One novel, five seasons. Writer Jordan Harper lays out his ambitious plans for his television adaptation of James Ellroy’s ‘LA Confidential’. On the record and not-so hush hush...
When writer Jordan Harper got the chance to talk to James Ellroy about his television adaptation of ‘LA Confidential’, he felt he should be honest with his idol. The Edgar Award-winning author, who had cut his teeth on TV shows such as ‘The Mentalist’ (which coincidentally starred Simon Baker Denny, who made his American feature debut in the film adaptation), had recently wrapped filming on the series pilot, with some of the show’s technical advisors arranging a meeting with the legendary writer.
“Our advisors were LAPD cops who knew him (Ellroy),” Harper said.
“They ran into him at a film noir festival in LA and told him they’d just worked on the show.
They explained who I was and he said he wanted to meet me. So I went down to the Egyptian Theatre, where he was introducing the film ‘LA Confidential’. We spoke for about 25 minutes and I was honest with him. I told him that if he watched the show, I thought he probably wouldn’t like it.”
Harper, who landed the gig developing ‘LA Confidential’ for TV in part on the strength of an Ellroy-inspired spec script called “Surf City Hardcore”, said he hoped Ellroy appreciated his honesty.
“I think the world of Ellroy, but our politics are pretty different and I think I have a different view of the cops who are the heroes of the story than Ellroy. I don’t think that pleasing the author was my goal - after all, Stephen King hates Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. But I was going to honour him, though I understood he might not see it that way.”
After the meeting, Ellroy and Harper traded phone numbers - Harper taking pride in a voicemail he’ll never delete from his idol, wishing him well for the pilot. Harper said the main motivator in keeping him honest was a mutual acquaintance, literary agent Nat Sobel - who had, at various points, represented both Ellroy and Harper.
“I wanted to get a TV show on the air, but I wanted to make sure it was a show that Nat wouldn’t be embarrassed by,” he said.
“That prevented me from taking too many liberties. Obviously, the plot’s going to change a lot, and that’s necessary.”
One of the main changes Harper envisioned was a radical restructure of the story that considered the episodic structure of TV drama. Unlike something like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ which adapted one novel per season, Harper was keen to take his time with ‘LA Confidential’ and really dig deep into the world of sordid stars, crooked cops and other unpleasant characters.
“I had a pretty clear grasp of the structure and how to do it as a television show... I wanted to do a five season show,” Harper explains.
“If you look at ‘LA Confidential’ the novel, there’s probably a dozen criminal storylines. There are just so many different elements, and the last 50 pages are just shootouts and explanations. My pitch was this: instead of drawing out a dozen storylines over five seasons, I wanted to do two storylines a season - take the rope, unweave it and then lay the strands end to end.”
To help realise Ellroy’s complex, sprawling world on the small screen, Harper was able to reinstate a lot of elements from the book that needed to be excised from the film adaptation.
“There’s a reason why Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland did what they did,” he said.
“One of the reasons why the film is so brilliant is because of what they didn’t do, and how much they cut out - because if you were to film ‘LA Confidential’ and not lose any of those plot points, it would be insane. And the movie would be 20 hours long.”
For the first season, Harper chose two plot strands from the book. One of them - the stolen heroin at the centre of a battle for organised crime in 1950s LA - would be familiar to fans of the film. The second, the hunt for a serial killer with a penchant for dismembering his victims who’s dubbed ‘Dr Frankenstein’, would only be familiar to those well-acquainted with the novel. In both the novel and the pilot, Dr Frankenstein was thought captured by Preston Exley, the father of one of the book’s lead characters, Ed Exley (portrayed in the film by Guy Pearce, and in the series by Brian J. Smith) but doubt’s cast on the arrest when someone appears to be resuming the Doctor’s grisly habits.
“The idea was that those two storylines would take us through the first season that we’d catch Dr Frankenstein - or the guy who was behind those killings - and resolve the missing heroin storyline in a way that would launch us into season two. Then in Season Two, I wanted to open with the Nite Owl Massacre (the event that serves as a major catalyst for the action in both the book and the film). “I think it was important… if we did the Nite Owl massacre in the second episode, I don’t know what we’re doing in season four. That’s what I mean by unravelling it. I didn’t want to have a byzantine storyline going for five seasons - I wanted it to be mysteries you could follow where, if you added all five seasons together, you’d be telling the same story, just in a different order.”
As it stands, the pilot tells the story of a quartet of bent LA cops: the Machiavellian Dudley Smith (Tony Curran in the series, taking on the role James Cromwell portrayed in the film); Ed Exley, a sanctimonious cop standing in the shadow of his legendary father; Bud White (Mark Webber in the series, taking over for Russell Crowe), a none-too-bright heavy with an intense dislike for people who abuse women and children; and Jack Vincennes (Walton Goggins, taking over from Kevin Spacey), a “celebrity” cop who serves as a technical consultant to a top-rated TV police drama while earning money on the side tipping off gossip rag Hush Hush to celebrity arrests. The four cops are on the trail of a cop killer involved in the theft of a large stash of heroin. Each has their own agenda, and none of them can be described as “good”.
“It’s an attitude that’s antithetical to most network cop shows,” Harper said.
“It’s not just Dirty Harry gunning down guys who totally deserve it. I had to explain this a few times - especially in the outline section - these aren’t good guys. They’re not good cops. This is about a power structure that’s inherently bad and needs to be torn down. There’s a tendency on network TV that the brutality is justified. This was not about that. Yes, we have a scene where Bud White sticks a child molester’s hand in a garbage disposal, but there’s also a scene where he roughs up a junkie who’s - more a less - innocent. That was important to me. There’s a scene where Jack Vincennes shakes down a jazz musician, and he’s not very cool about it; it’s a really unpleasant scene. And there’s a moment where a junkie calls out Ed Exley and he tells this big, inspiring story about how he’s a different kind of cop, only to go out and do something totally self-aggrandising and selfish. I had to fight to make the network understand that. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they (the characters) are evil, but they’re morally complicated.”
THE SAME WORLD, BUT DIFFERENT
In developing the pilot, Harper wanted to ensure his vision for 1950s LA could stand on its own from both the source novel and the Academy Award winning film it inspired.
“If you were to look at the pilot, you’d see that there are very few scenes in the pilot that occur in the book,” he said.
“It’s interesting, because when you adapt somebody, it’s essentially legalised plagarism. For the pilot script, I did take a lot of lines of dialogue but I put them in other scenes.
The different rhythms and requirements of episodic television also meant Harper needed to cut moments that some may have considered pivotal.
“One example that would’ve angered some was that I never intended to do Bloody Christmas (a fictionalised account of an incident in 1951 where members of the LAPD severely beat seven civilians which served as part of the opening to Curtis Hanson’s film),” Harper said.
“If we’d done that, it would have swallowed the pilot and I really didn’t want the pilot to be the first 20 minutes of the film. It was important to show there were other stories to be told, and if we opened with Bloody Christmas, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”
Instead, Harper chose to use the pilot to offer up a closer look at the lead characters - in some cases, reinstating elements from the book that were overlooked or glossed over in the film and, in others, making different creative decisions. Key among these, Harper chose not to hold back in revealing that Dudley Smith was, in fact, more a lawbreaker than a law enforcer (in the film, this was withheld until the final act, leading to one of the movie’s more shocking reveals).
“The book starts with Dudley Smith leading the robbery of a suitcase of stolen heroin,” Harper said.
“The first chapter of the novel is Buzz Meeks dying in a hotel... and Dudley Smith is the man who kills him. Also, anybody who’s seen the movie knows instantly that Dudley Smith is the bad guy, so there’s little pleasure in holding that back. And yes, holding that fact back works for the first hour or so of a movie, but it doesn’t work for three seasons of television.”
Laying all the cards out on the table, Harper said, also came back to the core of the novel.
“The movie doesn’t quite land on this as hard as the book, but all of these cops are dirty,” he said.
“In the book, the realisation for Vincennes or White isn’t that Dudley Smith is dirty - because they’re all dirty. It’s just a question of degrees. They know he guard dogs heroin deals, they know he’s not above planting evidence or beating suspects; they just don’t think he’s the secret head of a criminal organisation that is slowly taking over LA’s underworld.”
One of the bigger shifts away from the film towards the novel lies in the pilot’s depiction of Ed Exley.
“The movie couldn’t get that in-depth because it’s only two hours,” Harper said.
“But in the book, Ed Exley’s an unpleasant person - not just because he’s a prig, but because he’s a hypocrite. He’s presented in an entirely different context. “Early in the book, you learn that Exley’s the winner of the Silver Star because of his actions as a war hero in World War 2. But what actually happened to Exley in the war was that he was on Guadalcanal and he was terrified, and he found a trench full of Japanese soldiers who had killed themselves. He grabbed a flamethrower and toasts them all, claiming he killed them all. That’s how he got to become a war hero and leave the battlefront.”
Harper felt a World War 2 flashback wouldn’t fit with the rest of the pilot, instead choosing another moment to highlight Exley’s ruthless nature. Exley gets a lead on one of the cop killers, choosing to go to the suspect’s apartment solo. When he gets there, he finds the suspect dead from an overdose. After a moment’s thought, Exley pulls the needle from the suspects arm, shoots both the corpse and the apartment to make it look as though the suspect was killed while trying to resist arrest.
“Exley being a boy scout is not a particularly interesting thing to write about,” Harper said.
“The fact that it’s a facade and he’s a hypocrite. I’m much more interested in writing about a hypocrite than a boy scout who’s chipped away. To have someone do something like that in the pilot episode, then still be a hardass about corrupt cops - that’s a more interesting character.
“It maybe isn’t a likeable trait, but it’s a compelling one.”
Other changes, Harper said, were driven by the nature of the medium.
“In the book and the movie, Bud White and Ed Exley start off as antagonistic, they’re antagonistic in the middle and then they come together for the last 20 minutes,” Harper said.
“That’s not a lot of room when you’re talking about 50-plus hours of television. Things can transpire in a book that would seem very repetitive or drawn out if you did those same things in a TV show. I thought it was important to start them with a more grudging respect, so we could send them apart. To me, that’s a more interesting story arc than if they just hated each other from the start.”
For Harper, an essential trait of Ellroy’s novel that needed to translate was that each character was completely aware of who they were.
“I like talking about morally conflicted people,” he said.
“When I met Walton (Goggins, who would take on the role of Jack Vincennes), I told him that what made Shane Vendrell on ‘The Shield’ such a fascinating character was that he knew he was a piece of shit - yet still did everything he did. I think Ellroy thinks the actions of his characters are a little more justified, but we kind of get to the same place - these guys are doing really bad things and they know that’s what they’re doing. Bud White puts someone’s hand in a garbage disposal, but I don’t think he thinks it’s cool. Ed Exley is a horrible morass of genuinely wanting to do good, but also wanting to rise up and be recognised. Jack Vincennes, as we were going to portray him - and as he was portrayed in the book - was a white-knuckle, sober guy who had replaced drugs with celebrity - that’s his fix now. Ellroy and I may not agree on the political aspects of these characters, but we line up on the human aspects.”
GOING IT ALONE
In other cases, adapting James Ellroy’s sprawling novel for television gave Harper the opportunity to flesh out backstories that were only alluded to in the book or create entirely new characters to populate LA’s seedy underworld. One case in point is the inner workings of Hush Hush, the sleazy gossip rag that features prominently in both the film and the book.
In both, the magazine’s key writer, Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito in the film, Dominic Burgess in the pilot) works alone. However in the pilot, he’s partnered with a black reporter, June (Alana Arenas).
“There are a lot of stories to be told in this world and I felt there was room for another female character,” Harper said.
“I wanted another woman in the show and I wanted to be able to tell more stories about LA. Also, I had plans to kill Sid off later in the season, and I wanted to keep Hush Hush around. So we needed someone who could give you that pulpy style (the book, the film and the pilot all feature Hush Hush’s catchcry “Off the record, on the QT and very hush hush!”). “So I thought a female reporter - and not just a reporter, but a reporter with a trashy magazine - would be a really interesting thing. Later in the series, I was planning to reveal her character was a communist, and do a red scare arc. Because that world is so big, there were things I wanted to do that were outside the scope of ‘LA Confidential’ and the red scare was a big part of that.”
But one of the biggest shifts in character - and the one that, had the series been picked up, would’ve been uncannily relevant - came in the form of Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger in the film, Sarah Jones in the series), the celebrity lookalike sex worker who falls for Bud White.
“In the book and the movie, Lynn’s a fairly static character and, if she was going to be one of the main characters in this series, she’d have to do more than just be a call girl who makes a few plot moves and falls in love with Bud White,” Harper said.
Instead, Harper chose to delve into the backstory that featured in both the book and the film. When we meet Lynn in the series, she’s an aspiring actress auditioning for a leery film producer. After sending his assistant out for a “sandwich”, the producer tries to force himself on Lynn. She fights back (stubbing out a lit cigarette in his face) before getting away.
“The scene where the producer tries to rape Lynn, that was always baked in to the story from the moment I decided to move her story back a few beats,” he said.
“It was in the first round of pitches, which all happened before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, before #metoo came to the fore - so it didn’t feel as on the nose and making comment on current events as it does now. I was very aware of that when we were filming it to the point that I almost thought about cutting it because - while I was interested in how ‘LA Confidential’ reflected on the modern world - I didn’t want it to feel like we were chasing a trend.”
In hindsight, Harper said the timing was interesting to say the least.
"Les Moonves (who at the time was facing his own misconduct allegations) was the one who had the final say on whether we'd get ordered to series," he said.
“It’s odd to think now that this monster watched this pilot while this was really unloading in real time all around him."
As he was writing the pilot, Harper had a very clear idea of the aesthetic he wanted the show to adopt.
“I had a slugline at the top of the pilot that said ‘This is LA 1950s, filmed like it’s happening right now’,” he said.
“The finished product doesn’t reflect it completely, but I said there was going to be no score, no pretty lights. I wanted to be like a 1950s version of ‘The Shield’. In my head, when I wrote it, it was going to look like an episode of ‘The Shield’ - entirely handheld. And I had a phrase I used when we were filming the pilot, we don’t do action, we do violence. Because parts of the pilot are brutal - Bud White uses a gunshot as a weapon - he fires the gun right next to someone’s head! In a lot of TV shows, they don’t act like guns are loud so I wanted it to be that world where a single gunshot right next to the ear would be enough to make someone scream and be enough to break them as a person. Then Michael Dinner came in as director, and put his own spin on it, he brought a much fuller palette to it.”
Among others, Michael Dinner directed several episodes of ‘Justified’ - including the pilot, as well as serving as that show’s Executive Producer. Harper said Dinner was the ideal candidate for the world he was trying to create.
“When he (Dinner) explained to me what his role was on both that and ‘Sneaky Pete’ (the Giovanni Ribisi led crime drama created by Bryan Cranston and David Shore), I knew this was clearly a guy who understood how to do crime fiction and crime drama on TV,” Harper said.
“Television is a storytelling engine and it was very important for me to go with a TV guy. And with the kind of pedigree he had on ‘Justified’, I can’t imagine doing any better than Dinner. We also benefitted from our DP, Bojan Bazelli, who shot ‘King of New York’ (the Abel Ferrara-helmed crime drama starring Christopher Walken) and a lot of other great 90s crime films. I’m a big fan of brutal, kinetic cinema so the more we could be like that, the better.
And the costume designer we had, Ruth Myers, designed the costumes for the film - she did just beautiful work.”
Having Dinner on board, helped start a chain reaction that helped land a high-calibre group of character actors.
“As far as Walton (Goggins) goes, I have Michael Dinner to thank,” Harper said.
“Once Dinner was on board, he got the script to Walton who read it and loved it. He was the first role cast, and getting Walton really opened the door for us in a lot of ways. Because there’s a certain calibre of actor who might not want to take a job on CBS - especially right now in the modern TV environment where there are more and more one year, special occasion shows coming up. It makes it harder to get people to sign on to a seven year contract, which is what you make somebody sign when they do a network TV show. Getting Walton really opened the door for us in a lot of ways, and a lot of actors who didn’t think about doing network TV read for us and came on board because of the stamp of approval that Walton put on it by signing up early.”
Casting, Harper said, was a long and difficult process, but he was extremely happy with the result. In no small part due to Casting Directors Libby Goldstein and June Lowry-Johnson, who’d worked on such enduring shows as ‘Deadwood’ and ‘True Blood’.
“It took a long time, because a lot of these roles are extremely difficult,” he said.
“It took a long time to find Sarah (Jones, who plays Lynn Bracken) because you can find a lot of great actresses in this town and you can find a lot of women who are absolutely beautiful but to find someone who is absolutely beautiful and is also the great actress that Lynn requires - and who doesn’t already have a job - that’s extremely difficult. It took a long time to find Mark Webber too because, for the role of Bud White, we needed someone who could play brutal, yet caring and still be dynamic. It’s a tough role to have. For Ed Exley, Brian J. Smith had initially read for Bud White and there was clearly something there but we realised he was our Ed Exley. I understood why he went for Bud White - he’s insanely jacked and, in the end, we needed to make him wear a lot of clothing so we wouldn’t show how muscular he is. The one person who was the biggest surprise, but shouldn’t have been, was Tony Curran.
Tony Curran as Dudley Smith was just insanely good. I didn’t even realise who he was when I’d cast him. In fact, after we were done shooting, somebody mentioned he’d been in an episode of ‘Doctor Who’- he played Vincent van Gough - and I said ‘My God! He was fantastic in that!’ So I was really blown away by our cast.”
One of the big disappointments in not moving forward, Harper said, was not being able to see the full potential of the cast realised.
“We didn’t get enough of a chance to see how those dynamics would’ve played out,” he said.
I loved the dynamic between Shea Wigham (who plays Bud White’s LAPD partner, Dick Stensland) and Mark - this mentor/mentee relationship. We didn’t really get a chance to explore the Bud White-Lynn Bracken chemistry, which I think would’ve been great. And there’s a little bit of the Ed Exley-Jack Vincennes chemistry, that would’ve been fantastic. Brian and Walt were really good together, and it’s a classic cop pairing. The flashy showboat and the futzy hypocrite. We’ve seen that dynamic a lot, but it would’ve been a different way of doing it, and they were going to be great together. I was also really looking forward to getting Walton to the place where Jack Vincennes fell off the wagon, because I just think he would’ve been so good at that.”
BRINGING 1950s LA TO LIFE
Going into filming, Harper was expecting the shoot to be “painful”.
“For the story, I thought it was important it all happen within a 24 hour period... and I knew that, for logistical reasons, most of it was going to take place at night,” he said.
“So we had a very brutal shoot, a lot of days where we wrapped at eight am.”
One of the main challenges turned out to be finding locations that could fit with the 50s aesthetic.
“The 50s is a long time ago and LA is a city that changes constantly,” Harper said.
“Houses weren’t a problem, because there’s plenty of 1950s style houses - but for places to set events, it was pretty difficult, because there’s not a lot of 1950s LA left.
Challenges in finding “untouched” portions of LA led to an atypical solution for a period drama.
“There’s a lot of CGI in the pilot.; a lot,” Harper said.
“We had to erase a lot of backgrounds - there are imposing hills where we were erasing billboards. In the opening theatre scene, we had to digitally erase the lines on the road and put new lines in there because, back then, they had streetcars and things like that. I’m not a big fan of CGI and I like to do things practically where possible, but it was going to have to be a part of the show and I think it worked - in erasing things and adding little 1950s touches.”
Ultimately, the pilot ran long, with Harper needing to find seven minutes to trim to meet the required length.
“We didn’t realise we were going to be long, but there were so many characters in those scenes and they had to breathe that it ended up being a bit longer than we thought,” he said.
“And there’s a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor that I really miss. There’s a David Mamet phrase that I always remember - you start editing with a scalpel and you end editing with a chainsaw. With every episode of TV I’ve worked on, there’s always been two minutes to cut - that’s just being diligent and putting together a good product. At first you’re just taking air out and there were two to three minutes of good cuts - like scenes that went on too long or scenes that didn’t work. After that, there was a more character development I had wanted to do, but there just wasn’t the space. So we had to make decisions of what we could cut and put into later episodes. June (Sid Hudgens’ partner at the gossip rag Hush Hush) had a big monologue, most of it survived, but there’s a chunk in the middle where she tells a story about getting an abortion clinic shut down that was killing girls because it wasn’t clean.
“She explained how she knew of another clinic that was clean, and how she keeps it open, but she wrote an expose on the dirty one. That was how she justified working with Sid - she had the ability to shut down dirty scrape clinics. There was a section where you met Ed Exley’s father and the idea of Dream-a-Dreamland (Ellroy’s fictionalised Disneyland stand-in) was introduced. I wanted to introduce Dream-a-Dreamland in the pilot because it plays such a big part in the Doctor Frankenstein murders, but there just wasn’t room to do that.”
Also landing on the cutting room floor was a pivotal scene between Lynn Bracken and Jack Vincennes where they strike an uneasy partnership after discovering Lynn’s friend Bobby (a male sex worker who had been working with Jack and Sid Hudgens to stage celebrity stings for Hush Hush) has been murdered.
“It was a good scene, and it worked... but something had to go, and there was no reason why we couldn’t open the second episode with it,” Harper said.
“So it really came down to things like that, and a lot of it was stuff I really didn’t want to lose.”
One of the toughest cuts Harper had to make was a post-script to the studio executive’s attempted rape of Lynn Bracken.
“Before he tries to rape Lynn, he sends his assistant out to get him a sandwich... basically, his cover for the assault,” he said.
“I had written a moment where - as Lynn leaves the studio - his assistant walks past carrying the sandwich and she’s got this smirk on her face. Lynn slaps the sandwich out of her hand and basically calls her a traitor. I really liked that moment it was something different that holds the whole support network for these sexual predators accountable. But the 43 minute mark is non-negotiable and, since I didn’t want to cut out plot points, we had to cut out moments like that.”
RIGHT ATTITUDE, WRONG NETWORK
With the pilot cut, Harper said he and his team were confident the series would get picked up.
“TV networks - especially broadcast networks - run on a strict schedule,” he said.
“The scripts get greenlit at the same time, they’re all filmed at kind of the same time and then there’s basically a two-week period where CBS brass watch all of these pilots and decide which ones are going to become series. Everybody was very positive, the pilot was well received by the CBS brass. Essentially, up until the moment they passed on it, we thought they were picking it up. The day before we were told we weren’t going to series, I was looking at office space. Anna Fricke (Harper’s co-Showrunner, and Executive Producer) and I had interviewed a full writers’ room and were ready to pull the trigger and start making offers. So we were at the end of the process, an offer hadn’t come in yet but we were still feeling positive. There were still three or four slots left, and we got a call from my agent to say it wasn’t looking good. Then I got a call from Kevin Plunkett at New Regency - one of the best executives I've ever worked with, might I add - to say it wasn’t going to happen, but that they were going to shop it around.”
And despite hopes it could land at a streaming service, nothing eventuated.
“It was six weeks later when we found out it wasn’t happening,” Harper said.
“By that point I was comparing myself to a woman in a New England fishing village in the 17th century whose husband went off to sea and never returned. Eventually what happens is they had to bury an empty coffin. By the time we didn’t get picked up for real, I’d buried that empty coffin and made my peace with it not happening. But it was still rough. It would’ve been one thing if they’d said ‘You know what? You did your best, but it just wasn’t very good’. But nobody said that - at least nobody said that to my face.”
Harper said that while he never really got a straight answer as to why CBS didn’t pick up the series, he feels it ultimately didn’t fit with the network’s brand.
“Look at CBS, look at what they put on the air, they are extremely successful at what they do,” he said.
“And what they do is not put on shows like the pilot I created. Often, there’s an instinct with executives to try and step outside the box and put a new spin on things to maybe bring in some younger viewers. But when the rubber hits the road, they do something very, very well and that’s not what we gave them.”
Another factor Harper felt might’ve impacted the decision was the story’s period setting, adding that - if he had his time again - he might’ve adopted an even more radical approach to the source material. I think one of the reasons is that there’s not much of an appetite for the 1950s now,” he said.
“Sometimes we lose sight of just how far away that time is... you think ‘the 1950s? That’s 50 years away,’ but now that’s 70 years, and that’s a long time. When I pitched the show, my whole argument was that it would still be a commentary on modern day LA and modern day America - because LA hasn’t changed. It was going to be about police brutality, corruption, our obsession with celebrity... all those things that worked in the 1950s would still work today. You might consider this blasphemy, but I’d been thinking about it recently and, if I was doing this again, I’d strongly consider moving the story to the 1980s. That time period is as far away from today as ‘LA Confidential’ was to the 50s when it was published. And I can’t think of a single storyline that wouldn’t work in the 80s. Instead of Hush Hush, you’d have a National Enquirer stand-in, and there’d be a whole lot more cocaine. But the serial killers, the racism, the corruption, the racial tension; all of it’s right there. “If I wasn’t attached to the project, I’d be one of the people calling this blasphemous, but I think it might be a better idea.”
And while the show wasn’t picked up, Harper said the experience - and the end result - has been beneficial.
“A lot of people have seen it, and it’s been great for the meetings I’ve been taking,” he said.
“My joke has been that CBS gave me a multi-million-dollar demo reel that got shown to everyone in Hollywood - so from that perspective, it’s been good for me. I think there’s a real gap in the market for American TV right now. There are shows that have complex characters and shows that tell exciting, plot-driven stories - but you don’t have both.
“With ‘LA Confidential’, I was trying to bring back that very specific type of storytelling, because all of my favourite things - be it ‘Heat’ or the works of Ellroy - they have exciting stories, and they have very complex characters. I’m hoping there’ll be more of that in future and the new things I’m working on are very much in that style, that type of storytelling that doesn’t quite fit on HBO right now, but doesn’t quite fit on network TV because it’s somewhere in the middle.”
At the end of the day, Harper said he has no regrets about his experience.
“After one screening, I got a really great compliment - a friend of mine came up to me and said he didn’t even notice there was no swearing in the pilot. That was such a victory for me - because over and over again, people would ask me if we could do this in CBS. And I’d tell them the curse words didn’t matter, brains splattered on the wall didn’t matter, it was the attitude that mattered. I always took the position that I’d rather make something I was proud of than compromise to get something on the air. That led me to take some stands and write the script that I did, but - and maybe this is partly why we’re not on the air - I think we successfully delivered that Ellroy attitude.”
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