Black Dahlia Interview : James Ellroy & Josh Friedman

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

James Ellroy, the self proclaimed ‘Demon Dog of American Crime fiction,’ was born in Los Angeles in 1948.  Considered one of the world’s most successful crime writers and essayists, his L.A. Quarter novels – "The Black Dahlia,” "The Big Nowhere,” "L.A. Confidential,” and "White Jazz” – are international bestsellers.  His "American Tabloid” was Time magazine’s Novel of the Year for 1995; his memoir, "My Dark Places,” was a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Best Book of the Year for 1996; his novel "The Cold Six Thousand” was a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year for 2001. 

Betty Short, the real name of the Black Dahlia, attracted the attention of novelist James Ellroy when he was just a child.  On his 11th birthday, his father gave him Jack Webb’s crime anthology, "The Badge,” for his birthday.  The L.A. native was entranced by Webb’s 10-page summary of Elizabeth Short’s demise.  His mother, Jean Hilliker, had been strangled only months before in a brutal (and to this day unsolved) crime, and Ellroy’s grief over her death transferred into an obsession with the Dahlia who became his muse and allowed him to distill his psychic pain into art.

Ellroy, like may others before and since, would chase the story of this iconic young Hollywood woman for years.  He recalls, "I bike-tripped to the Central Library.  I scanned the Dahlia case on microfilm and gorged myself on vanished L.A.  I time-tripped ’59 to ’47 L.A..  I made L.A.-now L.A.-then.  I began to live in the dual L.A. that I’ve lived in ever since.”  In fact, Ellroy would wait to write his seventh novel – the first of his L.A. quartet – 1987’s "The Black Dahlia,” until he "built story-telling muscle: with his earlier works, "Brown’s Requiem,” "Clandestine,” "Blood on the Moon,” and "Suicide Hill.””  The author admits he "needed to brace myself for life in L.A. ’47.”

Forty years after her killing, Ellroy crafted "The Black Dahlia,” a best-selling whodunit with Betty’s murder as its crux and boom-era L.A. as its backdrop.  Weaving a story of obsession, doppelgangers and those who became fixated on the brutal murder, Ellroy used the book as an attempt to exorcise demons from his own mother’s 1958 strangulation.

For Ellroy, the Dahlia wouldn’t rest with the end of his book.  He would go on to write a 1996 novel entitled "My Dark Places,” a memoir of his mother’s murder.  "I had to go through a very long journey with Elizabeth Short and write "The Black Dahlia” before I would get to my mother.  Elizabeth Short was always the fictional stand-in for my mother.  And my mother and she transmogrified, it was quite a heady brew.  They are as one, in my mind, much of the time.”

Screenwriter Josh Friedman, who co-authored the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 "War of the Worlds,” was originally tasked to hone Ellroy’s 300-plus-page "The Black Dahlia” into a filmable screenplay for director David Fincher (initially attached to the project in 1997) and producers Rudy Cohen and Moshe Diamant.  "David and I worked on it off-and-on for several years,” Friedman notes.  "I would write a draft, and we would talk about it…then we’d work on other projects.  I worked with Fincher for six years,” says Friedman.  "We never had a draft under 175 pages.” 

Eventually Fincher departed the film and, according to Friedman, "Brian De Palma came on, and it was like a locomotive.  At Brian and Art’s (producer Linson) urging, we made some significant changes to the script, and we were off.”  To bring the script down to a normal length, Friedman began revising characters and subplots and drawing straighter lines from the complex fabric of Ellroy’s densely packed tale of friendship, lust and betrayal.  Of his source material, the screenwriter offers, "I tend to not think of it as a genre book, but simply as historical fiction.  I went with the way Ellroy told the compelling story…he has such a unique way of interweaving.  I very much kept to the structure and the attitude of his characters engendered in the book.”

"James creates a whole noir world, and the way he tells his stories is very complex,” director De Palma adds.  "His language is so lush.  Josh was a very good barometer of what you could and couldn’t do with his work.  He lived and breathed Ellroy’s complex, dark material for a decade, forcing the material into Ellroy-ese, never taking the simple route.  Art and I worked with him for close to a year before the script was ready to go.”

James Ellroy and Josh Friedman recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like to collaborate on the adaptation of "The Black Dahlia” from novel to feature length film.  Here’s what they had to tell us about their experience and the challenges of transforming the fascinating bestseller that fictionalized real-life events of the Short case into a compelling film noir for the big screen:

Q: James, I’m wondering now that ….

JE: Have we met? We haven’t met, have we?

Q: We haven’t met.

JE: Call me Mr. Ellroy. (laughter)

Q: Mr. Ellroy, "The Black Dahlia” has joined "L.A. Confidential” as a screen adaptation. I’m wondering if "The Big Nowhere” is closer to going into production?

JE: Between the years 1986 and 1992 I wrote my L.A. quartet, an epic pop history of Los Angeles, my smog-bound fatherland, between the years 1947 and 1959: "The Black Dahlia,” "The Big Nowhere,” "L.A. Confidential.” and "White Jazz.”  "L.A. Confidential” and "The Black Dahlia” have been made as motion pictures, "The Big Nowhere” and "White Jazz” not so. I doubt, and this is no kind of comment on Mr. De Palma’s film or Curtis Hanson’s film, that there will ever be another motion picture made from one of my books, because dysfunctionalism in the motion picture industry trumps the creative process 99.9 percent of the time. Don’t hold your breath.

Q: There was a lot left out of the film because there was so much material in the book that you can’t put into a film. How do you distance yourself? This is ultimately still your baby here.  How do you distance yourself from the film product or can you?

JE: Money is the gift that no one ever returns. (laughter) In 1986, my novel "The Black Dahlia” was optioned. I’m a realist. I grew up on the edge of Hollywood. My old man was Rita Hayworth’s business manager in the late forties, and allegedly poured her the pork on several notable occasions, so I know that the motion picture option is to the finished and released movie what the first kiss is to the fiftieth monogamist anniversary. I never thought it would be a movie let alone a good movie, I have been very pleasantly surprised, in large part due to the efforts of Mr. Friedman.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the ending to the movie and how you think changing the ending from your book changes the theme and if it would be possible to make the movie with the ending that’s in the book?

JE: The ending of my novel "The Black Dahlia” takes place off page at a hush. Mr. De Palma’s film, written by Mr. Friedman, is a reduction and compression of my overall story. It retains the arc of motive and characterization, and isolates the key themes. The ending had to be more melodramatic than the ending of my novel, and it was executed thusly.

Q: I have a two-parter.  The L.A. of your youth and what you write about in this book ..when you look at the city now, I’m wondering what do you see? And for both of you:  So the Biltmore [Hotel] is in the book.  It’s not in the movie.  Tijuana and San Diego are prominent in the book and it’s not in the movie. The crow plucking the eyes out of the body is in the book. It’s not in the movie. Do you miss those?

JE: There’s no crow plucking eyes out of a body in my book. There are a number of crows in the movie, neither one of them, thank God, was Russell Crowe. (everyone laughs) What people are never prepared for is that a quality movie like this is nothing but good. My novel "The Black Dahlia” has reprinted in America six times and the movie isn’t even out yet. That’s a significant readership building for me off a theatrical trailer and attendant hoo-hah. (turning to Josh Friedman) Mr. Friedman?

JF: Mr. Ellroy will be paying me a portion of those book proceeds under the table. Right? (laughter)

JE: Yes. And gratefully so.

JF: You know, I think the book has to change and I think Mexico is one of those great sequences in the book that I kept in the adaptation as long as possible. There were many iterations of the screenplay through the years. Most of them I included. Mexico. I’m a greedy bastard when it comes to adaptations. I try to keep as much as I can as long as I can until the gun of practicality is placed at my head and the trigger is pulled.

Q: Can you address that Los Angeles question about the city of your youth? When you look at the city now, today, what is it you see?

JE: I see a multi-cultural hellhole, overpopulated, egregiously smoggy. I moved back here after twenty-five years away. I’m thrilled to be here. (laughter)

Q: Among your themes in the book and the film is obsession. And I’m wondering is that a valuable tool? Is it something important to a creative person to be able to use it or can you be overcome by it the way Bucky is?

JE: Bucky Bleichert’s obsessiveness with three women, Elizabeth Short/The Black Dahlia, Kay Lake and Madeleine Sprague, Madeleine Linscott in the movie, presaged my obsession with a woman named Joan many years later. It’s the greatest story that I’ll never tell. And obsession has worked for me, and obsession has almost killed me on several notable occasions.  Mr. Friedman, what do you have to say?

JF: I think addiction can get you to the computer either a lot quicker or a lot slower as a writer. For me, it was slow for a while and then quick. I think that obsession… I’m not a particularly obsessive person. I think Mr. Ellroy has much more experience evoking that. But I think that it certainly works for movies.

Q: And a follow up on that. Your afterward that’s included in the current edition of the book is also reprinted in the production notes. I thought it was very interesting and in some ways unexpected to go out with a very personal reflection on what is…  It crosses the line between what we expect from you as a creator of fiction and the fact that this is related to your real life. Why was it important to you to put that in there?

JE: There are two stories that comprise the central myth of my life:  My mother’s 1958 murder, unsolved. The unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. They live in my imagination. I’ve exploited them to sell books. Virtually every interviewer who’s interviewed me for over twenty years brings them up, and I have decided that Mr. De Palma’s film will mark the end of all public discourse from me in the matter of my mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, and of Elizabeth Short. I reinvestigated my mother’s murder and wrote a non-fiction memoir entitled "My Dark Places.” I’ve told this story trillions of times. I’m going on a book tour shortly for the movie. That’s it. I’ve gone on to write many better books than "The Black Dahlia,” books not even set in Los Angeles, big historical, political novels, in no way crime novels and I want to restrict public discourse to the newer work.

Q: Having explored this stuff in your books… I read "My Dark Places” and it was very touching and very moving and startling. What insight is there to gain from looking at something like this?  This is a kind a murder with a fictionalized account of the real account… where we look and it doesn’t make sense how this happened. How did somebody do that? For both of you, what insight do you have from exploring it in the film?

JE: Mr. Friedman?

JF: Well, I think the most important thing vis-à-vis the movie to take away from it is just to remember that this is a real woman and I think that a lot of times in fiction and in kind of the sort of erotic qualities of solving crime, we lose track of that person. For me, I think that’s kind of what I keep coming back to is ‘what kind of good is there in it?’ It’s to remember. I think at the end of the day or as to say if you forget, then you are missing the point.

JE: We are searching for a language to explain the remorseless, depraved, arrogant and narcissistic slaughter of Elizabeth Short, so that we can allay our own fear of death and inoculate ourselves against the random nature of life.

Q: The entire police force is chasing after the murderer of the Black Dahlia because that’s all in the headlines and there’s other people getting killed that they don’t focus on. Obviously, that has a lot to say about our world today. I wonder if you would comment on that.

JE: Mr. Friedman?

JF: You know, I was on line the other day and I saw … I don’t remember what the website was but there was a website and it was something like… They were talking about beautiful women that have been killed and this was something like the headline. And you go to it and it’s pictures of all of the women in Iraq and Afghanistan…soldiers who have been killed and it’s kind of the list of them and their families and their pictures. And I thought, you know, it’s another version of all of these things which is we are fetishising particular murders because the victim is appealing to us in some way and ignoring what’s inconvenient. I think the movie is very modern in that way. And the book, you know… Mr. Ellroy can speak more to whether it was on purpose, but obviously from my interpretation, it’s a very modern point and an important one.

JE: I isolate myself from popular culture. I bury my head in the sand and limit my intellectual intake to the period of time that I’m writing about. Thus today I ignore the world around me, and I’m isolating myself in the years 1968 to 1972. I don’t have a computer. I write by hand. I don’t have a television set. I don’t read. I don’t go to movies. I lie on a bed, lie on a couch, brood and think. I think the power of The Black Dahlia as a novel, and all my subsequent novels, is a result of that isolation. My books are in no way meant to be metaphors for life today. My big political novels are in no way meant to be reflections of the current political scene. Whatever power my books possess, whatever level of insight, comes as a result of that period immersion.

Q: Touching on this idea of the books and your insight, you’re such a prolific writer. And I love what you said that you stay away from popular culture. It’s like musicians when they’re working on a record, they don’t listen to any other music at all and they just stay focused on that. Are you writing all the time or are you at a place in your writing journey where you can turn it on and turn it off at will? And do you write every day?

JE: I’m working on the sequel to my novel "The Cold Six Thousand,” the concluding volume of my Underworld USA trilogy.  I collate. I research. I think. I lie in the dark. I brood. I write copiously big outlines and numerous drafts of the text. I’m usually writing. If not, I’m laying in the dark, brooding and obsessing. (laughter) Sleeping, exercising.

Q: When you’re writing, that’s your life at that point. So when you’re not writing, is there another life?

JE: I have friends. I have an ex-wife. I have an ex-dog. (laughter) I have a pad here in L.A. and I have a groovy sports car. I have friends with TV sets, because I don’t have a TV set, and I watch boxing at their place. And I may have said this before; I lay in the dark and brood. (laughter)

Q: But why is it you don’t have a TV set?

JE: I don’t want any kind of distractions, and I don’t enjoy popular culture so why have a TV set? I can watch "L.A. Confidential” from my novel, "The Black Dahlia” from my novel, at a friend’s place, because all of my friends have TV sets and VCRs.

Q: Are you on the internet?

JE: I’m not on the internet.

JF: I have nine televisions by the way and I watch a lot of reality television. (laughter) And it’s amazing that he gets within six feet of me on a regular basis.

Q: To close out your Black Dahlia period, is there one theory about the possible …?

JE: NO!!! Stop right there. There is one thing I never talk about, who killed Betty Short and why? Some theories are better than others. They are all unprovable in the end, and none of the fucking theories have anything to do with my book or Mr. Friedman’s screenplay.

Q: Mr. Friedman, was there anything that was particularly painful to eliminate that was in the book that you really wanted to include but you finally had to cut?

JF: Every fucking word. (laughter)

Q: Do your friends whose houses you go over to watch popular culture on television…?

JE: No, just boxing.

Q: Even though they’re your friends, do they find your attitude toward popular culture odd in any way?

JE: Yes.

Q: And how do you defend yourself?

JE: I don’t. My friends love me, and I love them. They understand that I have certain limitations. When I was about 13 years old I went to John Burroughs  Junior High at 6th and McCadden. Mr. Friedman lives near there today. (It was a) tremendously simulating experience for me, I never graduated from high school, but I loved John Burrows, and I wrote a piece about it called "Let’s Twist Again,” about my 1959 to 1962 tenure at John Burroughs. It was published in GQ and in my collection "Crime Wave.” When I was 12 or 13, I figured out there were six or seven things that I dug to the exclusion of everything else – women, American history, dogs, classical music, boxing and crime flicks. It’s 40 odd years later; those are the things that drive me still. Sometimes you just know early and I’ve been blessed with single-mindedness.

Q: Well how come you have an ex-dog instead of another dog?

JE: Margaret, who lives with my beloved ex-wife Helen Knode, former film critic for the LA Weekly, and the author of the bestselling, critically praised novel, "The Ticket Out.” It’s K-n-o-d-e on her last name. She and I got a bull terrier several years ago, and Margaret the bull terrier is a dyke dog. She has an unsavory cross-species, lesbian fixation on Helen and she has mild rancor for most men and an overt hatred for me. (laughter) She follows me around, barks and growls at me, and will only let me pet her and kiss her in Helen Knode’s presence.

Q: So she’s irreplaceable?

JE: She is every woman who has ever spurned me and ever will, and then some. (laughter)

Q: Can you comment on the book to screen process? We just heard from Mr. De Palma. He said once you sell the script, that’s it.  You can take it and do whatever you want with it basically?

JE: I agree with Mr. DePalma. I agree, yes. What was the first part of the question again, please?

Q: Are you OK…it’s like your darling, basically…giving the book to someone else to adapt? Are you comfortable with the process?

JE: I am and Mr. Friedman did an admirable job of adapting my novel – *See the movie, buy the book.* (laughter)

James Ellroy is currently working on the final (and reportedly largest) volume of his Underworld USA trilogy of novels, which began with "American Tabloid” and "The Cold Six Thousand.”  Ellroy says it has a title but that title is not the reported one of "Police Gazette."  The novel is due for release in late 2007.  Josh Friedman’s screenplay "Orphan’s Dawn” is currently in development at 20th Century Fox.  "The Black Dahlia” opens in theaters on September 15th.  I invite you to read my review of the film and my interviews with director Brian De Palma, actor Josh Hartnett, and actress Scarlett Johansson.

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