On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.
1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.
Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.
"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “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."
2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.
When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.
3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.
Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.
“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”
4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.
To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.
"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,” Hanson said.
Milchan was sold.
5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.
Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”
6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.
Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:
“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”
At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.
“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.
After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.
7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.
To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.
8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.
To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.
"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”
9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.
[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.
10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.
To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.
“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,” Ellroy said. “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 plotlines, 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.”
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)