L.A. Confidential has quietly grown in stature over the years to be regarded as a modern noir clasic. We have the behind the scenes story with 25 great LA Confidential facts.

Written by , 7th August 2022

Released in 1997, L.A. Confidential has slowly earned a reputation as a 1990s crime classic. Co-written and directed by Curtis Hanson, it tells a tale of police corruption set to a backdrop of the glitz and grime of 1950s Hollywood. Featuring star-making turns from Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, its making of story has as many twists as the film. By way of 25 huge, fun LA Confidential facts, we have the full behind the scenes story.

1. The look of the film is very authentic

One of the parts of the film that still stands up very well is the production values and overall look of the film in recreating 1950s L.A. This is because much of what we see is real.

One of the problems director Curtis Hanson had when planning out the film was the budget. $35m was not a huge amount, so his location scouts scoured L.A. for locations that hadn’t changed since the 1950s. He did this so sets didn’t have to be built, to save money. So pretty much everything we see in the film is authentic and a real place. This includes the residential street and house we see in the scene below.

The opening, filmed on a real street

2. “Bloody Christmas” was a real-life event

One of the key moments of the first act is a riot that occurs in the police station on Christmas Eve. Called “Bloody Christmas” by the press, it was actually based on a real event that took place

On Christmas Day, 1951, 7 Mexican males were in the “white” part of town, drinking booze, so a bunch of white people called the police. The Mexicans refused to leave and fought with the police. Later that night, the police rounded the Mexicans up at their homes, took them to jail and beat them all within an inch of their lives. 93 officers were transferred or suspended after it.

“Bloody Christmas” as seen in L.A. Confidential

3. The costume design was very authentic, too

The film was a bit of a passion project for Curtis Hanson, as he was born in 1945 and grew up in 1950s L.A. He used to work for his uncle who created clothes for stars like Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe.

4. Getting the green light from the studio wasn’t an easy task

When James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel – also called L.A. Confidential – was published in 1990, Warner Bros snapped up the rights to it that same year, but didn’t actually do anything with it, at first.

Curtis Hanson – who was a big James Ellroy fan – heard that Warners had the rights and told them he wanted to make it. Warners weren’t willing to finance the production budget so told Hanson he could do it, if he found some financing.

Hanson already had a script by this point that he’d co-written with Brian Helgeland (more on him later), and sent it to some studios. New Regency Pictures loved the script but the head of the studio – Arnon Milcan – needed convincing. He told Hanson he had to come in and pitch the idea.

So, Hanson put together a presentation of 18 images that represented the movie he wanted to make. The presentation started with images like a, “Welcome to Los Angeles” postcard, pictures of movie stars like Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth. It also included shots of Sunset Boulevard and fast cars. Hanson then said: “That’s the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let’s peel back the image and see where our characters live.” He then showed images of tract housing, San Quentin prison and the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after being arrested for possession of marijuana.

After the pitch, Arnon Milcan just said, “how much do you need?”

5. The casting of the main character was a much simpler process for Hanson

The main character in the film is ambitious officer Ed Exley. When he was casting Exley, Curtis Hanson always knew he wanted an unknown actor to play him. In his words: “I didn’t want audiences to know what to expect.” So, a casting call went out and extensive auditioning took place. When Guy Pearce auditioned, Hanson loved him. He said “Guy was very, very much what I had in mind for Ed Exley,” and cast him very quickly.

6. The actors did some intense preparation

Before they began filming, Hanson had Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe (who played Officer Bud White) flown over to L.A. two months early to become immersed in the city and culture. Hanson he brought in dialect coaches and introduced them both to real-life cops. Pearce only met with the cop once then refused to any more. Hanson wasn’t happy and asked him why and Pearce said, “because the guy’s a racist” and Hanson said, “ah yeah, that’s a thing here,” and didn’t mention it again.

Instead, Pearce watched a lot of 1950s police training videos from which he learned a lot, he said.

7. The studio wanted a bigger name than Russell Crowe to play Bud

Russell Crowe plays Officer Bud White in the film. A hothead prone to violent outbursts, White required a specific type of actor to play him without alienating the audience. Like with the casting of Exley, Hanson wanted a lesser known actor to play White. He actually wrote the script with Michael Madsen in mind. The studio though, wanted a big star and were looking at Mel Gibson to play White.

But, after he saw Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper (1992), Hanson knew he’d found his man. Hanson said, in that film, Crowe was “repulsive and scary, but totally captivating.”

When he was offered the part of White, Crowe actually turned it down at first because he wasn’t sure he could convincingly play such a tough character. Curtis Hanson told him to watch The Killing – a Stanley Kubrick film from 1956 – and pay attention to Sterling Hayden’s performance. “He has the beefy manliness that came out of World War II that I want.”

8. Crowe went a bit method for the role

In the novel, James Ellroy describes Bud White as being the biggest cop on the LAPD and well over 6 foot tall. So, to prepare, Crowe moved into an apartment so small that he had to duck to get into the doorways, and could barely stand up. He said this worked in making him feel like a giant by the time he came to the set to shoot.

9. Crowe even gave up one of his vices

Also in the book, White doesn’t drink beer, only whisky. So Crowe didn’t drink any beer for the entire shoot. He said it was, “the most painful period of my entire life.”

10. There was one movie star Hanson had his eye on

Jack Vincennes is the third of our main characters. A cop who stars in a reality TV show, Vincennes was the character where Hanson did want a movie star in the role. He always wanted Kevin Spacey, and had wanted to cast him in The River Wild (1994), but the studio said no. But then, Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects (1995) and, suddenly, the studio were okay with it.

Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes

11. One of the Rat Pack played a part in Spacey signing up

Hanson met with Spacey in the Formosa restaurant in L.A. to discuss the part – that restaurant’s in the film, too. He told Spacey the film he wanted to make, and Spacey agreed to do it on the spot.

At that meeting, to get a sense of the character, Spacey asked Hanson if he was actually making the film in the 50s, who would he cast as Jack Vincennes. Without missing a beat, Hanson said, “Dean Martin” and said the slick, smooth style he had was perfect for Vincennes. Spacey was impressed with how Hanson seemed to have thought it all through but then, as they went to leave, Spacey turned round to see there was a picture of Dean Martin behind him on the wall that would’ve been right in Hanson’s line of sight. Spacey said, “To this day, I don’t know if that was fate, or Curtis just said the first person he saw. Either way, it was a great answer.”

12. Kim Basinger wasn’t the first person offered the part of Lynn

Kim Basinger plays Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who looks like movie star Veronica Lake. Basinger won an Oscar for her performance, but she wasn’t the first person Curtis Hanson wanted as Lynn. The role was offered to, and turned down by, Lorraine Bracco, Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith, Teri Hatcher, Anjelica Huston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Rene Russo.

Kim basinger as Lynn

13. The Fleur de Lis is based on a real-life rumour

Lynn works for the Fleur de Lis escort agency, who specialise in providing prostitutes that look like movie stars. This is actually based on a real-life rumour about a similar agency that used to circulate in 1950s Hollywood. There was a screenwriter at the time called Garson Kanin – he wrote a couple of Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn comedies – and, in his memoirs, Kanin described a place called Mae’s, where there were girls who looked like Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Ginger Rogers. And the Fleur de Lis is based on that place.

14. Basinger had some hair problems on the set

To play Lynn, Basinger had to dye her hair bleach blonde to match Veronica Lake but the dye they gave her was too strong and pretty much destroyed her hair. She had to get it cut really short a few days before filming, and the make up team had to find a wig made with real hair in super-quick time.

15. A major character in the book is reduced to a minor role in the film

Inez Soto is the girl who White rescues after finding her tied to a bed. She only plays a minor role in the story here but in the book her part is a lot bigger. In the novel, Inez becomes the focal point of a love triangle between her, White and Exley – in the film, that’s moved over to Lynn.

White rescues Inez Soto

16. Curtis Hanson’s co-writer was desperate to work on the film

Hanson wrote the film with Brian Helgeland who, like Curtis Hanson, was a longtime fan of James Ellroy and, when he heard Warners had bought the rights to L.A. Confidential, he did everything he could to get hired as the writer. He called, wrote letters, and even turned up at the Warners office, but they were only interested in talking to established writers. Every time Helgeland had a meeting arranged, it was cancelled the day before.

Helgeland then heard that Curtis Hanson had been hired to direct so, knowing Hanson was currently filming The River Wild, Helgeland turned up on the set and pitched himself as his writing partner for L.A. Confidential. Hanson talked with Helgeland, and found they had almost identical takes on the book, so decided they should work on it together.

17. Adapting the novel was no easy task

The novel is a huge, sprawling crime drama and when he sold the rights to the novel, James Ellroy himself thought it was unfilmable, saying: “My agent and I laughed like hell, because we thought this f*cker was movie adaptation-proof. It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters; it was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable!”

Because the book was so huge, lots of it had to be taken out for the movie. Helgeland said, “we mapped out every scene in the book on index cards, then removed every one that didn’t have at least one of the three main cops in it, and worked from there.”

18. The writing process went on and on

Getting the script finished and approved wasn’t easy, either. The script went through so many revisions that Hanson had to turn down other jobs, and Helgeland ended up doing several drafts for free. This went on for two years and Helgeland started to become depressed. He said: “Whenever there was a day when I didn’t want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor.”

On top of that, the studio interfered and wanted Hanson to remove Exley (Pearce) and Vincennes (Spacey) from the film and get a star in to play White (Crowe), and make it all about him. Hanson explained why Exley was essential and the studio said, “okay, keep Exley and get rid of Vincennes and White, then.” Eventually, Hanson convinced them that all three characters were needed.

19. There were major differences to the novel

Hanson and Helgeland did finish the screenplay eventually, and it ended up quite different to Ellroy’s book. Some of the main changes:

  • The book is set over a longer period of time – 7 years between 1951 and 58. The film is set across several months.
  • In the novel, Bud White goes alone to investigate a serial killer targeting prostitutes, which leaves him in hospital and takes him out of the story, so he’s not part of the climax.
  • In the book, Jack Vincennes is quite a lot more unlikeable than he is here. In the book, he’s nicknamed Trashcan Jack, because he once dumped jazz musician Charlie Parker in a trashcan during a drugs bust.
  • And in the book, there is no Rollo Tomassi. This is because we know from the start of the novel that Captain Smith is the guy behind everything. So Hanson and Helgeland made that up entirely for the film.

20. The title of the film is from a real-life publication

There were a series of books in the 1940s and 50s with names like New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential, Washington Confidential etc that exposed the sleazy underbelly of those places. James Ellroy wanted to do the same with L.A. so named his novel accordingly. Also, there was a popular magazine in the US in the 1950s called Confidential that was all about celebrity gossip and scandal. This magazine is fictionalised in the film as Hush Hush.

21. Other parts of the film are based on real life

We mentioned how the Bloody Christmas riot was a real event but, on top of that:

  • In the movie, Jack Vincennes is technical advisor on a cop show, Badge Of Honor. In real life, W.H. Parker, the L.A. chief of police, was the technical advisor on Dragnet.
  • The closing credits also show Hopalong Cassidy – a real-life TV show – alongside the Badge Of Honor cast members at a parade.
  • Other real life people show up, too. Mickey Cohen, who we see at the start of the film, was a real gangster and there’s a scene where Exley and Vincennes talk to movie star Lana Turner and her gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, in a restaurant. (Turner and Stopmonato were at the centre of one of 50s Hollywood’s biggest scandals. He used to abuse Turner and, after hitting her one time, Turner’s 14 year old daughter, Cheryl, stabbed Stompanato to death).
Exley meets Lana Turner

22. A legendary composer was hired, then left

The score for L.A. Confidential is by Jerry Goldmisth but, before he was hired, the first person who Hanson wanted as composer was Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein had composed iconic Hollywood scores like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) but he left L.A. Confidential due to a scheduling clash with The Rainmaker (1997).

Jerry Goldmsith’s score for the film

23. The look of the film was inspired by the time period

The Director of Photography was Dante Spinotti, a highly experienced cinematographer who had worked on Heat (1995) with Michael Mann a couple of years earlier.

In shooting the film, Spinotti and Hanson took inspiration from some pretty diverse sources. To evoke the 50s paparazzi feel Hanson wanted, Spinotti composed shots as if he were using a still camera, and said: “I was constantly asking myself, ‘Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?’” (A Leica being a classic 1950s style photographic camera).

Hanson also had Spinotti study some 1950s Hollywood movies, and two in particular. They were The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Some Came Running (1958). Some Came Running starred Dean Martin, so maybe Hanson was being totally sincere when he spoke to Spacey.

Another place Hanson and Spinotti took inspiration from was a book called The Americans, which was a 1958 book of photographs taken by Robert Frank. The photos are all black and white and show American culture of the 40s and 50s.

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

24. Kevin Spacey had trouble playing dead

One of the film’s more shocking moments is when Captain Dudley Smith (played by James Cromwell) is revealed as corrupt when he suddenly shoots Vincennes. There was a problem shooting this scene because Spacey found it difficult to play dead – his eyes kept following James Cromwell when he walked away. So Hanson had a production assistant draw a circle on the wall opposite, and Spacey stared at that.

Smith shoots Vincennes

25. The end of the book is different to the movie

The film ends in a huge shootout, with Exley and White on one side and Smith and his corrupt officers on the other. White is injured, and Exley shoots Smith in the back rather than let him get away with it.

The book doesn’t end with a big shootout, and Smith actually does get away with it in the end. When James Ellroy first read Hanson and Helgeland’s script, he said: “Two guys holed up in a room where they kill fifteen guys? It’s bullsh*t.”

But, after he saw the film, he said to Hanson, “It’s still bullsh*t, but it’s inspired bullsh*t.”

And we’re at the end of our list – 25 fascinating and fun LA Confidential facts. Please share on your social platforms, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for lots of great video content.