Hunting for Truth
January 11, 2013 by Scott W. Smith
“Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”
Novelist Paul Lieberman (Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles)
Interview with Jessy Williams
“With journalism and with detective work, you’re searching for the narrative. You’re sort of hunting around for the truth of it. It’s really the same whether you’re writing about Batman and Superman or these cops in 1949. You’re searching for something that’s true.”
Journalist turned cop turned screenwriter Will Beall (Gangster Squad)
The San Diego Union-Tribune
After revisiting the modern classic Chinatown the last three days on this blog (writing, directing, shooting) , it’s fitting to segue into the movie Gangster Squad which opens in 3,500 theaters today. While the film appears more LA Confidential/Scarface (1932)/The Untouchables than Chinatown at least one key scene takes place in Chinatown. And Gangster Squad is set the glamorous L.A. of the 40’s, close to the glamorous L.A. of the 30s seen in Chinatown so it’s easy to make the connection.
But one creative difference between the films is Chinatown was written by Robert Towne who would have been forty years old when the film was released in 1974, and had almost 15 years of writing credits behind him. Gangster Squad screenwriter Will Beall also happens to 40 years old as Gangster Squad hits the theaters, but this is his first film credit. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been long preparing for a writing career in Hollywood, but just five years he was a veteran cop with the L.A. Police Department.
Beall attended San Diego State University where he was an English major and editor of The Daily Aztec. After reporting on a campus murder in which the murder suspect hung himself, Beall decided that journalism may not be the right career path for him. He graduated in 1996 and two years later was on a new and different career path.
“Will Beall became a Los Angeles officer in 1998, he wrote only police reports. The exception: He kept a journal during his decade with the force and turned it into the novel “L.A. Rex” in 2007, which led him to Joseph Wambaugh and others who knew police work and writing.”
Matthew T. Hall
‘Gangster Squad’ writer’s best story? His Own
It was the cop turned novelist/screenwriter Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) who encouraged Beall to leave the department. And when producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to L.A. Rex doors began to open. Beall began writing for the TV show Castle and is now well positioned within the film industry attached at this point to write (or has written) Logan’s Run, Lethal Weapon 5, and Justice League. Hard to believe just five years ago he was working for the Los Angeles Police Department.
But as I wrote in the post Don’t Quit Your Day Job and Writers: Don’t Skip Jury Duty some fresh story ideas and experiences come from those places. In fact, one of the memorable lines in the Gangster Squad came from one of Beall’s sergeants:
“There’s two things you can’t take back on this job, pal: bullets out of your gun and words out of your mouth.”
Since one of the main focuses on this blog is to focus on where writers come from, it’s worth noting that in the five years of writing about screenwriting and screenwriters I can only think of two credited screenwriters from San Diego way (Cameron Crowe
and Kem Nunn
). I’m sure there are others, but I’d bet there are more writers from the Chicago area than there are from San Diego. (And technically, before Beall went to college in San Diego, he grew up in Walnut Creek—so he s really more of a San Francisco Bay-area guy.)
Having spent a little bit of time in both areas over the years I think I can make a sweeping generalization that a Chicago writer is surrounded by a rich literary tradition of journalism, novelist, playwrights, improv, and screenwriters, and a San Diego writer is surrounded by beaches and sunshine. The extreme weather in Chicago is more conducive to reading and writing, the weather in San Diego is more conducive to surfing and bike riding.Chicagoans also have a chip on their shoulder being in the shadow of New York in L.A.—so they tend eventually gravitate to either coast in order to really prove their worth. To make it. People who live in San Diego believe they have already made it. They get to live in San Diego. Paradise. I remember driving along the beaches in La Jolla as a 21-year-old and never wanting to leave.
In fact, perhaps the only reason to leave La Jolla’s paradise is to drive over the bridge into Coronado to get a different angle on paradise. (But I’m open to being proven wrong.) But if you want to be a screenwriter from San Diego, Beall is a good example to follow. He stepped into a world full of conflict and crime, and hung out with police officers who had been around since the Watts Riots
of the 60s. Now in the past five years of writing Beall’s probably made enough money writing that he could afford a beach front house in San Deigo. Good thing for him to, because if he’d have stuck with journalism he not only wouldn’t be in a position to look at beachfront property, but he may not even have a job in the shrinking world of print reporting.
P.S. Gangster Squad’s novelist Paul Lieberman is a native New Yorker who spent 24-years as a reporter and editor for the LA Times, but his book—though an L.A. story— does begin smack dab in the Midwest:
Fred Whalen learned to scam along the Mississippi, the river that divides America, at pool halls and revivals. He was born in 1898 in Alton, Illinois, just upriver from St. Louis, and by the time he was a teenager he had figured out the traveling evangelists who set up shop in tents, barns, and occasionally, even, in real churches. He saw the people writhing in divine ecstasy out in their congregations and sensed immediately what was up: they were phonies, plants, shills for the preachers. Little Freddie was barely able to see over the pews but he knew they were fakers, those folks writhing in the aisles. So he’d take his coat and cover them up and spoil the show … until the preachers began paying him $5 to stay away.
Update 1/12/13: Just learned that novelist/screenwriter Raymond Chandler
(Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep
) actually died in La Jolla. So even through he was born in Chicago, raised partly in England, and became the quintessential L.A. writer, I’ll still put him down as the most famous screenwriter connected to San Diego. The La Jolla house he lived in until he died in 1959 recently sold for $6 million
Telling the Truth= Humor
Screenwriting the Chicago Way
Scott W. Smith