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James Ellroy: "I'm an LA guy"
By Hannah Eaves
September 15, 2006 - 1:44 AM PDT

"I judge my characters sternly."

James Ellroy is an enigma wrapped in confident, arrow-direct statements. He's unerringly polite, remembers your name, and it seems like he's telling you the unadulterated, bullshit-free truth the whole time, but all along you know that you'll be printing exactly what he wants you to - no more, no less. You're a reader looking at a character in one of his books while he, the author, tells you exactly what to think about them. Does he really like the film adaptations of his novels L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia? Who knows. Unsurprisingly, he wants people to read his books, so he'll submit to the press engagements surrounding their release. But after a making a long career of it, he's grown sick of profiting by his own mythology - his obsession with his mother's unsolved 1958 murder, the 1947 murder nearby of Elizabeth Short, dubbed the "Black Dahlia," and other unsolved murders of women.

In interviews with Adam Curtis and Michelle Goldberg, much has been said in these pages on the importance of demystifying the American nostalgia for a "pure" time - the 1950s and early 1960s - that never really existed. In all of his novels, and particularly in the Underworld USA trilogy, Ellroy has gone far to expose, and then further fictionalize, the grim underbelly of those times. The Black Dahlia is a perfect extension of the seedy, corrupt side of neo-noirs like Chinatown, but dirtier and with more heart. Ellroy himself believes that noir ended with Odds Against Tomorrow, and his "noir" novels are instead "historical romances."

Brian De Palma's cinematic rendering of Ellroy's flawed, dark novel is a good film, with outstanding performances by Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson, who is drop-dead sexy throughout, particularly when she's in satin tap pants, and that's probably enough to draw audiences right there. The novel tells a story that unfolds over several long periods of time, with characters entering, then exiting, and something intangible has been lost in the film's condensation of these story arcs, a problem which becomes particularly apparent just over halfway through. But those not familiar with the book will likely find the denouement satisfying as the threads come together and Ellroy's ability to combine the dirty and the cool shines through.

The film adaptation of The Black Dahlia features a significant change to the ending of your novel. This change seems to alter the psychology of the main character, Bucky Bleichart. Were you consulted about this?

No. Nobody consulted me about anything pertaining to the story. I forfeited all rights to it when I optioned the book to James B. Harris way back in 1986 before the book was even published in hard cover. I understood that they would probably never make it into a movie, and if they did make it into a good movie, as this one is, there would be significant changes to it. The story would be greatly reduced, as L.A. Confidential was, for the sake of comprehension. It will be, in the end, more melodramatic because you can't have the off-the-page conclusion to The Black Dahlia that I did, which is epistolary in letters between Kay Lake and Bucky Bleichart and which is all about an overview in narration - Bucky taking the Sprague family down at a great personal cost to himself, which is something you can have in a book that you can't have in a movie. I knew that there would be a more melodramatic and, in fact, a bloodier resolution to this movie, so I was resigned to that from the outset.

What a good movie gives you, an appealing movie gives you, is a viable compression of your story and a visual record of verbal events that you've created. I am not a visualist; Mr. De Palma is a visualist. I write in a black word on white paper milieu and leave the visuals up to the reader. I will never know what you saw in your mind when you read my book, but we all see the same thing when we see a film like The Black Dahlia. I understand reduction. I understand compression. I understand the isolation of themes and what I think Mr. De Palma did very well was isolate the triangulations inherent in my book. Bucky-Lee-Kay. Bucky-Madeleine-Kay. Bucky-Lee-Dahlia. Bucky-Dahlia-Kay. Dahlia with everybody. It's a lot of "one man and two women," and he got it.

Right. But don't you think it alters the basic morality of Bucky's character?


It seems like that's not a small practical change. That's more of a fundamental, philosophic change.

Okay, so here's what you do. You go out and say, "Did you like that film? Did you buy my book?" Or what I do at the outset is, I don't option it to the movies. I'm willing to forgo the free money. I am unwilling to go along with the odds, which are that it will never be made in the first place and if so, it will be altered considerably from the form that I created. And also, I will be forfeiting the potential book sales and the potential readership that a movie of this magnitude will get me. And I wasn't willing to do any of those things. I'm glad I didn't.

Have you written directly for TV or film?

I have written directly for television and for movies. I do it for the money. And I assume going in that the dysfunctionalism in the movies and television, engendered by the great costs of making a television show or a feature motion picture, will preclude the movies from actually getting made in the end anyway. And I'm being very well-compensated for it at the moment.

Do you ever want them to get made?

I don't even think about it. I did not spend, when I optioned The Black Dahlia, getting the cheque, cashing the cheque, buying whatever off the cheque, I don't think I spent five minutes thinking about the movie being made. That is how unlikely it is. That I have gotten lucky a couple of times in a 20-odd year career? Serendipity.

Going back to Bucky, and the morality of your characters, do you think that some of them are good people doing bad things within a moral framework, and some of them are just bad, or evil?

I think good and evil exist. I don't buy the actors' credo that you don't judge your characters. I judge my characters sternly. In the end I think Bucky Bleichart in both my book and Mr. De Palma's movie, does many bad things, some of them selfless and self-sacrificing things and, in the end, I think both Mr. De Palma and the screenwriter Josh Friedman, and I know I, have told you how we want you to weigh in on him, which is positively.

In American Tabloid particularly, you have a set of men that I, as a reader, constantly hoped would become better, or redeem themselves in some way, but instead seem to sink deeper and deeper into evil...

I think that if you do evil things, that you're an evil person. And there's a human price that my people pay for their evil acts, that humanizes them and makes us veer towards liking them. Women particularly like Pete Bondurant in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand because he's a sucker for women and his price of running Cuban exiles and being a pimp and a shakedown man for Howard Hughes and assassinating John F. Kennedy, is very, very high. He rides the whirlwind of American history in the 1960s and the price is high. But he ends up - he goes back to his wife, and I want you to love him, because I do. And I judge him very sternly. And throughout all of this, you know what's happening? God is watching.

So you believe that then?


There is a strong historic tradition, even in "tamer," classical drawing room murder mysteries like those of Agatha Christie, of belief in the existence of absolute good and evil.

Yeah. I feel the same way. There's a lot of things people don't know about me. I'm a Christian, for one. And I'm a conservative. And people are always shocked to hear that, "Ohhhh, how could you be? You're so insensitive! Ohhhh." Yeah, well, take it or leave it. And I believe in morality in literature. What I think I imply in my books is the following sense of morality: I exposit the moral cost of bad acts and my people pay every step of the way. If you think they've paid enough, then you get their humanity and you'll veer toward them even as you express moral disapproval. If not, maybe I've failed. I recently had a script deal adapting a prison memoir of a writer named Edward Bunker for a couple of filmmakers. Nothing happened with it. I wrote the script, got paid, walked away. And one man in particular, the assigned director, said, "I want ambivalence, I want ambivalence, I want ambivalence." Like he honestly believed that ambiguity was some kind of moral value or dramatic value. I kept telling him, au contraire, I will tell you how to think. I will create a series of immoral acts - acts, their consequences, the karmic cross that accrues and the viewer, in this case, will ultimately fall in the way I tell them to or I will have failed. And, of course, the movie's never going to be made.

Feast of Death is coming out on DVD. Could you talk a little bit about that documentary?

Look, I think there have been seven documentaries made about me. This is an ambitious and flawed one. It was made by the esteemed documentarian Vikram Jayanti who produced the overrated Muhammed Ali documentary When We Were Kings. It's largely taken up by an overlong discussion of the Black Dahlia murder case, with an LA Times reporter named Larry Harnisch who has an interesting, very engaging, but ultimately unprovable theory as to who killed Elizabeth Short. It's 2001. It's me, I'm heading into the nervous breakdown that I described in my piece in the LA Times, and a lot of my cop buddies of the Pacific Dining Car Restaurant of LA discussing this case. That's it.

So do you still believe Steve Hodel's theory?

You know, it's the best theory because George Hodel was a suspect. Beyond that, I don't know and I don't care. It's unprovable. As Larry Harnisch's theory is unprovable, as Marvin Wolf's theory is unprovable. Hodel goes overboard with symbolic reconstruction, supposition, none of it is provable, but his father was a suspect. And one thing I honestly believe in the wake of all this revelation is: the killer had to have been a surgeon. Numerous surgeons - four - came up to me on various book tours in '02 and '03 to tell me that they had viewed online the Black Dahlia autopsy protocol and that in their estimation it had to have been a surgeon, because they were surgeons themselves and they could not have done such a good bisection with 1947 implements. Laser technology today, certainly. There was no laser technology in 1947. And this to me puts the lie to speculation that it might have been a veterinarian or someone with minor medical training or just a plain old butcher.

I don't know and I don't care. It's done. Who knows, some day when Eddie [Muller] and I are in our dotage and I'm ten years older than him so I get into my dotage earlier, we'll do, you know, our Dog and Eddie act, where we get on stage. And it's a good act Eddie and I have. And we'll introduce The Black Dahlia.

You have greater access now to LAPD files than you had when you wrote The Black Dahlia. Have you been able to go back and look at the Elizabeth Short files?

No. Don't care.

Has having that access changed your writing style at all?

You might want to go back and read a piece that's included in my book Destination: Morgue! called "Stephanie," about the Stephanie Gorman homicide of 1965. There are some things that this film tour and the book tour are the conclusion of. After November of this year, I will never discuss the Black Dahlia murder case, Mr. De Palma's movie, Mr. Curtis Hanson's movie or my mother's murder again. I write big political books now, that's all I want to talk about. I have given 86 million fucking interviews about Betty Short and my mom. I got very lucky that this movie's coming out when it is. There's a Court TV documentary that I narrate about my mother's case that's going to air in November. That's it. I also don't want to write specifically about murdered women anymore. I want to put that one to bed. I've written about the Betty Jean Scales murder case, El Monte, 1974, the Stephanie Gorman case, LA, 1965, that's dead, too.

What other ideas do you have in mind then beyond completing the Underworld USA trilogy?

I want to write about LA exclusively for the rest of my career. I don't know where and when.

Do you mean it this time? You're not going to change your mind?

I reserve the right to change my mind. You know I lived up here [in San Francisco] recently. I got embroiled with a woman. It went South and I moved South.

Yes, I remember seeing you at the Noir City festival. Hadn't you moved here then?

I had moved here.

But it didn't work out.

The woman put me on skates and I skated down to LA.

This city isn't good enough for you without having a woman here?

No, it's not. It's too pretty. It's too political. And... I don't dig it. I'm an LA guy.

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"I judge my characters sternly."

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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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