As a screenwriter and director, Curtis Hanson has been making movies for three decades, but he didn't gain widespread attention until 1997's L.A. Confidential. Primarily known for Hitchcockian thrillers like The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Hanson had trouble shedding his image as a somewhat anonymous director-for-hire. But his pre-L.A. Confidential resume is more distinguished than it might initially seem. A former photojournalist and editor at Cinema magazine, Hanson fell under the early tutelage of producer Roger Corman and director Sam Fuller (Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss), and he later collaborated on the script to Fuller's ill-fated but widely admired White Dog in 1982. Hanson also wrote 1978's The Silent Partner, a grossly undervalued Canadian heist thriller featuring Elliott Gould as a bank teller who's tipped off to an impending robbery and decides to divert some of the haul to himself in advance. For his highly anticipated follow-up to L.A. Confidential, Hanson departed from the thriller genre altogether with Wonder Boys, a literate, generously entertaining adaptation of Michael Chabon's comic novel. Leading a fine ensemble cast that includes Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., and Katie Holmes, Michael Douglas stars as a college professor and author who can't seem to finish his second novel, which has stretched on for seven years and thousands of pages. Recently nominated for three Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay and best song, Wonder Boys is slated to arrive on video soon. Hanson recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his rocky career, the frustrations of the marketplace, and writing side-by-side with a filmmaking legend.
The Onion: How did you make the transition from photojournalism to filmmaking?
Curtis Hanson: Well, I didn't look at it as a transition so much, because I never intended to have a career as a journalist, writing about people who make movies. I did it as something that was really rewarding to do, given the opportunity to express myself about something I cared about, and also to learn a lot by watching filmmakers I admired. In a sense, it was my film school. After doing it for a few years, I decided that the time had come to get it together and do some work of my own. So I stopped doing that and wrote some screenplays on speculation, because even though I wanted to direct, to direct you need a lot of money. Even for a cheap movie, you need film stock and equipment and actors. Whereas to write, all you need is paper and an idea, so I felt that writing might be my stepping stone.
O: Did you feel like you were at a disadvantage, not being one of the film-school brats to come out of that period?
CH: No, I never thought about it being much of a disadvantage. As it happens, I grew up as a reader as well as a movie-lover, so many of the novelists I admired—and so many of the great filmmakers I loved—were self-taught. Consequently, their school was the school of life, and it was very much reflected in their work.
O: What was your experience with Roger Corman like?
CH: I wrote a couple of scripts on spec that didn't get made but got some attention, and I then got offers to write professionally. My very first professional writing credit was on a movie called The Dunwich Horror, and Roger Corman was the executive producer. Roger didn't actually hire me, though. I was hired by AIP [American International Pictures], the studio that made the picture, which was Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson. It was a great learning experience for me, because not only did I work on the script, but they hired me back to go on location when they were making the movie, to write new scenes and so forth. I also got to know Roger Corman a bit while we were on location in Mendocino. And then, subsequently, a woman who also worked on The Dunwich Horror named Tamara Asseyev and I teamed up and co-produced a picture that I wrote and directed, called Sweet Kill, that Roger Corman's then-new company distributed.
O: Why did Samuel Fuller's work connect with you initially?
CH: Initially, it connected with me when I was a kid, seeing a lot of movies while growing up in Los Angeles. And Sam's pictures are an expression of such a distinct voice that he was one of those filmmakers who made me aware that there was, in fact, a real presence behind the camera that was telling the story, as opposed to actors just presenting it. His pictures were both written and shot in such an unusual way that his voice came through loud and clear, and it made a big impression on me. Of course, there were other filmmakers as well, like John Ford and Howard Hawks and on and on. Then, I had the great fortune to actually become friends with Sam and ultimately collaborate with him on White Dog, which we wrote together. I had written the script a few years earlier for Paramount, then later got hired with Sam to write an entirely new script that he was going to direct. And that was one of the great thrills of my professional life. It was a unique experience in several ways, because I don't think Sam had ever collaborated with another writer over his whole career. It was also a new role for me as a writer, because I wanted to just be there to serve Sam. I recognized that this picture would be "a Sam Fuller movie," and I was just trying, in whatever way I could, to help him get what he wanted. And you can imagine what it was like for me to actually be sitting in a room with matching typewriters, working under the tutelage of this guy I so admired, both as a filmmaker and as a man.
O: What was the day-to-day process like?
CH: Interesting that you should say day-to-day, because it was very quick. There was a writer's strike pending, and the script needed to be done in something like 18 days. Of course, Sam was like, [affects gruff voice] "No problem," because he treated it like a newspaper deadline. We worked long hours, often very late into the night, in his garage, which had been converted into an office. It was freezing cold outside and there was no heat in the garage, so he had a little space heater over by his side and I had a blanket that he graciously gave me to drape around my shoulders like a Navajo Indian. And he gave me cigars, too, of course. [Laughs.] It was just a wonderful experience, one for the memory book for sure. The sad thing about it was that the picture came under this absurd cloud of controversy. Here was a movie based on the central theme that racism is something that is taught, and it's illustrated by this story of a dog and the efforts of humans to re-train it after it had been trained to go after black people. And it created this ridiculous controversy and wound up being the last Hollywood movie that Sam made.
O: What do you see as his legacy? What makes him distinctive among American filmmakers?
CH: First of all, he left a group of extraordinary movies that are unique, that are "Fuller-esque," as one might say, which makes them stand apart from any other director's films. On a personal note, a legacy he left me, aside from being a friend who was important to me on many levels, was that the decades I knew Sam happened to be the decades that were his least happy professionally. There was a long period of time when he had a lot of projects fall through and had a lot of difficulties getting a project off the ground. And I was able to observe him during that period, and see his incredible resiliency and courage as he faced this difficulty and just kept working. His self-discipline was amazing. No matter what happened, he'd always go out to his Royal Upright typewriter and just keep working on his stories, his "yarns" as he called them.
O: Not to oversimplify it too much, but you had to deal with the same sort of trouble, making the films you wanted to make.
CH: Yes, but in a sense it comes with the territory, because it's a very competitive business. Put simply, there are many people who want to make movies and very few opportunities for them to do it. I had a checkered early career, for sure, with a lot of very unhappy experiences where pictures got taken away, re-cut, re-titled… all the nightmares one hears about. Consequently, it's so gratifying to then make a picture that's successful and gives you leverage to have better circumstances than you've ever had, before the next time out.
O: How has your experience as a film journalist altered your perspective on your own work and the work of other filmmakers?
CH: Well, I was never a critic. I was a journalist and wrote about filmmakers, but I didn't review movies per se. I make that distinction only because I came to it strictly as someone who was just a lover of storytellers and cinematic storytellers. And I still am. I'm still a great movie fan, and I guess that's the answer to your question. That love of movies is very much alive in me. I approach the movies I make as a movie-lover as much as a movie-maker. When I'm casting a picture, I think who I'd like to see in it if I was sitting in a theater. Who would surprise me? That's what I love about Michael Douglas' performance in Wonder Boys, because I feel like he surprises audiences that know him from very different roles in his other work. In L.A. Confidential, it was great to surprise the audience with Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe—two Australian actors that they didn't know at all—and let people discover them through the course of the film.
O: It seems like a lot of your films, Bad Influence and L.A. Confidential in particular, deal with these forces of good and evil and how they can oscillate within the same character. Is this the sort of thing you look for when you settle on a project?
CH: Not necessarily. I look for characters that interest me, and a story that keeps me involved and makes me want to know what happens next. Then, after the fact, you look back and see some things that were common in both pictures or several pictures, as you mention. On the surface, Wonder Boys seemed like such a departure from L.A. Confidential—it's funny, it's contemporary, and so on—and yet at a certain point, I had a feeling that reminded me how I felt when I was shooting L.A. Confidential. I analyzed it for a while, and thought about how emotionally involved I was with the characters. Then I realized that in both movies, there are three main male characters and one female, and all of them are struggling to figure out what they're doing with their lives, independent of each other. The only major difference is that [the Wonder Boys] characters are funny when they're struggling. But I don't consciously think about that ahead of time. It's interesting you mention Bad Influence, which is an early movie of mine that I'm very fond of. It was an unhappy experience when that picture got released, because it coincided with that ridiculous Rob Lowe videotape scandal. Rob, who I thought was really good in the movie, had his performance overshadowed by this sort of tabloid approach to him and the movie. As ridiculous as it is for anybody who knows how movies are made, there were people who actually wrote in reviews that this picture had been put out to capitalize on the scandal. Which, of course, would have been impossible.
O: You paid a lot of attention to the cities in your last two films: Los Angeles in L.A. Confidential and Pittsburgh in Wonder Boys. What do you look to evoke from those settings—particularly Los Angeles, which has been so thoroughly gutted in the movies?
CH: I guess there are two things I would mention as an answer to that question. I had always wanted to tell a story that was set in Los Angeles in the '50s, because that's where I grew up, and it was the city of my childhood memories. I wanted to deal with that, and also pursue this theme that interested me, which is the difference between illusion and reality, the way people and things appear to be versus how they really are. And Hollywood, of course, is the city of illusion. So that was near and dear to me, and extremely personal. In terms of talking with my collaborators as they came onboard—Jeannine Oppewall, our production designer, Dante Spinotti, our cinematographer, and so forth—I said to them, "Let's pretend that this is a place like Honolulu. Let's ignore the fact that all these other movies have been made here for decades and try to come at it with a fresh eye, as if it were an exotic city that people aren't that familiar with. And let's present our own view of it, create a world that's unique to this movie." Beyond that, which gets us to Pittsburgh, I'm somebody who very much enjoys it when the world in which a story takes place is part of that story. And so, in going to Pittsburgh, we tried just as hard to capture the unique feel of the city and make it a part of the story. In fact, it was thematically so appropriate, because when I first went to Pittsburgh, I had never been there before, and we hadn't even decided to shoot there yet. I just went to see the location of Michael Chabon's novel. Once there, I became aware that Pittsburgh is a "wonder boy," in the narrow sense of the term, just as the human characters are. It has this rich industrial past, when it was the heart of the U.S. steel industry, and it burned out as the industry burned out and moved elsewhere. So the city was faced with that question of "What to do now?" because it can't turn back the clock and be what it once was. So thematically, it seemed like the perfect location for the movie. And then, it's a matter of how we get that feeling into the picture and make it a part of Chabon's story.
O: You've made a couple of films in a row now that are both perfectly accessible and almost universally lauded by critics, yet for one reason or another have failed to make a huge impression at the box office. It leaves you to wonder if a film for adults can thrive in a teen-oriented market. What is your take on that?
CH: I don't think of the marketplace as teen-oriented or teen-dominated. I think of it as dominated by high-concept, in marketing especially. Consequently, pictures are aimed at certain audiences, whether it be a teen comedy or an action movie or whatever. It's unfortunate, because while it may lead to big opening grosses, a lot of pictures that are a little different and don't fit so neatly into either a niche market or a high-concept marketing approach can get lost in the shuffle. That's one unfortunate thing. The bigger problem still is that it determines in many ways what movies get made in the first place. Because as sources of finance are considering a project, they ask themselves, "Does this lend itself to a simplistic marketing approach which will guarantee a big opening weekend?" As a movie-goer, I think that's tragic, because when you look back at those movies that made us fall in love with movies in the first place, most of them were not high-concept, and most of them would not have "won their weekend." And there was no awareness of "winning the weekend" back then, either. Now, grosses are listed in the newspapers and on television like it's a sporting event. It's ridiculous, because when you're watching a movie, unless you're an investor in the movie or a stockholder in the studio, what do you care how much it's grossing or how much it cost or any of that stuff? What you care about is whether it's moving you, or whether you're caught up in it. So it's discouraging and, yet, when you make a movie like Wonder Boys, in a sense it's its own reward, because it does move people, it gets great reviews, and it becomes part of that library of movies that exist out there. As time goes by, it will find its audience. A day doesn't go by when I don't get a compliment on L.A. Confidential, for example. Even though its box-office was a fraction of, say, Titanic or the Grinch movie, it finds its audience and will continue doing so for who knows how long, because of the basic thing we love about movies, which is storytelling and performances.
O: Was it a challenge for you to reproduce the shaggy-dog quality of Chabon's book in a medium that traditionally favors more muscular narratives?
CH: That was the attraction, actually. The challenge was the opportunity. When I read the first draft of Steve Kloves' fabulous adaptation—I hadn't read Chabon's book at that time—what I was immediately captivated by was this group of characters that were at once so engaging and so messed up. Yet they kept making me laugh, and I didn't know what was going to happen next, which is very unusual when you're reading a script. Most scripts are so linear and simplistic in their plotline, and here I had this group of characters where you didn't know which were the important ones or what direction they were heading. I thought, "If I could bring these characters to life and lead the audience to react the same way I did, this could be a really special picture." Then I read Michael's novel and got even more enthusiastic about it.
O: How did you and Michael Douglas approach a role that was such a departure from what he usually does?
CH: I can't speak to how Michael approached it in terms of his process. What I try to do is give each actor an environment in which they can do their best work. Then they go off and do the mysterious thing that they do. From my point of view, when I was thinking about the prospect of him in this part, I wondered if he would go all the way with it. Would he become this character, as opposed to playing it? The reason I was concerned is that, oftentimes, actors—especially movie stars—when they're playing a character who might be perceived as unattractive or eccentric, will wink at the audience while they're doing it. They'll exaggerate certain things to let the audience know they're just playing a character, as if they're saying, "Look at me, I'm not really an old man, I'm just playing one." Or "I'm not really a homosexual, I'm just playing a gay character. Or an alcoholic. Or somebody who's mentally impaired." They often do it very successfully and win awards for it. What was exciting to me about the possibility of Michael playing this character was that, if he approached it with an absence of movie-star vanity and just let down all defenses, he would show us a side of himself that we'd never seen before. The thing that's so gratifying is that so many reviews have said it's not only the best thing he's done, but they also say he's more appealing than he's ever been. And they say this even though he gained weight for the role and we dressed him like shit and photographed him in ways that are anything but flattering. People really connect with him, and of course they laugh at him in a way they never did before, too.
O: Are you going to continue to depart from the thriller genre?
CH: I don't know. I love suspense movies, because in a sense they're the most dreamlike of any genre, and I'm sure I'll make another one. But having done several of them and also loving other kinds of movies, I'm also tougher on suspense stories in terms of finding one that really excites and surprises me. I very much had wanted to do a picture with more humor than what I had been allowed to do earlier, which is what attracted me to Wonder Boys so much. I found it funny in a very serious way, which is the best kind of comedy.