AFF Holds a 'Conversation' with Brian Helgeland


Payback by Brian Helgeland

The Capital City Event Center was abuzz last Wednesday night with Austin Film Festival's Conversation in Film with Brian Helgeland, writer and director of 42, which hit theaters two days after the event. Moderated by AFF Executive Director Barbara Morgan, the conversation focused on Helgeland's career as a writer. I'll admit I'd seen many films Helgeland wrote but never realized he was the man behind the curtain.

Helgeland opened the conversation by letting the audience know he started his career by writing horror movies, his most notable (in his opinion) being 976-EVIL. It was through horror films that he began to get involved with other writers, eventually working on some television series episodes as well.

The screenwriter then jumped into the process of adapting L.A. Confidential, which I was astounded to hear took three whole years to write. His biggest challenge was trying to transform a 496-page book into a two-hour film, the plot of the film ultimately being much different than the book. Helgeland won an Academy Award (along with director Curtis Hanson) for the adapted screenplay in 1997.

He then went on to talk about writing and directing Payback, the 1999 adaptation of a Donald Westlake novel, starring Mel Gibson. Off all of his works, this seemed to present the most hurdles, the final straw being that he was fired as director by Gibson himself. Helgeland said after that he felt like he was in "movie jail" and the only escape was to write his way out.

He did just that, with the following year's A Knight's Tale putting him back on the map. This was perhaps my most favorite part of the talk, as he discussed the research he did for the film. The biggest obstacle? Finding people who could joust, and were also willing to do it!

Wrapping up the event, Helgeland discussed his work on Mystic River, and eventually led us into his process of writing 42. He was drawn to the film because of several biopics he had already written, and he knew he had the heart to do it. He said the happiest moment was showing the film to Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's wife. Her approval of the movie was what made him feel he had done the work justice.

As questions from the audience came to a close, one question and response seemed to sum up what it means to be a writer. Someone asked why Helgeland wasn't more bitter towards his hardships --getting fired and having to start over time and again. Helgeland's response, after some thought and with a smile, was simply "I didn't want to get beat."

AFF's next Conversation in Film will be at the Harry Ransom Center on May 22 with screenwriter David Magee.