They’re doing it again--they’re bashing our town, the perennially denigrated metropolis that is L.A.
German director Wim Wenders chose to set “The End of Violence,” his turgid meditation on the nature of hostility, in Los Angeles. Even the beleaguered and besieged characters of “Welcome to Sarajevo,” when asked to name “the worst place on Earth,” unhesitatingly insist that L.A.'s the spot.
Director Curtis Hanson, on the other hand, is a Los Angeles native who confesses that “I definitely love the city, but it’s an ambivalent love.” What’s resulted is the compelling “L.A. Confidential,” adapted from the James Ellroy novel by Hanson and Brian Helgeland, a dark, dangerous and intoxicating tale of big trouble in paradise.
Debuting in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival on Wednesday night, “Confidential"--due for a fall release--is set in the Los Angeles of the 1950s. Everything seems bright and sunny, but just below ground is a brutal cesspool of cynicism and corruption where wised-up individuals try not to get too cold around the heart. One character’s advice to another, “Don’t start trying to do the right thing, you haven’t had the practice,” applies all the way around.
This contrast, “the difference between the way people and things are perceived and the way they are,” is what attracted Hanson to “L.A. Confidential,” even though the novel by fellow L.A. native Ellroy is “so massively convoluted with subplots” even the author felt it was the least likely of his books to become a film.
“Confidential” follows the doings of a trio of LAPD officers, played by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. True to what Hanson calls Ellroy’s “particularly twisted contemporary lens . . . as you meet each one of these three you don’t like them. You figure maybe you’ll like the next guy, but you don’t like any of them. But you do get drawn into them and their particular plights.”
Because “Confidential’s” thrust is “so opposite most movies, where the second Harrison Ford walks on screen, you know where you are,” Hanson, whose previous films include “The River Wild” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” determined to cast “actors the audience didn’t already have preconceptions about.”
He got that and more when he picked Australians Crowe, who starred in “Romper Stomper” and as the lovable gay son in “The Sum of Us,” and Pearce, who played an especially flamboyant drag queen in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” for two of the cops. Not having seen “Priscilla” when he cast Pearce, Hanson continued to avoid it. “I knew casting those two guys was a big gamble, and I didn’t want to have my confidence shaken by having ‘Priscilla’ in my head,” he says.
Though recognizable names like Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito came on later, Hanson credits producer Arnon Milchan with green-lighting the film only after the two Australians had committed. But when the first four actors hired turned out to be non-Americans, Ellroy cracked to Hanson that “the only two guys who’ll have L.A. accents will be you and me.”
Determined to be authentic, Hanson shot almost exclusively on real L.A. locations, from the Formosa Cafe to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard to Richard Neutra’s Lovell House in Silver Lake, and he tried to use music recorded locally at the time, like Miles Davis’ version of “At Last” from a set at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.
Yet the director was also determined that viewers “kind of forget about the period. I showed the creative team ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ ‘Touch of Evil’ and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ because this film is not about noir mood,” he explains. “Those films were contemporary when they were made, they were done close-in and intense. I didn’t want to be accenting the past; I wanted the audience to forget about period and just be reacting to character and plot.”
Describing films that have the grace not to cover familiar territory is especially difficult, even for the director. “It begins like Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ends like Ken Loach,” says Alain Berliner of his own “Ma Vie en Rose.” “And in the middle it’s Billy Wilder.”
A remarkably assured first feature by the 34-year-old Belgian filmmaker debuting in the Directors Fortnight, “Ma Vie” is a serious comedy about gender confusion. With the perfect touch for its difficult and touching subject matter, it shows us the difficulties a 7-year-old boy gets into because of his unshakable belief that he is in fact a girl.
“This is an identity problem, but society around the boy, [named] Ludovic, says it’s about homosexuality,” Berliner says. “But at age 7 it’s impossible to say whether he will be homosexual, transsexual or neither.”
Berliner collaborated on 13 drafts of the script with Chris Vander Stappen, who got the idea for the picture from her own experiences as a young girl wanting to be a boy. “But it was more interesting to turn the story around,” Berliner says. “For a boy to say, ‘I want to drop my virility,’ it’s a real taboo.”
One reason “Ma Vie” is so successful is the perfectly pitched performance of 11-year-old Georges Du Fresne. “We had a very long casting period, eight months, and with four weeks before shooting began we were absolutely desperate,” Berliner remembers. “But then Georges came in and he revealed himself in front of the camera. I was very lucky.”
Berliner, married and the father of two young children, says being a new parent helped him get close to the childhood state that characterizes “Ma Vie.” “When my son was born, I learned that you live your childhood a second time,” he explains. “You remember what it’s like.”