Mickey Cohen, the mobster who gets locked up which causes the war for control of the drug trade in the story, was a real-life Los Angeles mobster from the late '30s until his death in 1976, after two imprisonments for tax evasion. He was a small-time hood who joined forces with Bugsy Siegel, when Siegel came to Los Angeles to run the rackets After Siegel's murder in 1947, Cohen took over the rackets that Bugsy had built up, including labor union shakedowns at the studios, drug trafficking, gambling, and prostitution. He was so hated by the police, that he was constantly arrested for any crime, big or small (he was once arrested for using foul language on the street). As shown in the movie, he was eventually imprisoned for income tax evasion, and spent nearly ten years in prison. After his release, he was semi-retired from the rackets, and lived off his wealth, remaining a colorful character in Los Angeles until his death in 1976.
At the time the film takes place, no building in Los Angeles was allowed to be taller than City Hall, so the cameras were placed at certain points so that any building taller than City Hall would not be seen.
Many of the events in the movie were based upon real events. These include the Bloody Christmas scene where drunken police officers brutally beat up Hispanic prisoners suspected of beating up two uniformed cops (the real-life cops involved were named Trojanowski and Brownson. In the film, they're referred to as Helenowski and Brown). The plot line of real-life gangster Mickey Cohen's arrest, touching off a gang war for control of the rackets. The L.A.P.D. Goon Squad, which would kidnap out-of-town gangsters, beat them up, and threaten to kill them, if they ever tried to come back to set up their operations. Lana Turner dating gangster Johnny Stompanato (although this movie is set in 1953, and the real Turner and Stompanato didn't start dating until 1957). In real-life, Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed Stompanato to death on April 4, 1958, after catching him beating her mother. The murders of Tony Broncanto and Tony Trombino also occurred in real-life. The main difference being, they were shot from behind by Los Angeles mobster Jimmy Fratianno, instead of machine gunned from outside.
According to Guy Pearce on the DVD commentary, he attended a James Ellroy one-man show in his native Melbourne, Australia while the film was in pre-production. Pearce notes that during a Q&A session following Ellroy's performance, an audience member asked if any of Ellroy's books would ever be adapted into film. Ellroy replied that not only was L.A. Confidential in pre-production, but two Australian natives (Pearce and Russell Crowe) were cast in the film. The audience erupted into laughter, thinking that Ellroy was playing a wry joke on the audience by randomly naming two local actors and claiming they were cast in a big-budget Hollywood film. Pearce, who was sitting in the audience, was mortified. It was only a year later, that the audience learned that Ellroy was, in fact, telling the truth.
James Ellroy describes the character of Bud White as the biggest cop on the Los Angeles force. Noting that he wasn't even six foot, Russell Crowe decided to move into an apartment so small, that he had to duck to get into the doorways, and could barely stand up. Crowe said this worked in making him feel like a "giant" by the time he came to the set to shoot.
Studio executives were adamantly against the idea of casting two non-Americans (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce) in an American period piece. Pearce and Crowe are Australian. Besides their national origins, both Crowe and Pearce were relative unknowns in North America, and there was equal concern about the lack of film stars in the lead roles.
Curtis Hanson did not want the film to be overly nostalgic, so he had Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shoot it like a contemporary film, and use more naturalistic lighting, than in a classic film noir. He told Spinotti and the film's Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall to pay great attention to period detail, but to then "put it all in the background".
Guy Pearce didn't like the cop, with whom he rode around, finding him to be racist. He got more from 1950s police training films, which featured the kind of rigid stiffness that he was seeking to bring to his character.
To pitch the movie to backers (and later, to explain his aesthetic ideas about it to various cast and crew members), Curtis Hanson put together a group of eighteen period images, illustrating different aspects of what he hoped to convey with the movie. These included the "Welcome to Los Angeles" postcard that's in the first shot of the movie. Photos of tract housing, orange groves, and the glamor shot of Veronica Lake are framed on Lynn Bracken's wall. Hanson also chose studio photos of two lesser-known 1950s actors (Aldo Ray and Guy Madison) to show to Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe what he envisioned as models for the characters Ed Exley and Bud White. Exley's model was Madison, while White's was Ray. This film takes its name from "Confidential", a notorious 1950s-era movie star tabloid, which is fictionally portrayed herein as "Hush-Hush".
A long time fan of James Ellroy's work, when Brian Helgeland heard that Warner Brothers had acquired the rights to L.A. Confidential in 1990, he lobbied hard to script the film. At the time, however, the studio was only interested in using established writers.
Some of the close-ups of Guy Pearce's face, in the scene where he and Russell Crowe get into a fight, were shot four months after principle photography had ended. Much to Curtis Hanson's dismay, Pearce had shaved his head within the time-span, and had to wear a wig. During a Q and A session, Pearce referred to it as a "very expensive wig", and noted that in Australia, there is no concept of returning to shoot pick-ups several weeks, or months later.
Warner Brothers Executive Bill Gerber showed the script to Michael G. Nathanson, CEO of New Regency Productions (who had a deal with the studio). Nathanson was bowled over by the screenplay, but knew he would have to get approval from his company head, Arnon Milchan. He got Curtis Hanson to prepare a presentation that included pictures of orange groves, beaches, and the opening of the Hollywood Freeway to symbolize how prosperous the area appeared to be at the time. Then Hanson would show the darker side of Hollywood at the time, with scandal rags and the famous shot of Robert Mitchum coming out of jail, following his drug bust. Hanson took great pains to emphasize that the period detail would be in the background, with the characters fully in the foreground. Milchan was immediately impressed with his presentation, and agreed to finance the film.
Before filming began, Curtis Hanson brought Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to Los Angeles for two months to immerse them in the city and the time period. He also brought them dialect coaches and introduced them to real-life cops.
Twice the project was pitched to television. First, Producer David L. Wolper wanted to produce the project as a mini-series, and later, it was being developed as a weekly series by HBO. A pilot that starred Kiefer Sutherland was produced, but the series was not picked up afterwards.
Pierce Patchett's business is based on the long-time rumor that there really was a house of prostitution in Hollywood that supplied ladies meticulously dressed and made up to resemble famous movie stars. In his memoir "Hollywood: Stars and Starlets, Tycoons and Flesh-Peddlers, Moviemakers and Moneymakers, Frauds and Geniuses, Hopefuls and Has-Beens, Great Lovers and Sex Symbols," Garson Kanin describes a visit to a place called Mae's, where the Madam dressed as Mae West, and presided over a cast of replicas of Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, and Ginger Rogers, among others.
The photos seen during the vice squad briefing, were copies of photos taken by fetish artist John Willie during his Los Angeles period. One of his models was murdered by a serial killer and was mentioned in James Ellroy's "My Dark Places".
The closing credits include footage of William Boyd as his character "Hopalong Cassidy", on horseback at a parade. Visual effects make it appear as if he is marching just in front of the cast of the films fictional police show "Badge of Honor".
Much has been made about the fact that this Los Angeles-based, and inspired film, stars two Australians in two of its most prominent roles. Actually, that should be three, for further down the cast list, in the smaller part of the actor who gets busted, is a young Simon Baker.
At the end of the opening credits, where you see a copy of Hush-Hush Magazine, before Curtis Hanson's director credit appears, the magazine's main cover story is an interview with mob boss Mickey Cohen. The other front page story is Ingenue Dykes in Hollywood. This leads into the scene a short time afterward, when Sid Hudgens, Hush-Hush's Editor, approaches Jack Vincennes. Jack introduces Sid to his dance partner, Karen, who walks away. Jack then asks what's wrong, and Sid explains, "We did a piece on Ingenue Dykes, and her name got mentioned."
The shotguns used by the LAPD in this film, are Ithaca Model 37s, easily identifiable by the lack of an ejection port on the right side (they eject from the bottom). White and Exley carry Colt Detective Specials.
This was voted as the best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with two criteria: "The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Kevin Spacey had a great deal of difficulty playing dead. It was easy enough for him to stare straight ahead when there was an actor or actress in front of him, but his first instinct was to follow James Cromwell with his eyes when he moved. He had to ask a Production Assistant to draw a circle for him, at which to look, on the opposite wall.
Curtis Hanson received a great deal of resistance to having three lead characters. At first, he was told to delete Exley and Vincennes and make the film a star vehicle for the actor playing Bud White. When he explained why Exley was essential, they told him to delete White and Vincennes. When he insisted that all three were essential, he was given a budget of only fifteen million dollars, which meant he couldn't afford to hire a big-name actor to headline the film, even if he wanted to, which he didn't. He wanted to hire actors who brought no audience expectations to the kind of role they would be playing. An exception to this rule was James Cromwell, whom audiences would expect to be one of the heroes after seeing him in Babe (1995).
During the final shoot-out, Exley and White use a pump action shotgun, a .38 revolver, a .45 automatic pistol, and a switchblade to defend themselves. In the book's prologue, Buzz Meeks uses the same weapons in a similar situation.