March 21, 2015

Charles Fleming: Hardboiled Hollywood

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1947. Movie studios. Tough Guys. Starlets. Murder. You’ve written crime novels set in Havana, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. Why Los Angeles this time for The Studio Kill?

Los Angeles has been my home since my family moved here from the South in 1966, and it has been a setting in several of my previous novels—including key small moments in The Ivory Coast and After Havana. Since my feeling about the city has always been ambivalent, what better way to enshrine it in fiction than as homage to noir crime?

And why Los Angeles in the 1940s?

There were still vestiges of LA in the 40s when I first began to explore the city in the 70s, and I fell in love with the smoky allure of Musso and Frank, the Brown Derby, Nickodell, and the dream factory feeling on the big studio back lots at Fox and Paramount. The 40s seemed the last really good time in the movie business, after the industry had recovered from the onset of sound but before it had been upended by television.

What made you decide to set The Studio Kill in the movie business?

I’d covered the business side of the film industry for two decades as a journalist before I realized that I could treat it fictionally at a distance—the distance of time—better than I could as a contemporary subject.

Of all your novels, The Studio Kill is pure hardboiled. What made you want to explore that genre?

I came of age as a reader devouring Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and then discovered Hammett and Chandler. Their books were the only crime fiction I read for years, and the tone they set seemed the only proper one for the 1940s.

Your main character is an ex-cop working as head of security for a movie studio. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a hero like that before. Where did you get the idea?

I had been aware for years of the great legacy of the studio police forces, which during the 20s, 30s, and 40s were often more powerful than the local police. Their job was to subvert the legal process when their stars got in a jam—to bail them out of trouble before they had to bail them out of jail, to get them off the streets or out of the hospital before the news hounds found out. I liked the idea of a good man caught in that corrupt machinery.

Other writers have praised the accuracy of the period detail in The Studio Kill. How much research did you do to get it as spot-on as possible?

I had done a lot of research about this period for my other novels but I knew very little about the working life of the 1940s movie studios. Luckily, I had met several Hollywood old timers over the years who helped me with some of the detail. Also, I was related, by my father’s second marriage, to the actress Phyllis Avery and the film director and actor Don Taylor. I relied on them and their stories, and on a couple of really good Hollywood memoirs—particularly the Robert Parrish autobiographies Growing Up in Hollywood and Hollywood Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. 

As a newspaper reporter, you’ve covered Hollywood and the movie business for years.  Was it really as venal and cutthroat during the glory days of the studio system as you describe in the book?

One of the striking things about works of fact and fiction centered on the movie business is how little the essentials have changed. None of the grasping, climbing, or creativity in Lillian Ross’s brilliantly reported book Picture, written about the making of the 1951 film The Red Badge of Courage, or the fear-based careerism in the novel The Producer by the great screenwriter and director Richard Brooks seem foreign or even dated to anyone working in Hollywood today.

At the same time, it sounded like a lot of fun back then, if you weren’t getting beaten up, slapped around, or killed. How do you compare it to the movie business today?

During the 40s, Hollywood still worked under the so-called “studio system.” Writers, directors, and actors were employees who went to work every day and did as they were told, just as the carpenters, electricians, and camera operators did. It was a feudal economy for most, but a remarkable number of first-rate films got made that way.

Why do you think people are still drawn to the hardboiled hero? Could it be that noir is the American equivalent of French existentialism?

It’s in our blood. The hard-boiled hero—the lone man who has a tough job to do and a tough heart to do it with—has been with us from the start, whether he is Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer or Harry Morgan from Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.  The hardboiled detective is the original urban cowboy.

Writers are supposed to have a “process,” meaning at some point they have to find the time to sharpen a pencil and sit down to write. What’s your process?

Get up early, every day, without fail. Work for two hours straight, every day, without interruption. Continue until a book emerges.

Who’s your favorite: Chandler or Hammett? And why?

Dashiell Hammett invented the genre. Raymond Chandler perfected it. I prefer Chandler for the grace, style, and humor he brought to the work.

You are also the motorcycle and car columnist for the Los Angeles Times. If you had to pick one car to own from around 1947, the year in which The Studio Kill is set, what would it be?

While I am partial to the forward-looking design of the Tucker, I cannot resist the pure audacity of the 1948 Cadillac convertible—a great mass of arrogant American automotive engineering.




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