Hollywood has never known what to do with James Ellroy. Then again, the man who calls himself “the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction” has never had much use for it. As he told the Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell in 2004, “Books are much more profound than movies. Books are not way stations on the way to motion pictures.”
That may be true, but that hasn’t stopped Ellroy from optioning all of his novels to be made into films. Although there’s no such thing as a quick incubation period on adapting one of his dense noirs for the big screen, the author has established quite a filmography, including this week’s release of “Street Kings.” While Ellroy has appeared in front of the camera for documentaries on himself (and at one time, was set to be played by David Duchovny in an adaptation of his memoir, “My Dark Places”), here’s a look at the behind the scenes history of Ellroy’s film career that’s nearly as tangled and tortured as one of his novels.
The Lowdown: Considering “Blood on the Moon,” the novel on which “Cop” was based, was rejected by 17 publishers due to its violent content before finally making it to bookshelves, it made sense that Ellroy was also initially a tough sell to Hollywood. Indeed, many believe the big screen adaptation didn’t preserve Ellroy’s complex prose in the telling of the first Lloyd Hopkins novel (the other two, “Because the Night” and “Suicide Hill,” have been optioned, but never made into films). James Woods stars as Detective Hopkins, who’s on the path of a serial killer of women, but the film largely forgoes Hopkins’s backstory involving his legacy in the L.A.P.D. and his struggle to keep faithful to his wife in favor of a rough and tumble procedural with an awkward feminist bent. (Woods’s long lament of the plight of prostitutes is at odds with the fact that he tries to bed a feminist poet with seeming disinterest.)
Ellroy’s Input: The author flew to L.A. to write a few scenes for the film, but the script was ultimately streamlined to become a more straightforward murder mystery.
On the Hush-Hush: During a 1995 Q & A following a screening of the film at the National Film Theatre in London, Ellroy amused the audience by simulating oral sex with the microphone, letting out a howl and yelling, “Bring back the dead… and give them head,” before asking them, “Who thought the book was better than the movie? Who thought I should have played Detective Lloyd Hopkins? Who thought I should have played the killer?”
The Fallout: Even though Ellroy was said to have been disappointed by “Cop,” Woods starred as the gangster Mickey Cohen in the small screen adaptation of “Since I Don’t Have You” for the Showtime anthology series, “Fallen Angels.”The short story turned vignette became the first screen appearance of future “L.A. Confidential” murder victim Buzz Meeks (played in the short by Gary Busey), who was then a bag man caught in between Cohen and Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson). It would be the last appearance of Woods in an Ellroy-related film, though the actor was mentioned to play Ellroy in “My Dark Places” before Duchovny was cast in 2003.
“L.A. Confidential” (1997)
The Lowdown: No one was expecting a sophisticated take on Ellroy’s naturally bombastic story of three cops of varying degrees of integrity who pursue corruption within their department following a massacre at the Nite Owl coffee shop, especially from the director of “Losin’ It” and the screenwriter behind “976-EVIL.” But after the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland became Hollywood A-listers and Ellroy became as established in the film business as he had become in the literary industry.
Ellroy’s Input: Helgeland told Variety in 1996 that Ellroy invited the scribe and Hanson out for dinner, after which he approved the script. As Helgeland recounted, “It would have been a disaster for us if Ellroy read the script and said it was garbage. As it turned out, he was very happy with it. He understood why things couldn’t work out exactly like his 500-page book. But he had weird casting ideas people who hadn’t been in the business for decades.”
On the Hush-Hush: Ellroy told SPLICEDwire at the time of the film’s release, “When I read the script, I thought the shoot-out [at the end] was preposterous. And you know what? In the movie, it’s preposterous. Two guys holed up in a room where they kill fifteen guys it’s bullshit. But you know what? It’s inspired bullshit.”
The Fallout: Besides restoring Ellroy’s credentials in Hollywood, the film reinvigorated the career of Hanson and launched the careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in America. It also earned Oscars for Kim Basinger’s supporting turn and Helgeland’s adapted screenplay. Yet though Ellroy has long maintained he was pleased by the final cut, he told Empire Online in 2001, “[I’ve] seen two British crime movies that are better than ‘L.A. Confidential.’ I’m talking about John Boorman’s film ‘The General’ and Mike Hodges’s film ‘Croupier’; both are better than ‘L.A. Confidential.’ Still, the Fox Network greenlit a pilot starring Kiefer Sutherland in the Pearce role that never went to series.
“Brown’s Requiem” (1998)
The Lowdown: As a 31-year-old caddy working for tips at the Bel-Air Country Club, Ellroy had given up alcohol and got drunk on Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled novels instead. The result was “Brown’s Requiem,” Ellroy’s first book about Fritz Brown, an L.A.P.D. refugee turned private investigator whose latest gig following a young woman involved with a significantly older man with mob ties leads to a possible police corruption scandal concerning the ex-internal affairs officer who kicked Brown off the force. Director Jason Freeland had wanted to make the film for eight years before he found a nascent production company willing to put up the $5 million.
Ellroy’s Input: Very little, though director Jason Freeland stayed true to the book. As he told The Glasgow Herald in 1998, “When I was editing the film, I realized that I was closer to Fritz Brown than I wanted to admit. I saw that the obsession and addiction that flows through the book were very true of me, I had little control over drugs and alcohol and was becoming increasingly isolated. In getting the film made, I had been distracting myself from my own problems.”
On the Hush-Hush: According to the comprehensive and no longer active Ellroy site Modesty Arbor, star Michael Rooker thought he had ruptured a kidney when one of the actors administering a fake beating on him actually kicked the lead in the ribs.
The Fallout: Now, “Brown’s Requiem” is better known as the DVD one confuses with “L.A. Confidential” in the used bin since the film’s distributor made no bones about playing up the Ellroy connection. But the film, with its obvious budget restrictions, failed to get on nearly anyone’s radar, let alone Ellroy’s.
The Lowdown: It was Ellroy’s first original screenplay to be produced, but it took eight years for the film, originally titled “The Plague Season,” to finally congeal when “Bull Durham” writer-director Ron Shelton signed on to direct. Ellroy had always wanted Kurt Russell to play Sgt. Eldon Perry, the veteran L.A.P.D. detective who takes a young up-and-comer under his wing to investigate a particularly gruesome robbery homicide, though all the corners that Perry is used to cutting come back to haunt him in the days leading up to the 1992 L.A. riots.
Ellroy’s Input: According to producer Cotty Chubb on the film’s DVD, Ellroy’s treatment for the film was 105 pages long and “had no dialogue.” Around the same time, Chubb had gotten hold of David Ayer’s script for “Training Day” and signed him on to bring Ellroy’s tough talk to the screen. Upon seeing the changes, Ellroy demanded that his name be taken off the final product.
On the Hush-Hush: Ben Affleck was first slated to play the part of newbie officer Bobby Keough, but by the time production started, Scott Speedman took his place. More surprisingly, the first draft of the screenplay was set in the 1960s before the Watts riots.
The Fallout: As Shelton says on the DVD when criticizing Ellroy’s original title, “You can’t put ‘plague’ in the title of a movie. Nobody’s going to say on a Friday night, ‘Let’s go see something with plague in it.'” Apparently, “Dark Blue” wasn’t much of an improvement, since the film grossed a measly $9.2 million during its theatrical release. It does have its fans, including those who regard it as the second best film from Ellroy’s source material.
“The Black Dahlia” (2006)
The Lowdown: As the film version of “L.A. Confidential” became a sensation, David Fincher became interested in adapting what fans of Ellroy consider his most definitive novel, “The Black Dahlia.” The book follows two detectives on the trail of the real-life Elizabeth Short case, the notorious homicide of an aspiring starlet that paralleled the murder of Ellroy’s own mother (who died when the author was just 10). Fincher teamed up with “War of the Worlds” screenwriter Josh Friedman over the course of six years to flesh out the script for the film, which the “Se7en” director saw as a three-hour dissection of the mystery in black and white. Ultimately, Fincher decided three hours would be better spent on the Zodiac killer, and Brian De Palma came on, cut out parts of the script regarding L.A.P.D. infighting and started shooting the $45 million flick in 2005.
Ellroy’s Input: De Palma didn’t skimp on the graphic violence in Ellroy’s book and Ellroy didn’t skimp on promoting the movie, which he did more extensively than on any of his previous films. Naturally, that meant the outspoken author would have to make amends for things he had said earlier, such as the comments he made to the Seattle Times about the leads, “Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert. He’s too pretty to live. And this stupid kid actress Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake she’s about 20 years old. She’s a little young, a little short in the tooth.”
On the Hush-Hush: Financing for the film fell apart several times, which meant original lead Mark Wahlberg had to drop out of the Det. Lee Blanchard role, which ultimately went to Aaron Eckhart. On the other hand, the timing was right for co-stars Hartnett and Johansson, who reportedly struck up a romance on set.
The Fallout: Ellroy told Premiere Magazine‘s Tim Swanson in 2006, “[If] ‘L.A. Confidential’ was the Protestant version of my work, this is the Catholic.” But even with that endorsement, “Black Dahlia” couldn’t muster more than $22.5 million and the usual divergence in opinion that greets De Palma’s films.
“Street Kings” (2008)
The Lowdown: “Black Dahlia” wasn’t actually the first Ellroy adaptation David Fincher wanted to direct. When the film was still called “The Night Watchman,” Fincher intended to helm the film after he finished “Fight Club,” but when fate intervened, Ellroy’s script passed through the hands of both Spike Lee and Oliver Stone before “Dark Blue” scribe David Ayer stepped in to direct the second contemporary (and original) Ellroy story about a ruthless cop who becomes disillusioned when he’s suspected in another cop’s murder and begins to question the motives of his colleagues. The script would’ve never come to fruition had it not been for “L.A. Confidential” producer Arnon Milchan, who put up the money for Ellroy’s screenplay after Warner Bros. initially passed.
Ellroy’s Input: It may be Ellroy’s story on screen, but Ayer reworked the dialogue while the intermediary writers on the film updated the script from its original post-O.J. Simpson trial setting to current times.
On the Hush-Hush: Despite the film’s depiction of widespread corruption in the L.A.P.D., former police chief Daryl Gates makes a cameo as the chief of police in the film.
The Fallout: It’s yet to be seen, but Ellroy has been mum on the subject.
“White Jazz” (TBA)
The Lowdown: The film that would be the next great Ellroy adaptation remains on the back burner “Narc” director Joe Carnahan’s version with George Clooney fell apart last year when Clooney needed more time to tweak his own directorial effort, “Leatherheads.” Considered perhaps Ellroy’s hardest novel to read with its mix of police jargon and 1950s slang, “White Jazz” is the final chapter in the author’s “L.A. Quartet,” which started with “The Black Dahlia” and continued with “The Big Nowhere” and “L.A. Confidential.” Told in the first person by corrupt vice cop Dave Klein, the story pits Klein against his dirty fellow officers who seek to protect themselves from the feds. Initially, Fine Line got the rights to the film and tapped frequent Martin Scorsese cinematographer Robert Richardson to make his directorial debut with a cast that included Nick Nolte as Klein and John Cusack as his partner, Junior Stemmons.
Ellroy’s Input: Appropriately, Ellroy did the honors on the first few drafts of what would’ve been his most lurid film to date, if this review from IGN is to be trusted. However, since Carnahan came onboard, he and his brother, “The Kingdom” scribe Michael Matthew Carnahan, rewrote the script, which Joe has said he intends to direct following his next film, “Killing Pablo.”
On the Hush-Hush: When Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting in 2002, she attempted to explain away the crime by saying she was preparing for two films, “Shopgirl” and “White Jazz.” At one point, Uma Thurman was also attached to play the female lead.
The Fallout: “Jazz” may be in limbo, which could fuel further discussions about a competing project a sequel to “L.A. Confidential,” which shares the same universe and the character of Ed Exley.
[Photos: “Street Kings,” Fox Searchlight, 2008; “Blood on the Moon,” Vintage; “L.A. Confidential,” Mysterious Press; “Brown’s Requiem,” Harper; “Dark Blue” poster, United Artists, 2002; “The Black Dahlia,” Mysterious Press; “Street Kings” poster, Fox Searchlight, 2008; “White Jazz,” Alfred A. Knopf;