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Interview: When 'L.A. Noir' meets 'The Walking Dead'

January 18, 2012 | 10:30 am

FrankdarabontmickeycohenWhat do zombies have in common with the toughest Los Angeles gangster of the 1950s? Director Frank Darabont.

Darabont was executive producer and visionary behind AMC's zombie series "The Walking Dead." After the first season, he was mysteriously dismissed (and the show took a turn for the worse), and apparently, he was looking for something else to do. He's been drawn to literary properties in the past -- Stephen King's "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and "The Walking Dead" was a comic book series by Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Last week, it was announced that Darabont is developing a pilot for TNT based on the true tale of Los Angeles cops and gangsters in the 1950s, John Buntin's "L.A. Noir."

"L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," Buntin's first book, was published by Crown in 2009. He answered Carolyn Kellogg's questions via email.

Jacket Copy: So, wait. Are there any zombies in your book "L.A. Noir"?

John Buntin: "L.A. Noir" is full of dead men walking. Mob kingpin Mickey Cohen was eerily unkillable -- so much so that his competitors (the local Italian mob) became quite spooked. Sniper attacks, shot gun assaults, bombings -- nothing worked. To superstitious Sicilians, it was deeply unnerving.

JC: What do you think drew Frank Darabont to the material?

JB: The era "L.A. Noir" describes -- Los Angeles in the '30s, '40s, and '50s -- was ground zero for so much of what defines our culture today. Hard-boiled detective fiction's big bang may have occurred in San Francisco -- I'd never slight Dashiell Hammett -- but it took root in L.A. Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and the great writers that followed all start then and there. Mid-century Los Angeles also gave us film noir and the first police procedural ("Dragnet"), not to mention stars, celebrity sex, and the scandal sheets, strippers, serial killers, and a lot of great jazz. So the possibilities of writing a show in this era are incredibly diverse. And the places they happened are in many cases still there!

JC: Have you ever talked to Darabont?

JB: We have corresponded. He's been very gracious in a number of ways but particularly in sharing some of his thinking about how to approach this material. That's been really fascinating. As a nonfiction writer, one strives for drama, but the possibilities are bounded by the historical record. "L.A. Noir" has two main characters, the mobster Mickey Cohen and the police chief who created the "Dragnet"-era LAPD, Bill Parker. That helps. It allows me to vary the tempo by shifting characters and points of view; I was also able to pass over the gaps in the historical record about the life of one mainly by focusing on the other. The fact that the historical record is so wild -- Mickey Cohen's friendship with the Rev. Billy Graham, anyone? -- also helps. But writing a TV show clearly draws on skills that a nonfiction writer doesn't get much chance to exercise. Take dialogue.  As a nonfiction writer, quotes are hard-won, precious. They must come from a source. In a TV drama, writing dialogue is one of the dramatist's first tasks. It's the mainstay of the story and a chance for real fun. It's eye-opening to read someone who's so good at it. Then there's perspective. It feels kind of lazy to think, "Oh, first person perspective; I'm going to write this from Mickey's viewpoint" after reading a script that really specifies what the viewer will see -- height, focus, and so worth. Thinking in new ways about perspective has been really interesting, too.

JC: Do you think television is the right venue for the story you tell?

JB: Absolutely. "L.A. Noir" is a big book. It begins in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1920s, with Mickey Cohen beginning his life of crime (at age nine) and Bill Parker arriving (at age 17) from Deadwood, S.D., only to be ensnared. It ends in the '60s for Parker, the '70s for Cohen. Both men change. Los Angeles changes. The cast of characters who cross their paths -- mobster Bugsy Siegel, movie executive Jack Warner and Harry Cohn, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, the Rat Pack, Bill Graham, Ronald Reagan -- is vast. It's a great backdrop for a writer to riff on. I can't wait to see where the show goes.

JC: Have you been working on a follow-up?

JB: At the moment, I'm working on something, something whimsical — an advice book about how to think like the world's most famous detective. Also how to fight like him. Robert Downey Jr., watch out!


Festival of Books 2010: Author John Buntin

James Ellroy's wild ride

James M. Cain, minus the noir

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Left, Frank Darabont in 2010. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times. Right, Mickey Cohen circa 1945, from the book "Imagining Los Angeles: Photographs of a 20th Century City," published by Los Angeles Times, 2000.