Topic: Black Dahlia Writer Interview

James Ellroy, the self proclaimed ‘Demon Dog of American Crime fiction,’ was born in Los Angeles in 1948.  Considered one of the world’s most successful crime writers and essayists, his L.A. Quarter novels – "The Black Dahlia,† "The Big Nowhere,† "L.A. Confidential,† and "White Jazz† – are international bestsellers.  His "American Tabloid† was Time magazine’s Novel of the Year for 1995; his memoir, "My Dark Places,† was a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Best Book of the Year for 1996; his novel "The Cold Six Thousand† was a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year for 2001. 

Betty Short, the real name of the Black Dahlia, attracted the attention of novelist James Ellroy when he was just a child.  On his 11th birthday, his father gave him Jack Webb’s crime anthology, "The Badge,† for his birthday.  The L.A. native was entranced by Webb’s 10-page summary of Elizabeth Short’s demise.  His mother, Jean Hilliker, had been strangled only months before in a brutal (and to this day unsolved) crime, and Ellroy’s grief over her death transferred into an obsession with the Dahlia who became his muse and allowed him to distill his psychic pain into art.

Ellroy, like may others before and since, would chase the story of this iconic young Hollywood woman for years.  He recalls, "I bike-tripped to the Central Library.  I scanned the Dahlia case on microfilm and gorged myself on vanished L.A.  I time-tripped ’59 to ’47 L.A..  I made L.A.-now L.A.-then.  I began to live in the dual L.A. that I’ve lived in ever since.†  In fact, Ellroy would wait to write his seventh novel – the first of his L.A. quartet – 1987’s "The Black Dahlia,† until he "built story-telling muscle: with his earlier works, "Brown’s Requiem,† "Clandestine,† "Blood on the Moon,† and "Suicide Hill.††  The author admits he "needed to brace myself for life in L.A. ’47.â€

Forty years after her killing, Ellroy crafted "The Black Dahlia,† a best-selling whodunit with Betty’s murder as its crux and boom-era L.A. as its backdrop.  Weaving a story of obsession, doppelgangers and those who became fixated on the brutal murder, Ellroy used the book as an attempt to exorcise demons from his own mother’s 1958 strangulation.

For Ellroy, the Dahlia wouldn’t rest with the end of his book.  He would go on to write a 1996 novel entitled "My Dark Places,† a memoir of his mother’s murder.  "I had to go through a very long journey with Elizabeth Short and write "The Black Dahlia† before I would get to my mother.  Elizabeth Short was always the fictional stand-in for my mother.  And my mother and she transmogrified, it was quite a heady brew.  They are as one, in my mind, much of the time.â€

Screenwriter Josh Friedman, who co-authored the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 "War of the Worlds,† was originally tasked to hone Ellroy’s 300-plus-page "The Black Dahlia† into a filmable screenplay for director David Fincher (initially attached to the project in 1997) and producers Rudy Cohen and Moshe Diamant.  "David and I worked on it off-and-on for several years,† Friedman notes.  "I would write a draft, and we would talk about it…then we’d work on other projects.  I worked with Fincher for six years,† says Friedman.  "We never had a draft under 175 pages.†  

Eventually Fincher departed the film and, according to Friedman, "Brian De Palma came on, and it was like a locomotive.  At Brian and Art’s (producer Linson) urging, we made some significant changes to the script, and we were off.†  To bring the script down to a normal length, Friedman began revising characters and subplots and drawing straighter lines from the complex fabric of Ellroy’s densely packed tale of friendship, lust and betrayal.  Of his source material, the screenwriter offers, "I tend to not think of it as a genre book, but simply as historical fiction.  I went with the way Ellroy told the compelling story…he has such a unique way of interweaving.  I very much kept to the structure and the attitude of his characters engendered in the book.â€

"James creates a whole noir world, and the way he tells his stories is very complex,† director De Palma adds.  "His language is so lush.  Josh was a very good barometer of what you could and couldn’t do with his work.  He lived and breathed Ellroy’s complex, dark material for a decade, forcing the material into Ellroy-ese, never taking the simple route.  Art and I worked with him for close to a year before the script was ready to go.â€

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