Friday, September 23, 2016

Curtis Hanson: An L.A. (and Roger Corman) Story

With the passing of Curtis Hanson, we’ve lost another great director. He recently died in his Hollywood Hills home at the all-too-early age of 71. Hanson is best known for directing 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a film noir thriller based on James Ellroy’s novel exploring police corruption in the City of Angels, circa 1950.  Hanson called L.A. Confidential his most personal project, because Ellroy was “telling a story set in the same city that I grew up in and dovetails with certain ambitions that I’ve had in terms of telling an L.A. story.” L.A. Confidential  would be nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Kim Basinger won an supporting actress Oscar for her femme fatale role, and another went to Hanson, along with Brian Helgeland, for their adapted screenplay. Too bad the film was up against Titanic.

Before he took the helm of L.A. Confidential, Hanson had directed such successful nail-biters as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994). He also succeeded with Wonder Boys (2000, based on Michael Chabon’s novel of academic life), and the surprisingly appealing 8 Mile (2002), about the rise of rapper Eminem. Though Hanson could delve into a female relationship story (In Her Shoes, 2005), his natural bent seemed to be toward the dark and violent side of life. That’s hardly surprising: he emerged (like Titanic’s James Cameron and so many more of Hollywood’s rising directors) from the colorfully grim world of Roger Corman.

Hanson first came to the attention of my former boss in 1970 when he wrote the screenplay for The Dunwich Horror. This variation on a supernatural tale by H.P. Lovecraft was directed by longtime Corman art director Dan Haller for Corman’s former movie home, American International Pictures. (Corman himself served as executive producer.) This was the era when Corman was moving into his own company, New World Pictures. Hanson wrote and directed for Roger a 1972 film called Sweet Kill. IMDB describes this as “the story of a psychotic maniac who literally ‘loves’ women to death.” But despite the lurid subject matter, audiences weren’t enticed. Typically, Roger asked Hanson for additional sex scenes, then retitled the flick The Arousers.

My own sojourn at New World Pictures came just after Hanson’s time, though I remember tabulating bookings for The Arousers in drive-ins across America. During my New World stint, however, I rubbed shoulders with other young directors (like my buddy Steve Carver) who began notable careers by making Corman genre movies, usually thrillers or horror flicks, on the lowest possible budgets. Monte Hellman was no youngster when he returned to New World to shoot Cockfighter. But I worked closely with Paul Bartel, who was tapped to direct the cult classic Death Race 2000 and would move on to the lurid Eating Raoul as well as much larger studio projects.  Jonathan Demme, who directed his first film, Caged Heat, for Roger in 1974, was a fixture around the New World offices, long before he became a major Hollywood player and an Oscar winner for a dark and twisted project on a grand scale: Silence of the Lambs.

Corman protégés from an earlier era included Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich. After I left New World (but before I returned to Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons), the directing career of Ron Howard was launched. I knew Joe Dante as a New World editor and trailer cutter, but didn’t suspect he’d blossom into a director on the strength of Corman’s Piranha. For Joe, as for other Corman folk, cheap genre movies led to big careers. 

If you want to know more about Roger Corman and his circle, do check out my acclaimed insider biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook form.

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