Black Dahlia Interview : Brian De Palma

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Master storyteller Brian De Palma, known for such classic crime dramas as “The Untouchables,” “Scarface,” and “Carlito’s Way,” and his thrillers “Carrie,” “Dressed to Kill,” and “Blow Out,” is famous for exploring themes of suspense, obsession, and gender identity.  To this day, his “Carrie” remains one of the most brilliant adaptations of a Stephen King novel.   The Italian-American director has also showcased his diverse filmmaking talents in other genres ranging from blockbuster action (“Mission: Impossible”) to war drama (“Casualties of War”), science fiction (“Mission to Mars”), and comedy (“Wise Guys”). 

While known for a signature, deft style – one of recurring Hitchcockian themes, doppelgangers, femmes fatales, explosions of operatic violence, and sweeping and stalking cameras – the director is the first to laughingly admit that he doesn’t consciously ask, “How can I make this more Brian De Palma?” when he starts a picture.  “That’s an unconscious thing.  I don’t know why you’re attracted to certain material,” he notes.  There’s just something that hooks you in and intrigues you.” 

De Palma’s unique vision, talent for writing, his sense of construction, his framing and rhythm are worthy of the best Hollywood directors.  He is often cited as a leading member of the New Hollywood generation of film directors who either emerged from film school or are overtly cine-literate.  His contemporaries include Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg.

In his latest project, De Palma directs an unforgettable adaptation of novelist James Ellroy’s classic “The Black Dahlia,” the ultimate tale of obsession.  The twists and turns of the intricate plot and numerous subplots reveal multilayered themes of unrestrained passions, mirror images, vivid violence and ruinous obsessions – dark motifs and feverish throughlines of psychosexual obsession that director De Palma shares in common with Ellroy. 

De Palma, who is an avid fan of crime fiction, recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like to helm “The Black Dahlia” and the challenges he faced making the noir thriller.  Here’s what Brian De Palma had to tell us about his experience:

Q: Was your vision for this film more a recreation of L.A. of that period or a recreation of ‘movie L.A.’ of that period?

BDP: Well, you know there’s that great documentary, “L.A. Plays Itself,” that shows all these locations as seen through the movies. Well, the problem is first finding the locations, you know, what exists. And then with me, with the location … that gives me all kind of visual ideas. And this was an unusual movie because the financing kept falling through so I had to go to different capitals and find the locations all again. The Linscott mansion I found in four different countries. You have to deal with what you actually have, then with your art director you figure out how I can change it to sort of fit into the design of the movie, and in this case, the key locations changed many times until we finally got enough financing to make the movie in Bulgaria. And by then I’d gone through a permutation of these different principal locations like the Linscotts, the circular staircase which I originally found here in Los Angeles. And then I found something in the Municipal Building in Bulgaria that was somewhat similar to my initial idea. So what happens is that these ideas they become concrete in photographs and then they go into your brain and then you design a sequence to make it and that becomes the design of the movie. And, of course, you’re collaborating with Dante Ferretti who has a great eye and you come up with something that is an original look for the noir piece.

Q: Did you have a favorite location here in L.A. that was particularly fun to shoot at?

BDP: Favorite? The locations in L.A. are pretty generic. I mean City Hall, Hollywood Blvd.  I mean you had to have these places. This is where this happened. We’re at the Biltmore, you know.  It’s not in the Ellroy book, but in every Black Dahlia story this is the last place she made a phone call from. Yeah, they’re here and we’re here. (laughter)

Q: I thought the film looked really good. Can you talk specifically about how you got the look, and especially in post, how important was post in a film like this?

BDP: Well, it’s important to Vilmos because he likes to play around with the saturation of the colors and in this present day of this technology, you can shoot something one way and later adjust it in the digital process of making the final negative of the movie. Again, as I said before, it all depends on the places. You’ve got to find the places first and then you’ve got to build places like the whole street that the shoot out occurs and the Dahlia murder scene behind and the whole Zoot Suit riot. I mean you’ve got to build those places. So Dante built like three or four city blocks in Bulgaria

Q: And you’ve edited nearly all your films with Bill Pankow?

BDP: And Paul Hirsch, either one or the other, depending on who’s available.

Q: Can you talk about that relationship? How does that work with Bill? Is it like second nature by now?

BDP: Yeah, I mean we’ve made so many movies together that whenever I …you know, we go through and select the takes together. And then I’ve laid the scene out and he sort of puts it together. And you don’t change it too much, you know, we’ve been doing this so long.

Q: And is he on the set in Bulgaria with you?

BDP: He’s not on the set. He’s in the editing room, but he’s there.

Q: He’s in Sophia?

BDP: Oh yeah. And you go into the editing room every day. And the advantage of digital editing is that you can adjust the movie as you’re shooting it.

Q: Could you talk about the dark comedy elements of it and also setting the tone of the film because you have extreme violence and you’ve got stark comedy. Can you talk about that?

BDP: But that’s the tone of the book. I mean that very much exists in the book. I was just talking to some journalist about [how] this is closer to “Sunset Blvd.” With the funeral of the monkey, when he arrives at Norma’s estate, it’s like, ‘OK. How are we supposed to take that?’ Take Bill Holden’s kind of raw-eyed analysis of what he’s watching and this is very much true in this piece too because once you’re at the Linscott’s, you in a nut house. These people are insane. And the way Ellroy wrote it is sort of like a comic opera. I don’t know how else to explain it. So what I did in order to get that across to the audience originally was to shoot the entrance in first person. I said, ‘OK, you want to see these people? Let them look at you. Let Mrs. Linscott just look at you like you’re trash.’ ‘How is this policeman in my living room?’ So that was the adjustment I made, and when you have a dog stuffed with a newspaper from his first million dollars, Hilary just sort of tosses it off like the weather. I mean, you go, ‘Wow! I’m in a loony bin here and everybody seems to think it’s quite normal.’ And that’s exactly how I did it very much in the tone of the Ellroy book.

Q: Can you talk about giving life to the character of the Dahlia and your own particular role in the scenes with Mia to sort of lighten this up?

BDP: Well, that was something that wasn’t in the book and all we had was the Dahlia and her 8X10’s and then this grotesquely carved body in this lot. Everybody talks about her in all kinds of not too positive ways whether it’s her father or the Cleopatra. They’ve all kind of got bad stories about her so I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to show the audience her so that they care about her and so that they can get involved with this tragedy the way that Lee and Bucky ultimately did. So there were a bunch of screen tests in an early version of the script. So Mia and I got together and we started with that and I played the director and she played the person auditioning. And I would just do what a very destructive director would try to do. I guess I was Otto Preminger trying to destroy the actress before your eyes. And Mia played off it. She’s an actress, she’s insecure, she wants the job. And I’m saying, ‘Is that acting?’ ‘Is that sadness?’ And she brought it right to the heart of the audience. It’s very moving stuff because it’s all real. Those are just one very long take after another and the reason it seems so vivid is it’s happening right before your eyes.

Q: When you first signed onto the movie, the vision you had from here to the final cut of the movie, has your vision changed much or was it pretty much the same and do you know …?

BDP: It all has to do with specific places, your vision. The process of making a movie is you take what’s in your head and then you have to concretely represent it, the things that have to be photographed. So it’s starts with [inaudible]. What’s available in terms of the places that you can shoot. So immediately when you look around, you can tell a lot about how a director – something I used to teach a little bit – when you see a movie and somebody just drives up in front of a hotel and gets out and it’s not like a very interesting hotel and doesn’t tell you anything about the characters or the story, you say, ‘Was anybody thinking about this particular selection?’ I mean you people and I see movies all the time and you go… Well, this is how I got into movies, I said, ‘Any idiot can do this’ because it doesn’t look like there’s any thought that goes into this. I mean I think about everything that goes up on that screen. Because I remember movies where I was entranced by the selection of the actors, the costumes, the locations, the historical period, all those things. And when you see somebody that actually looks like … Take “Pride and Prejudice,” for instance. There’s a subject that’s been done many times over and suddenly you have some director bringing a specific vision to it with a great art director. And then you go, “Wow!” I’ve seen 73 Pride and Prejudices. Why does this one seem to jump off the screen? It has a lot to do with the selection of those visual elements.

Q: When you’re talking about selecting these elements you’re specifically talking about selecting an actress. Fiona Shaw in this movie, in my opinion, is a great selection in a role that ends up being very pivotal to this movie and in England, she’s a star over there. Nobody over here would know her.  She’s in “Harry Potter.” How did you find her?

BDP: Well, I’ve known Fiona Shaw… I’ve watched her work for years. She’s one of the great actresses of our day. And you’re right, nobody knows who the hell she is. And when she comes into my office in Santa Monica, you know, *Fiona Shaw*, and starts to read. She wasn’t even reading for that part. She was reading for the neighbor. And you suddenly…because we sit in offices and we watch people read lines and you go, “OK. That’s great.” And we’ve heard them 173 times. And they don’t come to life unless they’re in the hands of a really fine actor. And then suddenly you get a great actress. I mean one of the great actresses of her day. And she suddenly makes this material just jump off at you and she can do *anything*. You can mold her and direct her. This is what I found with Vanessa Redgrave in “Mission Impossible.” They can do anything. And they’re very cooperative. They’re used to being directed. And they just want to see how, you know, ‘What can I do to make this better?’ And she was a revelation and she’s got all that horrendous exposition to deal with. Can you imagine that in the hands of somebody else? She manages to do some grotesque comic thing with it that’s fascinating. When I was shooting her, I was just like this, ‘Oh, my God! What is she going to do next?’ To get through the whole flashback and all that stuff that you’ve got to communicate, Freddy the Explainer has got to communicate to the audience, and she does it in such a fantastic, kind of grand opera way complete with the sort of smile and then she blows her brains out. Of course, many people will think, ‘Oh, my God! It’s over the top. How could anybody believe this?’ But I thought it was just marvelous and I think she’s a genius of an actress.

Q: A couple of questions. One related to what you were just saying. She was originally reading for the part of the neighbor who was left out as well as several elements of the book that were eliminated. What sort of winnowing process is there or is there a negotiation with James Ellroy?

BDP: Oh, no, no, no, no.  Ellroy, his attitude is, ‘I got the money. Good luck.’ (laughter)  OK? No, we have to deal with these problems by ourselves. That part was a neighbor who has the clown portrait. OK. I’ve got this clown portrait that’s supposed to get... I’ve got to get this image in the audience’s mind of this Guinn playing.  Now, how the hell am I going to do that if it’s in the neighbor’s house? It’s not even in the Linscott house. It was sold later on because the book has many things, of course, that happened over a period of time. Her husband’s just killed himself. There’s a whole other story with the neighbor that talks about the Linscott children, and especially about Madeleine, and what a nut case she is. That’s a whole other line that I had to sort of say…actually I’d cast the part . I mean my friend Amy Irving was cast in the part when we were going to do it and then I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I mean we’re going to go down to the neighbors and that’s where the painting is and then we’re going to explain how it got there. I said, ‘Why don’t we just have the painting in the Linscott house?’ It never got out of the house. So that’s the process of cutting all that stuff.  It’s like combining the assassination of Baxter Fitch with the discovery of the Dahlia body. Those happened one thing after another, days and weeks apart. But I put them together to move the story along because everybody’s [going] ‘when are we going to get to the Black Dahlia?’ You know, in the book it’s about page 130. So again, it was an attempt to try to deal with the back story. Indeed, there’s a whole bunch of more material about Bucky and his dirty dealings and Lee with the bank robbery and all that stuff. I tried to get that very much compressed in the beginning so you can get on to the sort of nightmare that’s obsessing this trio in the mid-part of the story.

Q: And the word that you just said was my other question. Obsession. Because especially with Bucky we really do see the impact that it has on somebody. As a filmmaker, can you identify with that?  Is it a powerful force and maybe something to be wary of?

BDP: No, absolutely. This is what we do as directors. We create these images for you people to watch and fall in love with and then watch what happens to them. We try to get you obsessed with our characters. You know “Vertigo” is the template on this. I create an illusion, you fall in love with it, and then I kill it. ‘Don’t you feel bad? (laughter) Oh, there she is again. You can recreate it. And now I’m going to kill it again.’ (laughter)

Q: Of your films, which is your favorite?

BDP: Oh, that’s changes. I mean I see them on television and you know I watch them for a while.  People come up to me. The movies they talk a lot about are “Scarface,” “Blowout.”

Q: “Sisters?”

BDP: Not a lot about “Sisters.” I don’t hear a lot about “Sisters.” “Carrie.” Everybody tells me how they jumped out of their skin when the hand came out in “Carrie.” They talk about, ‘Oh, what a wonderful picture “The Untouchables” is,’ but they have more passion towards some of these other ones.

Q: There are obviously some special effects in this film. Can you just talk a little bit about that? How many are there? Do you like doing visual effects? They’re very subtle, it seems, and they don’t jump out at you.

BDP: They’re not a lot of visual effects in this film. Obviously, the guys falling down.  They’re on wires that we had to remove.  The cut on the cheek is like a trick knife you’d find in a magic store that’s hollow and blood comes out even as horrifying as it is and Mia’s doing a great job making you feel uncomfortable. Of course, we had problems with making the palm trees burst into flames in the Zoot Suit riots, but that was because of our Bulgarian special effects crew. (laughter) I think the funniest thing was when I’m doing this incredibly complicated crane and tracking shot and the sailors have to throw somebody through a window, and that takes me hours to lay it all out, choreograph it, and we do it, and then I come back and they said, ‘Is that it?’ And I said, ‘Is that it? You kidding? That was Take 1.’ And they said, ‘We only have one window.’ (laughter)

Q: Did you ever think of possibly having one actress play the Madeleine and the Elizabeth character?

BDP: That never occurred to me. That never occurred to me to have them both play the same … Then it becomes like a Bette Davis twin picture or something. (laughter) I love the fact that Hilary … It was her idea to use that black wig, you know, to go to these gay bars. How come nobody has commented on my fantastic Lesbian floor show? (laughter) I’m so proud of it. (laughter) I’ve heard not one question about that. Now why is that?

Q: Tell us about the Lesbian floor show? (laughter)

BDP: Oh, really? Well, I figured there’d be some really trendy club in Hollywood or some gay movie star type club so it would be not like a low down dive. It’d be some really hip place. And hanging out with my Lesbian friends, they like pretty girls too. So I said, ‘Why not have a Lesbian chorus line of these drop-dead beautiful girls making out with each other?’ So I had this choreographer that worked for me, a French choreographer that worked with me on “Femme Fatale” and she actually had these Bulgarian dancers and a couple of ringers from Paris. She created this Bulgarian… (laughs) And we got this great singer to sing the song and I shot it all night. It was my last night in Bulgaria. And I kept on shooting it until the plane took off. (laughter) You know, those dancers, I had them do it so many times. And poor k.d. Lang said, “If I have to come down that staircase one more time...’

Q: Did you see that immediate chemistry between Josh and Scarlett because obviously you…?

BDP: No, to tell you the truth, I never realized anything was going on until Scarlett came to visit the set after her shooting was done. I said, ‘Why would anybody come back to Bulgaria to visit the set.’ That was the only time I knew anything. But I thought her scenes… I thought the way Hilary and he were going at each other … Josh was like ‘Whoa!’ I think the way that Hilary and Josh kiss each other is so erotic. I mean she’s like tasting him like he’s a great piece of fruit. (laughter)

Q: You talked about recreating some of your films with various different people’s favorite ideas. If you had an opportunity to redo any of your films, based on how technology has really changed and improved, [is there] any film if you had the luxury that you would redo again?

BDP: Well, I’m going to answer this with a very weird selection. It’s “Raising Cain,” because my idea of “Raising Cain” was the fact that I wanted the… The whole set up for “Raising Cain” … the idea that came to me was the idea of a man having an affair with a married woman and she comes over to your place in the afternoon and you make love with her and she falls asleep and then you have that wonderful problem of, ‘Why don’t I just let her stay asleep.’ So she sleeps through the whole night and she doesn’t go home. So that was always my idea and I was never… That’s how “Raising Cain” should work. You should start with the woman’s story. But for some reason it didn’t work and I had to go start with the Lithgow story because it was a lot more interesting and better acted. I don’t know why. It drove me crazy because I thought it was such a fabulous idea and I couldn’t make... That’s one that I would try to re-fix.

Brian De Palma’s next projects include the crime thriller “Toyer,” set in Los Angeles, starring Colin Firth and Juliette Binoche based on Gardner McKay’s first novel and “The Untouchables: Capone Rising,” about Capone’s arrival in Chicago and his subsequent rise to power.  “The Black Dahlia” opens in theaters on September 15th.  I invite you to read my review of the film and my interviews with Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, novelist James Ellroy, and screenwriter Josh Friedman.


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