Curtis Hanson: The Most Daring Director in Hollywood
Curtis Hanson became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors relatively late in his career. Early on he was known for making better-than-average thrillers. After The Hand That Rocks the Cradle became a surprise hit, Hanson was able to take on the acclaimed neo-noir, LA Confidential. In the November 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Hanson discussed his latest unexpected career move – directing rapper Eminem in his movie debut.
Curtis Hanson’s career seems to have two distinct phases. In the first, he made smartly thought-out, wild-ride popcorn thrillers that pulled audiences into theaters: The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. In his second, current phase, he has delved deeper to tell complex, well-told stories that seemed impossible going in but came off beautifully on-screen: L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. His next project, the hotly anticipated 8 Mile, may well be his most difficult undertaking not only because of its dark subject matter–it’s about a poor Detroit youth who tries to make it as a rapper–but because of its star, megaselling rap sensation Eminem. Hanson helped launch the careers of Tom Cruise (with Losin’ It), Julianne Moore (with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), Benjamin Bratt (with The River Wild), Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce (with L.A. Confidential), and Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes (with Wonder Boys), so it’s not as if the director isn’t savvy when it comes to casting. But this is Eminem’s acting debut and he does have to carry the film.
Early word is that 8 Mile is good. It’s not Eminem’s life story and Hanson is not serving as a glorified emcee in some lame attempt to cash in on a musical artist’s currency by sandwiching dialogue between musical numbers. The movie is a serious, dark story with all kinds of emotional highs and lows that ask a lot of its leading man.
MICHAEL FLEMING: Coming off the acclaimed L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, what were you thinking doing a movie about rap with a controversial rapper who has never acted before?
CURTIS HANSON: What was I thinking? What a flattering premise! Truthfully, what those other two films mean in a pragmatic way is they gave me the clout to do another. L.A. Confidential was very much the result of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Scott Silver’s original script for 8 Mile was fresh and different, and it gave me an opportunity to step into the world from which hip-hop emerged. I’ve always been a big music lover, and used music as part of the storytelling process.
Q: Why hip-hop?
A: It has always fascinated me. We’re all interested in where art comes from. When art is emotionally true, it transcends its place of origin. Why does this music from the ghetto find an audience across color lines? It’s because it speaks an emotional truth that people can identify with. I grew up with rock and roll, and the reaction to hip-hop by authority figures was the same. Adults disliked it intensely and kids embraced it.
Q: Eminem has stage presence, but carrying a movie is tougher than carrying a tune. How did you get him ready?
A: The first question that I had to satisfy for myself, and I learned he was also wrestling with, was “Could he do it and be good enough to make me happy and him happy?” Then we plunged in. I structured a six-week rehearsal period. Usually you struggle to get a week or two. You have to understand he never acted before, never said somebody else’s lines, conveyed emotions on command. First thing was to establish mutual trust. We went through it scene by scene, talking about everything, the lines, the emotion, where the story was going. Gradually, I brought in other actors, starting with a couple of the guys who play his friends in the picture. During this process, I submerged myself into the world from which he came–Detroit, 1995. He was very generous in introducing me to people, taking me around. I gave him a helping hand into my world, he gave me a helping hand into his.
Q: What is the biggest surprise about him?
A: He was dedicated, serious, and had a certain amount of trust in me. He wanted very much to feel good about what he was doing and wanted me to feel good about it.
Q: Rock stars make lousy actors, but rappers like Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Ice Cube and LL Cool J have done well. Does Eminem have movie career potential?
A: I only think of him in this story as an actor. I wouldn’t have made the movie if I felt I had to gauge his performance with the caveat that he was someone from the music world trying to act. He gave me all I could want from an actor. The focus, dedication, commitment to me and the story we were trying to tell. The fact that he had never done it before made it all the more exciting. This is an auspicious debut.
Q: Eminem doesn’t really rap until the film’s climax. Did you hold that back because you didn’t want the movie to be confused with the glorified videos you usually see when music stars do movies?
A: The character can only do what he does at the end of the movie because of the journey he goes on through the course of the movie. The story takes place over a one-week period in 1995, when the character discovers things about himself and finds his voice, a way to express his emotions through his art. He’s not there at the beginning of the movie. Along the way, he does express himself through his art, and it’s quite something to see. What we’re talking about is freestyle rap babbling, not something done with a band. Eminem wrote all those lyrics. We’d talk about where the character of Jimmy was at each event, what should be expressed in the lyrics. Then he’d come up with the lyrics and his use of words is quite extraordinary.
Q: Kim Basinger gave the performance of her career as a Veronica Lake look-alike in L.A. Confidential. Here, she plays Eminem’s single mother. Her character is very needy, unsophisticated, and she’s dependent on a lowlife guy–not glamorous at all. Why did you choose her?
A: I just thought she’d be great in the part. I know Kim from having worked with her, know her roots. As I got to know the people in Detroit, I thought she would respond to the specifics of this character and the reality of that world.
Q: You helped revive Basinger’s career, but you’re better known for discovering new stars. When you directed Tom Cruise in Losin’ It, did you have any idea he’d become the biggest star in the world?
A: Did I know Tom Cruise would become Tom Cruise? How could you? What I did know is he had something extraordinary. I saw countless young guys for those three parts. When Tom came into the room, he lit it up to such a degree I immediately recommended he be hired to play one of two parts. We signed him and figured out later which part he would play. He was young but very serious. You knew he was going places, at least I did. One of the producers on the film had an option on him and let it lapse, which has to be one of the bonehead moves of all time.
Q: Julianne Moore made her first big-screen impression in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, playing the feisty best friend of Annabella Sciorra who gets killed by Rebecca De Mornay in the greenhouse. What did you see in her?
A: She was fun and feisty. After we told the studio we wanted her, they came back and said she was on a soap opera, that that was bad. I didn’t know that, but I could care less. Julianne was like that character, she showed up guns blazing. Smart, sassy and incredibly attractive.
Q: What about Katie Holmes, who shone in Wonder Boys?
A: The initial thing that was just so engaging about Katie and showed what a level head she has was this. She was doing her series when we were casting. She came up to New York on her own dime, waited in the hallway of a hotel where we were seeing actresses every seven minutes. She stood in line like everyone else, came in and read for the part and was fabulous. And she’s prettier than Tom and has the kind of beauty that will age very well.
Q: Why did you cast Tobey Maguire in Wonder Boys?
A: The thing I love about Tobey is he makes me laugh. With that character of James Leer, I needed somebody with an active interior life. Someone the other kids at school would think of as a weirdo. And yet the audience would care about him and believe him capable of writing a great book. That demanded intelligence not all young actors project.
Q: Russell Crowe was unknown when you cast him in the role of Bud White in LA. Confidential. Did you see that force right away?
A: Russell and I had spoken a number of times on the telephone when he was in Australia. The night he arrived, we spoke by phone and he said something that in hindsight I found very endearing. He said, “When we meet tomorrow, I don’t exactly fill the door.” He said that because Bud White is described as being so big, an animal of a man. But the emotional intensity was much more important than physical size. Russell read the scene where he and Exley (Guy Pearce) argued outside the house from which he rescued the rape victim. He was Bud White, plain and simple. I had the good luck of capturing Russell and Guy at a moment when the international audience did not know them.
Q: That role propelled Russell to superstardom, and he’s created a turbulent wake along with several great performances. Describe your working relationship.
A: Russell is intense, but he’s intense about the work and I liked that. I had the benefit of an unusually long rehearsal period, so that Russell and Guy could become comfortable with the language of the period and the accent of the place. Russell had a thousand questions. Either I knew the answers, or if I didn’t, I said I didn’t and figured them out. That process leads to trust and when I had that, I felt that Russell would have done anything for me.
Q: Kevin Spacey was the biggest star in the cast, but he took the role of someone who gets killed partway through the film, allowing himself to be survived by two unknown actors. How did you sell that part to him?
A: I met Kevin for a drink at the Formosa Cafe to bring him the script and tell him a bit about it. I described the character as being this movie star among cops, the guy who taught Jack Webb to walk and talk like a cop. He said, “If you could have anybody play this part, who would you have?” I said Dean Martin in the mid-’50s. We’re sitting in this booth, Kevin gets this funny look on his face, and says, “Curtis, look over your head.” I turn and look in the mirror so I can see over my head. In the Formosa Cafe, they have all these 8×10 shots, and over my head is Dean Martin. Then, over Kevin’s head was a photo of Jack Webb. I gave him the script, he went off on an airplane to San Francisco. Two days later, I get this FedEx package, inside was a bar of soap from the hotel where he was staying. The little picture on the outside was a fleur-de-lis. Kevin had read the script, and you know there was this whole thing about the fleur-de-lis, and I swear, Kevin was sold by the ghost of Jack Webb and Dean Martin and this fleur-de-lis.
Q: Kevin had one of the best death scenes in recent memory, so abrupt and unexpected.
A: I had tried to cast Kevin several times over the years, and never been allowed to. He was not acceptable to the studio, they thought he was too offbeat. I brought him in for one part so many times that the studio told me to stop bringing in “that guy with the receding hair from New York.” It wasn’t until he won the Oscar they were excited to have him. I’d seen him onstage, and my expectations were high, but I never would have dreamed that he would do that death scene the way he did. People have asked whether I did something CGI in the lab, because you literally see the light go out in his eyes. It was not only live, it was one take. I was standing next to the camera and couldn’t believe it.
Q: L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys were spectacularly well-reviewed, but not that successful at the box office. When you make films that can’t be summed up in one sentence, how can you expect studio guys to sell it when their specialty is the high-concept blockbuster?
A: Unfortunately, we are in a time when movies are marketed in thousands of theaters at the same time, making distributors dependent on the marketable ad line or the 30-second TV spot. I wish we were in a time when movies had the opportunity to be in theaters for weeks at a time, where word of mouth can grow, reviews mean something. But that’s the way it is today.
Q: Your father was an educator. Was that why you sparked to lacerating the academia in Wonder Boys?
A: My dad was an elementary and junior high school teacher, so it wasn’t the halls of Ivy, it was Reseda and Tarzana, California. My father was a wonderfully gifted teacher, and I saw the impact and influence that he had on his students. My interest in the movie was informed by that, but my father was a very different man than the pot-smoking Grady Tripp.
Q: Most leading men Michael Douglas’s age cling to vanity. How did you get him to forget that and gain all that weight to play Grady?
A: Michael loved the character. In our first meeting, I indicated it would be good for him to go all out and gain weight. Let himself go. Michael was eager to do it and warmed to the task, a lot of seconds on pasta. The thing that was so wonderful about Michael was his absence of movie star vanity and apparent acting technique.
Q: It’s rare for a director to hit his prime at your age, with many films under your belt. Often, directors graduate from videos right to big-budget films. Are you glad it took this long for you to be on the level you are on?
A: There definitely were a lot of frustrations, jobs I couldn’t get, movies I did that were made under difficult circumstances. They were recut, retitled, the music changed. Losin’ It was one of those. These were painful experiences, but that was the way the journey has been. I’m enough of a movie fan to recognize that the old days of the studios now look kind of rosy. There were tyrants running those studios, but there were many directors who were allowed and encouraged to get better as they matured. Look at any number of filmmakers we consider masters: Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks. So many of them made better pictures as they got older.
Q: How have you managed to direct your career so well?
A: Today we live in a time where very often filmmakers make their personal movie first. If successful, they are encouraged to replicate it, very often to diminishing returns. I can’t say it’s by design, but I have tried to be my own studio head and ask myself, “OK, what do you want to do next, where do you want this to lead?” I feel very fortunate and lucky.
Q: What will you do if 8 Mile flops?
A: If this doesn’t work, I could direct The Hand That Rocks the Cradle 2.