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INT: Brian DePalma

09.15.2006

With a film career spanning several decades and genres, legendary director Brian De Palma continues to seek out new challenges. This week, the man who brought us SCARFACE, THE UNTOUCHABLES and CARLITO'S WAY adds a bit of noir to the mix with his latest film, THE BLACK DAHLIA. Based on the novel by James Ellroy (who also wrote L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), Dahlia explores the sleazy underworld of 1940s Los Angeles with the same trademark operatic sensibility that distinguishes De Palma's other classics.

Brian De Palma recently stopped by the Millennium Biltmore for a press conference to promote his latest film. Here are some excerpts.

Brian De Palma

Did you see that immediate chemistry between Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson? 

No, to tell you the truth I didn’t know that anything was going on until Scarlett came to visit the set after her shooting was done. I said, “Why would anybody come back to Bulgaria to visit the set?” That was the only time I knew anything. But I thought that Josh and Hilary (Swank) – whoah. The way they kissed each other was so erotic. I mean, she was tasting him like he’s a grape. A piece of fruit.

How difficult was it to re-create the look and feel of old Los Angeles?

The problem was first finding locations, what still exists. With me, the location gives me all kinds of visual ideas. And this was an unusual movie because the financing kept falling through, so I had to go to different capitols and find the locations all again. The Linscott mansion I found in like four different countries. You have to deal with what you actually have, then with your art director you figure out how you can change it to fit into the design of the movie. In this case, the key locations changed many times until we finally got enough financing to make the movie in Bulgaria.

By then I’d gone through a permutation of these different principal locations like the Linscotts and the circular staircase, which I originally found here in Los Angeles. And then I found something in the municipal building in Bulgaria that was somewhat similar to my initial idea. So what happens is that these ideas become concrete in photograph, then they go into your brain and you design a sequence to make it and that becomes the design of the movie. And of course you’re collaborating with Dante Ferretti, who was a great eye. And you come up with something that was an original look for the noir piece. 

I think about everything that goes up on that screen, because I remember movies where I was entranced by the selection of the actors, the costumes, the locations, the historical period, all those things. And when you see somebody that actually looks like…take Pride and Prejudice, for instance. There’s a subject that has been done many times over, and suddenly you have a director that brings a specific vision to it with a great art director and you go, “Wow.” I’ve seen 73 Pride and Prejudices; why does this one seem to jump off the screen? And that has a lot to do with the selection of those visual elements.

This film has a lot of dark comedy elements. How did you go about setting that tone?

That’s the tone of the book. That very much exists in the book…you’re in a nuthouse. These people are insane. The way Ellroy wrote it, it’s sort of like a comic opera. I don’t know how else to explain it. So what I did in order to get that across to the audience was to shoot the entrance in first person – you want to see these people? Let them look at you. Let Mrs. Linscott just look at you like you’re trash. “How is this police man in my living room?” So that was the adjustment I made. And when you have a dog stuffed with a newspaper and Hilary just sort of tosses it off like the weather, you go, “Wow, I’m in a looney bin here and everyone else seems to think it’s quite normal.” And that’s exactly how I did it, very much in the tone of the Ellroy book. 

What was it like giving life to the Dahlia in the film?

That was something that wasn’t in the book. All he had was the Dahlia in her eight-by-tens and then this grotesquely carved body in this lot. Everybody talks about her in all kinds of not too positive ways, whether it’s her father or the Cleopatra character; they’ve all got bad stories about her. I said that we’ve got to show the audience her so that we care about her, so that they can get involved with this tragedy the way that Lee (Aaron Echkart) and Bucky (Josh Hartnett) ultimately did.

There were a bunch of screen tests in the early version of the script. So Mia and I got together and we started with that. I played the director and she played the person auditioning and I would just do what a very destructive director would do. I guess I was Otto Preminger, trying to destroy the actress before your eyes. And Mia played off it. She’s an actress. She’s insecure. She wants the job. And I’m saying, “Is that acting? Is that sadness?” And she brought it right to the heart of the audience. It’s very moving stuff because it’s all real. Those were just one long take after another. And the reason it seems so vivid is it’s happening right before your eyes.

Did you work at with James Ellroy to make the story more filmable?

No. Ellroy, his attitude is, “I got the money. Good luck.” We have to deal with these problems by ourselves.

This film deals a lot with the topic of obsession. How do you relate to that as a director?

This is what we do as directors – we create these images for you to watch and fall in love with and then watch what happens to them. We try to get you obsessed with our characters. Vertigo is the template on this. I create an illusion; you fall in love with it and then I kill it. Don’t you feel bad? Oh, there she is again; you can re-create it. And then I’m gonna kill it again. [laughs]

How important is post-production in a film like this?

Well, it’s important to Vilmos (Zsigmond, the cinematographer) because he likes to play around with the saturation of the colors. In this present day, with this technology you can shoot something one way and later adjust it in the digital process of making the final negative of the movie. It all depends on the places. You gotta find the places first, and then you gotta build places, like the whole scene where the shootout occurs and the zoot suit riot – you gotta build those places. Dante built like three or four city blocks in Bulgaria. 

One set piece in the film is the lesbian club scene. Can you talk about how that took shape?

Well, I figured there would be some really trendy place in Hollywood, some gay movie star-type club, so it would not be a lowdown dive; it would be some really hip place. Hanging out with my lesbian friends – they like pretty girls too. So why not have a lesbian chorus line of these drop-dead beautiful girls making out with each other? So I had this choreographer that worked with me on Femme Fatal, and she had these Bulgarian dancers – plus a couple of ringers from Paris – and we got this great singer (K.D. Lang) to sing the song. I shot it all night; it was the last night in Bulgaria and I kept on shooting it until the plane took off. [laughs]

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at thomasleupp@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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