Curtis Hanson ('8 Mile')
'Directing Traffic on '8 Mile’
After co-scripting Roger Corman's ’The Dunwich Horror,’ Curtis Hanson (3/24/45 – Reno, Nevada) made his feature film directing debut with 1970's ’The Arousers’ before he labored as a screenwriter on such films as ’The Silent Partner’ and ’Never Cry Wolf.’ He also co-scripted ’White Dog’ with celebrated Film Noir director Samuel Fuller. Hanson next directed the kid flick ’The Little Dragons’ and the teen sex comedy ’Losin' It,’ which starred a then-relatively unknown Tom Cruise opposite Cheers' Shelley Long.
Throughout the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Hanson worked as a hired gun for the studios. He helmed a number of dark suspense films that included 1987's ’The Bedroom Window’ (Steve Guttenberg) and 1990's ’Bad Influence,’ starring Rob Lowe. Both films cast their leads against type, something Hanson had done before with Tab Hunter in ’The Arousers.’
For his next two films, Hanson again cast the lead roles against type. In the 1992 hit ’The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,’ Rebecca De Mornay (best known for her seductress role in ’Risky Business’) portrayed the vengeful nanny who terrorized Annabella Sciorra. Then for ’The River Wild,’ Hanson landed esteemed Oscar-winner Meryl Streep to play a tough whitewater rafting guide who confronts a pair of bloodthirsty fugitives (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly). Hanson's follow-up to ’The River Wild’ would prove to be his masterpiece.
’L.A. Confidential’ was a glorious adaptation of James Ellroy's novel that Hanson co-scripted with Brian Helgeland. This critically acclaimed crime drama made stateside stars out of thesps Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, and earned Kim Basinger an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Although nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, ’L.A. Confidential’ lost in both categories to ’Titanic.’ Hanson and Helgeland, however, walked away with the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Curtis Hanson followed ’L.A. Confidential’ with another critically acclaimed (albeit commercially disappointing) effort, ’Wonder Boys.’ This highbrow comedy starred Michael Douglas (another Hanson lead cast against type) as a slovenly, irresponsible literature professor who is struggling not to be a one-hit wonder as an author. In addition to his Oscar-winning career as a filmmaker, Curtis Hanson has also served as the chairman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
And now to present day and Hanson's next release is the urban drama ’8 Mile’ which marks the dramatic acting debut of rap star Eminem in a quasi-autobiographical role. Chatting recently to Hanson, I first wondered, knowing that this movie was not based solely on Eminem’s life, just how much of it was actually true to life though ? ”Well, the intent was to try and create a truthful portrait of the world in which the story takes place. Now that world is the same world from which Eminem, the recording artist also emerged. So naturally there are places where the two overlap; meaning the movie and his life. But the specifics of the story are fictional, but there are places where they overlap and that was actually one of the things that I confronted when making the decision of what city to set the story in. The story could take place in any American city and it would still overlap his life because it would still be the world. But putting him in Detroit makes people kind of assume this must really be about him. I wasn’t sure that I wanted that burden imposed on the movie because as soon as people start thinking that it’s some sort of biography we’re done for ! It’s absurd anyway because it all takes place in a week. But then they just start being distracted or taking task by saying ‘he never worked at the stamping plant so why did you do that ?’ or ‘he never went up to WJLB like that so what are you doing ?’ And so I had to think about that and he did too. Because for him it’s also kind of a no-win situation, you know, because if its represented as being his life, the details start becoming more important than the theme; than the drama. But ultimately, I felt that Detroit was such the right place to set this story. Dramatically, visually, every which way. And so I tried, once I made that decision to incorporate as much of Detroit into the script as possible. And in fact, by doing that, oddly enough it distanced itself a little bit from his life because things - like we mentioned the stamping plant - he never did that. In the original script, the character was a bell-hop in a hotel and he never did that either. But you know that could be at any city, and I said ‘let’s make this specific to Detroit. And to the history in this city because that’s so much a part of this place.’ And of course, the burning of the house, that’s very Detroit. He never did that. He was never involved in that. The WJLB sequence, he never did that. But that station and what it represents in the movie is very Detroit and very Hip Hop.”
Explain the burning of the house situation and the difficulties of trying to do that scene ”Well of course, I knew about the, I don’t know if I’d use the word, ‘tradition’ behind the night here where people go around burning down houses in Detroit. I knew there was history of those instances on ‘Devil’s Night’ and also the problem of all the abandoned houses in the city that are dimming Detroit a few times over the last fifteen say years. In scouting locations and specifically looking for the house in which Cheddar Bob’s character would live, and we went into all sorts of neighborhoods looking for the homes for these characters. And we were in one house and I was talking with the people who live there, two young men and women and I crossed the street to this abandoned house that was partially burned. And, you know, I asked them some question about it and they volunteered that they had set it on fire. And the reason was that it was attracting drug users to the neighborhood and a few blocks away where there was another abandoned house, a kidnapped baby had been found dead. They were very frustrated from their point of view that the city wouldn’t do anything to remove this, as we call it in the movie, an attractive nuisance. You know, where kids could go and get hurt and so forth. And so they had set it on fire and they told me they were going to set it on fire again, too, because the rule of thumb, as they knew it, was that if a house catches on fire three times, the city will come and demolish it. Which I had no idea whether that was true. But it started me thinking that this was something that could be meaningful for our characters where they could enter into it for one reason and then it could have a whole other reason for the character Jimmy. You know when Jimmy goes into that house, the idea is, that he finds something - a picture of this family that used to live there - and as he looks at it, and suddenly this house that’s just an abandoned wreck in a neighborhood is causing him some mind games now. Suddenly he’s aware of the whole life that this house used to have when it was the home of this family and you see him reflect on that and I think also reflect on the family life that he never had. It’s part of his growth as a character. And it’s part of him distancing himself from the antics his friends are all carrying on and kind of enjoying that. He is removed from that and it’s part of his own journey to finding his own direction and to ultimately going his own way.”
I was wondering what personally drew you to the project and then also what kind of goals and challenges did you face? For example, working in a city that isn’t necessarily known to Hollywood and your working with a gentleman who’s making a living from shocking music ! ”Well, there are a number of things I can potentially address. Filming on location in the winter is difficult, by definition. But there are many reward to that as well. I am somebody who is interested in American cities and try to put that in the stories that allow me to be as specific in exploring those cities as possible. In ‘L.A. Confidential’ it was obvious because of the title of the movie is ‘L.A. Confidential.’ But the same thing in ‘Wonder Boys’ with Pittsburgh and the same thing with ‘8 Mile’ in Detroit, where these cities are what American culture is about today and the challenges that people face. And the case of this story, young people, trying to sort out how to lead their lives, how to find direction in an environment where the traditional; what we think of as the traditional at least sign post are either not existing anymore or barely legible is of great interest to me. And all of the problems and difficulties that one confronts in Detroit exists in all of our nations cities, but in Detroit they are very dramatic and they are very depreciative. And you add to that the incredible rich history musically that this city has going back to jazz, the blues, and up through Motown all the way up know to Eminem and White Stripes. What better city to tell a story about people that are not living in what we think of as the centers of hip hop but are average hip hop fans we find emotional expression and emotional need for hip hop. Everything about this story is dealt better to tell it here in Detroit. As far as the Eminem part of the question goes, my questions to myself was could he pull off the performance at the center of this movie. I didn’t worry truthfully about the whole Eminem of it all. I knew him as an artist, a musical artist. I knew he was incredibly gifted with words. I knew he was controversial. But I knew the controversy a lot of it was based on nonsense, quite frankly. It was based on taking things out of context. People reacting to things out of context some of which are obviously deliberately meant to be provocative and some of which are not. But I did not worry about that and whether that would taint the movie. My question to myself was would he be able to deliver a performance that felt sufficiently emotionally truthful to carry this movie. And I felt that if he could, then the audience would go with the character and forget about Eminem. And to me, Marshall Mathers; he’s an actor in this movie and that’s how I came to know him. That’s how I worked with him. And frankly, I think that’s what made him feel that he could trust me. He knew I wasn’t here to cash in on Eminem. In fact that was a question mark as far as I was concerned. I think that made him trust me because he had no interest in being in an Eminem, what one would call a ‘vanity project.’ He wanted to be an actor in a really good movie.’
Actor anxiety ! How do you deal with that ? ”As you know, if you know his work, it’s incredibly dense and complicated and obviously he applies himself with discipline to that art form. I wanted to know if he would apply himself with that same discipline with this job. I can’t speak for him other than to say that I know he’s extremely self-critical. I know it meant a lot to him to be good in this movie and that’s why he agreed to be put in six weeks worth of work which in major motion picture time is almost unprecedented. And happily he trusted me to be his eyes to tell him whether he was good or not. Beyond that I can’t say. I know he was he nervous about it, of course, but he took a leap of faith and I did too. But I’ll say he didn’t do it blindly. During that period of time that I was getting to know him, without question, he was checking me out as well.”
How does it feel when the credits are rolling and people are clapping ? How did you feel ? Did you feel satisfied ? ”I feel great in a couple of ways. That audience is the audience of this movie. By that I don’t mean they’re the audience that would be most interested in this movie, but they are the audience that in a way have the perspective to be the most uniquely judgmental of the movie. One of my main goals is to try and represent in a truthful way Detroit 1995 and to see that audience get caught up in the movie. And not having them say ‘that wouldn’t happen there’ or whatever was extremely gratifying. Second, on a more personal note, to hear people as I heard again and again that they had a negative impression of Eminem and expected to not like him in the movie, but instead found him captivating made me very happy. And it made me very happy for Marshall because if that character doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work and he really poured himself into the process of making this movie and put his whole life on hold. And it was hard. It was a very lengthy and difficult process for him as it is for any actor, but he was going in not actually knowing the drill. Unlike, let’s say, Michael Douglas in ‘Wonder Boys’, he was in every scene, but Michael knew what he was getting into and it was still very hard. Well Marshall didn’t know except in the way that I would tell him. And it was a very long and difficult road and we had our ups and down personally. And at the end of it, he said never again,” he laughs. ”I will never do that again. And my expectation is that after some time goes by, and he sees the performance as we hope it would be he’d look back at it and it will be a little like childhood where he’ll forget the pain and remember the gratifying result."
Wasn’t it mentioned that you could have had a bigger budget if you had shot outside of Detroit ? ”The money would have gone further someplace else, that’s all. They wouldn’t have given us more money. They would have tried to give us less money because the picture would have cost less. If we had gone to Canada, with the exchange rate and the rebate, the money goes further in Canada. That’s why you have all the runaway production of so many movies that are financed by American companies and are in fact American stories. Additionally, if this story /movie had been set in another American city, where more movies had been shot, it would have been more film friendly in that there would have been a larger crew base. More experienced crew members also means you don’t have to import from outside. And also you would have to, in a sense, figure it all out the way we did. Find the production offices, hiring all the local assistance, training. In a way you were building from the ground up. And it’s a shame, because the experience here was wonderful and if another movie had come in when we finished they would be able to build on everything that we had used. We had warehouse where we had built a couple of sets. We trained a lot of people and it’s sad because it’s a wonderful thing not just for people who the movie employs, but it’s clean money for the city. In other words, it’s money that comes in that takes nothing away. You’re not using a big service and you’re spending a lot of money on hotels, restaurants, markets, everything.’
Were you attracted to this project with Eminem immediately ? ”It didn’t attract me to the project originally, no. But you have to go back and give Brian Grazer credit for foresight. The time we first hooked up with Eminem a few years ago he was in quite a different place in terms of the public persona. Whether it be a draw or not a draw, but now when all said and done, yes he is a magnet, for attention for better or for worse for this movie. That’s why it is so gratifying in this movie, because people going in that had a negative disposition towards him, his performance now hopefully overcomes that.”
Brittany and Eminem were amazing on screen together. Did it take time for those two to get chemistry ? ”Yeah, we had this six week rehearsal period and it started off with just him and me and then I brought in other actors as we signed them. First the guys, because I wanted them to form this familiar almost feeling like a family. And then Brittany was part of that as well. Brittany is exceptional. I first saw Brittany some years ago not on Broadway, but in New York, doing an Arthur Miller play ‘Youth and The Bridge’ and she was just dynamite in this play. So I subsequently followed her to the movies and felt that she could bring a quality to the character of Alice, someone who has no talent but who has ambition and direction; more direction than most of the other characters. We feel she will get back some of what she wants in life. As far as Kim Bassinger goes, I invited Kim Bassinger to join the cast because having worked with her in ‘L.A. Confidential’ I knew what an extraordinary and gifted actress she is often but give her the right opportunity and she’s incredible. And the character she plays secondly, is one that would be very easy for the audience to negatively judge because of the stereotype: she lives in a trailer, she drinks, she’s not particularly a good mother and I wanted that character to appear as someone who is a bit lost and struggling to find her way and I knew with Kim could invest that character with humanity. Because one of the most remarkable things about her is her beauty and so therefore - in my mind - there is no one more beautifully perfect for the role. Nonetheless, the beauty is not a barrier like it often is with actresses. That’s why models don’t tend to make good actresses. With Kim, there is something about her and the availability of her emotions that invite the audience in and you get a very human hit on her very quickly and that’s why I was hoping to capitalize on that.”
Was the movie always entitled ‘8 Mile’ ? ”No. The original script we had had a completely different title. It had several different titles on it actually at various stages of development. But once I made the decision to make the movie in Detroit, and was trying to make the script more Detroit, I wanted to find a title that was also specific to Detroit. But ideally it resonates in other ways and ‘8 Mile’ came out of that rehearsal period when I was working with Marshall just the two of us and he was kicking things around. You know, you have to remember it’s called ‘8 Mile’ as opposed to ‘8 Mile Road’ because you say ‘8 Mile Road’ and it becomes specific in a different way to people where ‘8 Mile’ is a bit of a question mark about it to people who aren’t from here. Like, what does that mean ? And clearly in Detroit it has a very significant meaning. In specific it’s a dividing line between the city and the suburbs and the hip hop world is also the dividing line between what’s real and authentic and over here what’s phony. But beyond that we all do have our own forms and dividing lines and becoming who we want to be and in some cases where we want to be. It’s a human condition it never changes unless someone leads a life with such rigidity that you never question yourself. I’m the complete opposite. I’ll walk out of this room and think, ‘well I could have did more of this or more of that’ or ‘what do I want to do next’ or ‘how can I do better.’ ‘How can I do better’ is a question people ask and a healthy question that people ask and I think when people stop asking that they become self satisfied and rigid.”
Does that divide really exist so much today ? ”In reflecting back to the movie, I think there is an order, if you will, a predisposition that many people in our country have toward hip hop. Based on fear and so forth and nothing makes me happier than have those kind of people come into our movies and go into this world and then come out of it not as fans but understanding a little more of where it came from. And I feel a sense of what the movies have allowed them to do is cross over that divide. A real imitation of life is the scene where Kim is doing her nails and watching T.V. and was viewing a particular scene in which it deals with a little girl who is passing as a white child when in fact she is black. It’s revealed in the class room that she’s passing herself off and her reaction is not only humiliation but she’s expressing hatred toward her mother, “why are you my mother ?” And it’s about her self loathing. It’s about who she is that keeps her from getting into the society at school. And our story deals with a white guy who’s chosen avenue of expression is considered black and he’s told at the beginning of the movie, ‘once they hear you they won’t matter what color you are.’ Which to me is one of the more positive things that attracted me to the story. Immediately, people might assume that it’s a story about racial tension, but in fact it’s a story about class and there is negativity toward Jimmy in this not because he’s white, but because he’s white with a mic,” he laughs. ”Once he demonstrates how good he is with that mic and the expression that comes out of his mouth it’s real, it’s true to him it comes from his natural experience. Because again, people who don’t know Detroit might think ‘8 Mile’ is a dividing line between the have and have nots when it’s not. It’s a class that’s similar on both sides of ‘8 Mile’ it’s just nearer the ‘8 Mile’ divider. It’s a divider of real estate and color but the people on both sides of it are dealing with the same thing. Jimmy and Cheddar Bob are struggling with the same things also.”
Where did Jimmy live though ? ”When Jimmy breaks up with Jeanine at the beginning of the movie, he goes to the suburban side of ‘8 Mile.’ To the trailer park where his mother lives called ‘8 Mile Road Trailer Park.’ But as he says in his wrap of “Sweet Home Alabama” – ‘back in the 810 now’ it’s the assumption being that he lived on that side and moved and bounced around as in fact Eminem did live on both sides.”
Did you own any Eminem CD’s before the project and if not do you now ? ”I had one before,” he laughs, ”and now I have them all. Doing research on the project, one of the things that was really rewarding was I did a tour of Detroit hip hop and not just as it relates to Eminem but had the privilege of looking at a lot of photo’s and video of battling hip hop shops and various venues and so forth. And again what I found specifically fascinating in regards to the hip hop aspect of this movie was the freestyle battling. The fact that these character love words and use them so to speak unbelievably skillfully to think they could do it to a beat and rhyme and under pressure and be funny. It’s amazing what they do. The dexterity of it. And I love the idea of them using words instead of fists and weapons. But for me and my team my cameraman especially, the metaphor was boxing and we tried to stage those battles to feel like a boxing match and the words, the violence of the word instead of the fists. And that was one of the things that was really appealing in setting the story in 1995, that while our characters were battling, on the national scene over the radio airways and on the CD, you had the East coast and West coast battle going on between Tupaq and Biggie. And much notably a few months later the words were replaced with guns and with tragic results.”
Would you do another sequel to this ? A modern day version of it, perhaps ? ”No, I would not do a sequel. But you know It’s funny, but one of the things that attracted me, was there was a director that I was a fan of named Don Segal. Don was after one of my sponsors when I became the director. Don directed one of the first Elvis movies. That was the one Eminem aspect that I thought of when I first got this picture that this could be a tip of the hat going to Don. I always wondered as many movies as he did what would have happened to Elvis if he had really applied himself as a movie actor. He could have been great and it might have even led him down a different path in the end.”
Interviewed By Russell A. Trunk
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