New Year’s Eve was spent watching the two-disc special edition DVD of LA Confidential with The Beloved Spouse, who bought it for me for Christmas. LA Confidential is about the perfect crime movie. Production values, locations, cinematography, casting, acting, screenplay. Go on down the list and find the weak link. I dare you. I could watch this once a week for a long time before I get tired of it. (Remember how I was about The French Connection a few months ago? I like LA Confidential even more.
Find a copy with the extra features if you can. A few things are repeated in multiple segments, but you’ll have a hard time finding a more comprehensive description of how a film got made, from adapting James Ellroy’s novel (novels, actually, as more than one is used), casting, fighting the studio about the casting, budget; you name it, they touch on it.
Two fights stick out. The studio said people don’t like ensemble casts. (Period movies were frowned upon, too.) Focus on Bud White (Russell Crowe) and ditch Exley (Guy Pearce) and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Director Curtis Hansen said he needed Exley. The studio said, fine, keep him; ditch the other two. Hansen finally won.
Then he had to cast the parts. Long story short, he wanted two unknown (at the time) Australian actors to play the leads in a remarkably complex story. Hansen’s spot on reasoning was, he didn’t want the audience thinking, “Oh, that’s [insert star’s name here.] I wonder what he’s going to do.” He wanted them thinking of White and Exley, not two actors.
Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell are the flip side of the argument. Spacey’s star was in full ascendance: in the previous two years he’d made The Usual Suspects, Se7en, and A Time To Kill. He’s the guy the audience knows, so you’re shocked when Dudley Smith (Cromwell) kills him out of the blue. Maybe even more than you are to see the heavy was the kindly farmer in Babe, as this was what Cromwell was known for at the time.
La Confidential shows movie studio executives are a lot like book editors and marketers; they always know what won’t sell, rarely what will. The fact that they’re wrong at least as often as they’re right—whichever side they come down on—says a lot about the financial status of both industries. What LA Confidential shows is virtually any combination of “deal breakers” can be overcome, given the proper vision and execution.
Vision and execution. Know exactly what you want to do, and do it as well as you can. Doesn’t matter the topic, that’s good advice.