The filmmaker's easygoing Southern California vibe hid a rigorous intellect that left actors from Kevin Bacon to Kim Basinger feeling lucky to have known him: "He was always calm under the extreme pressure of the insanity out there."
Curtis Hanson, who died Sept. 20 at the age of 71 of a rare brain disorder called frontotemporal degeneration, left behind a filmography that defied easy categorization. While he shares a best adapted screenplay Oscar with Brian Helgeland for 1997's atmospheric L.A. Confidential, the 14 movies he directed ranged from the actioner The River Wild to the hip-hop drama 8 Mile. Survived by his longtime partner, producer Rebecca Yeldham, and their son, Rio, Hanson mastered the game, whatever the genre.
"My first impulse was to get a young rap director or a video director. And then I realized I should do just the opposite of that. I should get the most classic American filmmaker, and that was Curtis Hanson because he would look at this world of hip-hop and rap battles in Detroit as sort of an archaeological study and would see the things and be moved by the things that mattered. And that's really what happened. He entered the world as a student, sort of archaeologically, and turned it into this tremendous movie that really had an impact on the culture. Working with Eminem, he had a sort of teacher-professor style about how he communicated. It was really effective, particularly with a music artist who hadn't acted before. And Eminem won the best song Oscar, the first hip-hop artist to win an Oscar. Curtis and I had a discussion early on, and he said, 'Brian, you know, when you work with me, everything matters.' And what I came to understand about Curtis: He was a guy with total focus and concentration, and everything mattered — every detail, every nuance, every micro-music cue. Nothing was a rubber stamp. He thought through every little detail. And I think that's why the movie feels as authentic as it does."
"Of all the movies I’ve ever done, the fastest yes was Curtis and I on Wonder Boys. We’d both done our respective homework and had one meeting. I immediately thought of of the tone and humor and Curtis had this wonderful dry sense of humor. There was nothing else to talk about. We shook hands and off we went on this escapade. Making Wonder Boys was one of the most joyful experiences I've ever had. Curtis had an effortless style of directing. Like an ex-beach volleyball player or an older surfer dude, he had a whole Southern California vibe, which covered up his intellect and incredible sense of film history. He was such a gentleman, low-key; he underplayed it all the time. He had a leisurely pace about him that made all the actors relax and a wonderful twinkle in his eye, which would say, 'Surprise me, surprise me'. "
"Curtis asked me to meet with him about L.A. Confidential. I had just given birth to my daughter, Ireland, and I was so into motherhood. I'd played all these sexy women, and here I was a mom. I must have turned down L.A. Confidential maybe four times because I was not interested in a) working, and b) definitely not playing a whore. But I read it one more time, and I was really, truly amazed. It's very, very rare when you read a completed script and you don't have to change one word. So I agreed to meet with Curtis at the Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard. He had mocked up visual boards that were so exquisite, so seductive — pictures of Robert Mitchum, beautiful imagery from past films. I was mesmerized by his whole presentation. He was incredibly quiet, very articulate, but knowing. You knew you were in the presence of someone who knew what they were talking about. And I said, 'Yes, I'm in.' On the set, he was so highly intelligent, so smart about L.A. and music. Oh my God, the man knew music. He was detail-oriented and so involved in everything. I wouldn't even say you saw his obsession. It was just who he was and where he stood. You never saw him getting crazy or rattled in any way, shape or form. He had refinement. That's the way he always presented himself. He was so calm and so knowing. I just felt like I was in the hands of someone incredibly special. Few actors get to have somebody who truly, truly, truly believes in them. Sometimes I would look at him and say, 'Really, really, do you think I can do it?' I was his go-to girl sometimes, and I feel very, very blessed."
"As I recall it took me a really long time to get the part. It wasn’t a slam dunk. Meryl [Streep] was attached, and I met with Curtis and we started to talk about it. Then I met with him again. He got to the point where he said, 'I’m sorry this is taking so long.' But in retrospect, he was a very thoughtful person and didn’t jump to results. I think that was a good indication that was the guy he was going to be in the making of the film. He was painstaking about details. He really wanted to make sure he was making the right choice. Once we started, we had rehearsal. We were in a small town in Montana. We worked through really meticulously what our back-stories were and relationships. Meryl is super detail-oriented as well. The combination of the two of them made us immediately feel like a company. When you have a super-successful, great director and arguably one of the best actors in history, in another situation it could have been a more hierarchical and intimidating kind of game. But the combination of him and her really created this company. Then we started making this crazy movie. From an action standpoint, it was the most intense movie I've ever made. We were planning on grabbing some stuff in Montana and then going to Oregon. Curtis knew he wanted to use helicopters [in filming]. But the National Park Service in Oregon said the stretch of white water river he wanted to use was deemed wild and scenic and couldn't have choppers flying around. So we found a stretch of the Kootenai River outside Libby, Montana. It was completely unnavigable, mostly a series of waterfalls, with a relatively small quarter-mile of crazy, crazy rapids. There was no access to it other than by helicopter. And the only place they could land the choppers were on rafts they built, tucked inside an eddy. It was like a military operation Curtis was running. From an action standpoint, he was extremely skilled and very meticulous. And he was always calm under the extreme pressure of the insanity out there."