After getting his start writing low budget horror movies like "976-EVIL" (1988) and "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" (1988), writer-director Brian Helgeland developed into an Academy Award-winning scribe and one of the top script doctors in the business. Helgeland had his first taste of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking with "Assassins" (1995) and "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), both of which were directed by Richard Donner. But it was his adaptation of James Ellroy's dense crime noir "L.A. Confidential" (1997) that not only won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, but also launched him to the top tier of Hollywood scribes. From there, he was able to embark on his first directing effort, "Payback" (1999), a dark crime thriller that led to his sophomore helming effort, "A Knight's Tale" (2001), which became a surprise hit at the box office. Following his understated mystery thriller "The Order" (2003), Helgeland returned strictly to writing scripts, working with big name directors like Clint Eastwood on "Blood Work" (2002) and "Mystic River" (2003), Tony Scott on "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009), and Ridley Scott on "Robin Hood" (2010).
Born on Jan. 17, 1961 in Providence, RI, Helgeland was raised by his father, Thomas, and his mother, Karin. After graduating from New Bedford High School, he took some time off to work as a scallop fisherman before attending the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, where he received his bachelor's in literature in 1983. Heading out West, he earned his master's degree in film studies from Loyola Marymount University, which led to writing his first script and a second-place finish in the now-defunct FOCUS Awards, formerly sponsored by Nissan. Soon Helgeland began writing professionally, putting pen to paper for Renny Harlin's "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" (1988), starring Robert Englund, and Englund's directorial debut, "976-EVIL" (1988), a slow-moving, but well-acted horror flick about a nerdy young man (Stephen Geoffreys) living with his religious fanatic aunt (Sandy Dennis) who discovers a direct phone line to hell. His experience writing horror features led to a stint as a writer for "Friday the 13th: The Series" (syndicated, 1987-1990), a small screen version of the unrelenting film franchise.
Sticking with the same genre, Helgeland received his first solo screenwriting credit for "Highway to Hell" (1992), a horror spoof about a determined man (Chad Lowe) who goes on the road to hell in order to save his girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) from Satan (Patrick Bergen). He stepped up his game when he joined forces with director Richard Donner as the co-writer of the simple-minded action-thriller "Assassins" (1995), which starred Sylvester Stallone as a professional hit man looking to get out of the business, only to be targeted by an up-and-comer (Antonio Banderas) trying to take him out for good. Helgeland teamed with Donner again for the interesting, but ultimately disappointing thriller, "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), which starred a manic Mel Gibson who indulges in a variety of conspiracy theories until coming across a plot that turns out to be real. Despite the star power of Gibson and Julie Roberts, the movie split critics while faring moderately well at the box office.
Helgeland reached the apotheosis of his profession with his adaptation of James Ellroy's serpentine crime noir saga, "L.A. Confidential" (1997), which he co-wrote with director Curtis Hanson. Big, complicated and incorporating numerous plotlines that manage to come together smoothly in the end, "L.A. Confidential" was a splashy, mesmerizing look at police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles. After winning the job following a meeting with Hanson, where he expressed his love of both Ellroy and the novel itself, Helgeland spent two years writing drafts gratis, while cutting down the seemingly impossible-to-adapt book into manageable parts. Instead of infusing the eight or so plotlines, Helgeland and Hanson narrowed their script down to three, focusing on Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), a violent and ill-tempered cop; Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious by-the-book detective; and Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a Hollywood operator who serves as a police consultant on the fictional TV show "Badge of Honor," while setting up celebrity busts with a sleazy tabloid reporter (Danny DeVito). All run afoul of the corrupt Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), who helps keep the streets of Los Angeles safe for mobsters, drug dealers and a high-class pimp (David Straitharn) running a prostitution ring of celebrity look-alikes, including a warm-hearted dead-ringer for Veronica Lake (Kim Basinger).
Not only was "L.A. Confidential" a hit with critics and audiences, it earned numerous awards at the end-of-year ceremonies, winning Academy Awards for Basinger and the writing team of Hanson-Helgeland. Amidst the Oscar frenzy, Helgeland was conversely honored with his first Razzie Award for "The Postman" (1997), a futuristic drama starring Kevin Costner about a post-apocalyptic world that was near-universally panned by critics and avoided by audiences. Helgeland was only the fourth recipient in Razzie history to accept his award in person - perhaps a result of his numerous critics' awards and eventual Oscar for "L.A. Confidential." Meanwhile, he made his directorial debut with the angry crime thriller, "Payback" (1999), a remake of "Point Blank" (1968) which itself was adapted from the Donald E. Westlake novel The Hunter. The film starred Mel Gibson as a vengeance-minded thief who goes after the man (Gregg Henry) who stole his money and his wife before trying to kill him. Once again, Helgeland's efforts were panned by critics, even though the film performed well at the box office backed by Gibson's star power. Prior to its release, however, Helgeland was fired right after principle photography wrapped once the studio deemed the movie too dark for audiences. An uncredited Paul Abascal was hired to reshoot some scenes, while several years later Helgeland released "Payback: Straight Up" (2006), a DVD director's cut release.
Helgeland fared better with his second foray as a writer-director, the surprise success "A Knight's Tale" (2001), an anachronistic medieval swashbuckler set to a soundtrack of modern arena-rock anthems and starring Heath Ledger as a 14th century commoner who disguises himself as a noble in order to compete in jousting tournaments. Despite mixed reviews over Helgeland's stylized take on the medieval times, "Knight's Tale" was a big hit with audiences. Returning to strictly screenwriting duties, he adapted Michael Connelly's novel for the Clint Eastwood-directed crime drama "Blood Work" (2002) before returning to the director's chair to helm "The Order" (2003), an atmospheric mystery thriller about a priest (Ledger) in a secret religious order sent to Rome to solve a murder. Meanwhile, Eastwood hired Helgeland again to adapt Dennis Lehane's novel for the veteran actor-director's effort, "Mystic River" (2003), a gritty, twisting crime thriller about three Boston friends (Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins) torn apart by murder. Once again, Helgeland saw his work critically honored after earning both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.
While writing and directing his own films, Helgeland also became one of the top script doctors in Hollywood, raking in big bucks for uncredited rewrites of "Bad Company" (2002), the Joel Schumacher thriller "Phone Booth" (2003), "Daredevil" (2003) and the action-comedy sequel "Bad Boys II" (2003). He received credit for his adaptation of "Man on Fire" (2004), which starred Denzel Washington as a bodyguard who goes on the hunt for the kidnapper of the little girl (Dakota Fanning) he was hired to protect. After some time away, Helgeland emerged to pen "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009), director Tony Scott's deft remake of the 1974 crime thriller which starred Washington as an MTA employee forced to grapple a group of hijackers led by a disgruntled Wall Street broker and ex-con (John Travolta). Following the under-the-radar children's fantasy, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" (2009), and the Paul Greengrass political thriller, "Green Zone" (2010), Helgeland was hired to rewrite a script called "Nottingham" - an inventive take on the Robin Hood tale that focused on the famed Sheriff as the central character and turned Robin into a villain - and restore the story to its more traditional form. The result was "Robin Hood" (2010), directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, which attempted to mix real-life history with the mythical legend, leading to a muddled story that received mixed critical reviews and a tepid take at the box office. Meanwhile, he churned out a rewrite of Kurt Wimmer's script for "Salt" (2010), a political thriller about a dedicated CIA officer (Angelina Jolie) accused of being a Russian mole.