It had been a long road for Curtis Hanson to L.A. Confidential,the intricate, 1997 film noir that earned him worldwide recognition as a first-rank director.
After decades of relative obscurity in the movie business, followed by a lucrative but otherwise undistinguished stint as a maker of lurid pop shockers ( Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild)in the early 1990s, Hanson earned stellar reviews for his adaptation of James Ellroy's saga of endemic corruption and violent redemption. Generally considered the best neo-noir since Chinatown in 1974, L.A. Confidential swept critical awards and earned Hanson a screenplay Oscar (with co-scripter Brian Helgeland).
It also gave him that most precious of Hollywood privileges: choice. He could make whatever film he wanted to, however he saw fit.
Of course, freedom has its price.
"Sad but true: it was hard to find a project I wanted to get involved with after L.A. Confidential,"jokes Hanson, a cerebral, tall and remarkably thin man in his early 50s. I'd been working on a script of my own and some other stories I wanted to tell, and was reading tonnes of stuff. I didn't adamantly want to get away from the crime genre and I would have done any kind of movie that I fell in love with. But my preference was to do a comedy."
Nothing of that nature grabbed Hanson until Michael Douglas, a casual acquaintance of several years, devined that Hanson might be right for a project he'd been circling called Wonder Boys. Scripted by writer-director Steve Kloves ( The Fabulous Baker Boys)from a book by the well-regarded Pittsburgh novelist Michael Chabon, the scenario focused on a once-great novelist gone to middle-aged seed in academia, and how helping out a promising but misguided writing student leads to solutions of the older man's dilemmas.
"When I read that script, I fell in love with these characters -- and they made me laugh," says Hanson, who was dressed casually in faded jeans. "But their concerns were my concerns; I cared about them in a serious way even while I was laughing at them.
"Had it just been about a writer going through some creative problems, I wouldn't have been interested, quite frankly, in the story. But my identification with the lead character, Grady Tripp, is much deeper than that, because that's just one aspect of his life where he's not making choices. "He's just been letting things happen, self-medicating with pot and drifting along. And yet, there's this thing building up inside him: frustration, hunger, yearning, et cetera, all of which I identify with."
Not only was the film a major change of pace for Hanson, it was the kind of hard-to-pigeonhole, character-driven comedy/drama that Hollywood studios would just as soon do without. Indeed, Hanson says the only reason Wonder Boys got made was because Douglas agreed to work for well below his usual hefty fee.
But before you write off studio executives as Philistines, understand that they're not the only ones who have problems with a narrative as loose and unruly as this one.
"We all want to stretch," Hanson acknowledges. "But telling a story that is not really a story is difficult. The plot here is meandering and, apparently, sort of aimless. We're following a character while he does things that even he doesn't really know why he's doing them. I had to try to give that at least a feeling of focus, so the audience would be interested in going along with him."
Then, in a practical way, telling a story that takes place over three days in Pittsburgh in the wintertime is not easy, adds the director, who grew up and has spent his entire adult life in weather-deprived Southern California. "You're dealing with everything that entails when you're shooting on actual locations in bitter cold and constantly changing conditions."
Such difficulties noted, Hanson nonetheless enjoyed the experience to the fullest.
"One of the best things about working with Curtis is that he goes to the set every day and it seems like he's having a good time," observes Tobey Maguire ( The Cider House Rules),who co-stars in the film. "That set the tone for me. I felt like I could have a good time and be free creatively; it was probably the best experience I've ever had on a job."
Hanson's joy continued into the postproduction phase. Having heard that Bob Dylan was a fan of L.A. Confidential,Hanson approached the songwriter and, remarkably, got Dylan to record his first new composition in several years, Things Have Changed,for Wonder Boys opening and closing credit sequences.
"He's a genius at what he does, intimidatingly so," Hanson reports.
"And he's Bob Dylan, a unique individual and well aware that he is an icon. But the collaboration was very exciting for me on a personal level. Thrilling, actually, because I've been such a fan, in a way that I'm not a fan of many people, partly because of his creative genius and partly because he excels in a field that I love but have absolutely no talent for or understanding of, so it's much more magical to me. Ultimately, to show him my work and have him respond to it was really gratifying."
Hanson's film education came about in a similar manner. Although the son of a schoolteacher who instilled a great love of learning, Curtis eschewed higher education for what he considered a more practical, personalized film school: interviewing and photographing filmmakers for the well-regarded magazine Cinema.
Although Hanson began making movies three decades ago -- such as the obscure B psycho-thriller The Arousers starring, of all people, Tab Hunter -- it wasn't until 1987, with his first legitimate feature, The Bedroom Window, that he established his reputation as a smart, neo-Hitchcockian director.
"I spent so long trying to get to a place where I could just be able to direct a movie, and then struggled so long to be able to direct movies that I felt had some potential," he recalls.
"It was a long, long, uphill struggle. By the time L.A. Confidential came around I was, naturally, extraordinarily gratified by the acceptance the picture received. But to me, there was no mystery about what the picture was. It was a labour of love that, for the first time, I was able to do.
"It was great that people liked the picture as much as they did, but whether they did or they didn't, I liked it in a way that I had not previously. I was completely committed to everything that I did before, but they were not as personal as these last two."
Now considered part of the independently spirited renaissance in American cinema, Hanson sees some irony in being grouped together with a younger generation of filmmakers.
"A lot of people now have the opposite career of mine," he notes. "Because the business has changed, it's a lot easier to get that first shot now and, consequently, people sometimes make their most personal movie first. Then, of course, it's like, 'okay, what else have you got?' It wasn't always that way."
Nevertheless, Hanson admits sharing an affinity with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson ( Magnolia),David O. Russell ( Three Kings),Spike Jonze ( Being John Malkovich)and Cameron Crowe ( Jerry Maguire).
And he is delighted with the opportunity to combine his love of classic films with the opportunity to network with the younger artists that his year-long tenure as chairman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive has afforded him. Fundraising efforts for the film preservation organization included hosting a program with 92-year-old idol Billy Wilder, where many young filmmakers got first-hand exposure to one of Hollywood's most iconic individualists.
Not surprisingly, self-educated film scholar Hanson has an informed historical perspective on current industry trends.
"I hope there's a new wave of really good filmmakers; I've always hoped that as a moviegoer as well as a moviemaker," he says. "You know, it's easier to ride a wave than fight to make one picture that's the exception to standard studio fare. And good movies of whatever you want to call them -- let's say, an independent frame of mind -- if they do well, they encourage more to happen.
"But I don't think of it so much as a new wave. The movie business has a continual changing of the guard, but we appear to be at a moment in time when there's a more obvious one happening than at other times.
"There was that one enormously obvious changing of the guard when the Hitchcock's and the Ford's all kind of stopped making films within several years of one another in the sizties and seventies, and this group of seventies' movies [by the so-called film brats Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Spielberg, et al]that were kind of filling the void left by those guys.
"This is nothing that dramatic, certainly," Hanson concludes. "But there is something afoot, definitely. And I think it's healthy."
The reception Wonder Boys receives may keep Hanson's slow-building but ever-burgeoning career in good shape, too. But while he has every reason to remain optimistic, perhaps it's healthy that the filmmaker has been around long enough not to harbour any illusions on that count, either.
"Listen, in all the time I spent with L.A. Confidential,I could never sum it up in a short sentence, and it's the same with this picture," Hanson says. "That's what I love about this movie: there's a complexity about it and it's different. But that makes it harder to sell in this age of instant ID."