The following is a fairly unfocused, and occasionally strange, conversation with James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, and American Tabloid, among other novels. As an interviewee, Ellroy is intimidating and likes to control the conversation. He also likes to throw his interviewers curve balls.
The Black Dahlia took almost 10 years to get to the screen—
Optioned, 1986. Released movie, 2006. Twenty years.
How involved were you in the process during that time?
Not at all. I was given option money in 1986. Money is the gift that no one ever returns. The movie optioned to the finished release of the motion picture is what the first kiss is. To the 50th monogamous anniversary, I never expected it to be made. I was pleasantly surprised when it was.
Do you worry about the process of turning your books into films?
No. They give you money for nothing. They probably won’t make it into a movie, you know? Twenty years later they make it and the book’s walking out of bookstores. You know I’m happy.
So you weren’t at all protective of The Black Dahlia because of what it meant to your career?
No. I don’t hold the patent on the Black Dahlia murder case, and I don’t hold the patent on murdered women, or murdered mothers.
After you wrote My Dark Places, did you feel like you put the Black Dahlia to rest, or was it something that was still with you?
There are some stories that won’t let you go. That stated, I should say that this motion-picture tour, the book tour, and personal appearances mark the end of my public discourse on both my mother’s murder case and the Black Dahlia. After this November I will never answer a personal question, or questions pertaining to the Black Dahlia, Betty Short, the various theories pertaining to who killed the Black Dahlia, or my mother’s murder ever again. 86,000 questions, 8,200 interviews… life goes on.
Is it strange for you to be revisiting all this?
No, it won’t let me go. I’ve decided this is my last gasp. I recently watched a boxing match on TV where one guy ran out of steam and his opponent, the man who won the fight, kept saying, “He shot his load! He shot his load! Motherfucker shot his load!” You know? As far as the Black Dahlia goes, I shot my load—or will have in November.
In many ways Brian De Palma seems like an ideal choice as director of The Black Dahlia.
Yeah, he’s a sexual-obsession guy. He’s fucked-up about women like me. I’m really fucked-up about women. But you know what? I dig it. Are you fucked-up about women?
Pretty much, yeah.
It’s a blast. Scared, tormented. You want mom, you want a hooker. One of the things I’ve come to realize is you’ve got to get a woman with a dog. I got divorced recently, and I had a deep, dark, obsessive thing with a woman in San Francisco. But I want the new woman, whoever she is, to have a dog.
Any type of dog in particular?
A big-ass, good-looking dog. Like an Akita or a pit bull, so when the woman’s out of the bed you can curl up with the dog, talk to the dog about the woman.
Not one of those tiny dogs people carry around?
No. I want a pit. A pit that uses some nigger voice. Says, “Hey Ellroy, let’s get some bitches.” A big dog.
The casting in the movie was inspired. At first I thought Josh Hartnett wouldn’t be right for it.
Did he surprise you?
He totally surprised me.
Here’s the thing about Hartnett that’s interesting: It’s the only time that the character they cast physically resembled the character that I wrote. The Bucky Bleichert character is modeled physically on me: tall, pale, lanky, dark-haired guy with fucked up teeth from boxing. And that’s Hartnett, that’s just a coincidence. But what Hartnett nails is that Bucky is always thinking. It’s a still performance, and I like that.
Aaron Eckhart seemed perfect as well.
He’s this shorter—rather than taller—stockier, blond-haired, kind of exaggeratedly masculine, lantern-jawed motherfucker. There was some good-looking period shit going on.
[At this point, Ellroy asks a question of his own.] So here’s the deal, man. You’ve got one month at a Four Seasons resort in Fiji. One month. Comped. Waiting for you at the pad is Scarlett [Johansson], Hilary [Swank], or Mia Kirshner…
That’s a tough one. I’d have to go with Hilary. There’s something about her… going back to being fucked-up about women, there’s something terrifying about her.
Yeah, she’s a Scientologist, too.
Really? It’s like a virus.
Yeah, it is. You know what my ex-wife said? She said, “You’ve got to go to the Venice Film Festival and fuck Mia Kirshner, because it’s as close as you’re going to get to fucking the Black Dahlia, and by extension your mom.” [Laughs] Spoken like an ex-wife.
Was she already your ex-wife at the time?
Yeah, we got divorced a couple months ago.
You wrote the forward to [former LAPD Detective] Steve Hodel’s Black Dahlia Avenger.
Steve Hodel’s book is the best theory ever, but it’s all unprovable. It’s all unprovable. And Hodel’s fantastical extrapolations, like his dad’s henchmen killing my mother, it’s all horseshit. He’s a very decent, highly sensitive, and imaginative guy, and if your dad had porked your little sister in a big swank-o pad in Hollywood you’d be fucked-up as well. But [his] old man really was a suspect, which is why his book has some credibility.
It seems fitting that his theory of who killed the Black Dahlia is so flawed yet still believable.
Absolutely right. Good for you. Here’s the thing about this: Hodel proceeds from the incorrect assumption that the photographs [he uses as evidence in the book] are of Elizabeth Short. They have been photographically analyzed and they’re not Elizabeth Short—you can tell by looking at them that it ain’t her. He writes a book, posits a preposterous, hypothetical case against his old man. Then, a year after hardcover pub, in that lag period between hardcover and softcover pub, Steve Lopez, an independent guy from the L.A. Times, turns up a DA’s bureau file and the old man was the main suspect in late ’49, early 1950. He actually admitted to the crime on a bugging transcript. Was it a sincere admission? Who knows? It’s all unprovable.