On the Record: Dante Spinotti and Peter Honess talk about L.A. Confidential

Trevor Hogg chats with cinematographer Dante Spinotti and film editor Peter Honess about their Oscar-nominated work for L.A. Confidential…

“He had offered me The River Wild [1994] and I couldn’t take it because I was doing something with Michael Mann [The Insider] at the same time,” recalls Dante Spinotti [Tower Heist] who received a second opportunity to lens a picture for writer-director Curtis Hanson; the project involved a cinematic adaption of L.A. Confidential [1997], a sprawling 1950s tale which deals with prostitutes made to look like movie stars, blackmail, rape, murder, missing heroin, and police corruption. “I had the screenplay sent to me in Italy by my agent. I read it and thought, ‘Boy, what a beautifully written script.’ The plot was great and everything was fitting into the next bit; it was so well made. I didn’t hear about it for a month or so. I discovered why later because Curtis Hanson always takes a little time in making decisions.” After vacationing in the Alps with some friends who own a ski resort, the Italian cinematographer received a phone call from a man who asked him, “‘Dante are you interested in doing this movie?’ I’m fully charged by these few glasses of wine that I had at the resort bar and I said, ‘Yes. I’m definitely the best DP to do this movie for you.’ And I go, ‘Sorry, who are you? Are you the producer?’ He goes, ‘No, Dante. I’m the director.’ That’s how it started.” Two days later Spinotti left Italy for Los Angeles. “A very short time later, probably about three weeks, we started shooting the movie. I don’t think I had more than three weeks of prep.”

“I went for an interview with Curtis Hanson and Dan Kolsrud [Se7en], the Executive Producer,” remembers Peter Honess (Highlander). “I did not do well or so I thought and was pleasantly surprised when they offered me the job.” The British film editor was not acquainted with the source material; however, he was happy to discover James Ellroy. “Curtis Hanson is a tenacious man,’ states Honess. “We worked well together probably because we are very different personalities. We would usually have the same notes when working on a scene. We used an unusual technique to test different versions of cuts or whole scenes. We would invite all my assistants and Curtis’ assistant to give us their opinions when we needed another view especially when we were unsure which version to use. This was not an everyday occurrence but useful when we needed it.”

“I remember going out with [Production Designer] Jeannine Oppewall [Seabiscuit] and scouting locations,” remarks Dante Spinotti. “They were asking me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I had no idea. It’s a great place. It’s fine. I like it. It’s nice.’ I felt I was catapulted into something so I tried to catch up slowly.” A still photography exhibition featuring the work of Robert Frank proved to be timely. “I went to see it and turned that into an inspiration for the visual approach of the movie.” The cinematographer explains, “Robert Frank always adds elements of no reality; he introduces elements he wants you to look at. Maybe he touches the camera or maybe he shoots through reflections; there’s something very intellectual about the way he makes still photos and it also becomes very emotional at the same time.” Spinotti adds, “The whole scene with the interrogation rooms that we see through the reflective mirror is in a way related to Robert Frank’s photographs.”

“Curtis told me, ‘Dante I don’t want to do film noir,’ states Dante Spinotti. “And I asked him jokingly, ‘What is film noir?’ He always said whenever he did an interview about our collaboration, ‘Dante told me he didn’t know anything about film noir and that made me choose him.’ In fact, I was translating a very important book by John Alton [An American in Paris] for my Italian colleagues which was called Painting with Light; a fundamental book on lighting movies. I had an idea of what film noir was but we stayed away from that. The period selection of Los Angeles was extremely interesting. I’m so happy I did that movie because I got to know Los Angeles for its nuances.” Spinotti reveals, “The still photos were not nearly as important as scouting the old locations; Los Angeles has a big history of migration inside the city so areas which were important residential areas all of a sudden become an area where people with lower income go to live.”

“I do not recall Curtis telling me what he was looking for,” states Peter Honess. “Some Directors will offer direct instructions but most do not. They want to see if their Editor will cut a scene in a way they have not thought of; I will cut alternative versions for myself and offer them up during the Director’s cut. It is important to do this, as choices provide the fabric to make the scene.” Honess remarks, “I have always been attracted to black and white gangster movies. I enjoy the way the dialogue crackles along often with few cuts. The actors were part of the studio system and knew their craft. I can often be heard yelling at some actors [on my Avid!] to ‘get a bloody move on’. A ‘deep and meaningful pause’ often needs to be cut out from some performers. The audience is not interested and wants to get on with it. I admire actors who understand this and use their dialogue to make sure the scene is played on them and not given to the other actors because they have taken too long to deliver their lines. Many great performances have been created solely in the cutting room; the actors provide the ingredients and the Editor bakes the cake.”

“The choice of locations was rather limited because there isn’t much left untouched from the years which the story was taking place,” notes Dante Spinotti who had to improvise to capture the period settings. “What’s part of our profession as cinematographers is to make sure that we shoot the location from the right angle or time of the day with the proper lighting. It’s happen to me to do some other scouting where I’d maybe say, ‘Listen this isn’t going to work because of this and that. Why don’t we do this instead?’ No doubt cinematographers have to have a wide influence during the scouting of locations. We probably used most of the usable Los Angeles in the film. Don’t forget in those days we couldn’t do something which is very simple to be done now which is going in front of a computer and taking away new buildings from the shot or change the lighting which was not correct. We had to find locations which were properly belonging to the period.” Spinotti worked on another Los Angeles centric project. “Before L.A. Confidential I had done Heat [1995] with Michael Mann; we had been moving around a very modern L.A.. For some reason I was always attracted to period stories. I don’t know maybe its memories of when you were a kid. When I got an award from the Film Critics Associate of Los Angeles, I remembered an old picture of the Los Angeles town hall which was in my schoolbook. I was probably a fifth grader. You know there’s something fascinating about historical places and imagining how people lived back in the days and what kinds of struggles they were going through and plus the fact that now most of those people don’t exist anymore.” Not being from the city was a nonfactor for Peter Honess when assembling the story. “I had lived in L.A. for many years before I cut L.A. Confidential. I doubt if there were many true natives on the film especially as they would be not much older than children in the period the film was set. It is not unusual to find very few natives on film crews. We drift in from distant places to the Mecca of the film industry.”

“Black and white is more of an abstraction of film,” states Dante Spinotti. “Black and white reduces all of the colours to shades of greys and black so it’s much easier [to shoot], especially back in the days when we didn’t have any computerized control of colours.” The director knew exactly he wanted to capture on film. “Curtis Hanson besides being a storyteller is very accurate in the way he usually covers a scene.” The principle photography lasted around 14 weeks. “We used multiple cameras rarely. We were shooting shot by shot to be properly composed.” Spinotti liked the idea of using a single camera. “At one point I suggested to Curtis to shoot the movie as if we had a still camera in our hands – a Likea. You’ll see a scene the way it plays out. Turn to your right and you click on a face. Then you get a wide shot. Click. I think I had a lot to do with the filmmaking language of that film.” A moderate amount of takes were shot. “On average about 5 or 6 per shot,” says Peter Honess. “I have always cut the films I have worked on as they are shot. This enables me to show an assembly to the director soon after the end of shooting. During this period I make sure I follow the script without deleting any scenes or dialogue [tempting though this may be!] It would not be right to do this as the Director needs to see what he has shot in order make those choices. Working this way I am allowed total freedom in the initial assembly. Curtis came to the cutting room a few times during shooting to see cut footage and did not fire me so I guess he liked it!”

“We had some complicated night scenes in poor housing projects where people were hiding,” states Dante Spinotti. “It was interesting to try to preserve the feel of those locations without making them shiny or glossy. I had to avoid that. A problem was one of the final scenes in the movie; there’s a fight at the Victory Motel. Our heroes hid in this place and the police come in force to try to eliminate them because they discover the whole corruption plot. Russell Crowe [Gladiator] and Guy Pearce [Memento] shoot down all the lights and block all the windows with whatever they can find. It was a contradiction in terms, at night shooting into a dark place and eliminating all of the possible lighting sources but still making the scene visible.” Questioned as to how he was able to shoot the scene, Spinotti replies, “I made sure that outside the motel there were a couple of street lamps that were properly placed so some light was filtering through the cracks in the windows and the proper use of underexposure made it work.”

“We followed the script and there was no need to do the ‘scene shuffle’ as can be the situation on some films to help the storyline,” states Peter Honess who had the task of moving back and forth between the three male leads in the movie. “The script was a masterpiece and the cross cutting followed the story.” Honess was impressed with the Nite Owl interrogation, the Victor Motel showdown, and an intimate bedroom conversation between the characters of Officer Wendell “Bud” White and Lynn Bracken. “The timing in these scenes works well. The shootout is another favorite although I was so wrapped up in it I did not realize for several passes that Russell Crowe fired seven shots from his revolver; that was quickly fixed! I found, and still do, very moving the scene where Russell Crowe is telling Kim Basinger [Batman] how his Father tied him to a radiator and beat his Mother to death – powerful stuff. There is no real trick to cutting these scenes. I always think of myself as the audience when I cut film together and have them in mind throughout the process.” Honess was helped by the work of the music composer for the picture. “Most of the transitions are seamless due to Jerry Goldsmith’s [The Omen] haunting score.”

“We tested in those windows some reflective mirrors so we could shoot through but at the same time we would see reflected all of the officers standing and watching these interrogations outside the interrogation rooms,” states Dante Spinotti when discussing the technique used during the interrogations of the Nite Owl murder suspects and Detective Lieutenant Edmund Exley. “I thought it was quite interesting composing all of these elements which made the shot so complex. The other thing that I thought was interesting was a little trick that I learned from working with a director making a film for Italian television way back. It was about photography bare bulbs in the shot. I had this really powerful bulb lighting the inside of the interrogation room. Where the lens was photographing the bulb I would pickup a little paintbrush and put some Indian ink on where the bright filament was; that avoids the lens to flare too much and you can actually see the filament almost on the film print.”

The cinematographer was impressed by a female member of the cast. “Kim Basinger’s role was decided at the last moment and we started shooting the movie without doing any screen test with her. The first time I saw Kim Basinger was when she came to the set to do this scene which is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, the scene at the liquor store where she meets Russell Crowe for the first time. She’s in a black robe with this beautifully pale makeup and full red lips so she was absolutely gorgeous; that was the first time I saw her. She was trying to imitate Veronica Lake so I was lighting her very accurately trying to show the beauty of her face but only in the very last two shots did I discover how I should of lit her.” Spinotti was inventive in lighting the intimate moment when Russell Crowe talks about the murder of his mother. “I wanted Kim to look as beautiful and as interesting as possible. I remember bouncing light onto tiny little parts of the bed sheets that were reflecting in her eyes. Even more interesting one was when they enter the bedroom; she’s leaning on the bed and Russell is at the bed standing. I had this very romantic faint light coming through the windows; it’s suppose to be morning sun and I made sure that we had the sun lower than the horizon so we have the sunlight coming up at an angle. At some point I didn’t know how to light her face as she’s looking away from the windows which are the source of light. I used a makeup mirror on the table and I angled it to reflect some of the beams of sunlight coming in; I put it right on her face when she was talking to Russell. It was a very lucky scene. It turned out very well.”

“I knew Russell already because we’ve done a film done a called The Quick and the Dead [1995],” states Dante Spinotti who did not have any doubts about Australian actors being cast in two of the three main roles. “Guy Pearce was extraordinary in his acting and Russell was also playing his character in an ideal way.” Peter Honess agrees, “No doubts at all. I admired them both tremendously and it is hard to fault their accents; two great performances.” Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) emulated Dean Martin (At War with the Army) for his role as Sergeant Jack Vincennes. “Kevin came to me the first day and said, ‘Tell me if I’m doing too much if you would please,’ recalls Spinotti. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. I sure will.’ Kevin Spacey had a beautiful white jacket which was an elegant point of reference.” Honess was also impressed by the two-time Oscar-winner. “Kevin Spacey is a great actor and it was a real treat to cut his scenes. There is a special favorite however. It is the scene when James Cromwell [Babe] shoots him in the chest. Every time I revisited the scene I was more fascinated by the look in his eyes when he is dying and would add more and more frames to it. Eventually, I maxed the shot to where Kevin eventually blinked. Watch carefully and I swear you can see the light go out in his eyes as if he has passed away – brilliant.” The film editor readily admits, “I love it all. Kevin’s death, the radiator story, Russell Crowe beating up Guy Pearce, they are both so good in it, and Danny DeVito [Throw Momma from the Train] and Kevin Spacey persuading the young man to fuck the D.A, again watch Kevin’s expressions.”

“When I had finished cutting the scene where Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce go to the cells in the police station and a fight ensues, I looked at it and had a feeling that the movie would be special,” states Peter Honess whereas the revelation came much later for Dante Spinotti. “I remember a screening somewhere in Pasadena with the cast and crew; it was clear that it was a beautiful movie.” The cinematographer is particularly proud of a certain cinematic moment. “My favourite shot in the movie is towards the end when all the cars arrive with the red and white lights and there’s an oil pump at the top of the hill working. Guy Pearce comes out with a badge in his hand.” Made on a budget of $35 million, the period crime drama earned $126 million worldwide. “Arnon Milchan [Marley & Me] was looking at the dailies with us, he was the main producer of the movie for New Regency and he said one day, ‘This thing is gorgeous and working well.’ There are so many elements that need to get together to make a film successful. Don’t forget L.A. Confidential was in the end an international success during the course of its history but when it came out in the States it wasn’t like a blockbuster.”

“When L.A Confidential was ready for preview it was 2 hours 20 minutes long,” recalls Peter Honess. “We had two very successful previews in Los Angeles. However, the studio wanted the film shortened and we did our best to accommodate this. We managed to cut out 10 minutes but just could not find any further cuts without affecting the story. We were very diligent but did not want to compromise the film. The studio wanted 10 more minutes removed. Curtis asked for another preview and the studio said we could screen it in Tacoma Washington. They were sure that this audience being away from the ‘jaded’ Los Angeles crowd would confirm that the film was too long. Not so, the reaction went through the roof and the studio dropped their demand.” L.A. Confidential won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger), and contended for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. “It was a good film,” states Dante Spinotti when reflecting upon his first of two Oscar nominations. “Good locations. Sometimes you do some work which is more inspired. Honess states, “I do not know how my editing would lead to an Oscar nomination. I am very fortunate to have been asked to cut the film. It is a really good script with talented actors. I was helped by skilled and dedicated assistant film editors, great sound editors, music editors and sound mixers and then there was Jerry Goldsmith!”

“Curtis is very open and looks for everybody’s collaboration; he wants to hear what everybody has to say and suggest,” says Dante Spinotti who believes that the creative openness of Curtis Hanson allowed everyone involved with the project to make a “special contribution.” Peter Honess observes, “Every film adds to the skills in the tool box and L.A Confidential put a couple of new ones in there!” He explains, “I suppose continuous feelings of self doubt and ability were essayed a little. I am always aware that the film belongs to the Director. It used to be quite terrifying showing a Director my first cut sequence. Would he hate it? Have I used the best performances? Have I missed the purpose he intends for the scene? Did I choose the right camera angles for the right piece of dialogue? After L.A Confidential I did say to myself, ‘Maybe I can cut film.’ But the terror is still there!”

Many thanks to Dante Spinotti and Peter Honess for taking the time to be interviewed.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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