It’s safe to say that “L.A. Confidential” wasn’t greeted with especially high expectations in the run up to its release. James Ellroy‘s 1990 book, the third of his “L.A. Quartet” (preceded by “The Black Dahlia” and “The Big Nowhere,” and completed by “White Jazz“) was a favorite among crime fans, but hardly a best seller. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was known only for “Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” and a rewrite of actioner “Assassins.” Director Curtis Hanson was well-liked, but mostly known for mid-level programmers like “Bad Influence,” “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” and “The River Wild.” And the cast was led by two virtual unknowns from the Southern Hemisphere, with the most recognizable names in the cast being Kim Basinger, whose career was a little on the outs, comedy actor Danny DeVito and recently Oscar-nominated character actor Kevin Spacey.
On a budget of only $35 million, the film was flying under most radars, and when Hanson wanted to submit it to the Cannes Film Festival, he had to bypass Warner Bros studio executives in order to do so. And yet the film picked up great reviews in France, followed by positively ecstatic ones once “L.A. Confidential” made it to U.S. theaters, and the movie went on to earn nine Oscar nominations and rake in a decidedly healthy $126 million worldwide. And furthermore, as its cast went on to serious stardom and the movie has inspired TV shows and video games, it’s only grown greater with age, standing now as one of the very best American movies of the 1990s. “L.A. Confidential” was released 15 years ago today, on September 19th, 1997, and to mark the occasion we’ve put together five things you may not be aware of about the movie. Read on for more.
1. Warner Bros were unenthusiastic about the project.
Warner Bros had picked up the rights to James Ellroy‘s novel soon after publication, and Brian Helgeland, who was working on other projects with the studio at the time, pursued the job, but was deemed too inexperienced. But years later, Curtis Hanson — who as an L.A. resident born and bred, who’d worked with his uncle supplying clothes for movie stars like Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe as a teenager, and had a deep connection with the material — had been hired to direct the film, and Helgeland wrangled a meeting on the set of “The River Wild.” The two found that they had a similar take on the material, and at the time Helgeland told the Dallas Observer that the plan was “to remove every scene from the book that didn’t have the three main cops in it, and then to work from those scenes out.” The result was a model of streamlining, allowing them to adapt a book that some had deemed unfilmable. Ellroy himself paid tribute to them, saying, “They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme…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.” Even so, Warners weren’t keen for a number of reasons. Period pieces are expensive, film noir was deemed uncommercial, and Hanson wanted to avoid casting stars. The studio tried to convince him to cut two of the three leads, so a big star could play Bud White or Ed Exley, but Hanson refused. Fortunately, the script was passed on to New Regency Productions CEO Michael Nathanson, who loved it, although he concedes in the making of documentary on the DVD that when he later became the head of MGM, that he wouldn’t have greenlit the film either. Company head Arnon Milchan was excited by the “contemporary” feel of casting relative unknowns, and by a pitch by Hanson involving vintage photos and postcards of LA (which the director recreates on the DVD), and the project was given the go ahead.
2. The adaptation is faithful in the broad strokes, but very, very different from the book.
Given the sprawling, multi-character nature of the book, it’s no surprise that Helgeland and Hanson had to depart from the source material in their ultimately Oscar-winning screenplay. For one, the book was set over nearly a decade — between 1951 and 1958 — but the book shrinks the timeline massively. it opens with the death of Buzz Meeks (the protagonist of “The Big Nowhere“) at the hands of Dudley Smith’s men, but in the film, Meeks’ character is very different, and is killed off-screen. Jack Vincennes has a different nickname and backstory — he’s called “Trashcan Jack” after dumping Charlie Parker in a garbage can during a drug bust, and is haunted by his accidental shooting of two tourists. There’s a lengthy subplot involving Bud White investigating a serial killer targeting prostitutes, while Inez Soto (who’s kidnapped and raped by the Nite Owl suspects) has a much larger role, and is the focal point of a love triangle between Bud and Ed Exley, which is transplanted to Lynn Bracken in the movie. Perhaps the biggest change revolves around the film’s most memorable scene — the shocking death of Jack Vincennes at the hands of Dudley Smith, at the subsequent pay off of “Rollo Tomassi,” the invented name given by Exley to the anonymous mugger who killed his own cop father. Vincennes does die in the novel, but it’s almost random, killed by a escaped con after a breakout from a prison train. Smith’s role as a gangland kingpin had already been revealed in “The Big Nowhere,” and his true motivations are clear throughout the “L.A. Confidential” novel. And indeed, Rollo Tomassi is entirely the invention of Hanson and Helgeland — Exley’s father Preston is a key character in the novel, who eventually ends up taking his own life, but he’s amalgamated with his brother, who had been killed, in the film. As such, the ending is very different as well — Smith survives the novel (one of the few that does), and ends “White Jazz” in a retirement home.
3. Hanson held a mini film-festival for cast and crew in the run up to the start of production.
It’s fairly common practice for a filmmaker to round up a selection of their inspirations for a new project in preparation of filming, and screen them for cast and crew — Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan are among those well known for the practice of late. While Hanson was committed to an unstyilized approach that didn’t directly nod to the past of the crime genre, he wasn’t above showing some of their influences to the cast and crew. According to Amy Taubin in Sight & Sound, Hanson screened Vincente Minnelli‘s “The Bad And The Beautiful,” for its depiction of classic Hollywood, Nicholas Ray‘s “In A Lonely Place,” for its look at the dark underbelly of that world, Don Siegel‘s “The Lineup” and “Private Hell 36” for the efficiency of its storytelling, and Robert Aldrich‘s “Kiss Me Deadly” for its look at a future-conscious 1950s atomic age. Furthermore, Hanson and DoP Dante Spinotti looked at the Cinemascope look of Minnelli’s “Some Came Running” and Douglas Sirk‘s “The Tarnished Angels” as inspiration for their widescreen framing, while Russell Crowe took Sterling Hayden in Kubrick’s “The Killing” for inspiration for his take on Bud White.
4. The film was mostly shot on location, despite being a period piece.
One of the ways that Hanson and co. made the film viable on a mere $35 million budget was by vowing to shoot as much as possible on standing L.A. locations. As much as the City of Angels likes to tear down and rebuild its past, there’s plenty of 1950s era-architecture still around, and only the Victory Motel set at the end of the movie had to be built as a standing set (in part because it got shot to pieces). Even then, it wasn’t on a studio backlot, but on the Baldwin Hills oilfields in Culver City. In terms of a tour of the rest of the city, you can find the cops’ HQ in LA City Hall, on 200 North Spring Street — which was also police headquarters in “Dragnet.” The premiere of “When Worlds Collide,” the site of Jack Vincennes’ pot bust, was at an abandoned bank building on 5620 Hollywood Boulevard, while the famous globe of Crossroads of the World on 6671 Sunset Boulevard provided the exterior for Sid Hudgens’ office. Location favorite Boardner’s on 1652 North Cherokee Avenue (also seen in “Ed Wood“) is where Dudley Smith and Bud White meet, and Jack suffers a crisis of conscience at Bob’s Frolic Room on 6245 Hollywood Boulevard, while the Liquor Store where White meets Lynn Bracken for the first time is Ramon’s Cane Shop on 1277 South Cochran Avenue. The Nite Owl Cafe was in fact the J&J Sandwich Shop on 119 East 6th Street, while Pierce Patchett’s home is the gorgeous 1929 Lovell House on 4616 Dundee Drive. The body of bisexual actor Matt Reynolds is found on the Hollywood Center Motel on 6720 Sunset Boulevard, and Exley and White come across the real Lana Turner in the Formosa Cafe on 7156 Santa Monica Boulevard. And in the less glamorous side of things, Mrs Lefferts’ home is in Elysian Park, Lynn Bracken’s is on Wilcox Avenue, the Nite Owl suspects were found on Avenue 27 in Lincoln Heights, and Jack and Ed interview an informant at Bellevue and Marion in Echo Park.
5. The film inspired a TV pilot spin-off starring Kiefer Sutherland, and almost got both official and unofficial sequels.
Even before the film was made, there’d been talk of turning “L.A. Confidential” into a miniseries, or HBO show, so it’s no surprise that the film’s success saw New Regency put together a TV version of the material in 2000. Penned by Walon Green (“Sorceror,” “Robocop 2“), it toplined a pre-“24” Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes, less Dean Martin-type smoothie and more haunted, generic 1950s Jack Bauer, with Josh Hopkins (“Cougar Town“) as Bud White, David Conrad (“The Ghost Whisperer“) as Ed Exley, Pruitt Taylor Vince as Sid Hudgens, “Alias” star Melissa George as Lynn Bracken (now a Marilyn Monroe impersonator), TV vet Tom Nowicki as Dudley Smith, “Breaking Bad” star Anna Gunn as a junkie hooker, and most unlikely of all, Eric Roberts taking over from David Strathairn as Pierce Patchett. The pilot was included on the recent DVD/Blu-ray re-release of the film, and it’s not hard to see why it wasn’t picked up: necessarily watered down, it’s pretty much a generic cop show in period garb, and virtually every actor is woefully miscast (Hopkins probably fares the best, but pales in comparison to Russell Crowe‘s performance). Still, it serves as an interesting curio. Back on the big screen, soon after the first book in the L.A. Quartet made it to the screen in Brian De Palma‘s unbelievably awful 2006 film “The Black Dahlia,” Joe Carnahan came incredibly close to making “White Jazz,” with George Clooney and Chris Pine in the lead roles. The book features Dudley Smith and Ed Exley in the lead roles, but neither would have featured in the film, due to the characters being owned by New Regency as part of the “L.A. Confidential” deal, and Carnahan had renamed the characters in his script (which makes sense, given that Smith is killed at the end of Hanson’s film). Just as Carnahan got his project going, news also emerged from TMZ that Hanson and Helgeland were working on their own sequel, with an original story focusing on White and Exley. No details have emerged since, so it’s unclear if the project is still in development (Hanson’s been in poor health recently, replaced for the last few weeks of the upcoming “Chasing Mavericks” after heart surgery), while Carnahan’s film hit the blocks after Clooney dropped out, although he told us recently it may yet be revived. Still, we may get some Ellroy on the big screen before too long — only last week, it was reported that “I Am Love” director Luca Guadagnino is attached to an adaptation of “The Big Nowhere,” from “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman.