The author of the novels that inspired great film noirs such as ‘LA Confidential’ or ‘Black Dahlia’ rants without mincing words in this interview against the adaptations of his novels, which they believe left much to be desired.
Accountant’s son Rita Hayworthand of a nurse who was raped and murdered when he was just a boy, James Elroy (Los Angeles 1948) became one of the best black novel writers set in the Hollywood universe of the 40s. He is the author of the stories that later became the best noires in the history of cinema, such as Dalia Negra, or LA Confidential, although he does not see it so clearly in this interview with SensaCine. We interviewed him in Madrid taking advantage of his visit for the launch of his new novel ‘Pánico’. And the meeting is priceless.
Question: Let’s go fast. 74 years. Have you discovered the meaning of life?
Response: Yes, a long time ago. Christ lived. Christ died. Christ resurrected. Christ will return again. I’m Christian. That is my explanation.
P. In PANIC, your new novel returns to Freddy Otash. One real character I’ve read was the one that Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown character was inspired by.
R. That is not true
R. Naaaaah. Freddy O was a private detective in LA in the 50’s. That idea circulated a lot, that Robert Towne, the screenwriter of Chinatown, wrote the character of JJ Gittes with him in mind, but I don’t think it’s true.
Q. What do you find so attractive about the character?
Any. So I rewrote his life from scratch.
R. But you knew him when he was alive
Yes, I was going to use him as the main protagonist in «America.» But I didn’t believe what he told me and I didn’t want to contaminate the book by attribution. So I fired him, even though I paid him anyway. Then she died. So I could have used him for free.
P. Could you tell me a little about your working method? I recently read that Nick Cave now writes the songs as if he were an office worker, eight hours a day in his office. How do you do it, Mr. Ellroy?
R. I usually draw clear lines. I write by hand, I never use the computer. The draft of Perfidia was 650 pages. I make a complete diagram for the whole play and then write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…
P. Despite being a master of criminal literature, I have read that you prefer to be considered an author of political literature.
R. No. Historical literature.
P. It would be correct since you always write about a specific period: the 40s and 50s in Los Angeles…
R. and the 60
Q. What do you find so interesting at that time?
R. It is the past. I like to go back in time, to the 1940s, or when I was five years old in 1953. I live in the past. It’s my natural state
P. In “Panic” politics is important but who you really gut is golden Hollywood. The depravity he shows in the book is brutal, both for Hollywood and for its stars.
R. Well. I mess a lot with a movie I despise: Rebel Without a Cause. And with an actor I dislike: James Dean. And with a director that makes me feel sorry: Nicholas Ray. So I hit them where it hurts the most: in the ass (he says it in Spanish).
James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’
Q. It’s not just James Dean and Nicholas Ray. Also Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Liz Taylor, Lana Turner, Natalie Wood, John Wayne… You say that John Wayne was a drag queen.
R. She wasn’t a drag queen, but she liked to dress like a girl. She liked girls, but she also liked to dress like them.
Q. Everyone gets shot in the book. But what is real and what is fiction?
R. I’m not going to tell you that.
P. It is shocking. Sometimes I panicked reading Panic.
R.Good! That is I did my job well
P. But you say barbarities about Orson Welles or Lana Turner!
R.Orson Welles was full of shit. I called him «fat boy».
P. But you know that I am a film critic. Everything you say is very sad.
R. I know. But if you’ve read my book This Storm, Dudley Smith beat the crap out of him. And he called him «fat boy».
Q. You also charge jazz musicians. Art Pepper, who had a complex life, Charlie Parker, Anita O’Day…
R. I love Bird. Anita O’Day! A junkie. She hit the beak. Stay away from the peak. Stay away from the peak. Stay away from the peak. Stay away from the peak.
Q. Okay. Fat question. Do you think a Modern Hollywood Panic could be written? Someone like Harvey Weinstein seems like a character invented by James Ellroy.
R. No. The art of “Panic”, the love that imbues “Panic”, is the result of the love I felt for Los Angeles in the past. There is the love, the passion for detail, going to Googie’s… there is also my dark past as a drug addict. Johnny Otash is a drug addict. Women, there are always women. Think about the women in this book. The great actress Lois Nettleton. The psychopath Claire Klein. Six-foot bisexual basketball player Stretch Perkins, the Big Blonde. Cherchez la femme…
Q. You describe Hollywood as the most depraved place in the world hidden under a false moral tinsel.
R. I imagine it is still like that. I haven’t lived in Los Angeles for a few years now.
Q. I have the feeling that through your books you are rewriting American history, making it more violent.
I think I enhance the brutality I perceive. Rewriting the history of mankind… there are always men and women in love, then they cross paths with famous people in Hollywood, in politics… and end up finding themselves in terrifying moral dilemmas. That romantic dance is what I write about.
Q. I don’t know if you like Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where history is also rewritten and it is also a love letter to Los Angeles.
R. I liked it the first time I saw it. I like the physical photo he takes of Los Angeles at a time when I was 21 years old. But in the end the only thing that matters to me, I saw it a second time recently, is the beautiful pit bull that kills the Manson family. And it’s a female dog. So it is a feminist statement. All Brad Pitt does is growl. I love the dogs.
Q. I have read that it does not have internet, that it does not have television, so no Netflix. So I would like to ask you what is your relationship with movies as a viewer.
R. I never go to the movies anymore. I watch all the movies on television, although it is not my television but my wife’s. In fact, she’s not my wife either, she’s my second ex-wife, now we’re back together. That’s why I’ve moved to Denver.
Q. Can I ask you about the film adaptations of your novels?
R. Yeah. They’re all crap.
Q. Well, um… I think that the films of the 80s and 90s have a rough, tough tone, difficult to find in modern films: Cop, with the law or without it (1988), Requiem for Brown (1998), Dark Blue (2002)… But you don’t like them
R. No, they are all bad. I wrote the first sketches for Dark Blue, but then someone came along and rewrote the whole thing. So it’s not my dialogues.
Image from ‘LA Confidential’
Q. But LA Confidential is a masterpiece, Mr. Ellroy
R. No. It sucks.
Q. No, it’s not shit. (in tears)
R. It’s bullshit. Russell Crowe sucks. Guy Pierce sucks. James Cromwell sucks. Kim Basinger sucks.
R. Stinks! She is as deep as an «omelet».
Q. But when the movie was released it must have been a big hit for you.
R. No. He didn’t sell many books. He didn’t make that much money. Hit the box office. It won many awards but so what? It’s a fucking dog movie.
Q. Kevin Spacey also seems like a character you invented
R. I hope not!
P. Last question about your films, what happened to Brian De Palma in The Black Dahlia?
R. Everything went wrong with that movie. A bad script. From Palma was gone, in another world. It was a cheap movie. It was shot in Sofia, Bulgaria. He did sell a lot of books though!
Q. I really like Brian De Palma’s movies.
R. Yes, I like quite a few too. …Trapped by his past
Q. Why do you think people empathize so much with your books? These being so violent and raw, with really amoral characters.
R. Because all my books, at their core, are basically about love. They are about lonely and lost men and women looking for love.
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