential.'

Director Curtis Hanson and novelist James Ellroy talk about 'L.A. Confidential'

By Richard von Busack

L.A. Confidential is the best-looking and smartest vintage L.A. movie in many years. The film takes its setting--the world of corruption in Los Angeles in the early 1950s--from James Ellroy's complex novel of the same name. Ellroy was putting his imprimatur on the film by turning up to be interviewed with L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson, who previously lensed The River Wild and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Ellroy is one of America's best-known novelists, specializing in the subject of guilt (and occasional redemption) among the police guarding the instant city, Los Angeles. His novels include White Jazz, Brown's Requiem and The Black Dahlia. His memoir, My Dark Places, tells of his introduction to the world of violence, when his mother was murdered in 1957.

Ellroy's mannerisms must have been absorbed by Kevin Spacey as the L.A.PD/show-biz liaison Jack Vincennes. Ellroy has a similar combination of bluntness and wit. By contrast, I would have certainly mistaken Curtis Hanson for a family therapist in his late 40s. Hanson has that weary, compassionate look of a shrink who has heard a lot of sad stories.

Metro: Doesn't it seem that in any movies about L.A., the happy ending is that the characters escape, as in Blade Runner?

Ellroy: I thought Blade Runner was a bad movie; I hated it. "L.A.: Come on vacation, go home on probation." I moved out of there 16 years ago.

Metro: Would you agree that the best writing about L.A. is crime fiction, and if so why?

Ellroy: I dunno. I'll tell you why. I am--honestly--the worst guy on earth to talk about anything but except his own books, and this film adaptation of L.A. Confidential. I'm not being disingenuous when I'm saying all this. I'm too close to L.A. to talk about it in abstract terms. I'm woefully underinformed in most cultural levels. Most culture to me is just shit in my brain.

I like to be absolutely quiet. I love to think. I like to lie in the dark and just brood. If I wasn't doing interviews, I would just lie in my bed and just think and brood and scratch my balls. I If I didn't have the discipline of avoiding culture, and avoiding a lot of the world around me, I wouldn't be able to get it up as a writer.

Metro: Do you also avoid movies?

Ellroy: I love real film noir, the old film noir. I love what they say about society. Did you ever see Three Came to Kill? Cameron Mitchell's in it. I looked it up in Leonard Maltin and under Cameron Mitchell in the Ephraim Katz film guide, and it is not listed. Looks to me like 1957 or '58, based on the automobiles. These three killers come to Los Angeles to assassinate a politician. They go down to the docks at San Pedro, then you're out at the old L.A.X. I just love seeing old L.A. locations--locations pertain to the action in my books.

Metro: And we do get a lot of vintage L.A. in recent movies, Devil With a Blue Dress, Mulholland Falls ...

Ellroy: Mulholland Falls. Whatta dog, eh? Bow wow; woof.

Hanson: There are two reasons why you respond that way. The first is the meticulous care my production team used to pick the locations, of which there are 45. The second is that my top directive to the production team and with Dante Spinotti, my cameraman, was: Let's be accurate to the period, but let's shoot it in such a way that it feels like we're making a contemporary movie.

In other words, avoid at all costs shooting it through the lens of nostalgia. Let's shoot it with casualness--like, we don't give a shit about these cars because they're ordinary, we don't care about the set dressing, because it's ordinary.

It made us find locations and exteriors where there was a certain scope, so that we could feel as though we weren't hiding things. And that creates a sort of verisimilitude. They did it so well, this team of mine, in fact that there's only one computer-generated shot in the whole movie. It was that last shot on the street right in front of city hall--to film there, we had to take out some buildings and signage with computers.

Ellroy: Let me ask a question. Curtis, if you could do something like that, if you can do what you've just described in the last shot, what's to stop us from shooting from still photographs, say, Wilshire and Western in 1953?

Hanson: Well, that's not how you do it. First off, mechanically, you don't do it from a still. But there's nothing to stop you from going to Wilshire and Western right now, putting up a motion-picture camera, shooting it and having them computer-enhance that shot, put in buildings and taking out buildings and recreating the way that intersection looked. The only thing that stops you is that it's very, very expensive. I wanted to avoid it--there's a little credit at the end of which I'm very proud of. It says, "Filmed on location in Los Angeles, California." And I wanted it to be real, to find the old city within the present city.

Ellroy: Let me explain something. There is no precious period recreation in this film. In period novels, you can tell when a book has been overly researched. I'll go against established canon and tell you, as an expert on the old L.A. that, despite the dramatic merits of the film, Chinatown is a very bad L.A. period film. It's full of anachronisms.

The best period film other than L.A. Confidential is probably John Schlesinger's Day of the Locust, which was very dubious dramatically. Nobody's in L.A. Confidential pointing out this car, this outrageous article of clothing--there's no kitsch, there's no self-consciousness in the general aural or visual design of this film. That's startling.

Metro: Don't you generally dread the prospect of one of your books being made into a movie?

Ellroy: No. First of all, they give you some option money, that's money for nothing. Going in you should know it's highly unlikely that your book will ever be adapted to the screen. And if it is adapted, it will not resemble your book. And in all likelihood, it will be fucked up. If that happens, and it's likely to happen, then I think you have a obligation to shut your mouth, because you took the money. You don't have a moral leg to stand on if you took the money. You don't want a bad movie made of your book? Don't sell it to the movies.

Hanson: Part of what's good about Ellroy as a novelist--and I say this as a reader--is that he doesn't write books to be made into movies. And because of that, they don't have the thinness that books that are do. His books are conceived as books, and they are very densely plotted with a multitude of characters and convoluted back stories, which make them a rich reading experience.

Metro: The story of the brothel with the look-alike stars is supposedly true. Were the other points of true L.A. history in L.A. Confidential, besides of course, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato?

Ellroy: Bloody Christmas is a true L.A. scandal. It was in '51, though we made it '52 in the film.

Metro: Was the cafe massacre in the film based on that massacre at the Big Boy where all of the customers were herded into the walk-in cooler and shot?

Hanson: What year was that?

Metro: 1979, 1980. It was right around the block from where I used to live.

Ellroy: Yeah, that's where I got the idea.

Metro: [To Ellroy.] Have there been any new developments in the still-unsolved case of your mother's murder?

Ellroy: No. We're thinking about framing Curtis for it, but he was 13 years old.

Metro: [To Hanson.] I'd like to ask you the question I asked James Ellroy earlier on. Do you think the best writing about L.A. is crime fiction, and if so, why?

Hanson: Maybe it is. I love writing about Southern California: John Fante, Carey McWilliams, James M. Cain, Chandler--I like him, James doesn't.

Metro: [To Ellroy] Why? Is Chandler too sentimental?

Ellroy: Yes.

Hanson: I resist calling Ellroy a crime novelist. I didn't read Ellroy because he was a crime novelist, I read him because he told stories in an interesting way, and I found myself intrigued and ultimately captivated. I think it is a diminunition, that label--it's like calling L.A. Confidential a film noir. First of all, I think calling the film a noir is inaccurate, and I also resist it because it's hanging a label on something. And part of what made me want to make this movie its the fact that it's difficult to hang a label on it.

It's complex; it's not a easy move. I've made a few movies that were very easy to sum up in one line. That's great, but this isn't that kind of movie. And I resist kind of trying to backdoor your way into that.

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