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Ellroy’s dark places on film

There’s a scene in “The Bad and the Beautiful” where an ambitious producer, played by Kirk Douglas, boasts about his great track record as a moviemaker. When he’s reminded that two of his films flopped at the box office, Douglas’ character shrugs it off: “I like ’em.”

It’s that kind of unapologetic, irrepressibly positive attitude that characterizes producer Arnon Milchan’s style. His secret weapon, according to those who worked on his latest picture, James Ellroy’s period crime drama, “L.A. Confidential,” is his power to motivate and inspire others.

“Often his films have made money,” says Kevin Spacey, an Oscar winner last year for “The Usual Suspects” and one of “Confidential’s” stars, “but even if they don’t, he stands by them as a work, and he stands by those directors. That’s a pretty great thing.”

“When I met Arnon for the first time, I showed him a photo presentation that represented how I wanted the movie to look and feel,” director Curtis Hanson recalls. “When I finished, Arnon said, ‘Let’s make it.’ His support and enthusiasm for the film’s vision has not wavered since that day.”

A big-budget film with two relatively unknown Australian actors — Russell Crowe (“The Quick and the Dead”) and Guy Pearce (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) — in the leads, “L.A. Confidential” tells an epic story of personal redemption set among the crime and corruption of 1950s Los Angeles. It’s the first of noir master James Ellroy’s major books to be filmed. (One of Ellroy’s early novels, “Blood on the Moon,” was released in 1987 as “Cop,” starring James Woods.)

The timing couldn’t be better for an Ellroy project. The author’s fame has made a meteoric leap these past two years with the release of his Kennedy-era novel, “American Tabloid,” as well as “My Dark Places,” a memoir of his mother’s murder in 1958 when the author was 10. Indeed, Ellroy has become such an imposing literary presence that the “Confidential” writer-director team fretted over whether he’d like the script.

“We changed the plot a bit to shorten it,” says screenwriter Brian Helgeland, referring to an alteration he and Hanson made regarding a central character’s fate, “but all the big scenes in the book made it into the movie.”

After Ellroy received the completed script, a dinner was arranged. “I thought he wouldn’t be having dinner with us if he hated it,” recalls Helgeland, “but then it occurred to me that was exactly what he might do.” A genuine eccentric, Ellroy often comes across as a ’50s hipster. (According to Helgeland, Ellroy told a waiter holding a pepper shaker over his salad to “Hit me again, daddy-o!” )

“It would have been a disaster for us if Ellroy read the script and said it was garbage. As it turned out, he was very happy with it,” says the still-relieved screenwriter. “He understood why things couldn’t work out exactly like his 500-page book. But he had weird casting ideas — people who hadn’t been in the business for decades.”

In “L.A. Confidential,” Spacey, Crowe and Pearce portray three policemen who are decidedly flawed human beings. Spacey plays Jack Vincennes, a self-aggrandizing Hollywood cop who acts as technical advisor to a “Dragnet”-type TV show called “Badge of Honor.” Pearce’s Ed Exley is a conniving political animal, while Crowe’s Bud White is a brutal meat-and-potatoes-type cop. The three cross paths while investigating a mass murder that was solved incorrectly. In attempting to discover what really happened, they stumble upon a deadly cover-up.

The film, due out next September, also stars Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, David Strathairn and Kim Basinger. Basinger plays the only major female role in this male-dominated world: hooker Lynn Bracken, the Heidi Fleiss of her day, who forms one side of the movie’s passionate love triangle.

By all accounts, “L.A. Confidential” is a risky venture that luckily found courageous advocates in producers Milchan and Michael Nathanson and executive producer David Wolper. For instance, the film doesn’t introduce characters in a way that makes the audience root for them from the first scene. “It’s a dark story,” director Hanson admits. “Spacey’s Jack is into graft and payoffs that generate publicity about himself. And yet, as you go along, you start to care about what happens to these three guys. That was the triumph of the book. Happily, Arnon saw that in the material.”

“It’s a very realistic portrait of people,” agrees Helgeland. “There are no knights in shining armor, but they do honorable things within that context. They make no apologies, and the world they live in is so despicable, they’re almost good by default. You find yourself really liking these bad people. You actually watch and admire the way Spacey ruins people’s lives. They’re the good bad guys.”

Still, Helgeland knows such uncompromising material generally sends up red flags around Hollywood. “Especially with a studio,” he says, “you worry that somebody will decide the characters should all be really nice people who do the right things. We were lucky to do the film at New Regency, because, if anything, they embraced that (darker) part of the story.”

“Arnon’s not one of those producers who thinks you have to keep it simple and dumb, where you might as well be making toothpaste,” Helgeland adds. “Moviemaking’s not a purely mercantile thing with Arnon. He makes movies that he wants to go see.”

Director Hanson sees a link between “Once Upon a Time in America,” one of Milchan’s earlier productions, and “L.A. Confidential”: “They’re both unconventional epics without typical movie heroes.”

Spacey also admires the interesting choices Milchan has made during his producing career. “Arnon has managed to walk the line between big, commercial films and riskier ventures,” he says. “He’s also great about giving actors opportunities they wouldn’t normally get. Certainly, the parts played by Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe were roles that bigger, Hollywood ‘name’ actors could have gotten. And for me, it was a chance to play a complex character discovering his own morality.”

For Spacey, one of the keys to Milchan’s success is that “He makes you feel like you’re working on a little independent movie no matter what the budget. Every problem is an opportunity. He brings a lightness to bear that makes you realize —even when a big problem occurs — that it’s just a movie and we can fix it. For Arnon, independence is a state of mind, not a dollar figure” — which means that, in the present moviemaking climate, Milchan is a true Renaissance man.

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