Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Brian Helgeland

“Or should I call you the Scythian?”

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"Or should I call you the Scythian?"

(Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 45. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As I’ve mentioned before, no work of art has had a greater influence on my own fiction, at least on a practical level, than the movie L.A. Confidential. The novel is extraordinary as well, of course, and there are moments and scenes, like the last stand of Buzz Meeks, that I’ve revisited countless times. Yet it’s the movie that sticks in my head, both for its surface pleasures of action and atmosphere and for its deeper structure. Something about its story of three rival cops whose lives intersect at crucial moments appealed to me at once: it’s the best illustration I know of how a multiple plot can become greater than the sum of its parts, until it seems to encompass an entire world. It opens up possibilities of contrast, juxtaposition, and shifting perspectives, and when the pieces come together at last, it’s with an almost musical satisfaction. As a result, this kind of tripartite plot has been central to each of the novels I’ve written, although I’ve since come to see the film’s example as rather misleading: most stories lend themselves best to a single point of view, and there’s a reason why a movie like this only comes around once a decade or so.

But when I look back, I find that I’ve also misremembered or deliberately distorted the film’s structure in my own imagination. I’ve always thought of it as a movie that starts with its three main characters far apart, only to bring them inexorably together, but this isn’t exactly true. In fact, two of its three major characters share just one scene. On the night of Bloody Christmas, Jack Vincennes sticks his head into Bud White’s office and says: “You better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody.” Then he leaves without waiting for a response. As far as I can recall, that’s the only time Bud and Jack share the same frame, and Bud doesn’t even reply. Like the silences in Shakespeare, it’s a striking omission, and one that raises a lot of questions. This is a dense, crowded movie that finds time for countless fruitful pairings among its five or six most important players—Bud and Lynn, Ed and Dudley, Bud and Dudley, Ed and Jack, and finally Ed and Bud—and the fact that Bud and Jack aren’t among them is revealing in itself. And it’s quite possible that Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, for all their ingenuity, just couldn’t figure out what these two men would have to say to each other.

"Who are you?"

There’s a similar hiatus in The Icon Thief, which is a novel that owes a great deal to L.A. Confidential in its construction, even if the movie’s influence is otherwise hard to see. My investigator, Alan Powell, spends most of the novel unraveling a complicated criminal conspiracy with the thief Ilya Severin at its center, but if you don’t count their brief chase at the New York County Courthouse, Powell and Ilya only appear together once. It’s in Chapter 45, in the basement of the Club Marat, as Ilya emerges from the restaurant office with Sharkovsky as a hostage. Powell is there already, of course, along with a squadron of law enforcement officers, and in the standoff that follows, the two men exchange a line or two. But it’s Powell’s supervisor who ends up doing most of the talking, and in any case, the scene quickly moves to the next stage, as Ilya works out the logistics of his escape. And that, incredibly, is it. By the time the next chapter begins, Ilya and Powell have been separated once more, and they don’t cross paths again. These are two of the book’s three most important characters, and their only real encounter lasts for less than a page.

This wasn’t originally how it was supposed to happen. In fact, in my first draft, Powell and Ilya reunite on the final page. The story of how the epilogue was revised at the last minute, with enormous consequences both for this book and for the ensuing series, is one I’ll tell at the proper time. As it stands, though, the fact that Ilya and Powell don’t otherwise interact deserves an explanation. The first reason is that Ilya is most interesting when he remains something of an enigma, and whenever he’s clearly seen by another character, it diminishes that mystery—a problem I’d be forced to confront more seriously in City of Exiles. The second reason is a technical one: this is a book about a chase, and by definition, the pursuer and the pursued don’t often end up in the same room. But the third reason is the most important. What I didn’t understand about multiple plots when I began this book, and started to figure out only after I’d written several drafts, is that they’re most convincing when a piece is removed. A plot like this works to the extent that it evokes something larger, a world in which the stories intersect beyond the margins of the page, and if each piece connects too neatly with every other, that illusion is broken. In the end, Powell and Ilya go their separate ways. But they’ll meet again in another book…

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2013 at 9:38 am

Exley’s wristwatch, or the power of overlapping

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As I’ve mentioned a few times before, Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s script for L.A. Confidential is one of my favorite screenplays of all time, and one that has influenced my own work enormously. It’s a model of intelligent adaptation, condensing and reimagining James Ellroy’s original novel in consistently ingenious ways. It tells one of the last great complicated movie stories, with three strong protagonists, an abundance of interesting supporting characters, and a dozen interlocking plotlines. Its big set pieces—Exley’s interrogation of the Nite Owl suspects, Jack’s valediction, the shootout at the Victory Motel—are some of the most striking of the last twenty years. Yet one of my favorite scenes in the movie is among its least flashy moments, a quiet sequence that nonetheless sums up the film’s strengths, as well as providing a valuable illustration of one of the most useful narrative techniques I know.

The scene takes place about half an hour into the movie, shortly after Guy Pearce’s Lieutenant Exley has been promoted to detective. He’s seated at his desk one night, going over some casefiles, and smiles at two other officers packing up for the day. (“Punk kid,” one of them whispers to the other as they leave. “Who’s he trying to impress?”) A moment later, Exley puts on his glasses to study the clock across the room, which, compared to his own watch, is two minutes slow. As he crosses the deserted office to correct it, word comes over the radio of a homicide downtown. Exley grabs the radio, knocking over a desk lamp in his haste. He takes the call with studied nonchalance, then rushes out of the frame, muttering, “It’s mine.” Cut to the Nite Owl coffee shop, the scene of the case that will make his career. The entire sequence takes less than a minute—fifty-two seconds, to be precise—and it’s quickly overtaken by the gory images to come.

But this quiet transitional scene contains an incredible amount of information. In a few quick beats, we’re given a sense of Exley’s transition to detective, his diligence, his unpopularity among the other officers, his methodical nature, and his eagerness to make a name for himself. Best of all, these beats all overlap. As the other detectives leave the office, Exley is already putting on his glasses to check the clock on the wall, and the call comes over the radio as he’s crossing the room to fix it. Note that the beats themselves aren’t necessarily brilliant—a character who is such a straight-arrow that his watch is more accurate than the office clock isn’t exactly an earthshaking idea—and if the script had played them one at a time, they would have felt like items being checked off a list. Combined in this way, they’re graceful, brainy, and concise, all without drawing attention to themselves. Now that’s good writing.

When I first saw this scene, fifteen years ago, it made me appreciate how useful overlapping beats like this can be. L.A. Confidential itself does this more than once—as when White and Exley’s big confrontation shades without a pause into word that the Nite Owl suspects have escaped—but this scene provides a neat microcosm of Hanson and Helgeland’s methods. Whenever possible, it’s good to get one plot point rolling before the last one wraps up: it saves time, avoids unnecessary transitions, and lets the story feel like more of a piece. (It can also allow you to elide problematic plot points by presenting them as a fait accompli, as I explain with reference to one of my own scenes in The Icon Thief.) This can be especially useful in movies, which consist, by definition, of assemblages of individual scenes—hence the editing convention, pioneered in the seventies and now a cliché, of having the audio for one scene overlap with the one before it. You can do this in the editing room, but it’s much better to do it in the script. Exley’s wristwatch is a reminder of how elegant and effective it can be.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

Fiction into film: L.A. Confidential

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Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential has influenced my own work the most. This isn’t to say that it’s my favorite movie of all time—although it’s certainly in the top ten—or even that I find its themes especially resonant: I have huge admiration for Ellroy’s talents, but it’s safe to say that he and I are operating under a different set of obsessions. Rather, it’s the structure of the film that I find so compelling: three protagonists, with three main stories, that interweave and overlap in unexpected ways until they finally converge at the climax. It’s a narrative structure that has influenced just about every novel I’ve ever written, or tried to write—and the result, ironically, has made my own work less adaptable for the movies.

Movies, you see, aren’t especially good at multiple plots and protagonists. Most screenplays center, with good reason, on a single character, the star part, whose personal story is the story of the movie. Anything that departs from this form is seen as inherently problematic, which is why L.A. Confidential’s example is so singular, so seductive, and so misleading. As epic and layered as the movie is, Ellroy’s novel is infinitely larger: it covers a longer span of time, with more characters and subplots, to the point where entire storylines—like that of a particularly gruesome serial killer—were jettisoned completely for the movie version. Originally it was optioned as a possible miniseries, which would have made a lot of sense, but to the eternal credit of Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, they decided that there might also be a movie here.

To narrow things down, they started with my own favorite creative tool: they made a list. As the excellent bonus materials for the film make clear, Hanson and Helgeland began with a list of characters or plot points they wanted to keep: Bloody Christmas, the Nite Owl massacre, Bud White’s romance with Lynn Bracken, and so on. Then they ruthlessly pared away the rest of the novel, keeping the strands they liked, finding ways to link them together, and writing new material when necessary, to the point where some of the film’s most memorable moments—including the valediction of Jack Vincennes and the final showdown at the Victory Motel, which repurposes elements of the book’s prologue—are entirely invented. And the result, as Ellroy says, was a kind of “alternate life” for the characters he had envisioned.

So what are the lessons here? For aspiring screenwriters, surprisingly few: a film like L.A. Confidential appears only a couple of times each decade, and the fact that it was made at all, without visible compromise, is one of the unheralded miracles of modern movies. If nothing else, though, it’s a reminder that adaptation is less about literal faithfulness than fidelity of spirit. L.A. Confidential may keep less than half of Ellroy’s original material, but it feels as turbulent and teeming with possibility, and gives us the sense that some of the missing stories may still be happening here, only slightly offscreen. Any attempt to adapt similarly complex material without that kind of winnowing process, as in the unfortunate Watchmen, usually leaves audiences bewildered. The key is to find the material’s alternate life. And no other movie has done it so well.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

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