Though he has yet to have a screenplay produced, author James Ellroy scored big in Hollywood when Curtis Hanson filmed the much-lauded L.A. Confidential, adapted from Ellroy's novel. Ellroy's other books include American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, The Big Nowhere, White Jazz, and the autobiographical My Dark Places. The documentary film Feast of Death—about to hit DVD—retells the story of My Dark Places by following Ellroy around L.A. Ellroy came to San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel to talk up The Black Dahlia, Brian DePalma's film of what may be Ellroy's most celebrated novel.
Groucho: In 1947, Betty Short was cut in half with bits of dug-out flesh and her mouth sliced wide. Brian De Palma chalks up the weird allure of the Black Dahlia case as coming from the imprint of those crime scene photos on people who've seen them. Why do you think the case has held the imagination for so long? Is it the unsolved quality of it?
James Ellroy: It's January 15, 1947. I defy you to think of anything that's happening in America, much less specifically Los Angeles, during that particular time. It's post-war years, boom economy—America is on a roll. We have no language for sexual psychopathy. We have a profound language for it today. Here's a young woman, horribly tortured, dumped in a vacant lot. It is the first media-manufactured murder. It is a primer on how certain women get dead. And it takes over the public imagination as no crime, truly, before or since.
G: In recent years, credible suspects have emerged in the Dahlia Case—
JE: Hold on, Mr. Canavese. I do not talk about who really killed Elizabeth Short. Let me state for attribution: I don't know. I don't care. I wanted to create art out of the death of Elizabeth Short. That's what I've done with my book and what Brian De Palma has done with his movie.
G: I'm guessing you never made it out to the Bulgarian set?
JE: I did not fly to Bulgaria to watch the movie being shot because Bulgaria's bulgarity. And I could drive five hours—I was living in San Francisco then—to L.A. So I did.
G: So were you involved at any stage in the development of the film? Did David Fincher [who abandoned the project in pre-production] or Brian De Palma ever approach you to discuss the material?
JE: I had one discussion with David Fincher and one discussion with Brian De Palma. I was not an active participant in the movie.
G: You did take screenwriter Josh Friedman out to see the site of the crime scene, right?
JE: Josh Friedman and I have since become good friends, yes. Josh and I had dinner at the Pacific Dining Car Steak House downtown and drove down to Thirty-Ninth and Norton to talk to Elizabeth Short.
G: What did you say to her?
JE: "Betty, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?/—you with your"—oh, shit. It's a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. "Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?/...You [sic], like the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?" You know what? I didn't say that. I quoted Anne Sexton. And this is the epigraph from my novel, The Black Dahlia. "Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator...to love, or look at later."
G: I know you been back to that site more than once. Do you ever hear her talking back to you?
JE: No, because I'm sane, Mr. Canavese.
JE: Yeah, when I start having auditory hallucinations, you know—you go out and you get the net for me.
G: Right. (Laughs.) I understand you were particularly impressed with Josh Hartnett and Mia Kirshner when you saw footage from the film.
JE: Mia Kirshner especially. She breaks your heart. This is Elizabeth Short.
G: What does the film do best, do you think, in adapting your book?
JE: It is a lush evoking of Dahlia mania. Of what Elizabeth Short's death was to people. How this obscure young woman tortured them in death. People didn't even know her, and she exerted a profound imaginative pull over them. There's that, which Mr. De Palma captures. There also is lush recapitulation of L.A. in 1947.
G: And he takes you in with that kind of manic, hellish scene with the riots at the beginning of the film.
JE: Zoot Suit riots, June 1943. Do you know the story behind it?
G: Yeah. So, be honest now. There's got to be something about the film that irritates you—that you think, "why couldn't they have gotten this right, from my novel."
JE: You always lose, in a full-length motion picture, interior monologue. No motion picture can capture all of your character's thoughts. My book is particularly ruminative. Thank God we had Josh Hartnett projecting cognition. You can tell that Hartnett's guy—he speaks the voice-over, and very well, I think—you can tell that he's always measuring and thinking. And that's important.
G: As I understand it, you're a bit of a control freak. Would you cop to that or not?
G: That would seem to make you a bad fit with Hollywood because—well, there's a line in the film: "Hollywood—"
JE: "will fuck you enough—"
G: "when no one else will."
G: Have you ever attempted to obtain any, or more, creative control of your material in those films?
JE: No. Here's why. Money is the gift that no one ever returns. Twenty years ago, when I was less well-heeled than I am now, filmmakers came forth and gave me twenty-five thousand bucks for the option of The Black Dahlia. Money's the gift no one ever returns. When's the last time someone gave you twenty-five G's for nothing? And the answer is "never." This happens to novelists. At that point, I realize well, the movie option is to the finished movie what the first kiss is to the 50th monogamous anniversary. Many called, few chosen. It's just a miracle that the movie got made after almost twenty years.
G: Feast of Death shows you shooting the shit with detectives who bestow you with an honorary badge.
G: And metaphorically, to me, My Dark Places is almost like an account of your rookie years as a detective with Bill Stoner, your experienced partner. Do you consider yourself kind of an honorary detective?
JE: I'm not a detective. Many of my friends are police officers and homicide detectives. I can read and assess a homicide file fairly well, but I'm not a detective. One of the reasons I get along so well with cops is I've never wanted to be a cop. So there's none of that—wannabe thing going.
G: How did you first get into that group? Or how did you first befriend a detective?
JE: Well, what happened was—and you know this story—I saw my mother's murder file and decided to write a magazine piece about it. And I met Bill Stoner and we became great friends, and he introduced me to a lot of policemen.
G: In My Dark Places, you mention Laura and Double Indemnity as two of the ultimate cinematic projections of the detective psyche.
JE: Well look at Laura. You've got a good-looking woman who's murdered. And a horny and lonely police detective played by Dana Andrews falls in love with a portrait of her and she turns up alive. C'mon. What's wrong with that?
G: Right. Right. And then the dark side is Double Indemnity. You've got the wishful thinking, and you've got the worst-case scenario.
JE: Well, you know what? You meet a woman and maybe your lust for her will lead you to do things you wouldn't normally do. I've done it. I've done it recently. Can't wait to do it again.
G: What's your favorite film noir?
JE: I think very few are truly artful. I think there's Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder's three wonderful ones. The Lineup, Don Siegel's San Francisco, set-in-1958 film noir.
G: Ellroy fans and movie buffs will be fascinated to know that your father, for a time, worked for Rita Hayworth.
JE: He told me he poured the pork to Rita.
G: Yeah, that's another unsolved mystery, right? You'll never know for sure.
JE: I hope it's true. When I get to heaven, and I lock eyes with Dad—"Dad, did you really put the boots to Rita?" And I'll find Rita too. "Rita, did my Dad...?" "Yeah, he was hung like a mule. He gave it to me like I never had it before. What a schlong. Had to be a yard long.'
G: Yeah. (Laughs.) L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia and My Dark Places are probably your most well-known works.
JE: American Tabloid! Time Magazine's Novel of the Year 1995.
G: I was just going to ask you: which of your novels do you feel is the most underappreciated, that you wish more people were going out and reading?
JE: The early books—I think are good. There's The Cold Six Thousand, which is very difficult stylistically. It's the sequel to American Tabloid.
G: What do you think about the films of your early novels, like Brown's Requiem?
JE: Brown's Requiem, no comment. Cop, no comment. L.A. Confidential, wonderful film. The Black Dahlia, wonderful film.
G: Very good. Did anything remain, in Dark Blue, of your original screenplay, The Plague Season?
JE: No. Very little.
G: Is there any chance of ever seeing—you publishing your original screenplays? I know you have several that are unproduced.
JE: I may recoup publishing rights at some point. But the people—the studios that hired me to write the original screenplays—if they would prefer that I not publish them, that would be fine with me, as well. I write motion pictures for the money. I don't condescend to the craft. I enjoy the work that I do. But I put no great stock in these scripts of mine being filmed. I do it for the money.
G: Can you tell me anything about the upcoming Night Watchman project? Did you write the screenplay?
JE: I wrote a screenplay called The Night Watchman. I doubt if it'll be made.
G: Why is that?
JE: Motion-picture dysfunctionalism trumps development every time. I would be insane to think that any original screenplay that I'm commissioned to write would ever end up as a movie. That stated, I don't condescend to the craft. I do the best work that I'm capable of, hand it to the producers, and it's up to them.
G: Yeah. It is an insane world—the amount of money that gets spent for things that never happen.
JE: Yes, and there are beneficiaries and I'm one of them.
G: (Laughs.) One of the funniest talk show appearances I ever saw was you and Dave Chappelle on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
JE: Well, Dave Chappelle is a lovely cat. And I think we discussed the creation of an equal-opportunity clan, didn't we? Is that what we talked about?
G: Yeah, I believe so.
JE: Yeah, I had a good time with him.
G: We also see in Feast of Death, this documentary that's about you—it's sort of the My Dark Places story on film—we see you working the crowd at a book event.
G: I think maybe people hone in on your angst so much that they don't give you as much credit for your sense of humor. Where does your sense of humor spring from?
JE: I enjoy people. I'm in love with life. I've got a hard-on for life. I love to read in front of audiences. I love to perform, and I'm very good at it.
G: You have a distinct dialect both on the page, in your diction, and also in your readings.
G: How did that develop? Did you consciously try to emulate any writers in your youth, or how did that come to—
JE: I'm in love with the American idiom. I love profanity. I love big language. I love Yiddish. I love black hipster patois. I love racist and homophobic invective, and I know how to use it.
G: And there's a natural humor that evolves out of that?
JE: Yeah. To me, humor is simply shit that confirms and thus explodes all racial and gender stereotypes. So outrageous black-pimp shit. For instance, I have a friend—black woman—who's a homicide detective who is the most—who addresses me routinely as "nigger." And in fact has recently conferred on me the status as her "main nigger." And she and I and a bunch of other cops went out to dinner Friday night—Pacific Dining Car—with a reporter from the L.A. Times. And we had a black gay waiter who waited on us, and my homicide cop friend addressed this guy as "Nigger, get your gay ass over here. I want a rare steak. Do not fuck with the meat. Cut that motherfucker's horns off. Wipe his ass and put him on my plate."
JE: What's not to dig about that?
G: Yeah, well, there's no punches pulled. And that kind of outrageousness is just—it gets people.
JE: And you know, people enjoy it and have fun with it. One of the things—a recent girlfriend of mine who was up here, who was very left-wing, thought I was full of hate because of all the language in my books. And she couldn't be more far from the truth.
G: You've said, "Closure is bullshit."
G: But has the hunger to pursue your mother's murder case dulled with time?
JE: You know, listen. I was removed from the desire to solve my mother's murder case even as I actively investigated. I knew it was an extreme long shot. I'm fine. Listen. It's not like I think about this shit all day, every day. I'm an insomniac, and the weight of my over-lived fifty-eight years on this earth traps me when I put my head down on the pillow and attempt to sleep. And, in a word, it's not mother, it ain't Dahlia, it ain't women, it ain't trauma, it ain't angst—the word is "everything." And I deal with it as best I can. And I try to be happy and, by and large, I am happy.
G: How would you describe your own prose?
JE: Precise. Emphatic. They asked Ayn Rand once to give—an interviewer asked Ayn Rand, "Give me an epigraph—give me an epilogue for your life." And she said, "My books are my life, and the epilog is the four words 'And I mean it.'" That's what I would say.
G: That kind of detail, again, I think is reflective of what detectives do, right? Your precision?
JE: What I tried to capture in My Dark Places is the metaphysic of the unsuccessful homicide investigation—leads that go nowhere. Implicitly, a narrative like that is the story of detective's search for himself. And I did not find the man that killed my mother. I do not know who killed Elizabeth Short nor do I care. One book, The Black Dahlia, which is a novel, had to have a solution provided. The second book was more powerful—My Dark Places—for having no solution. In the course of both books...one fictional investigation and one real-life investigation—I got closer to myself.
G: Your father's last words to you were—
JE: "Try to pick up every waitress that serves you." Yes.
G: And do you follow that advice?
JE: It's a legacy I have fulfilled with mixed results.
G: Let's end it there. Thank you very much.
JE: You're welcome.
[For Groucho's review of The Black Dahlia, click here.]