The Final Word
Ellroy Discusses 'The Black Dahlia' for the Last Time
Be entertained by James Ellroy, but also be afraid. Be very afraid.
"Have we met?" Ellroy asks quickly. The reporter looks confused, wondering if he had, in fact, previously met Ellroy. Not quite. "We haven't met, have we? Call me Mr. Ellroy."
Over the years, Ellroy has carefully cultivated a reputation as an approachably unapproachable eccentric, a seemingly anti-social curmudgeon who loves talking to crowds, a hater of popular culture who has helped shape the literary and cinematic landscape. You're scared to ask Ellroy a stupid question, but you want to ask the stupid questions just to hear how he'll respond. For a glimpse of his contradictions, ask Ellroy how he's feeling about Los Angeles these days.
"I see a multi-cultural hellhole, overpopulated, egregious smoggy," he begins. "I moved back here after 25 years away. I'm thrilled to be here."
And he's thrilled to be talking about what he considers to be a very good adaptation of his book, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of Elizabeth Short. Although the movie is almost entirely fictional -- Short's famous killing remains unsolved, while the film offers resolution -- it's a very personal tale for Ellroy.
"There are two stories about the central myth of my life, my mother's 1958 murder, unsolved, the unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short," he explains for those who didn't already know. "They live in my imagination, I've exploited them to sell books. Virtually every interviewer who's interviewed me for over 20 years brings them up, and I have decided that Mr. DePalma's film will mark the end of all public discourse from me in the matter of my mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy, and of Elizabeth Short."
Ellroy, often intensely critical of different mainstream entertainments, seems relatively satisfied with the work DePalma and screenwriter Josh Friedman did on "The Black Dahlia." Relatively.
"Mr. DePalma's film, written by Mr. Friedman is a reduction and compression of my overall story," Ellroy says, discussing changes from the book. "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."
And yet, Ellroy is skeptical that any of his other books will make it to the big screen, even though several have been optioned.
"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,' 'LA Confidential' and 'White Jazz,'" says Ellroy, whose sentences are difficult to punctuate. "'LA Confidential' and 'The Black Dahlia' have been made as motion pictures, 'The Big Nowhere' and 'White Jazz' not so. I doubt, and this is not kind of comment on Mr. DePalma'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."
Meanwhile, Ellroy continues to write, working on a follow-up to his historical novels "American Tabloid" and "The Cold Six Thousand." What's a day in his life like?
"I collate, research, I think, I lie in the dark, I brood, I write copiously big outlines and numerous drafts," he says. "I'm usually writing. If not, I'm laying in the dark, brooding and obsessing. Sleeping, exercising. I have friends, I have an ex-wife, I have an ex-dog, I have a pad here in L.A. and I have a groovy sports car, I have friends with TV sets, so 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."
"The Black Dahlia" opens everywhere on Friday, Sept. 15.