Brian Helgeland is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of a number of films including L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Green Zone, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Man on Fire, and Payback, which he also directed. One of the preeminent filmmakers in the world, today on MulhollandBooks.com Helgeland discusses the age-old question of inspiration, the art of killing a hero, the enduring power of 70’s crime films, and the endless drama inherent to staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.
From L.A. Confidential and Mystic River to Man on Fire and Payback, you have written (and in the case of Payback, directed) some of the most impactful crime and suspense films of the past fifteen years. Where did your interest in the genre begin?
For me, everything started at least subliminally the first time I saw Cool Hand Luke. It’s not a crime movie, per se, but everyone exists in it because of either a crime they committed or because their job is to keep the men incarcerated or because they have to visit those men. Whether Luke’s eating fifty eggs or digging his own grave, it had a profound effect on my creative life. As for crime itself? As the sinew of things, I like it because it strips people down to their basic elements. It gets to the hunting-gathering heart of the matter. I don’t want to write about the ennui rich people feel. I don’t want to write about how fun it is when groups of couples get together for laughs. I could care less. I want to write about what’s in people’s heads, hearts and between their legs when they either are in prison, might go to prison, have a gun in their face or are pointing one. You live or you die, literally or figuratively, depending on a few pressured choices you make. It is my firm belief that people only reveal themselves when things go wrong and crime and its cousin suspense make things go very wrong indeed. And like in Luke the guy with the code wins. It doesn’t mean he’ll live; it just means he wins. And the code isn’t a moral one. It’s just the way a character makes certain rules for themselves, has drawn lines within themselves, and then we get to watch and see if they’ll cross them or not. There’s nothing like a saint without a god as far as I’m concerned.