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6 Filmmaking Tips From Curtis Hanson

The late Oscar winner left us with advice before he passed on.
By  · Published on September 22nd, 2016

This week we lost filmmaker Curtis Hanson, one of the great versatile directors in the spirit of his old friends and idols Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, with whom he also collaborated. His work consisted of anything from the throwback thriller L.A. Confidential to the sorta-biopic rap musical 8 Mile and included a variety of horror, action, drama, sex comedy, and more.

Hanson was a high school dropout who found his way into the business first by contributing writing and photography to a film magazine, through which he met people like Siegel, then started as a screenwriter before getting his break working for Roger Corman. He wasn’t an auteur, and he didn’t seem to consider himself someone for others to emulate. He just did it his way.

So it’s not easy to find much advice from Hanson or even noted beliefs on how he thought movies should be made. But in his honor and for his legacy, we’ve found the following six filmmaking tips that he did share throughout his too-brief career.

A Movie is Only as Good as Its Screenplay

One of the most commonly found quotes from Hanson is from a 1997 Writer’s Guild of America interview conducted by email with him and his L.A. Confidential co-writer Brian Helgeland (archived here). It’s the last line from the following excerpt on the screenwriting trends of the time:

There has been a trend over the last couple of decades toward more linear, simpler plotlines in Hollywood movies. What I find very encouraging at the moment is that you look around at, for instance, the screenplays that are represented here tonight, and you see movies made for an adult audience and based on adult scripts. Each script is obviously the foundation of the movie. And quite a few of this year’s scripts fall into the range that a couple years ago, people were saying was extinct: the mid-range movie based on good characters and created for an intelligent adult audience. When you look at them “L.A. Confidential,” “Boogie Nights,” “Wag the Dog,” “As Good As It Gets,” “Eve’s Bayou,” “Wings of the Dove”and not only did they all get made, but they’re all doing business. That’s a wonderful trend.

Q: This year and last year we have seen a lot of relatively successful indie films that were about something.

CH: Yes, exactly. And I think that’s really healthy. It’s a very good trend for writers, because it just reminds everyone of the obvious, which is that the screenplay is the foundation of the movie. You can dress it up, but it comes down to the fact that a movie is only as good as its script.

In a related comment in an undated (presumably 1997) Urban Cinephile interview, Hanson addresses his desire to focus on character and story in the foreground of L.A. Confidential and not be too concerned with a need to “dress it up.”

My Number One directive to everybody was that, while being accurate to the period, to shoot the movie in such a way that we kept the period in the background, so that we were concentrating on the characters and the emotions rather than on set dressing and the cars and so forth. The best thing to make that point was to look at movies that were shot in the fifties by people like Don Seigel and Robert Aldrich who were being efficient storytellers and had no interest in what one might call the window-dressing.

Play the Hand You’re Dealt

As a director for hire, he wound up contradicting that statement about scripts being everything. In a 2007 interview on LXTV following the premiere of Lucky You, Hanson discusses the similarities between poker and filmmaking. “You need the dedication,” he tells host SuChin Pak, “You need the single-minded determination. The concentration… the bluffing.” He goes on to discuss the most important comparison as being that sometimes you’re dealt a really good hand, or script as it were, and other times you just need to do the best with what you get. Watch the conversation below.

He’s been saying something like that even before he had that particular metaphor to use, too. From his 1997 appearance on Charlie Rose:

The way it works, Charlie, as a director for hire, is you get what you can get and then you do the best you can with it and you try to get something that you feel you can do something special with and that takes you somewhere you want to go.

Be Honest

When asked for advice for first time directors in a 1997 interview for Venice magazine (reposted by the author here), Hanson says something similar to his tip above (“have a story you’re dying to tell, tell it the best way you can and make that your focus and don’t be distracted by anything else.”) and then adds this rare suggestion:

Also, be honest. If you don’t know the answer to something, own up to it. By doing that, you’re displaying an openness and a lack of fear. That’ll make actors feel very comfortable because the miracle of acting, to me, is the total lack of fear they have to have. When they sense that lack of fear in somebody else, they recognize it and appreciate it.

In a 2000 New York Times feature where Hanson provides commentary while watching a favorite movie, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, he discusses more of this importance of honesty between director and actor (in this case Ray and Humphrey Bogart):

To me, what is so incredible about performance here is that, at the time, he was a major movie star and he could have done just about anything he wanted to do, especially on a movie with a budget as small as this one’s. Yet this is what he chose, and it’s such a naked performance. It is so ugly at times, truly and physically ugly. It’s what I love most about actors, their willingness to expose themselves. They won’t do it all the time. They won’t do it unless there are circumstances where there is trust. But that kind of collaboration between actor and director is, to me, the most important thing to aspire to.’

Don’t Follow the Book

Two of Hanson’s best movies are based on popular novels, but Hanson didn’t find success with them by being faithful the page. In the NYT feature on In a Lonely Place – itself an adaptation and also about a screenwriter working on an adaptation – he has this to say about working from a book:

Just follow the book, people keep saying to him, when in reality the problem is that so many adaptations of novels end up being nothing more than Cliffs Notes versions of the book. That’s because you cannot replicate a book on screen, even if it is a good book. That is a lesson that every filmmaker must learn. You have to be true to the character and the emotion, rather than to the letter of the book.

Take It One Film at a Time and Appreciate It Every Step of the Way

Considering his lack of education, the good fortune that got him his start, and his many years making movies that weren’t very successful, Hanson considered himself lucky to have the job he had, and he appreciated it fully. Here’s what he said during the DGA’s Meet the Nominees Breakfast in 1998:

The best part is being able to do it. To direct a movie is a dream come true. It doesn’t even have to be going well. If it’s just going OK, I just feel so lucky to be able to be there doing it. The worse part is when it’s not going OK, and you can feel your dream turning into shit and there’s nothing you can do about it!

While a lot of directors have multiple projects they’re considering at all times, waiting for one of them to move forward as an actual movie, Hanson seemed more okay with doing each of his films as they come. From a 2000 interview for Urban Cinephile:

I put everything I’ve got into what I’m doing and then when it ends, I have to sort of look around and start all over again. I’ve never been somebody who played the development game successfully, where you’ve got half a dozen projects out there and four might go by the wayside but you’ve got two to do.

And if they did go more than okay, then you’ve got two choices of what you can do next. Here’s what he said in a 2000 interview in The Guardian regarding the options:

If one is fortunate enough to get this kind of financial success, you get leverage and you then have two opportunities. You can either use the leverage to make the kind of picture that they want to make and in so doing you raise your fee. Or you can use the leverage to make the kind of picture that you want to make – you cut your fee and you gamble. L.A. Confidential was my extremely calculated attempt to take advantage of this moment of opportunity.

In response to the fact that his career took a while to get going and was just then starting to get some freedom, he humbly added:

I know the leverage I’ve got now is fleeting. You lose it as easily as you get it, so I appreciate it. I look at it as ‘okay, now I can do one more movie in the way that I want’. You know, I approach it all one at a time.

Don’t Let Them Rape Your Art

Hanson would say he was a film lover first and a filmmaker second, and that’s why he was so involved in film preservation, serving as chairman of the UCLA Film & Television Archives at the beginning of this century. He says in the 2000 Urban Cinephile interview:

Movies are the record of our lives, and of the culture that produced most of us, and it’s tragic that so many movies were treated so cavalierly in the past, not only allowed to destruct but were destroyed intentionally, just to make space.

He also states in the same interview, and this is a bonus tip, that “the best filmmakers learn from old movies,” so certainly he felt strongly about protecting those movies and maintaining their history and access.

Hanson was one of the defendants in the preemptive 2002 lawsuit against the Director’s Guild of America and other filmmakers by the CleanFlicks video chain, and of course he was one of the plaintiffs in the countersuit. His response to that chain and other company’s “sanitization” of movies through recut versions can be seen in the documentary Cleanflix, and it’s this:

“To alter these and then put them out with our names still on the product is not only fraud, but it’s artistic rape.”

What We Learned

Hanson wasn’t an easy filmmaker to define by his work or his process, but he had a few concrete ideas about writing and directing and working with actors, and definitely on censorship and alteration of art. He was a great employee of the modern Hollywood system and that allowed him to make at least a few excellent movies.

But those movies were also so good because of his skills honed through years of toiling the line as a director for hire, albeit one who was rather selective, and his love and care for the craft. The main takeaway from his life and filmography is that if you want to be a director, you’ll be lucky if you can make it and you should do a good job when you get there.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.