Doppelgangers to Dioptic Cameras: De Palma's Take on the Dahlia
While known for a signature, deft style--one of recurring Hitchcockian themes, doppelgangers, femmes fatales, explosions of operatic violence and sweeping and stalking cameras--the director is the first to laughingly admit that he doesn't consciously ask, "How can I make this more Brian De Palma?" when he starts a picture. "That's an unconscious thing. I don't know why you're attracted to certain material," he notes. "There's just something that hooks you in and intrigues you."
Still, there are themes to which he finds himself repeatedly drawn. For example, he has long explored the common threads of doubles--both internal and external--those with fractured personalities who transfer guilt onto other characters. It is not uncommon for De Palma's characters to assume complexities and personalities of others. From Body Double to Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain, he has often explored that territory.
De Palma did find it an interesting fit that many of his recurring themes were echoed in the rapid-fire words and lurid specificity of Ellroy's world. For example, Madeleine becomes fixated on knowing (and sleeping with) a girl who looks like her, and she falls into the sway and swagger of Betty, beginning to assume her characteristics to seduce others. She even uses Bucky's obsession with the case to get him to return to her bed.
But, as in all adaptations, there would be major cuts to the source material. During the first reveal of the Dahlia's crime scene, De Palma focuses the audience on an event (Lee's shoot-out with Baxter Fitch) that happens simultaneous to the body's discovery--very much the antithesis of what happens in the Ellroy book.
De Palma thought it would be ironic if the big crime was actually behind the smaller one. "I wanted to completely throw the Dahlia's reveal away in the background of all those other things going on," he states. "We had to compress a number of storylines, and we got it down to four herrings. Because most of the story is told through indirection, you think, 'This is the important thing.' But in reality, we moved a few of them off the playing field."
While it was important to the screenwriter and director to bring both Ellroy's words and intricate subplots into the film version of The Black Dahlia, they knew that the visual medium of film would require some tricks that weren't available to the novelist. For example, Ellroy's poses that Betty's killer was inspired to carve a grotesque smile onto her face by the story of Victor Hugo's tragic character Gwynplaine. In Hugo's1869 novel, "L'Homme quit Rit" he writes of a man who has a permanent grin carved upon his face by the King, in revenge for the treachery of Gwynplaine's father. This haunting character has inspired many a film interpretation since the early 1900s (as well as serving as inspiration for Batman cartoonist Bob Kane's evil antagonist The Joker).
The director notes, "In Ellroy's book, the image of 'The Man Who Laughs' is very much on the murder's mind…and the Dahlia is scarred in precisely that manner." He next asked his team, "What's the best way to show it? Was there a movie? Sure enough…there was." De Palma found that showing Bucky, Lee and Kay watching German director Paul Leni's 1928 film The Man Who Laughs would tie together his loose ends nicely. (Coincidentally, the film was produced by Universal Pictures and became one of the studio's first transitional talkies, incorporating sound with cards for the first time).
Few American directors have opted to use the palette of colors and complex camera movements for which De Palma is known. Up until the fight scene between his two supercops, De Palma uses saturation coloring. Then, he moves on to very strong contrasting colors to tell the bulk of his story, complete with desaturated flashbacks. The director notes, "The whole movie is basically a descent into hell. With noir, you try to use high contrast, a lot of shadows and low angles."
De Palma chose to work with a team--including longtime collaborators, former opera set and Fellini designer Dante Ferretti and renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond--to design specific sequences in service of the story. The director relates, "I look at a scene, and then I figure out what's the best position for the camera for a particular piece of action. Then, I maximize the visuals and design the locations for sequences." Notably, De Palma is known to create three-dimensional models to understand exactly what he wants to film before he starts rolling camera.
Of his directing style, he shares, "It's not interesting to me unless it speaks to me visually," he says. "Most directing is quite simple. If you have good taste and know how to direct actors, then you'll shoot either a medium shot or medium close-up quite well. Unfortunately, most people have been brought up on TV, and many directors offer dialogue with two and three and steadicam shots."
In the film, De Palma keeps images of the Dahlia in the background until the very end, purposefully holding his camera off of close-ups of the body and building the audience's morbid curiosity and anticipation for what the deceased Betty looks like. He, instead, introduces us to Betty--very much alive--through onscreen camera tests.
De Palma continues, "It was as if someone was displaying a grotesque work of art, then saying, 'look what I've done.' Those pictures make you think someone was sculpting in flesh. They just seep into your subconscious. My concept was to hold that image back until the end of the film."
Producer Linson states, "Brian sees the sequences of things visually, and the dialogue is the icing. He brings in the back-story of the Dahlia through screen tests, and he has his own cameo (a la Hitchcock) in there."
The voice of the off-screen filmmaker who is trying to direct Betty during her test was actually De Palma, originally done as a temporary track, but kept once the production team noted how well Kirshner and the director sparred. De Palma notes, "What you see with Mia during her screen tests was very much ad libbed. We explored the relationship of my playing a callous, insensitive producer and Mia, a delusional star-struck, desperate girl. We did a whole series of things on camera, then Vilmos put it into black-and-white. This makes Elizabeth Short a real human being and made the movie much more emotional."
Continuous takes with the audience-as-participant, another mark of the director, would also be used in The Black Dahlia. The first time the audience is allowed into the Linscott mansion, Swank plays right into the camera in a first-person shoot as we are welcomed in as her date, Bucky. "It's an old convention of the war," says De Palma. "This was the place to do it. Let her play her nuttiness right to camera and suck in the audience." Equally as jarring, as soon as Bucky/audience member sits at the dinner table, the camera switches back to a third-person shot.
It was always De Palma's intention to use Ellroy's lines in this scene, noting, "I directed it underlining his intention. This is the craziest dinner one could ever be at, but everybody seems to think everything's quaint, the way things should be. Only later do we see the deadly consequences of this Addams Family. But when we're introduced to them, it's like a Restoration comedy."
Ground-level camera angles would be used, allowing the audience to look straight from the corpse's perspective into Bucky's face when Detective Millard calls him over to view the Dahlia's body. Switched-up again, the audience is Bucky when D.A. Loew dresses down the detective when he's sitting at his desk.
De Palma and Zsigmond's choices draw us in even further into Betty's world, pre- and post-mortem. The complicated camera work needed to follow the fight between Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice would prove not only a physical challenge for Hartnett and Eckhart, but one for cinematographer Zsigmond. As Bucky throws the fight, dropping his right and taking a left hook from Lee--followed by a fast right upper-cut that takes out his two front teeth--the camera and choreography work blend beautifully. In this scene and others, De Palma would make much use of his signature split-screen and split-diopter shots.
"In an anamorphic (traditional lens) movie, you see a big face in the foreground and someone 30 feet away, then both of them out of focus," notes cinematographer Zsigmond. "Optically, it's impossible to make both clear, so we use a split diopter lens that hides the split and makes the image seamless." This is also a trademark De Palma imprint, used in films like The Untouchables, Blow Out and Carrie.
Finally, for the Dahlia herself, the production team decided to save sharing the visuals of her body bisected, lying in the lot that would become Leimert Park, until the end of the film. De Palma notes, "We discovered we had to create a living image of the Dahlia. All of the images of her are her dead outside or on an autopsy table. It was a very close replica of the body, and I was always shooting away from it. We only really brought it out in all its glory in the last scene on the lawn.
For audience and filmmaker alike, "the images of her are the things that keep her alive in our imaginations, dreams and nightmares," he says. "Bucky will always be haunted with this image, much like in my others where something subconscious grabs you--like Carrie grabbing you from the grave."
Recreating Hollywoodland: Locations, Costume and Music for the Film
Ellroy best describes the dark side of Los Angeles as "crime and sex and outré pathology."
To capture that look for The Black Dahlia, in April 2005, the production team traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, to recreate Hollywood of 1947. Linson shares, "It was great to have a production crew who maintains the control of duplicating Hollywood. You actually see the Hollywood Hills, but they're really the hills of Sofia."
Production designer Ferretti built Hollywood and streets infamous during the Zoot Suit Riots in the Lic Pier/Venice area…locations that no longer exist in L.A. The director adds that he wasn't concerned about shooting in a location so far from the real Los Angeles, noting, "Much like Scarface, for which we only shot two weeks in Miami, you will never have a sense that you are not in L.A."
In the book, Lee Blanchard disappears for a time in Mexico, much to the chagrin of Kay and his partner, Bucky. To handle that additional challenge, but still keep elements of the story in play, De Palma brought Lee's disappearance back to Los Angeles, the city he was recreating deep within Europe.
The production would actually wrap by shooting key sequences in Los Angeles. During June 2005, the team would film across sections of the city to get just the right look for the backdrops, capturing images indigenous only to L.A. Finally, the production headed to City Hall on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles to film sequences of the two detectives while they battle with the LAPD to stay on the case. There, they would conclude principal photography.
To dress the cast in period fashions, costume designer Jenny Beavan would bring costumes in from London to Bulgaria--specifically, multiple outfits for Swank, Johansson and Kirshner. Beavan succinctly states of the women who wore the fashions of the period
Period-appropriate music was just as vital to De Palma as location or costume choices. From the trumpets that bump in the first time Bucky and Madeleine make love to the slow jazz band sequence when Bucky reveals a difficult truth to Kay, the score was the evocative creation of composer and jazz trumpet player (and a student of noir films) Mark Isham.
"The key to Mark Isham is that he's a great trumpet player," compliments the director. "I always heard a mournful trumpet in this blues-type of movie. It was like the voice of Bucky." He adds, "You know you have a really great composer when he can replace the temp score and you've forgotten it completely.
To underscore the Dahlia's hideaway, Laverne's, where she would cadge drinks "off the sisters," the team would turn to unique country and pop-artist belter k.d. lang, whom producer Linson convinced to sing 'Love for Sale' for the soundtrack. "We created this kind of Busby Berkeley number," shares De Palma. "We spent a whole night shooting, and it was the last thing shot in Sofia."
And what would a sexy, underground '40s nightclub be without leggy showgirls? Mia Frye, the same choreographer De Palma worked with on Femme Fatale, brought in French, Bulgarian and English dancers to bring Laverne's to life. "Those girls danced 'til dawn," laughs the director.
August 30th, 2006, marks Brian De Palma's fifth premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The Black Dahlia will open the annual event in the Sal Grande of Venice's Palazzo del Cinema. And the inspiration for the story he tells will finally find herself on the silver screen, almost 60 years after her murder.
Elizabeth Short's journey to the movies was a bittersweet one. All her life, she dreamed of being an actress who touched others. She had no idea just how much of a nightmare that would become. A beautiful Hollywood wannabe at the end of the Second Great World War, Betty's life was snuffed out prematurely. Yet, the impact of her story will be felt for centuries.
The director concludes, "How does that beautiful girl you've seen pin-ups of become this? Who did this to her and why? The Black Dahlia has lived on for decades. It's one of those mysteries that will go on forever."
We close this chapter of The Black Dahlia's saga with Ellroy's summations on Betty and his own mother, Jean: "They rest dead as L.A. opportunists, and I have ceaselessly worked to recast them as L.A. immortals." Cherchez la femme, Bucky. Cherchez la femme.
BRIAN DE PALMA (Directed by) has showcased his filmmaking talents in diverse films ranging from thrillers such as Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Snake Eyes to the blockbuster action film Mission: Impossible, the acclaimed police dramas Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito's Way to the unique visions in Carrie and Phantom of the Paradise. De Palma, a director without limits on his range, has also directed war films, comedies and science fiction.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, on September 11, 1940, De Palma grew up in Philadelphia, where his father was an orthopedic surgeon. Early on, De Palma became fascinated by physics and went to Columbia College to study the subject. He soon changed paths and began studying first theater, then cinema. In 1960, he made his first mid-length feature, Icarus, followed by 660124: The Story of an IBM Card and Woton's Wake, for which he received several awards.
De Palma undertook his first full-length feature, The Wedding Party, while studying at Sarah Lawrence College. The Wedding Party, a semi-improvised comedy, would be Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh's film debuts. After this first film, De Palma went on to do several documentaries and short films, including The Responsive Eye, and put on an exposition of Op Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1967, he made his second full-length feature, Murder à la Mod, a sophisticated thriller packed with Hitchcockian references. The anti-establishment fever of the '60s led him to make the satirical comedies Greetings (honored with a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) and Hi, Mom!, which lifted him into the ranks of young American filmmakers.
The big Hollywood studios began paying attention to De Palma, but it was his modest independent production Sisters which brought his first big success. Breaking away from the semi-improvisational style of his previous films, he made it apparent that his talent for writing, his sense of construction, his framing and rhythm were worthy of the best Hollywood directors.
Two years after his success, De Palma made the musical thriller Phantom of the Paradise, which came away with the Grand Prize from the 1975 Avoriaz Film Festival. In 1976, he (with Paul Schrader) wrote and directed Obsession, a romantic thriller starring Cliff Robertson and Geneviève Bujold, followed by Carrie, which triumphed worldwide and earned Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie Oscar® nominations. The film, which also featured Nancy Allen, John Travolta and Amy Irving, remains one of the most brilliant adaptations of a Stephen King novel. Its famous last scene, as well as others, has been widely imitated over the years.
In 1977, De Palma directed Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes and Amy Irving in The Fury, a spy film that combined the occult with political fiction. In 1978, he made Home Movies, a semi-autobiographical comedy starring Kirk Douglas and Nancy Allen, with the assistance of fellow film students from Sarah Lawrence. In 1980, De Palma returned to suspense with Dressed to Kill, starring Michael Caine, Nancy Allen and Angie Dickinson, then went on to write and direct Blow Out, which explored two of his major themes: voyeurism and politics.
In 1982, De Palma directed a baroque, hyper-violent remake of Scarface, from an Oliver Stone screenplay, starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. In 1984, he made Body Double, which gave Melanie Griffith her breakthrough role. Leaving behind the film genre which had made him famous, De Palma went on to direct The Untouchables, a huge, spectacular saga about Prohibition which earned its star, Sean Connery, an Oscar®, and launched the careers of Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia. In 1989, De Palma directed Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn in the war film Casualties of War; in 1990, he adapted Tom Wolfe's satirical novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, which starred Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis.
In 1992, De Palma returned to thrillers with Raising Cain, which starred John Lithgow and Lolita Davidovich, and directed Al Pacino in Carlito's Way. In 1996, he brought together Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart and Jean Reno in Mission: Impossible, a tribute to the cult television series. Mission: Impossible became an enormous international success and was followed by Snake Eyes, starring Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise, as well as his first science fiction film, Mission to Mars, which starred Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle and Connie Nielsen. Prior to The Black Dahlia, the director helmed the thriller Femme Fatale, starring Rebecca Romijn and Antonio Banderas.
JOSH FRIEDMAN (Screenplay by) is also the author of the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's 2005 film War of the Worlds. His screenplay Orphan's Dawn is currently in development at 20th Century Fox. A graduate of Brown University, Friedman lives in Los Angeles with his wife and child.
AVI LERNER (Produced by) was born in 1947 in Haifa, Israel, and studied economics at the University of Tel Aviv. After a short period in the banking industry, Lerner entered the film business in 1972, when he established the first and only drive-in cinema in Tel Aviv. He went on to develop a chain of six movie theaters in Israel, and in the late 1970s, was the first to recognize the potential of the home video market. He effectively cornered the Israeli home video market, acquiring rights to over 7,000 pictures for Israel. He sold his home video and cinema company in 1984, and between 1980 and 1984, Lerner produced six pictures in Israel. In 1984, he went to South Africa to produce the remake of King Solomon's Mines, starring Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone, for the Cameron Group.
Between 1984 and 1992, he produced over 40 pictures in South Africa for his company Nu Metro Production and sold them all over the world.
In 1986, Lerner acquired the Metro cinema chain in South Africa from CIC International and the South African Home Video operations of Thorn EMI. Over the next four years in South Africa, Lerner built the Nu Metro Entertainment group, which developed into one of the largest and most aggressive entertainment companies in Africa. Nu Metro Entertainment included four different companies that covered theaters, video, distribution and production. The cinema chain, under the name Nu Image Theatres, developed from 33 screens in 1986 to 160 screens in 1992.
Nu Metro Distribution licensed film distribution rights for Southern Africa--which were then exploited through its own cinema chain, its own video distribution operations and thereafter licensed to Southern African pay (TivM-Nett) and free television broadcasters that represented companies like Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, MGM and most of the independent distributors.
In 1991 and 1992--partly as a result of the political instability facing South Africa and partly because of a desire to establish an LA-based production/distribution company--Nu Metro Ltd. (excluding the film production operations) was sold to CAN Gallo Ltd. The proceeds of the sale were used partly to produce the first five pictures for the new group and partly to establish Nu Image in Los Angeles. In 1992, Lerner moved to America and established Nu Image with Danny Dimbort and Trevor Short.
Today, Lerner is one of the most respected and prolific independent film producers in the industry. He is a member of the board of directors of both the Independent Producers Association and the American Film Marketing Association. His company, Nu Image/Millennium Films, currently produces 14 to 15 independent pictures a year, and he has produced over 230 pictures in his illustrious movie career that spans three decades. In addition to The Black Dahlia, recent credits include Edison, 16 Blocks, Lonely Hearts, Mozart and the Whale, Wicker Man, Home of the Brave and King of California. Nu Image/Millennium is now planning to produce movies such as Rambo IV and Day of the Dead, which will have theatrical release dates for the U.S. and the whole world.
AFTERWORD HILLIKERS: AN AFTERWORD TO THE BLACK DAHLIA BY JAMES ELLROY