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NPR Arts & Life

Fresh Air Remembers 'LA Confidential' Director Curtis Hanson

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

Curtis Hanson, who directed the 1997 film "L.A. Confidential," died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 71. Among his other films are "The River Wild," "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle," "Wonder Boys," "8 Mile," and the TV movie "Too Big To Fail." Hanson grew up in Los Angeles. "L.A. Confidential" was nominated for nine Oscars and won two, including Best Adapted Screenplay, which Hansen shared with his co-producer Brian Helgeland.

Terry spoke to Curtis Hanson in 1997. Here's a scene from "L.A. Confidential." Kevin Spacey plays Jack Vincennes, a cop who consults for "Badge Of Honor," a TV show like "Dragnet." He's dancing at a party for the show. Later in the scene, you'll hear Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, a scandal sheet reporter who's in cahoots with Vincennes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "L.A. CONFIDENTIAL")

KEVIN SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) I'm the technical adviser. I teach Brett Chase how to walk and talk like a cop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Karen) Brett Chase doesn't walk and talk like you.

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) Well, that's because he's the television version. America isn't ready for the real me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Karen) Is it true you are the one who arrested Bob Mitchum?

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) Mm-hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Karen) These "Badge Of Honor" guys like to pretend, but being the real thing must be a thrill.

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) Why don't you and I go someplace quiet? Because I'd love to give you the lowdown on Mitchum.

DANNY DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) Big V. Jack Vincennes.

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) Hey.

DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) May I have this dance?

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) Of course. Karen, this is Sid Hutchens from "Hush-Hush" magazine.

DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) Hello, Karen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Karen) Hello, yourself.

SPACEY: (Jack Vincennes) What's that about?

DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) We did a piece last year, "Ingenue Dykes In Hollywood." Her name got mentioned. Hey Jackie boy, friend of mine just sold some reefer to Matt Reynolds (ph). He's tripping the life fantastic with Tammy Jordan (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Hi, Jack.

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) Sorry. I lost you for a second, Sid.

DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) Contract players, Metro. You pinch him, I do you up a nice feature next issue, plus usual 50 cash.

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) No, I need another 50. Two 20s for two patrolmen and a dime for the watch commander at Hollywood Station.

DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) Jackie, it's Christmas.

SPACEY: (As Jack Vincennes) No, it's not. It's felony possession of marijuana.

DEVITO: (As Sid Hudgens) Actually, circulation 36,000 and climbing. There's no telling where this is going to go - radio, television. Once you whet the public's appetite for the truth, the sky is the limit.

DAVIES: Terry asked Curtis Hanson why he wanted to make "L.A. Confidential," and how he first came across the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CURTIS HANSON: Well, it all started with the book. I read James Ellroy's novel for pleasure about four years ago. And I read it not looking for a movie, but just because I had read half a dozen of his other books and thoroughly enjoyed them. Because I think Ellroy is a unique voice in contemporary fiction.

What happened with "L.A. Confidential," and what I was not prepared for, quite frankly, was the degree to which I got emotionally involved with the characters. And involved in a rather complex and surprising way because when I met each of the major characters, I didn't like them. But as I kept going, I got emotionally involved and ultimately, really began to care about each and every one of them and their personal struggles.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

What are some of the things that you've seen in period films that you wanted to avoid?

HANSON: I didn't want this to be a picture that was an homage to a style of another era. I wanted - my number one directive to my collaborators was let's create the world of "L.A. Confidential," Los Angeles, 1953. Let's pay great attention to the detail. But then let's shoot it as though we don't care about the detail. Let's shoot it as though it's a contemporary movie, so that the characters are in the foreground and their emotions are in the foreground. So my film references were more what I wanted to avoid, rather than what I wanted to do.

And of course, Dante being a camera man, was just all over that. He got what I was saying immediately. And it - and he took it one step further, which was he found the key to the lighting in that example, which was that "L.A. Confidential" would be lit in a naturalistic way, which - where the audience is aware of the source light, where the light is coming from in each scene. Which is sort of diametrically opposed to the way classic film noir is lit, with the, you know, highly stylized black and white with the vivid, dark shadows that bisect the screen and so forth.

GROSS: It's a really interesting period in Los Angeles history that the movie is set in. It's a period when, you know, there's a show like "Dragnet" that's imitating the cops. Whereas, you know, like, the cops in "L.A. Confidential" want the heroism and celebrity of the TV stars. And the politicians are tied in to some of the corrupt parts of Hollywood. The tabloids are covering it all. Everything as depicted in the movie is corrupt in this part of Los Angeles.

You grew up in Los Angeles in the '50s, didn't you?

HANSON: Yes. I grew up in Los Angeles, as in fact did both my parents. I mean, Terry, that's the fascinating thing about Los Angeles in the early '50s. So much of what was beginning in Los Angeles at that time, in that period of optimism and economic growth after World War II, is still with us today for better or for worse.

You know, television as this powerful image-making machine that was used in a very deliberate way by the LAPD to sort of sell the image of this new police force that had been reworked into a military model based on the Marine Corps in World War II. And the result was a police force that was empowered in a way that no force ever was before. Because - because of that TV image, they felt they could do no wrong. And, in fact, the public felt they could do no wrong.

And the birth of modern tabloid journalism as we know it, Danny DeVito in the movie plays the editor of Hush-Hush magazine. As he says at the beginning of the movie - radio, television, once you whet the public's appetite for the truth, the sky's the limit. Well, that's where we're living today.

GROSS: Another really potent idea in the movie is that there's this ring of prostitutes who with the help of plastic surgery are made up to look like Hollywood movie stars. Kim Basinger plays the prostitute who's made up to look like Veronica Lake. And that whole idea that sex will be even more exciting if the person looks like a Hollywood movie star, so we'll just, like, make these prostitutes into those looks is really a very interesting one. Tell me what spoke to you about that idea.

HANSON: Well, first of all, for me, what the overall theme of the movie - and it's a theme that I've dealt with a little bit in other movies - is the difference between image and reality, the difference between how things appear and how they really are. And, of course, the Kim Basinger character sort of sums that up for the audience because she looks like Veronica Lake, but in fact, you know, is something else quite different.

Interestingly enough, that idea of prostitutes that look like movie stars is based on fact. One of the - what I've always found interesting about Elroy's technique is that he takes things that are true, such as that, such as Mickey Cohen, Johnny Stompanato - the major sequence in the beginning of the movie that's called "Bloody Christmas," where the policemen sort of riot and beat up some Mexican prisoners - that's all based on things that actually happened in Los Angeles at the time. And then, of course, we spin off into our tale.

GROSS: OK, one last question, and that has to do with the soundtrack. And I have to say this is I think one of the great soundtracks...

HANSON: Wow.

GROSS: ...In the recent past because you've chosen great records for this, including a couple - you know, a Chet Baker vocal, a couple of - a Betty Hutton track, Dean Martin, a couple of Lee Wiley tracks. And I was so surprised and delighted to see Lee Wiley represented on the soundtrack of the film. She's a wonderful singer who started her career I think in the '30s or maybe...

HANSON: She was actually the first - she was actually the first, Terry, to do the so-called songbooks of...

GROSS: Right...

HANSON: ...Composers.

GROSS: ...Gershwin and Cole Porter...

HANSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...And maybe Harold Arlen, too. What does she convey to you that you wanted in there?

HANSON: Well, she's very much a personal favorite of mine. And so I took the opportunity to include her both for storytelling reasons and also to expose the audience to her. It's all storytelling to me, Terry. And I took the opportunity in selecting the songs to help tell the story and illustrate the theme of the movie and also to help delineate the themes of the individual characters.

When I met Kevin Spacey for the first time and handed him the script, I said I want you to think of two words when you read this, Dean Martin. And he immediately got what I was talking about. He said, you mean the cool guy we wanted to be when we grew up. And he just, you know, took that and ran with it. And to help set the tone of that, I used two Dean Martin tracks at pivotal scenes that Kevin Spacey is in.

And each song is picked with something like that in mind. And Lee Wiley, you know, she does these two songs, here's "Looking At You" and then "Oh! Look At Me Now." Again, it gets back to the theme of this picture, the difference between how things appear or look and how they really are.

DAVIES: Curtis Hanson, speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. Hanson died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 71. Here's Lee Wiley singing the Cole Porter song "Looking At You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOKING AT YOU")

LEE WILEY: (Singing) Looking at you while troubles are fleeing, I'm admiring the view 'cause it's you I'm seeing. The sweet honeydew of wellbeing settles upon me. Life seemed...

DAVIES: Terry isn't with us, but it's a special day for her and all of us in the FRESH AIR family. Today at the White House, President Obama awarded Terry a National Humanities Medal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: We have an impressive crew with us here today. We've got Terry Gross and a whole bunch of people who Terry Gross has interviewed.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: The award says her patient, persistent questioning and thousands of interviews over four decades has pushed public figures to reveal personal motivations behind extraordinary lives, revealing simple truths that affirm our common humanity. You probably knew that already. You can hear Terry talk about her career on today's All Things Considered.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.