A Conversation with Brian Helgeland

Brian Helgeland is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of a number of films including L.A. Confidential, Mystic RiverGreen 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.

Your short stories Veronica Majeure and At Her Feet He Fell each do very well to establish an incredibly interesting protagonist, then proceed to kill them off.  Is there a chance we’ll see more of your whiskey beleaguered assassin or Arbogast or are they gone for good?

I think they’re both gone for good.  Riding the midnight train, but not to Georgia.  A hero shouldn’t hang around too long.  You start to take them for granted and they become very predictable.  Resentment can’t be far behind.  Do something once and they try to do something else.  Even if only by degrees.

The 1960’s and 70’s were a golden age for the kind of smart, character driven crime and action filmmaking you often seem drawn to.  From the widely canonized films of Scorsese and Coppola, to more cultish movies like Fingers, Straight Time and Sorcerer, are there any films from the era that have been a particular influence?

Well, speaking of Sorcerer, if a movie back then had Roy Scheider in it, it pretty much ends up on my all time list. He is the 70’s Nexus.  Think about it; it’s staggering.  KluteThe French ConnectionThe Seven UpsMarathon ManAll That Jazz. Whether starring or supporting, he found his way into movies about fucked-up people we cannot take our eyes off of.  That’s what is so tremendous about that era – the era of the true anti-hero – and Scheider is there for all of it.  By the way, it’s often maligned but Sorcerer weirdly kicks the ass of Wages of Fear.  Call me all the names you want, but that’s what I think.

Speaking of the 60’s and 70’s, if you had to choose, Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah?

Give them both their well-earned glory, but Don Siegel in a heartbeat.  He got right to it.  No fat on the meat.  Just bone.  I don’t even think he even knew where the slow motion switch on the camera was.  24 frames per second, period and exactly as many shots as he needed to tell the story.  Nothing superfluous.  He didn’t give you one more inch than you needed.  If I could direct two films like Charley Varrick and Dirty Harry back to back like he did, I’d call it a day and say I had a very successful career.  All you need to know about Siegel is found in the fact that he was cast as the bartender in the movie Play Misty For Me.  It was Eastwood’s first film as a director and all the bar stuff shot the first two weeks.  Clint knew if anything went wrong at the start, he would have Don Siegel standing right on set.  It’s like having him behind a piece of glass: break in case of emergency.

Two projects you have in development, Get Up Sonny Liston and Sidney Grimes already have major buzz as the kind of movies the most invested crime/action film fans will line up to see.  If you’re able to discuss, what can we expect from Liston and Grimes?

Currently Liston is retired from the ring.  Though there’s always a chance he could come back. Remember the famous photo of Liston flat on his back with Ali standing victoriously over him?  Well, the movie’s not about Liston at all, but instead about a man who, when he sees that photo, doesn’t see the triumph, only the defeat. He wishes that Sonny could get back up because that’s the way he feels himself.

Grimes, on the other hand, is actively in play and I’m trying to cast it.  It’s a story of cops and ex-cops all after redemption of one form or another.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but all of them are crooked in one way or another.  It’s called Sidney Grimes because I wanted to harken back to the day when my favorite tough guy movies were named after the character in them.  It’s something Don Siegel understood.  Bullitt, Klute, Papillon, Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, the list goes on and on.

You’ve written thousands upon thousands of scenes, tens of thousands lines of dialogue, and at the very least, hundreds of large scale action sequences.  Within your many scripts and films, have any favorite moments emerged?

For no reasons obvious to anyone but me, here is a list:

I love the conversation Mel Gibson has with Julia Roberts about Catcher In The Rye in Conspiracy Theory.  That and the scene around it are my finest five minutes in some ways.

Mystic’s fine, but it fulfilled a life long dream when Clint Eastwood takes the shotgun out of the trunk of the car and fires it in Blood Work.

The moment I felt I had lived up to the exceedingly high bar James Ellroy had set when I concocted the ‘Rollo Tomasi’ bridge in LA Confidential.

John Travolta’s delivery of his opening list of his demands in the remake of Pelham.

Any scene at all between Dakota Fanning and Denzel Washington in Man On Fire.  I could watch them toast marshmallows for an hour and be happy.  It’s one of my favorites films I ever worked on.

And last and never least and nothing to do with crime, Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale where he provided me with a holiday away from myself.  It turned out to be unrepeatable.

Stay tuned for Part II of this conversation tomorrow on Mulholland Books. Want more Helgeland? Read his Popcorn Fiction story Veronica Majeure.