When James Ellroy appeared at the Television Critics Association’s spring press tour last week to promote an upcoming Court TV documentary based on his memoir My Dark Places, I pressed him for details on Brian De Palma’s version of his 1987 novel The Black Dahlia. He didn’t say much, and what he did say must be considered in light of his own stake in the film’s success. (The Court TV documentary and Dahlia will appear around the same time this fall.)
But his comments were still intriguing.
At a Court TV dinner, Ellroy said he’d seen three hours of unedited footage from Dahlia, a hardboiled thriller loosely based on the infamous 1947 murder case, and starring Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett. While Ellroy wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how it would cut together, he described the footage as “…fucking gorgeous.”
Ellroy said De Palma wasn’t present when he watched the footage a few months back. “One of his people put me in a screening room and showed what they had. The compositions are amazing. I’ve seen enough cop movie squadroom scenes to think I’d never see another scene set in one that didn’t bore me, but the way De Palma shoots a squadroom, it’s like you’re seeing it for the first time…The clarity of the images is unreal.”
Ellroy wouldn’t speculate on the actors’ performances because he thought it was unfair to judge them based on rushes. “But I can tell you this: the big story coming out of this is Josh Hartnett, who is a revelation. He is Bucky Bleichert”—the young lead officer and ex-prizefighter investigating the killing. “I realize that a lot of you people”—meaning critics—“are going to have a hard time believing that, but when the movie comes out, anybody who had any doubts about this kid is going to eat their words.”
After the Court TV panel the next day, I buttonholed Ellroy again with Los Angeles based De Palma expert Jim Moran (whose account is online at 24LiesASecond).
“The film is in the can,” Ellroy said. “It will be edited, and perhaps shown at the Cannes Film Festival.”
I asked him to assess the movie’s period design. “Interior sets were built in Bulgaria, and then the exteriors were shot in L.A.,” he said. “They’re physically convincing, albeit stylized.”
Moran asked Ellroy if the script—by Josh Friedman, cowriter of War of the Worlds—had “managed to capture the convolutions of the book.”
“It’s a reduced version of my book, but a very cohesive one,” Ellroy said. “It’s the first person narration of the young officer who eventually solves the case, the Hartnett character.”
That’s all for now.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.