James Ellroy talks the way he writes, the way his doomed characters tell the stories of their lives: monotoned, terse, poetic, brutal. Here’s what he says about the origins and the genesis of the film adaptation of his novel The Black Dahlia.
IF YOU TAKE THE OPTION MONEY, Ellroy says, don’t criticize the film.
“The book was optioned in ’86. Money is the gift that no one ever returns. I got the option and put it out of my head. Various directors, including David Fincher, were attached to the project. A lot of scripts were written. I read a few of them. I tossed them. I don’t invest much intellectually or emotionally in motion pictures. I appreciate a good movie; I appreciate a good hamburger, too. If I never ate another hamburger, I’d be fine; if I never saw another movie, I’d be fine.
“I have no control over the entire process. If I didn’t think this were a good movie, I would just keep my mouth shut, because I think it’s morally wrong to take movie-option money and then criticize the movie for attribution. Any writer who takes movie-option money should know that it’s highly unlikely the movie will ever be made. If it is made, it will probably be fucked up past redemption. And since you took the money, you shouldn’t criticize it for attribution. That’s just inherently dreadful. I endorse the movies because they create a significant readership for the book.”
So don’t expect Ellroy to say anything negative about the movie. But he will talk a bit about the case that has obsessed him since he was a child, almost since his own mother was murdered in 1959 and the perpetrator was not found. The Black Dahlia was the Nicole Simpson, the Laci Peterson, the JonBenét Ramsey of her day. A 22-year-old from Medford trying to make it in Hollywood, she was found in a vacant lot in LA. No one had seen anything like it: she was cut in half, mutilated, and laid out like a crazy sculpture.
“It was the first media manufactured murder. LA, ’47, nothing’s happening. People are fat and sassy, the war’s over. Bam. Five daily newspapers, radio’s big, the first local TV station is soon to debut. It is 12 weeks front-page news, five newspapers. It was a sensation to this day.
“We had no language pathology at that time. We were looking for a language to explicate the utter depraved, shallow, narcissistic, hyper-arrogant horror of one human being doing to another human being what the killer did to Betty Sharp. I am searching for that verbal language in my book; Mr. De Palma is searching for that visual language in his film. I don’t think we can in the end.
“That’s the fascination. We feel that if this can be adequately explained, we can develop a process of immunization, and we can’t. We will all die. Most of us painfully and protractedly through illness, some of us mercifully short, a car wreck or a heart attack. Some people, like Betty Short, in horribly attenuated slaughter. We want to know how bad it can be because it’s one experience we will all undergo.”