Writer-director Curtis Hanson knows L.A.
A native son, Hanson spent his youth cruising its mean streets when he wasn’t hanging out in movie theaters. From Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” to Polanski’s “Chinatown,” Hanson’s intimacy with the city is colored by cinematic nostalgia. No wonder then, when it came to creating his own filmic interpretation of Los Angeles, “L.A. Confidential” — James Ellroy’s postwar novel of rampant corruption in Lotusland — gave him the perfect vehicle to conjure up the noir images that influenced him growing up.
In adapting Ellroy sprawling saga of gangsters, crooked cops and Hollywood dreamers, Hanson scratched the youthful, bratty veneer and, thanks to his own industry, L.A. circa 1950 was still there. He was determined to use real locations, preserving the book’s authentic period tone. And in a town notoriously disrespectful of its past, this was both an opportunity and challenge.
“We would find a fabulous location, and across the street would be some horrid strip mall,” Hanson recalls. “But what fun it was to showcase the (architectural) treasures that remain.” Los Angeles City Hall, the Formosa Cafe, the Frolic Room (“Love the neon.”), and Richard Neutra’s Lovell House are locations that both give the picture its patina, and are a testament to preservation.
Though selective shooting was required, that period locations exist at all is largely attributed to industry funding. The Los Angeles Conservancy compliments the entertainment industry for giving new life to many of L.A.’s architectural and cultural landmarks, saving them from demolition.
“Until new uses are found for a lot of these buildings, filming keeps them alive,” says Barbara Hoff Delvac, director of preservation issues for the Conservancy. “At the same time, these historic sites are vital to keeping the film industry alive in L.A. You can’t rebuild the Bradbury building, or Herald Examiner building. The entertainment industry needs those buildings as much as the buildings need them.”
Hanson credits production designer Jeannine Oppewall for “erasing the present from locations of the past.” Doing almost no CPI work, Hanson and Oppewall finessed locations the old-fashioned way.
“There were always things that had to be erased with strategically placed bushes or cars,” Hanson laments. “But that’s the reward. When you look through the camera, what you’re seeing becomes the new reality. Everything else is outside the frame, and in essence no longer exists.”
Though several of the area’s most notable commercial locations have been lost over the years, many residential enclaves have been preserved. A stroll through Angeleno Heights, Country Club Park or Spaulding Square is to take a step back in time. Reflecting on Echo Park and his other residential locations, Hanson says, “They really have a sense of what this town was like when geographically it was so much smaller. It makes you realize how idyllic this city was.”
Home owners in these time-capsule communities are, for the most part, appreciative of the opportunity to have film work done on their property. Murray Burns, a 20-year resident of Carrol Avenue, has had several films shot at his Eastlake Victorian home. “Although I own this place, I feel that my role is really that of a caretaker,” says Burns, who’s currently restoring an 11th home in the area. “I feel obliged to share my house with the public. Filming allows me to share this architecture with people all over the world.” Burns is also quick to point out that “every dollar of location income (he earns) goes into restoration.”
“The entertainment industry keeps a lot of homes going,” says James Dunham, a broker with Fred Sands specializing in historic properties. “It costs a lot of money to maintain these places.” But, as Dunham has observed, even with location income, historic sites are a tough sell. “Folks ooh and aah about these homes, but very few actually buy. It’s like at the car dealership where everyone fusses over the red convertible, then they drive off in the gray sedan.”
Though Hanson laments the buildings that have been lost and values what remains, he is ambivalent about massive preservation efforts which, he feels, can be a double-edged sword. “I personally don’t like it when things are not only preserved but sort of prettified, especially for tourist reasons. There are times when you walk around streets in San Francisco and you feel like you’re in something that should be called “San Francisco Town.”
As the recent wrangling over the demolition of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral demonstrates, “Tinsel Town” probably won’t be happening any time soon. Still, the impact of exposing commercial and residential landmarks to audiences worldwide could cause “people to value what they otherwise may have overlooked,” says Hanson hopefully. “If this picture gives new currency to old L.A., that would be great.”