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. In part two of Brian’s conversation, he discusses the origins of his career, the inner-Fellini of 80’s franchise horror, his favorite director collaborations and five crime novels worth smuggling into prison.
Your career as a screenwriter began with work on several horror franchise projects, then quickly expanded to include some of our era’s biggest spec scripts and adaptation assignments. How did you get started as a screenwriter and how did you make the jump to bigger and better material?
When I first arrived in Los Angeles, the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises had reignited an interest in horror movies. At that time, no established writers really wanted anything to do with them. Except for the fact they were making money, they were the red-headed step children so to speak. They were also therefore a great opportunity for young writers to get noticed and to make a living. Making a living is an important factor in life even if people like to pretend you don’t take it into consideration artistically. The joke being there is really no genre more suited for film than horror. Nowhere is the visual more important. Nowhere do you reach that connection to the dream state that Fellini made his living on. So be careful what you look down on. It may be your own nose. That said, at a certain point, I wanted to do other things. Having quickly been branded a horror writer, I wrote a series of spec scripts to break out of that mold. The first one that really clicked was a script called The Ticking Man that I wrote in 1990 with my best friend Manny Coto. We were both determined to reinvent ourselves and we did it with pen and paper. We literally wrote ourselves out of a locked room. The film never got made, but the door was opened and there was really no looking back after that.
You’ve written scripts for a handful of the most amazing directors currently working, and you’ve directed a number of notable films yourself. Obviously you contract to write certain projects but when you sit down at your desk, how do you decide whether the words you’re writing are for you, or best suited to someone else?
I think because I started out writing, my directing desire rests in stories that are naturally more character oriented. And since I didn’t start out intending to direct, directing didn’t start out as a consideration at all. I find it odd than in filmmaking only the writer has to prove he’s a filmmaker. No one questions the editor or the production designer. They are filmmakers. And that’s what I am. There are several directors I’ve done two films with so I’ll stick with them. Dick Donner was the first and the first who thought I should direct myself. In fact, he gave me my first directing job which was an episode of the old series Tales From the Crypt. I also did two films with Clint Eastwood, both of which I wrote while I was directing films of my own. With Donner it was always a struggle to reconcile our two versions of the world and therefore our two versions of the story. But what a friendship it resulted in! With Eastwood I was always intent on getting his vision down on paper and setting my own ego aside. Probably, as I said, because I was working on my own films. It was very freeing in some ways. Tony Scott is the director I think I am closest to sensibility-wise in that both of us believe that any single moment can be ordinary and absurd, funny and tragic, all at the same time. The movies I have written for him I could not direct myself. They are too demanding in their settings. To make Man On Fire you really have to relish physically stepping into a strange world that I’d prefer to see from my desk or from hotel interview rooms. I’ve also done two films with Paul Greengrass, one of which I was uncredited for. We come at stories as diametric opposites. I want to know what’s for dinner and Paul likes a long menu to pick from. But we’re both hungry, both willing to grab the check, so in the end no one goes unfed. It’s like that old candy commercial – You got chocolate on my peanut butter. I’m really dancing around my answer here, but the truth is most of the favorite things I’ve written, I’ve written to direct, and most haven’t been made. Those are the ones, as you’d predict in Hollywood, that have characters who are a little too flawed or villains who are a little too forgivable or stories that are too off-beat. It doesn’t mean they won’t be made, but I was compelled to write them regardless. It’s like a little alarm goes off and I try to never ignore it. Also, produced or not, they have served an unplanned purpose in that they have kept me fresh to myself. They have enabled me to look in the mirror and know that I have done all I could to make the most of whatever talent there is in me.
You’ve mentioned Cool Hand Luke as an influence. If you were confined to a road gang prison and had to choose five crime novels to pass the time behind the walls, which books would make the list?
Out by Natsuo Kirino – Four women go from making boxed lunches on the night shift at a Tokyo factory to cutting up dead men in bathtubs and you are with them every step of the way. As unsparing, unflinching and visceral as crime can get.
Suicide Hill by James Ellroy. Before there was Bud White, Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes, there was an LAPD Homicide Detective named Llyod Hopkins. James detailed Hopkins exploits in three short novels, but Suicide Hill is my favorite. There’s a manhunt that happens halfway through and the first time I was driving on Cherokee Avenue in Hollywood I had to pull over to the side when I realized where I was. It was here! It was right here they were chasing the bad guy Duane Rice.
The Marseilles Trilogy by Jean Claude Izzo. Just stunning g to me. Place and character joined together until they are inseparable. Two of a trio of childhood friends are dead and it’s up to the survivor to figure out why. The character of Fabio Montale is the Aristotle of crime philosophers as he follows and espouses his existential code, from its bitter truths to its small simple pleasures, through to its logical conclusion.
Death’s Dark Abyss by Massimo Carlotto. When you see how deftly and simply Carlotto flips the table and makes a hero out of a killer and a villain out of the man’s whose wife and child the hero has gunned down in the street you will understand that in crime fiction, the definition of who can be called a hero is unlimited.
Another Day In Paradise by Eddie Little. Some people have called this a drug novel, but they are missing the point. This is crime through and through with Bobbie, a 14-year-old protagonist, who is as tough as any con in Folsom. If I was in a fight, there is no one I’d rather have by my side than this stout little bastard. Eddie Little lived this life before writing about it and it is reminiscent of Education of a Felon by Edward Bunker. What is it with guys named Ed?