Hollywoodland Director Allen Coulter Discusses His Feature Debut
by Roger Durling
Hollywoodland is a uniquely compelling exploration of fame and identity, inspired by one of Hollywood’s most infamous real-life mysteries: the death of George Reeves, the actor famous for playing Superman on television. Though his death was officially ruled a suicide, many of Reeves’s friends, family, and fans believe his death was a homicide. That speculation was fueled by the detective Reeves’s mother hired, a man named Louis Simo who believed that the actor’s torrid affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix, might hold the key to the truth.
The film stars Academy Award winner Adrien Brody; Diane Lane in one of her most memorable roles as Toni Mannix; and Ben Affleck, who resuscitates his acting career with a moving portrayal of George Reeves. The film is also the feature directorial debut for Allen Coulter, the Emmy Award-winning TV director of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, who recently discussed the making of Hollywoodland.
Hollywoodland has such a complex narrative. There are three versions of the possible death of George Reeves’s murder, and then you also have the investigation by Louis Simo, the detective played by Adrien Brody. Was it daunting for you to tackle such a difficult script? I think during the work on the screenplay, it was a constant struggle to figure out when to move from one story to the other. Also, one of the things that I tried to do was deepen and enrich the role of Louis Simo. We wanted that story to resonate with the story of George Reeves. I thought that their two lives should have something in common — the theme of their belief that their lives were somehow not all they could be because they had not received the acclaim and the kind of celebrity they felt they wanted or deserved. In George’s case, he felt that he was constantly missing despite the fact that he was famous with 30 or 40 million children and much beloved and so on. It was not the kind of fame that he really felt would somehow give his life the meaning he wanted it to have.
One of the things that I got out of the film was that these two characters are fixated on what they don’t have, so then they don’t see what they do have in front of them. That’s one of the themes for me. The poignant thing about the story is that it really is the tale of people who can’t … be happy with what life has dealt them. And I think that in this age of celebrity cultism, that is a common theme, and that’s what I thought made the story so modern and so interesting — that there’s this notion that you’re only as valuable as you are well-known.
The film features a change between two time periods, highlighted by differences in camera work, sound, and more. Can you talk about that? When we set about making this movie, we knew that we were following in the path of others who had done a really exquisite job in this genre of Hollywood mysteries — one of course being Chinatown and the other being L.A. Confidential. It was important to us that we try to come up with a look that was our own.
I had discovered a book called Americans and Kodachrome, which was a series of still photographs, of amateur photographs taken in the 1940s and 1950s. They’re really just snapshots, and that became the guiding principle for the way we wanted the Louis Simo side of the story to look — to look as, we often thought, like a box of photographs we might find in someone’s garage. We were really interested in trying to say, “What if we had photographed this in the ’50s on cheap Kodak stock; what would it look like?” And we sort of thought this was it.
And with the George Reeves side of the story, I felt it was important to suggest what George aspired to in old-world Hollywood, and so we shot it in a more lush way. … The palette was different and the camera, as you point out, was very still — well, relatively still — and moved with certain grace. Whereas on Louis’s side of the equation, it’s much more handheld and grittier and more, I guess you could say, modern.
Please talk about Ben Affleck, because it’s his best performance to date. Ben was interested in the role for some time and we met and he seemed to have some understanding of the guy and interest in what the guy had been through. I can say that Ben was deeply devoted to the role and was one of the hardest working actors I’ve ever worked with. He always had a headset on listening to a CD of George’s voice.
In the film, you make a contrast between nostalgia and the present, and the dialogue between the two. Yeah, it is meant to be that. It was a lengthy process and took a couple of years to really get to the point where we were all happy.