“I Like Being Aggressive in the Storytelling…”: Michael Dinner on His CBS James Ellroy Adaptation, L.A. Confidential
One of the most haunting and atmospheric pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen this year is the pilot for the television adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, which, as scripted by Jordan Harper and directed by Michael Dinner, beautifully captures Ellroy’s unique blend of acidic humor, weary resignation, and brutal violence as both a destructive and cathartic force. Working with his Justified collaborator Walton Goggins — brilliant here in the role of Jack Vincennes — as well as an equally fine Brian J. Smith (playing Ed Exley) and Mark Webber (Bud White), Dinner pays tribute to both Ellroy’s novel and Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film without being constricted by either. Deftly blending a propulsive modern energy with the film noir tropes established by Robert Siodmak, Anthony Mann, and other masters of the form, Dinner has created a crime series that is as singular in its style as groundbreaking shows like Miami Vice, Crime Story, and Homicide. The 45 minutes of Harper’s script are densely packed with sharply observed cultural insights, richly conceived and developed characters, and enough plot for a feature three times the length, and Dinner keeps the elements in balance with total command — the show is complicated and unpredictable but clear, concise, and delivers an emotional impact as concentrated and impactful as Ellroy’s prose. Whether or not Dinner and Harper will be able to deliver on the promise of their pilot is an open question at this point; when I sat down with Dinner to talk about his work on the show the pilot had not been picked up by CBS, the network that developed it, and he was waiting to hear if the series had found another home elsewhere. I’ve always been curious about the process of directing pilots and how it compares to features and weekly episodic work, and Dinner seemed like the perfect person to talk with; as the director of pilots for Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and Early Edition, among others, he’s helped shape the visual language of some of the best TV series of the last twenty years.
Filmmaker: I want to start by asking how you came to be involved in this show, and what your philosophy was going in – how much did you have the book on your mind, or Curtis Hanson’s film?
Michael Dinner: I hadn’t seen the movie since it came out, but I’m a fan of the novel and I really liked the script, though it certainly didn’t feel like a network show. I’ve actually done other things that were kind of out of the box for CBS — usually, they don’t get picked up. But I figured that if I did my job well they would decide whether they had the nerve to program it, or that maybe they’d shift it over to CBS All Access. That’s how I went into it, and I felt good about the pilot because it stayed pretty true to the novel tonally. I went back and looked at the movie before I started, and it’s a really good adaptation — but it’s only 15 or 20 percent of the book. And I wanted to take a more modern approach — I didn’t want to be slavish to noir, though certainly I had to pay homage to what came before.
Filmmaker: Similar to what you did on Justified with Westerns.
Dinner: The same thing. I knew Justified was a neo-Western, and I wanted to walk to the edge of the cliff in terms of the clichés, and then be able to pull it back. If you know the pilot, there’s a shot where Raylan’s facing this character Dewey Crowe, and it looks like a scene on a main street in a Western, like a Sergio Leone movie. Raylan’s got his gun out and he’s facing off against Dewey, and it’s shot and framed the way you would expect with the camera kind of low, looking up at him like he’s John Wayne…and over his shoulder is a house with a satellite dish. And that’s what the show’s about: framed like a Western, but there’s a satellite dish over his shoulder. It was the same kind of approach on Confidential, in that I paid homage to older films but wanted to be very aggressive in the storytelling in terms of the way we moved the camera, the compositions, the lighting…
Filmmaker: You’ve got Bojan Bazelli, an incredible cinematographer who did Deep Cover and some of my favorite Abel Ferrara films. What kinds of conversations did you have with him about the look of the show?
Dinner: He was great, and like most of the team he had barely done any television. We were kind of uncompromising in how we decided to shoot it, and we just figured, well, we’ll see if CBS is willing to stretch or not. Right now we’re waiting to hear if there’s a life to the show; it did not get picked up by regular CBS, and quite honestly, if I were the writer I’d be concerned about doing it on network, because it’s really a novelistic approach. The conversation with the director of photography began with what I didn’t want to do. The cliché in film noir is hard lights coming in through blinds, so we shot everything with soft light. And then there’s a conversation about lenses — we shot on wider lenses that had a shallower depth of field. In general I tend to shoot on the two extremes of the lens; I like being aggressive in the storytelling and taking the audience by the neck and saying, “Pay attention to this.” There’s a scene in the pilot early on where a guy pulls a gun, shoots a cop, gets in his car, speeds away, does a U-turn, and then he’s T-boned. My thought was, I’m going to shoot this the same way I would shoot this scene today, it’s just that they’re in period outfits in period cars. There would have been a way of shooting that 50 or 60 years ago – even 20 years ago – where the camera wouldn’t be as aggressive. I wanted it to be as kinetic as possible, so I turned to the visual effects people and said, “I don’t want to be limited.” The great thing about Broadway in downtown Los Angeles is that there’s architecture to hang shots on, and then you just have to somehow remove the little signs and meters and lines on the street and things like that. I wanted to make sure I could rotate around 360 degrees and clean it up, because that to me makes it less of a museum piece. So that was the approach: how can we tell this story so that there’s an emotional pop to it, and it’s aggressive in modern terms, but still assimilates noir filmmaking? It was tough, because we don’t preserve architecture in Los Angeles. Trying to recreate 1952 L.A. is like doing a science fiction movie set on the planet Xenon.
Filmmaker: And you’re doing it on a TV schedule.
Dinner: The network pilot season is insane. You get a call saying, “Will you do this?” and you start shooting five weeks later. But look, I’ve lived in L.A. off and on my entire adult life, and I both love and hate the city. I love the transient nature of it, and the decadence of it. And it’s an interesting time in Ellroy’s story; the whole history of how the L.A. Police Department began and evolved is such a great story about a city that’s like the Wild West — it’s not like New York or Chicago.
Filmmaker: I’m kind of amazed that you had so little prep given how fully realized the world is. I didn’t get any sense that you were limited in terms of your resources when it came to evoking the period detail. How much of it is digital trickery and how much is actual production design and art direction?
Dinner: There’s not a lot of digital trickery in terms of set extension or things like that — we spent a good deal of visual effects money on taking stuff out, not adding. Giving it scale is more of a storytelling trick than anything; I mean, there are some locations that are very tight but work for the kind of claustrophobia the story needs. I was worried about whether or not we had enough scope in this thing, but I think there is enough, and when it’s contrasted with scenes that have the characters in pressure cooker situations there’s relief. I try to direct like I’m writing a pop song, where you’ve got verses and choruses and bridges. You’ve got to earn the right to be fast. You’ve got to earn the right to be slow, to be tight, to be wide. So there are a lot of tight spaces, but some spaces that open it up, and that contrast is what gives it a sense of scope.
Filmmaker: Another tough thing about that tight prep is that you don’t have that much time to cast, and casting is everything with a series. How difficult is that process?
Dinner: I’ve seen network pilots fall apart because you can’t cast them; sometimes the cast falls off the truck and sometimes it takes a long time. Right now I can’t imagine anybody doing the role in Justified other than Tim Olyphant, but we actually did a dance with Woody Harrelson for five weeks before it worked out with Tim. With this one, I think that CBS gave it a lot of rope because it was out of the box for them. It all happened very quickly; Walton Goggins was the first one to become involved, because he and I had a long relationship after doing Justified for six years. Then I got word that Shea Whigham, who Walton shot in the head on an episode of Justified, was interested, and he came on, then Brian Smith, who I’d seen in bits and pieces of Sense8, then Mark, and they all loved doing it. Usually in network there’s a lot of committee decision-making, but on this one they trusted the writer and myself and New Regency, who were producing it, and Lionsgate. Our first choices were the people we cast, whereas often, when you’re doing a network pilot, you might not get anybody in your first five choices. The characters here felt complicated and gray, which is what I liked about the characters on the Elmore Leonard shows I did, Justified and Karen Sisco. But maybe that’s why the show didn’t get picked up by CBS. And they love it, by the way –- it’s just not a typical network show.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I was very surprised by what you got away with in terms of the violence and the darkness of the world.
Dinner: I didn’t want to temper it. I’ve done a lot of violent stuff, and what interests me is when it grows out of character and you don’t see it coming — when it’s explosive. What I liked about Elmore’s stuff is that you didn’t see the joke coming and you didn’t see the violence coming. Sometimes it came within the same scene. But I don’t like to make stuff violent just for the sake of manipulating the audience. It has to be organic somehow.
Filmmaker: Did you have to take anything out in editing that you didn’t want to, either for time because it went too far in terms of the violence?
Dinner: A little bit. I kind of shot to the bone because we didn’t have a lot of money — shooting in L.A. was hard, not just because we were doing 1952 but because there’s no tax credit when you’re doing the pilot. Lionsgate’s chairman, who I’ve known for a long time, called me up and said, “Why is this so expensive?” And I said, “Well, you’ve got 100 people in a scene, it’s 1952, they’re not going to wear clothes that they got at the Gap. You have cars stretching six blocks up the street.” So I gave up a day, which meant cutting some scenes to begin with, and then we lost some scenes editorially. CBS had me pull back a little on the violence, and there were things I took out that I think would let it breathe a little more if I put them back in. Things that gave the characters a little more psychological space. If the show finds a new home on streaming or someplace, I might put three or four minutes back in.
Filmmaker: Once you turn in your cut, is there a lot of testing that goes on to help the network decide whether or not to pick up the pilot?
Dinner: Well, it varies from network to network. Some places, especially in cable, try to screen it for their target viewers; some places go for a more general audience. When I started in features, it was terrifying. Over the years I’ve found that some of the testing gives you good information, but a lot of it’s bologna. This one actually tested well, but I’ve had pilots that have tested through the roof that they didn’t pick up because it just didn’t fit with what they wanted to do on their network. And sometimes they’ll pick up stuff that didn’t test well because they had a need for it. I think with this one they were really torn about what to do, because it just doesn’t belong on the schedule with their other shows. It’s a different thing. But I love it, and I hope that it has a life, because I think that the actors are great and it would be great to see it continue.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.