Author James Ellroy
goes on the record
about The Black Dahlia.
One doesn’t earn a reputation as the “demon dog” of American crime writing by rolling over and playing dead.
Glowering from the suspect’s chair, prepped for anything after writing a library of good cop/bad cop interrogations, James Ellroy proves himself to be one cool customer.
In town to promote the film version of his novel The Black Dahlia (1987), Ellroy has been through this process before, notably with Curtis Hanson’s acclaimed 1997 adaptation of L.A. Confidential. That movie was a breakthrough for Ellroy, who says it brought him an influx of new readers. Still, he won’t compare the two films.
“Any writer who takes the option money, who is sent around the country and around the world in the swankiest of accommodations to promote the movie, should treat it as a godsend, and treat everyone involved with it with deference and gratitude,” he says.
“I’m happy with it,” he says of the Dahlia movie, directed by Brian De Palma. “It’s here to sell me books. I’m out here to put asses in seats.”
One might expect a less pragmatic response, given the topic at hand. The inspiration for Ellroy’s novel is one of Los Angeles’ most legendary unsolved crimes, the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, who was nicknamed the “Black Dahlia” by the press. What’s more, Ellroy has written of the parallels between Short’s death and the unsolved murder of his mother in 1958, when he was ten. (Its similarities to the Dahlia case are explored in his 1996 memoir, My Dark Places.)
There’s also the matter of De Palma, whose uniquely divisive films can prompt even the calmest of critics to smash beer bottles and start circling the pool table. Although the filmmaker has a checkered history with adaptations (The Bonfire of the Vanities, anyone?), Ellroy was pleased with the choice. “He is a man who works very, very avidly, concertedly and deftly with the theme of sexual obsession,” Ellroy says.
At the very least, Dahlia, adapted by screenwriter Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds), is a less commercial film than L.A. Confidential, often short-circuiting its narrative in favor of in-jokey references, including one scene shot entirely from the perspective of Robert Montgomery in the first-person-camera stunt Lady in the Lake (1947).
No matter. “It’s my book, and it’s Mr. De Palma’s film,” Ellroy says—an attitude that also means lower emotional stakes if it fails. (“I don’t give a shit,” Ellroy says of that scenario.)
Even if the movie doesn’t repeat the success of L.A. Confidential, Ellroy says, “I’ll still sell 100,000 books, at a buck and a quarter a book. That’s just in the United States. Then there’s the rest of the world. I’m gonna be getting checks off this fucking thing for years, and bringing in new readers who will not only read this book but the others as well.”
De Palma’s habitual allusions to Vertigo seem appropriate in this context, since Dahlia tells a similar story: A cop (Josh Hartnett) and his partner (Aaron Eckhart) become obsessed with the murder of Short (Mia Kirshner), with Hartnett increasingly bewitched by a wealthy bisexual (Hilary Swank) whom he comes to see as Short’s doppelgänger. Scarlett Johansson plays the men’s mutual love interest.
Even without De Palma’s additions, Dahlia’s intersections with Vertigo are undeniable—not least because both stories involve a femme fatale named Madeleine. Ellroy says he never had Hitchcock’s classic in mind while writing. “Who knows what’s conscious and what’s unconscious,” he muses. “I’ll tell you this: One of the last movies I saw before my mother was murdered, in 1958, was Vertigo. Vertigo was released in May of ’58; my mother was murdered in June.”
Ellroy is less receptive to other comparisons. He sees Dahlia as “historical romance” rather than film noir, and believes (as many do) that noir ended in the 1950s. “I think Chinatown is a bad movie,” he says when the 1974 film is mentioned. “I think it is poorly done from the get-go, and I think its iconic reputation is bullshit.”
He scoffs at the notion that seeing Dahlia adapted to the screen opened any doors he’d rather have closed. Even so: “This movie allows me, at the end of this entire fall of touring, to say I will never answer another question about The Black Dahlia, my mother’s murder, my personal life, ever again,” he says. “And that’s good. I’m 58, and I’ve got a lot of books to write in my lifetime.”
The Black Dahlia opens Friday 15.