R.I.P. Curtis Hanson

8 Mile took over my life for a time. I saw it on its opening day. I returned 3 or maybe 4 more times. I was a Slim Shady fan from the beginning and had felt apprehensive about the film, although I loved L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Curtis Hanson approached material like a storyteller, in the way the old-school directors used to do before everybody got self-important about their own personal vision. What matters is the story being told. A good director is versatile with style (this is more apparent in the theatre, where you could direct Oedipus and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the same year.) Hanson delved into the worlds of the stories of his films, with an attention to detail that was both exacting but also fluid. MOOD was as important as getting the vintage cars right. If you just get the vintage cars right, but have no mood, then all you really have is an exercise in kitsch. So in 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical film showing Marshall Mather’s earliest years – the really bleak shit before Dr. Dre came along – Hanson dove into the world of underground rap battles, Detroit, and the unforgiving atmosphere from which Eminem emerged. One of the special features on the 8 Mile DVD shows Curtis Hanson putting together a “rap battle” for all of the extras in that final club scene. Those extras sweated it out for almost a week, having to keep their energy up, having to do it again and again, cheer, and howl … and it was a grind. To show he appreciated their being there (and those extras are SO important to that final scene – see clip above), he put out a call for any amateur rappers in the house, to do rap battles during the breaks, working their way up to a battle with the star himself, Eminem. Of course half the people there could spit rhymes. Curtis Hanson playing “emcee” for this rap battle was so touching. He was this gangly kind-faced white guy, holding a sheet of loose-leaf paper, calling out names of people to come up onstage. It was a very smart move, as a director, showing generosity and appreciation, of course, for the random people in Detroit who had showed up to be club-goers in those important scenes. He looked like a fish out of water, but he wasn’t, because he cared about this material, he had developed it WITH Eminem (who – more so than anyone else – was very very nervous about the film and how it would portray him. He just didn’t want it to be stupid of self-congratulatory. He wanted it to seem real.) Those amateur rap battles – in a bare break room with fluorescent lights – are so filled with adrenaline and energy and need and emotion – especially wen Eminem finally stepped up to battle with the winners – that it practically justifies the film’s existence, all on its own. It’s also a glimpse of a director at work, wearing multiple hats, caring about the material, caring about the environment and the people around him, creating a space where everyone can let loose a little bit, before going back to what he knows is a grueling and punishing schedule. YOU try to cheer for 3 days straight and “keep it fresh”!!

He was a wonderful director, one of my favorite kinds. Devoted to STORY.

Almost 10 years ago, I participated in a “Close-Up Blog-a-Thon,” hosted by Matt Seitz, where people wrote about their favorite close-ups in film.

I wrote about the close-up of Russell Crowe that opened L.A. Confidential.

Rest in peace.

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11 Responses to R.I.P. Curtis Hanson

  1. Funny…I called him a throwback on my site and I think you nailed that aspect down a lot better than I did. I didn’t even care for L.A. Confidential and somehow have never seen either 8 Mile or Wonder Boys (both of which are probably right up my alley). But I loved his earlier films, especially The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence. He reminded me of one of those old line Hollywood pros like Henry Hathaway or Raoul Walsh, who don’t get a lot of auteur cred, but all they ever did was make one good movie after another. Like them, the sight of his name in the credits always makes me smile.

    • sheila says:

      In Her Shoes was wonderful too. Someone observed on FB that one of his many talents was capturing a city. He understood locale – and using the locale – in a way that is almost a lost art. He didn’t film in Toronto – as a stand-in for New York or Chicago – like so many people do now. He filmed in Detroit. He filmed in LA. He filmed in Philadelphia. And you really get a sense of those cities from his films.

      • Yep. In Her Shoes…one of my happiest in-theater experiences! In Her Shoes and L.A. Confidential…I think the word is “range.” And, as you say, always the distinctive touch. I remember one NY critic saying, when The Bedroom Window came out, something to the effect of “Baltimore! Who knew you could set a thriller in Baltimore?”

        Snobby, but the answer, years before The Wire, was: “Curtis Hanson. That’s who.”

  2. Todd Restler says:

    Your Bud White piece was great!

    “He understood locale – and using the locale – in a way that is almost a lost art. He didn’t film in Toronto – as a stand-in for New York or Chicago – like so many people do now. He filmed in Detroit. He filmed in LA. He filmed in Philadelphia. And you really get a sense of those cities from his films.”

    This was the greatest of his many gifts, the ability to portray specific people in a specific time and place and make it seem incredibly authentic. It’s an incredibly diverse list of movies he directed- across different genres and moods and styles.

    Bad Influence is an early favorite and probably the best Rob Lowe performance (along with Masquerade), but Wonder Boys is my favorite Curtis Hansen movie. Talk about capturing a specific time and place! I feel like attending next years Wordfest and seeing who are the future Plums (Wonder Boys). Perhaps one of my favorite “specific time, place and setting” movies. I feel like I spent a weekend in Pittsburgh every time I watch it. Great great movie.

    And he clearly knew how to work with actors, getting great performance after great performance from people as diverse as Eminem, Russell Crowe, Rob Lowe, Michael Douglas, Re Becca De Mornay, Steve Guttenburg.

    And Too Big To Fail, the HBO movie he made about the mortgage crisis, is GREAT, and should be required viewing for high school students in this country. As entertaining as The Big Short and even more enlightening/terrifying.


    • sheila says:

      I absolutely love Wonder Boys too. I said on Twitter that that book felt damn near un-adaptable to me. I love the book – and – unlike his first book – Mysteries of Pittsburgh – which is a pretty straight linear narrative – Wonder Boys is all about writing, and drafts, and writers, and interior writing anxieties – and I thought: “How the heck are they going to put this onscreen?”

      Wonderful movie and WONDERFUL adaptation.

      i haven’t seen Too Big to Fall – I’ll have to check it out!

  3. carolyn clarke says:

    This is so sad. He made good movies that are fun to watch. He made “The River Wild” which is the only Meryl Streep movie I really enjoy. L.A. Confidential. As you say, he could tell a story. RIP Mr. Hanson

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn – I love The River Wild, too!!

      I also love that he got his start in horror movies, and schlocky B-movies – AND he wrote the screenplay for The Dunwich Horror – starring Dean Stockwell – this ridiculous AWESOME movie. Like, he really cut his teeth doing all kinds of stuff, genre stuff, the kind of stuff that doesn’t get any respect. and then suddenly (it feels like) … in the 90s, he emerged with a series of movies that blew everybody else away. LA Confidential will withstand the test of time. 8 Mile is my favorite – I realize I’m in the minority – but still. The man knew what he was doing. Understood story. It’s practically a lost art!!

  4. Patrick says:

    Did you like “Bad Influence”? I’m a fan of that one, a dark thriller, nice casting with Rob Lowe and Spader, I thought anyway. Haven’t seen “8 Mile”, but I liked these other ones you’ve mentioned.

  5. sheila says:

    Yes, I love Bad Influence!

    I’m looking at his IMDB page and there’s not a film on there I dislike. I love Chasing Mavericks too. I’m a sucker for surfer movies – and really loved the vibe of that one – and AGAIN, as we’ve been discussing here: He has such a great sense of locale. Or he really really cares about locale. Philadelphia is different from Detroit is different from the PNW. His films have such a strong sense of place – and that makes them really unique.

    I loved Hand That Rocks the Cradle. I loved The River Wild – with one of Meryl Streep’s best acting moments (in my opinion, and I realize what a high bar that is – but my opinion stands) – when she assures Kevin Bacon that she WILL kill him eventually.

    I also cannot even express how much I love the fact that he did the adaptation for The Dunwich Horror back in 1970. HP Lovecraft fans hate the adaptation and I do feel their pain but that movie is such a crazy HOOT – AND it stars Dean Stockwell as a total lunatic – I have such a soft spot for it.

    He was a master in so many small ways. Small but very important ways.

    • Patrick says:

      It’s been a while since I saw “The River Wild”, and I don’t remember that specific moment with Meryl, but I do remember that I thought she was very good, I think maybe a scene where she is telling Kevin Bacon how difficult the trip down the river will be, maybe? I think there has been sort of a Meryl Streep backlash lately, not that I know acting so well, but to me she’s pretty good in everything (duh, eh). She knocked me over with the final scene in “Postcards From the Edge”, I thought – man, she can do absolutely anything. I snagged that scene off of youtube and fire it up every now and then.

      Definitely a good sense of place in “Bad Influence”, the LA club scene certainly.

      Here it is if you want to watch.


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