Friday, January 30, 2009

FotM: It All Started At The Nite Owl

As with most things I do this was going to be way longer and way more complicated than it needed to be. When asked to write about the movie that had the biggest influence on me my mind swam with the possibilities. Eventually I narrowed it down to three. Three movies that I’m fairly certain are far from what anyone would expect me to write about. Each one of them was integral in their own way into really shaping the direction my life has taken. The thing was that I was two pages into the post and I still wasn’t even done discussing the first film. I realized I needed to give this approach a little more thought and in doing so I realized that out of all three of those films there really was one of them that had more of an impact than any other.

I love the book: “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” because well, that’s just how life works. One little thing leads to another and then another and well... When I saw APOLLO 13 right around the time I entered high school it made me become fascinated with the way movies we actually made and made me realize I wanted to do more than just write them. Several years later I saw EL MARIACHI which led me to read the second most important book of my life “Rebel without a Crew” where Robert Rodriguez details how he sold himself as a lab rat and made a pretty kick-ass movie for $7,000 thus thrusting him into the Hollywood spotlight.

I have to at least mention both of these movies because they really did have a HUGE impact on my life, we just don’t have the time or the space for me to discuss them properly here. Know this though; if you think you might want to make movies read “Rebel without a Crew”. I dare anyone that reads that book to not want to go out and immediately try and make an independent film, it really is that inspiring.

It is that very mindset that leads me to talk about the film that is the actual focus of this post. I’ve never really marched to the beat of anyone else’s drummer and this has been especially true of the career I’ve sought in film. Because I read Robert Rodriguez’s book when I was a Junior in high school, because I had a like minded movie making partner, because I knew LOTS of people that had graduated film school and were now teaching pottery and because I was young and dumb I decided right out the gate I didn’t want to do the whole film school thing. I had yet to see any benefits of it so my partner and I decided we were going to take all the time, effort and money we would sink into going to film school and invest it in making a movie of our own. It was a brilliant, well conceived plan, except for the fact we had NO idea what movie we were going to make. That all changed in the late fall of 1997.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL changed my life. It set me on a course and a life path that I am still discovering today. I love STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and so many other movies. All of them have had a huge impact on the kinds of stories I want to tell, but none of them (Save for STAR WARS getting the whole notion of writing going) influenced my life like Curtis Hanson’s opus.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. L. A. CONFIDENTIAL is one of the best movies ever made. To me, it’s not even open for argument. When the movie came out it got a lot of comparisons to CHINATOWN and while I love Paul Schrader and Roman Polanksi’s, gritty crime tale it doesn’t even come close to matching L.A. CONFIDENTIAL’s brilliance. If you put the two side by side you’ll pretty easily see that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is a far better, more complex, engaging story than the one presented in CHINATOWN. I know the AFI and darn near every critic in the world disagrees with me but if you sit down and watch them both back to back you’ll see what I mean.

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, the story follow a trio of cops who find that as they further their careers and lives in the Los Angeles Police Department that they become more and more entwined in a sinister web of corruption, betrayal and revenge. Please note, that sentence doesn’t really do the labyrinthine plot of the movie any justice what-so-ever. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is one of the richest, most intricate and layered stories ever committed to film. Nothing is black and white or ever really what it seems. The good guys are all deeply flawed characters and the bad guys, while duplicitous and blood-thirsty, display a certain kind of skewed, moral logic in everything they do.

One of the many, many things that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL does right is it never once dulls the sucker punches that James Ellroy’s novel gives you. Things happen so fast and so unexpectedly that your mind doesn’t have time to process everything, instead you feel every punch, every death, every twist and turn. This is never better illustrated than in the scene that changed my life.

I was sitting in the theatre blown away by the more than pleasant surprise playing out in front of my eyes when Edmond Exley, played to slimy yet noble, opportunistic, yet heroic brilliance by Guy Pearce goes to check out a robbery at the Nite Owl Diner. As soon as he arrives on the scene you know something bad has happened but nothing can prepare you for the images of unspeakable carnage waiting around the corner, in the back room, for him and the audience to discover. As the tension builds we follow the signs of brutal struggle until we are confronted by the sight of a literal pile of dead bodies, garishly stacked in the back.

Click! Like that it happened. I remember seriously almost falling out of my chair. My mind works in some sick and morbid ways, especially in the creativity department. To this day I have no idea why that single image out of everything else did it but in about a 10 second time frame that grizzly visage gave me the idea for an entire screenplay. The screenplay revolved around two shmos that work in a convenience store, that discover a pile of discarded bodies in their back room, during the middle of a blizzard. Dark, morbid humor and violent shenanigans ensue. I even named some of the characters in ways that were subtle little nods to the film that inspired the whole thing.

This screenplay would eventually be given the title HITTING THE FAN and from that night on it consumed almost every waking moment of my life for two and a half, almost three years. I wrote the screenplay over the next couple of months and one night over a Jack In the Box dinner before an opening night screening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN my friend and I decided that was going to be the first movie we were going to make.

The story of course gets much more complicated from there. Ultimately HITTING THE FAN never got made. There are many, many reasons why but at the end of the day it pretty much comes down to the fact that it wasn’t meant to be. Man did we get close though. I mean REAL close. In fact the level of interest and involvement from people WAY above our pay grade and experience level was so overwhelming that to this day I have trouble wrapping my head around it all.

While HITTING THE FAN never fully came to be, the unthinkable experiences we had making it would ensure that I never once looked back and doubted my decisions in not only my career choice but the way I wanted to go about doing it. If L.A. CONFIDENTIAL hadn’t inspired me to write that script, if that script hadn’t gotten so much attention and come so painfully close to getting made I can very easily see myself rethinking a lot of my decisions at that early stage in my life. Maybe I would have gone back to school, maybe I would have decided movie making wasn’t such a good idea, maybe my life would have taken a RADICALLY different course, but instead this one movie and that one little image set my life on a course that I’m still travailing today.

From that moment some twelve odd years ago I’ve spent almost every ounce of blood, sweat and tears and every moment I can spare to trying to get a film made. Last August all that effort, all those years of ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments finally paid off, but none of it would have happened if a not so simple story of 1950’s era cops hadn’t randomly sparked my imagination, thus giving me a script that almost got made, thus giving me confidence to write more scripts, thus leading me into a partnership with my sister Megan, thus leading to us making a movie, thus leading to… well, that chapter hasn’t been written yet.

Not to beat a dead horse or a thinly connected correlation to a children’s book into the ground but along the same train of thought of the consequences of giving a mouse a cookie, as I sat down to write this more and more things struck me as to just how big of a role this movie played in my creative DNA.

It was while I was writing the last few pages of HITTING THE FAN, the script that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL inspired that I caught the season 2 finale of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, a show my sister had been secretly watching for months that I had laughed off as silly and childish. When I saw Buffy run Angel, her boyfriend, through with a sword, thus sending him to hell for the betterment of all mankind I became intrigued. When Megan made me sit down and watch the show I became a fanatic and overnight my myopic views on the horror genre and its possibilities changed forever. If I hadn’t been writing the script that night I wouldn’t have discovered BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, thus I wouldn’t have fallen in love with horror movies, thus I wouldn’t have ever written END, the dramatic horror / thriller we shot in August.

If it weren’t for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL I would have never discovered James Ellroy, my favorite author of all time and a man who’s brutal, staccato, razor sharp writing has affected the way I write my scripts more than perhaps anyone else. One little movie changed so much of my life that I can hardly process it all. See what happens if you give a mouse a cookie?


Megan said...

You really did think Buffy was silly. I had to BEG you to tape the season 2 finale for me and I am pretty sure I snuck out of bed to watch it when Mom and Dad were alseep. I hooked you good though.

In the end LA confidential is a scary good movie and it is always funny to think about the little things that changed you lives in the most subtle of ways.

Anonymous said...

Good story. I think Hanson kind of shot his creative load there, since I haven't really cared for some of his later work but if he can make another like Confidential then his career will be on the right track again.