Author James Ellroy is thrilled with film version of "L.A. Confidential"
"I think that if a writer options a novel to a studio or to film makers in general, then he has an obligation to keep his mouth shut if the movie gets made and it's all f-- up."
So opines James Ellroy, the gruff and sardonic author of the 1950s crime and corruption best seller "L.A. Confidential." So why is he making press appearances to promote the film adaptation?
Quite simply, he's taken with the movie. "I am in the wonderful position of actually wanting to open my mouth and extol 'L.A. Confidential' the film."
In San Francisco for a day with the film's director Curtis Hanson, Ellroy could be straight out of the 1950s himself, with his wire-rim glasses, a policeman's mustache and very short hair that wouldn't be mussed by a handsome fedora.
He speaks dryly, often with the tips of his fingers tapped together in front of his face, and at first seems a little abrasive. Like your favorite aloof college professor with a little Sam Spade thrown in.
The author sold the film rights to "Confidential," the third in a quartet of novels about 1950s Los Angeles cops, just before the book was published in 1990 and thought nothing of it.
"(Selling) the option is to a finished movie what the first kiss is to the 50th wedding anniversary," he shrugged. "I figured, thanks for the money, now go away and write when you get work."
But director Hanson ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle") was driven in adapting the confoundingly layered, 500-page novel. A daunting task, to be sure.
The story is told from three points of view, those of a trio of rival LAPD detectives. Two of them, the politically savvy boy scout Ed Exley and the temperamental vigilante Bud White, are played in the film by relative newcomers Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. Detective Jack Vincennes, a very Hollywood narcotics cop whose life revolves around his perk job advising a TV police drama, is played by Kevin Spacey. The cast also includes Kim Bassinger, Danny DeVito and James Cromwell.
Half a dozen plots orbit around centerpiece investigation of a seemingly random coffee shop massacre, and eventually weave together into a complex conspiracy (which is even more complex in the book).
Because of Ellroy's detailed but staccato, stream of consciousness narrative style, one can become submerged in his labyrinthine layers without getting lost. But he had to be worried about how that would translate to film.
SPLICED: Did you ever imagine that somebody could whittle down that 500 page book into a 140 minute movie, what with all the interweaving plots and all the characters?
James Ellroy: I didn't think they'd succeed. I didn't think it would be made into a movie....(but) lo and behold several years later Curtis Hanson, a man whose films I had seen and admired, called me, and I read the seventh draft of the script.
I saw that they had done a good job of compressing my story while maintaining the overall dramatic thrust of it, and I saw that they had contained the narrative structure of the three men. Of course when I saw the film it was very, very taken with it.
S: Did you have any input after you read the script?
JE: Yes. Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland (co-screen writer) and I talked. I pointed out anachronisms in the script, deviations from 1950s vernacular. I gave them advice. Some they took, some they didn't.
Curtis Hanson and I became friends, and we would meet periodically when I happened to be in L.A., and discuss points of police procedure, points of LAPD lore from back in the '50s.
We discussed the '50s in general. Curtis is three years older than me, and he remembers the actual year 1953, in which the film is set, much better than me because I was only five and he was eight, and that's a big difference.
Then New Regency flew my wife and I out to Tacoma, Wash. to see a focus group screening of the film in February. I saw it and I was blown away.
The most startling thing about it is seeing a work of art, that I created out of thin air, metamorphose in to a compatible work of art that is recognizably my work, yet is something that I couldn't have imagined in a million years.
(Ellroy says there were minor things he would have changed had he been given a hand in the scripting, but after seeing the finished film he implies many of those changes would have been mistakes.)
Hanson proved me wrong on a couple of things. When I read the script, I thought the shoot-out (the adrenaline-packed finale) was preposterous. And you know what? In the movie it's preposterous. Two guys holed up in a room where they kill fifteen guys -- it's bull--. But you know what? It's inspired bull--.
S: A lot of the plot that was left out of the book to pare it down was the stuff that might be hard to take for your average Peoria Joe American -- you know, there's pediphilia, rape, child murders that are alluded to. I was wondering if you have any feelings on the stuff that was left out.
JE: The Dream-a-Dreamland plot (a twisted take on the underground goings on at a Disney-esque theme park) had to go because so much of it was backstory. The entire Wee Willie Wennerholm-Loren Atherton story is backstory, so of course that had to go. There's only one action scene that I would have enjoyed seeing. The shoot-out at Kikey Titlebaum's deli.
S: What did you think of the casting?
JE: I was thrilled with it. I never see actors as my characters when I write books. I think about it afterwards (with) my wife, an ex-film critic and feature writer for the LA Weekly. It's fun to do. It's a fun game.
It was wonderful to see relative unknowns in two of the lead roles. I go back and forth in my admiration for those two performances. Some days it's an Exley day and some days it's a White day, a Russell Crowe day or a Guy Pearce day.
The greatest character in the book is Ed Exley. He's the most complex man. He goes on the greatest journey. And there's that calculating intelligence that Guy Pearce has -- the glasses and the beady eyes -- he's always thinking, he's always calculating. He was terrific.
Bassinger (playing a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute) was terrific. She's markedly older than Russell Crowe, and there's almost a maternal aspect to their relationship.
One of the most startling things was seeing James Cromwell as Dudley Smith (the imposing and crooked police captain) the first time. Dudley Smith is a character in four of my books...and I love him. He's immensely articulate and charismatic, brilliant and draconian.
The first time I saw James Cromwell enter the screen -- it was in an editing house when Curtis was editing the film -- and here's this imperiously tall, he's about 6'6", skinny man glide onto the screen and say, "Call me Dudley," with that brogue, I felt the hackles on the back of my neck hop.
S: How about Spacey?
JE: Spacey is so deft. He is so controlled, is so subtle, is so good at suggesting a character's inner life with a minimal of outward action.
He glides. There is something amorphous about the guy. I met him a couple of times. I don't have any kind of rapport with him, you know. I like him well enough, he's not a bad guy, (but) there's a mask that's up when you meet him personally, and I imagine that this helps him when he immerses himself in a character. And this is a deep immersion performance. It's some of the best self-loathing I've ever seen on screen. He's only on screen I'd say half as much as Pearce or Crowe, and he steals every scene he's in because there's something going on internally, and you're eyes automatically shift to him.
But I think it's a great ensemble piece. I think it's rich in implication and I think it's a passionate film.
S: Has anybody been beating down your door about the rest of your L.A. books now?
JE: They're all optioned. All the L.A. quartet books are optioned. Two of them have been purchased outright. Will they be made? I don't know. I don't think you can predict that.
S: I wanted to ask you about how you created that language you use in the book. The staccato sentence structure...
JE: I created that in "L.A. Confidential" as a result of having to cut the manuscript by about 100 pages. I didn't want to alter the dramatic thrust of any of the scenes or take out chunks of the book, but I needed to do some cutting and that's how I built that style.
Cutting the expository language down to the bare minimum gave the book a phonetic feel that made it read very excitingly. And it got you back and forth between Ed, Jack and Bud very fast.
S: It felt to me like some of the narrative is from the characters' point of view, and the reason it was staccato like that was because one doesn't think in full sentences. You think in ideas and flashes...
JE: Well, that's part of it. And of course every chapter in the book is from either Ed, Jack or Bud's point of view.
S: What do see as the biggest difference between the film and the book?
JE: The book is black type on white paper and the film is visual. That's it. It's a brilliantly compatible visual form of the novel.