In Tinseltown terms, Brian Helgeland knows what it means to be a peasant. A former screenwriter who won an Oscar for his collaboration with director Curtis Hanson on the adaptation of James Ellroy's devilishly convoluted novel LA Confidential, Helgeland has an acute understanding of the Hollywood caste system; peasant-screenwriters do not noble-directors make. Despite serving time scripting such mindless thrillers as the Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts film Conspiracy Theory, Helgeland discovered that paying your dues simply isn't enough. Though offered the chance by Gibson to make his directorial debut with Payback, a pointless remake of John Boorman's 1967 classic Point Blank, Helgeland found himself relieved of his duties after clashing with the actor and studio over the ending, just days after he had collected his golden statue for LA Confidential. "It's Hollywood in a nutshell," he says. "You can be up and down. But it was certainly weird. The studio wanted a happy ending; in my ending, Mel's character is dying as the film closes."
The rumour-mill, at the time, suggested it was Gibson's ego that caused the break-down in relations, with the actor demanding the film be reworked to show his character – a career-criminal who seeks revenge on his partner after an ambush – in a more favourable light. "Obviously, Mel knew what the movie was when he signed on, and he really liked it initially," says Helgeland. "But he was also producer on the movie, and more answerable to Paramount than I was, in terms of what we'd done with their money. It was hard for both of us, because he had given me this great chance to direct him in my first movie, and then he was stuck in the middle. He said, 'Just try a different ending'. I knew if I shot a happy ending, they would use it, so I refused. From his point of view, here was this guy who he'd given a chance, and now he was being really difficult. It was a difficult situation all round. But I'm glad I didn't do it."
Understandably, the Massachusetts-born Helgeland went from golden boy to pariah in a matter of days. A horror movie he was developing with Twentieth Century Fox, called The Sin Eater, suddenly went into turnaround. "As soon as I got let go from Payback ... they never admitted it, but you could feel they weren't interested any more," he says. "I've been trying ever since to get another film made."
Helgeland, now 40, has emerged from the wilderness with A Knight's Tale, a cheeky medieval romp that has already taken over $50 million in the US. Weaving a contemporary soundtrack into the fabric of the film (the crowd, at one point, break into Queen's "We Will Rock You"), it tells the story of a commoner (Heath Ledger) who dreams of jousting with the best in Europe. Co-starring British rising stars Paul Bettany and Rufus Sewell, it carries conscious parallels to Helgeland's own time in Hollywood. "I had read this book about jousting, which I thought was fascinating," he says. "One of the notes I had made was that you had to be of noble birth to compete, and so I thought of a peasant who wanted to be a knight; as soon as I found that, I thought it was the same thing as a screenwriter who wanted to be a director."
Shooting the film in Prague (this time for Columbia Pictures), Helgeland was able to keep the suits at bay. "It was too far for them to visit," he laughs. "Executives found they had to change planes to fly there, and that stopped a lot of them coming!" He remains suspicious of the money-men, believing that it is they who still hold the power in Hollywood, and not actors and agents as many now believe. "The studios like to foster that along to try and hide the fact that they have a lot to say about what's going on," he says.
During his time under contract at Warner Brothers – when he hooked up with Hanson to write LA Confidential – he also came to understand just how fickle the studios can be, after his employers had tried and failed to make a mini-series of Ellroy's book. "Warners didn't have a lot of interest in it, so Curtis and I were left on our own to work it out," he says. By the time the film was the toast of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Helgeland witnessed a change of heart from the executives. "I was kinda suspicious of all of that, in a weird kind of way. I like the movie a lot; it's just the way I am."
That he has reverted to his former peasant roots for the time being may come as a shock, given the noble status he has reluctantly been anointed with. But his next script Blood Work, the story of a retired policeman, is set to star, and be directed by, Clint Eastwood. With this knight at the helm, Helgeland might just learn how to hold his lance properly and unseat the suits.Reuse content