James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia marked a turning point in his career as a novelist. Based on the gruesome, real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947, the 1987 book was a culmination of Ellroy’s obsession with the noir world of 1940s Los Angeles. The hard-as-nails prose, vivid characters, and feverish plotting evoked a hallucinatory pulp world flecked with blood, sex, and despair. It was also a deeply personal book for Ellroy, as it was his first to make use of the murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker. Despite the release in 1997 of the Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential, another Ellroy adaptation, getting The Black Dahlia on screen proved impossible until producer Art Linson persuaded director Brian De Palma to try.
Speaking from his home in France, Linson tried to play down the labyrinthine production history behind The Black Dahlia. “The back story of how this movie ultimately got funded is a whole other drama. You don’t get fifteen producer credits unless the script was sitting around a long time, with a lot of people taking shots at it. Things didn’t go well many, many times.” Linson was producing Fight Club when he first saw the script, which at the time was over two hundred pages and “unmakeable.” Linson hadn’t worked with Brian De Palma since The Untouchables and Casualties of War, but felt that the story was perfect for the director.
The two collaborated with screenwriter Josh Friedman, author of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, on a new script, making the story shorter and more specific. Linson says that they needed to narrow the scope of the book’s plot to focus on the three lead characters, “people who get caught up in a world where murder happens.” The script remains honest to Ellroy’s writing, but as the producer points out, “In the end, Brian De Palma had to find a way to make it his own movie, filter it through his operatic style of filmmaking.”
Ellroy feels that the casting of Josh Hartnett, who committed to the movie before the script was finished, was crucial. He plays Bucky Bleichert, a compromised Los Angeles police detective whose search for justice threatens every relationship in his life. Hartnett narrates the film and is in every scene. Ellroy says that the actor “nails Bucky with no histrionic excess. He excels at projecting cognition. He carries the film’s moral vision: you’re fearful, but you always go forward.”
With a completed script and Hartnett on board, the rest of the cast fell into place quickly. Scarlett Johannson took the role of Kay Lake, a former prostitute rescued by Bleichert’s partner Lee Blanchard (played by Aaron Eckhart). Hilary Swank is Madeleine, a wealthy heiress whose resemblance to the murder victim becomes a pivotal plot twist. Linson singles out Mia Kirshner, best known from Showtime’s The L Word and season four of 24. “She came in to read for one of the other parts, but ended up taking the role of the Black Dahlia. She did a tremendous job, getting her character to evolve in these screen tests which are used in the movie. She’s going to get enormous attention for this picture.”
The story unfolds in a lost Los Angeles of race riots, corrupt cops, seedy nightclubs, and urban decay, all tainted by Hollywood glamour. Trying to recreate the 1940s in Bulgaria was “a daunting task,” Linson admits. “The hills of Hollywood in this movie are the hills of Sofia. Try that out for size.” The producer described the juggling act he went through with production designer Dante Ferretti and equally esteemed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to achieve the look of the film. “The attention to detail is the secret, but it also costs money. Getting the flavor of a time is a combination of a hundred small things, small details, and as you start to sacrifice to save ‘money,’ you lose that feeling, that period. But it’s impossible to know which one, you know what I mean? So there is this daily fight of, ‘Do we need that dish? We have four dishes, what if we had three dishes? We have three cars, what if we had two? The people in the background, no one will ever notice that those ties are from the 80’s, instead of the 1940s.’ It becomes a remarkable journey in terms of trying to hold onto the detail. No one’s clever enough to know exactly how much is enough. And no one can ever get everything they want. In fact, it took a lot of high-end screaming to try to get this to feel true. But if you start to see the slip showing too much, the magic trick is over.”
Working with De Palma again after almost twenty years was a “great time.” “We did this film in fifty-eight days,” Linson continues. “Brian De Palma is a prepared man. He’s not a guy who has to put a sequence together in an editing room. He’s a true visualist: he’s got a great eye and a great sense of where to put the camera. But like all the really good directors, he needs the material to support his vision. If you look at his best movies, they’re written by David Mamet or Oliver Stone or David Koepp or in this case Josh Friedman. Brian as a director deserves a bigger platform to dive off of.”
Younger directors with access to newer technologies may have seemed to have caught up with the startling stylistic flourishes De Palma used in his early films like Sisters and Blow Out. But Linson thinks, “People are spending way too much time worrying about that stuff. A knife against a woman’s cheek, Brian knows where to put the camera. It you want to have somebody run out of the theater screaming, he knows what to do. What changes is the material. It’s nice to have characters who can back up the visuals, who can support the cake he’s building. If they’re just icing, then you’re not getting all that De Palma can give.”
Linson’s next project is an adaptation of his non-fiction book What Just Happened?, a scathing, insider’s account of how deals are made in Hollywood. Financed in part by 2929 Productions (Good Night, and Good Luck), the film stars Robert De Niro, and is being directed by Barry Levinson. “The film will not be like the book,” Linson says. “The book is a series of anecdotes. The film will be a two-week journey in the life of a desperate movie producer.”
Asked why there are over fifteen producing credits for The Black Dahlia, Linson admits that “Brian and I probably didn’t meet or even hear of at least ten to twelve of them. Literally never met them or heard of them until we got the credit list.
“The thing about making a good movie is that everybody goes in with good intentions. But there’s money involved, and there’s other people involved. It ain’t like going out with a canvas and some oils and saying, ‘I’m going to dazzle the planet when I come back in a couple of years.’ There are so many people in the process you have to depend on, so many moving parts, that you can have really good intentions and still end up with something awful.”
Linson is thus both proud and grateful about The Black Dahlia, which is the opening night feature at this year’s Venice Film Festival. “There were a lot of stops and starts with this project before the right group got together. We all fought the fight as hard as we could, and in the end I think this is going to be considered one of Brian’s better movies.”