la_ellroy Interview

07 January 2009

Author James Ellroy is thrilled with film version of

Author James Ellroy is thrilled with film version of "L.A. Confidential"

"I think that if a writer options a novel to a studioor to film makers in general, then he has an obligation to keep his mouthshut if the movie gets made and it's all f-- up."

So opines James Ellroy, the gruff and sardonic author ofthe 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 inthe 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 CurtisHanson, Ellroy could be straight out of the 1950s himself, with his wire-rimglasses, a policeman's mustache and very short hair that wouldn't be mussedby a handsome fedora.

He speaks dryly, often with the tips of his fingers tappedtogether in front of his face, and at first seems a little abrasive. Likeyour 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 beforethe book was published in 1990 and thought nothing of it.

"(Selling) the option is to a finished movie whatthe first kiss is to the 50th wedding anniversary," he shrugged. "Ifigured, 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 dauntingtask, to be sure.

The story is told from three points of view, those of atrio of rival LAPD detectives. Two of them, the politically savvy boy scoutEd Exley and the temperamental vigilante Bud White, are played in the filmby relative newcomers Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. Detective Jack Vincennes,a very Hollywood narcotics cop whose life revolves around his perk jobadvising a TV police drama, is played by Kevin Spacey. The cast also includesKim Bassinger, Danny DeVito and James Cromwell.

Half a dozen plots orbit around centerpiece investigationof a seemingly random coffee shop massacre, and eventually weave togetherinto a complex conspiracy (which is even more complex in the book).

Because of Ellroy's detailed but staccato, stream of consciousnessnarrative style, one can become submerged in his labyrinthine layers withoutgetting lost. But he had to be worried about how that would translate tofilm. Did you ever imagine that somebody couldwhittle down that 500 page book into a 140 minute movie, what with allthe interweaving plots and all the characters?

James Ellroy: I didn't think they'd succeed. I didn'tthink it would be made into a movie....(but) lo and behold several yearslater 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 storywhile maintaining the overall dramatic thrust of it, and I saw that theyhad contained the narrative structure of the three men. Of course whenI 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-screenwriter) and I talked. I pointed out anachronisms in the script, deviationsfrom 1950s vernacular. I gave them advice. Some they took, some they didn't.

Curtis Hanson and I became friends, and we would meet periodicallywhen 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 yearsolder than me, and he remembers the actual year 1953, in which the filmis set, much better than me because I was only five and he was eight, andthat's a big difference.

Then New Regency flew my wife and I out to Tacoma, see a focus group screening of the film in February. I saw it and Iwas 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 ofart that is recognizably my work, yet is something that I couldn't haveimagined in a million years.

(Ellroy says there were minor things he would have changedhad he been given a hand in the scripting, but after seeing the finishedfilm he implies many of those changes would have been mistakes.)

Hanson proved me wrong on a couple of things. When I readthe script, I thought the shoot-out (the adrenaline-packed finale) waspreposterous. And you know what? In the movie it's preposterous. Two guysholed up in a room where they kill fifteen guys -- it's bull--. But youknow what? It's inspired bull--.

S: A lot of the plot that was left out of the bookto pare it down was the stuff that might be hard to take for your averagePeoria Joe American -- you know, there's pediphilia, rape, child murdersthat are alluded to. I was wondering if you have any feelings on the stuffthat was left out.

JE: The Dream-a-Dreamland plot (a twisted take onthe underground goings on at a Disney-esque theme park) had to go becauseso much of it was backstory. The entire Wee Willie Wennerholm-Loren Athertonstory is backstory, so of course that had to go. There's only one actionscene that I would have enjoyed seeing. The shoot-out at Kikey Titlebaum'sdeli.

S: What did you think of the casting?

JE: I was thrilled with it. I never see actors asmy characters when I write books. I think about it afterwards (with) mywife, an ex-film critic and feature writer for the LA Weekly. It's funto do. It's a fun game.

It was wonderful to see relative unknowns in two of thelead 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 Croweday or a Guy Pearce day.

The greatest character in the book is Ed Exley. He's themost complex man. He goes on the greatest journey. And there's that calculatingintelligence that Guy Pearce has -- the glasses and the beady eyes -- he'salways 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 almosta maternal aspect to their relationship.

One of the most startling things was seeing James Cromwellas 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'simmensely 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'sthis imperiously tall, he's about 6'6", skinny man glide onto thescreen and say, "Call me Dudley," with that brogue, I felt thehackles on the back of my neck hop.

S: How about Spacey?

JE: Spacey is so deft. He is so controlled, is sosubtle, is so good at suggesting a character's inner life with a minimalof 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 maskthat's up when you meet him personally, and I imagine that this helps himwhen 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 onlyon screen I'd say half as much as Pearce or Crowe, and he steals everyscene he's in because there's something going on internally, and you'reeyes automatically shift to him.

But I think it's a great ensemble piece. I think it's richin implication and I think it's a passionate film.

S: Has anybody been beating down your door aboutthe rest of your L.A. books now?

JE: They're all optioned. All the L.A. quartet booksare 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 thatlanguage 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'twant to alter the dramatic thrust of any of the scenes or take out chunksof the book, but I needed to do some cutting and that's how I built thatstyle.

Cutting the expository language down to the bare minimumgave the book a phonetic feel that made it read very excitingly. And itgot you back and forth between Ed, Jack and Bud very fast.

S: It felt to me like some of the narrative is fromthe characters' point of view, and the reason it was staccato like thatwas because one doesn't think in full sentences. You think in ideas andflashes...

JE: Well, that's part of it. And of course everychapter in the book is from either Ed, Jack or Bud's point of view.

S: What do see as the biggest difference betweenthe film and the book?

JE: The book is black type on white paper and thefilm is visual. That's it. It's a brilliantly compatible visual form ofthe novel.


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