James Ellroy is proclaimed the Demon Dog of American crime fiction. “L.A. Confidential” was his first book that was developed for the big screen. “The Black Dahlia”, in theatres now, is the second film adaptation of an Ellroy novel.
Ellroy’s mother was brutally murdered when he was ten years old. His writing has included his obsession with his mother’s murder. His crime stories are solved. His mother’s murder was never solved. Neither was Elizabeth Short’s murder who was named the Black Dahlia. Ellroy has fictionally solved these murders in his work.
I met James Ellroy at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco.
Tony DuShane: What’s it like seeing a version of your stories on the big screen?
James Ellroy: Here’s the nice thing about Brian De Palma’s adaptation of my signature novel “The Black Dahlia”, it is visual construction and thus a visual standing record of something that is indubitably my work that only I could’ve conceived but it’s reached fruition in a form that I could’ve never imagined.
I’m flabbergasted that Bulgaria in 2006 has been made to stand in so well for Los Angeles in 1947. It doesn’t really look like the old LA of 1947 but it’s its own unique construction and it’s very very sensuous. So here you have my novel, my themes of triangulation, the Hartnett, Johanson and Swank characters, the Hartnett, Johanson and Eckart characters, the two men with the Dahlia in between them, the two women with the Dahlia in between them, the stories compressed where it’s brought vividly to life and it’s wildly obsessive.
T: Did you go on location in Bulgaria?
E: I did not. I came down and watched them shoot exteriors in LA.
T: I’m reminded of all the secrets between all the other characters in the film as well as the big secret of “The Black Dahlia” case.
E: Well there’s a lot of back-story in this movie. There is the Johansson back story, the Eckhart back story, the Hartnett back story, and everybody is lying and dissembling continuously and it all comes out in the course of the base narrative. So it’s as if the base narrative of who killed Elizabeth Short is warring with these profoundly developed back stories and there’s quite a lot of tension there.
T: Did you go back and read Black Dahlia to help with the script writing process?
E: I had nothing to do with the script writing process. It was written by a man named Josh Friedman, and one of the great surprises of the script writing process was the device that Mr. De Palma came up with and was executed by Mr. Friedman of the screen tests that show Elizabeth Short wrenchingly played by Mia Kirshner. And I was against that initially because I thought it would be more forceful just to have Elizabeth Short ruminated upon and discussed the way it was executed in my book, but actually bringing her physically into the motion picture gives the viewer a greater stake in her death. The horror of her last moments on Earth. And it vividly shows the Hartnett character getting obsessed with her.
T: Was Maggie Gyllenhaal originally considered for that role?
E: I don’t know.
T: That’s a Brian De Palma question.
E: Yes, yes.
T: Do you ever go back and read previous novels or do you just put them away?
E: I put them away, but I take them off the shelf every once in a while and look at the covers (smugly).
T: Is it because it’s hard to read your own writing or do you ever feel like you need to re-edit the work in your head?
E: It’s because I’ve done it already and I always move on. I also believe that each one of my books, as I write them, is superior to the previous book. So I’ve written many better books since I’ve written the Black Dahlia. It’s just this particular very poignant personal story of mine.
T: So, do you believe your next book will be better than all your previous books?
T: How do you get that self confidence?
E: It is, I take a good deal of time off in between books in order to think and brood and ruminate on what I think the book should be and that process enhances solitude that I need to get it up to go into battle with a book one more time and I write hugely constructed, very formalized books, and I write big outlines and I execute the text of the book from the outlines to the most minute detail. So it’s a very exacting long process.
T: Between the outlines and the writing of the text for the book, which one takes you longer?
E: The text.
T: How do you feel about the adaptation you’ve seen of the Black Dahlia.
E: It’s a fine film, it’s especially good in the themes of triangulation and the overall obsessiveness of the character with the Black Dahlia. I think it’s especially rich period filmmaking.
T: Revisiting the Dahlia murder, what thoughts and feelings does that bring back regarding your mother’s murder?
E: This fall and this motion picture and the film publicity tour, the tour that I’m on now, and the book publicity tour that I’ll be on, coming next month are marking a conclusion for me. I’ve made the determination that I will never discuss my mother’s murder or the Dahlia case, these two central myths in my life after this November. So I’m getting it all out of my system now and from that point on, I will never discuss these matters. So it’s a nice time of looking back.
T: So now, going through this process and knowing that this is going to end for you, is it therapeutic?
E: It’s not so much therapeutic, it’s that something has played itself out in my mind and I want this one part of my life to be over. And I’ve been given the gift of this fine movie and I’m going to take it and KKKRRRKK (makes a slice across his throat) from that point on.
T: There’s going to be a re-release of the book with the film?
E: The book has never been out of print since it was published nineteen years ago, it has been re-jacketed with the movie poster art and is in bookstores now.
T: And that’s what the book tour is for.
E: Yes, I’ll also be coming back to San Francisco, also known as the Joan Zone.
T: I’ve read that psychics have offered their services of seances and stuff to connect with your mother, have you ever taken anyone up on that?
E: Psychics are bullshit, they’ve never solved a crime.
T: Are any of your other novels in development for film?
E: They’re all in development, very few get made. If they do get made, they’re a fluke.
T: Do you make more money on the film options or on the royalties?
E: Book royalties.
T: If one of these books does get made into a film, which book would you like to see adapted next?
E: The Big Nowhere, the sequel to the Black Dahlia, the Red Scare, 1950.
T: Do you like other writers who pay homage to LA, I know you’ve talked about Chandler and those types before, what about Bukowski and John Fante?
E: I’ve never read John Fante and I think Bukowski is depraved bullshit. He’s a drunken woman abusing sack of shit.
T: How do you feel about negative reviews of your work?
E: I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit. Yeah. Kiss my ass. I write great books. Like it of leave it. Go away. Who’s your daddy?
T: Have you had that self-confidence from book number one?
E: I’m confident. I know how good I am. And, I’m happy to be here. I’m just happy to be here. In the Joan Zone.
T: I want you to rub some of that self-confidence on me.
E: I’m happy to be here man. Look at this suite. Have a cookie on your way out man. Yeah, take two, take one for the road.
T: I will.
E: Back to Martha Brothers and the Joan Zone.
T: Oh, you’re talking about on Cortland Avenue (in San Francisco), they have a new café over there called the Nervous Dog, it’s a half a block away from my house, I write there all the time.
E: I am the nervous dog, there you go. I am the nervous dog, er, er, er, er, er.
T: When your films get optioned do you ever have a say as to who the director or writers are?
E: No, you get money, money is the gift that no one returns. In 1987 someone gave me 25 Gs, option for the Black Dahlia. Tony, you’re a young guy, when is the last time someone gave you 25 Gs for nothing?
T: Fucking never.
E: Fucking never, there you go. It is extremely unlikely. It has been said that the movie option compared to the actual filming and release of the picture, what the first kiss is to the 50th monogamous anniversary. Many called, few chosen. I’ve just gotten lucky a few times.
You know why I’ve gotten lucky. Because I’m the fucking Nervous Dog. And where do we live Tony?
T: You tell me.
E: No, where do we live? Ok, what’s San Francisco, what do we call San Francisco?
T: I don’t know.
E: What have I been describing San Francisco as? I just need to hear you say it. It’s the J-
E: It’s the Joan’s Zone.
T: What’s the significance of Joan’s?
E: The woman’s name was Joan, the one who lives in Bernal Heights. Her name was Joan.
T: Oh! (I finally get it….earlier in the interview he said he knew I lived in Bernal Heights and he had an ex-girlfriend from there…I told him that he could find that out with one Google search and reading my bio, but he swears he didn’t find it out on Google. I don’t believe him.)
E: Tony Tony Tony, (Ellroy snaps his fingers while saying that). The one who got away. Yeah.
T: Did she live over near Martha’s -?
E: (interrupts) That’s as specific as I can get.
T: Ok. And what’s her phone number?
E; You mother fucker.
T: Even though the situation with your mother was horrid, do you feel it has also been a gift given to you?
E: It’s not that, it’s that I’ve taken something bad and turned it into something good. I wouldn’t call it a gift. I would call it a cruel twist of fate that I was able to exploit.
T: Do you feel bad for exploiting it?
E: I have a complex relationship to my mother’s memory. Closure is bullshit. My mother and I continue. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
T: Do you believe in life after death and that she’s still with you?
E: I believe in life after death, I’m very religious, and who knows, Geneva Hilliker and I may lock eyes on a cloud one day.
Tony DuShane is an entertainment writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and hosts the radio show Drinks with Tony. (www.tonydushane.com)