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Hollywoodland - Allen Coulter interview

Alan Coulter, director of Hollywoodland

Interview by Rob Carnevale

HOLLYWOODLAND director Allen Coulter talks about the challenges of making the noir thriller and the unanswered questions that continue to surround the death of George Reeves…

Q. This is your first feature film. Why this story?
Allen Coulter: The short answer is because it is a riveting story. No one else had done it before and I’m not sure why because it’s such a great subject. It’s an interesting combination of things. First and foremost, it’s a human story of two men who struggle with a similar dilemma – the feeling that their lives are not valuable unless they can attain a certain kind of celebrity or fame. In the case of George Reeves, fame in the so-called legitimate Hollywood world of his time, and in the case of Louis Simo to be the best known detective in Hollywood at that time. Both men suffer from this belief that their lives are somehow not fulfilled until they obtain this.

The other thing is, any time you have something like an unsolved Hollywood mystery it’s just endlessly fascinating – and I say unsolved to many people because the LAPD would disagree with me. Then, of course, you have this combination of periods – the end of the era of the classic Hollywood system, as it’s dying away, and the rise and ascendency of television and that era. It was the end of what I would call an era of greater decorum and glamour and the beginning of the new era and the world that we now reside in, which begins in the mid-to-late ’50s and which Louis Simo is the first wave of.

Q. Does this case still strike a raw nerve with anyone you met during the course of filming Hollywoodland, such as anyone associated with late studio boss Eddie Mannix?
Allen Coulter: We never heard from any of Eddie Mannix’s people, fortunately. We never came across a situation where someone said: “Well, that’s not what it was or that’s not what happened.”

We did come across a number of people over time who did know Eddie. But we were still making the film and they didn’t really know how we were portraying him. We had his former secretary say that he was a really lovely man who wore a carnation every day.

So we made sure that Bob [Hoskins] had a carnation to wear. It also encouraged what I thought was necessary in the film, to show the human side of all these people. To show that even Eddie Mannix has a side that was loveable and that was loving. People were fascinated by the story but we never caught any flack about it.

Actually, there was a reporter in LA who informed me after he’d interviewed me that he actually knew Eddie and George. He said that we’d got George absolutely right, which was great, but he said that we’d missed Howard Strickling – a smaller character in the film – because he had a stammer.

Q. Given that Eddie Mannix is dead and you can’t sue from beyond the grave, was it easier for you to pursue the theory that he may have been responsible for George Reeves’s death?
Allen Coulter: We tried to make all three possibilities serious possibilities. We certainly weren’t looking over our shoulders because we were saying something that might have gotten us into a jam. But it didn’t change the way we filmed that sequence, or depicted it. I certainly raised the question of whether it was going to raise an issue but he [Eddie] had no offspring. So it was just not an issue.

Q. How difficult was it to recreate the Hollywood of 50 years ago?
Allen Coulter: No more difficult than you would think. The thing that was uppermost in my mind was to capture what we thought it really felt like as opposed to making what we felt was a so-called “period film”. I’ve always been bothered by films that take place in a period that seemed intent upon showing you how much money they spent on the cars, or that particular bow tie. We did the opposite.

We tried to be absolutely accurate about the period – down to the light switches, shoes, socks and underwear – and then once we had those things, we tried to show them the way they would have shown them if they’d shot the film in 1959. That is to say, we didn’t choose to show them at all because when you make a film in a period, you don’t show off the period. So, the attitude was: “Let’s get it all right and then treat it indifferently.”

We also made sure that the clothes were worn in and that they were of a mixed period because one of the things that’s evident in any period film that’s shot on the streets is that you see all kinds of other periods embedded in it. It’s not like they had everything destroyed in 1951. So you have cars from the ’20s and the ’30s and men wearing suits from the ’30s and ’40s.

Q. With this and The Black Dahlia, why is there this new fascination with that period of American history?
Allen Coulter: I actually think it’s a funny combination of coincidence and something being in the wind. I mean, you sometimes have in science somebody in Australia coming up with the same invention simultaneously with someone in the US – it’s because something’s in the wind. It’s just something that seems somehow ready for its time. I didn’t know about The Black Dahlia when I approached this – the script came to me, I was interested in it and so I did it. I think the same would be true of Brian De Palma and so on.

Read our review of Hollywoodland

Read our interview with Adrien Brody