'Dahlia' is De Palma's latest precious flower


It's damned tough for even big-name filmmakers to get a movie made these days. It helps to be a versatile jack-of-all-trades, someone who can play the studio game and make the occasional compromise. But most directors are better at some things than others; they are drawn to certain themes and subjects that resonate and are not necessarily commercial. Martin Scorsese revels in the Little Italy gangster milieu; John Ford liked to make Westerns in Monument Valley. New Yorker Brian De Palma likes to take his moving camera, in such brooding thrillers as "Dressed to Kill," "Scarface," "The Untouchables," "Snake Eyes" and "Femme Fatale," into shadowy stairwells full of dark menace. Which is why so many people are eager to see the filmmaker back in the zone of a hard-boiled mystery noir like "The Black Dahlia."

"We excel when we make our mark on a certain genre," De Palma says. "It's about bringing your sensitivity and creativity to the right combination of story and cast at the right time of your life to do something unforgettable. There's very little beauty in movies anymore. My beauty may be dark, but I try to make it as beautiful as I can."

The director defends his detours into such odd terrain as the space odyssey "Mission to Mars." "I just see what happens and get my batteries recharged," he says. "You can't deliver an extravagant masterwork every time. I like to practice my craft. I'm not afraid to fail and make a fool of myself. In the end, it's my career. It doesn't matter. I've had hits and catastrophes. What more can they do?"

Typically these days, no studio would back a movie like "Dahlia." After director David Fincher dropped out, De Palma patiently plugged away for three years at realizing Josh Friedman's adaptation of James Ellroy's Los Angeles novel based on the real-life 1947 murder of Hollywood ingenue Elizabeth Short. And eventually, thanks to his dogged "Untouchables" producer Art Linson, the movie raised enough independent financing to shoot in Bulgaria with a young cast led by Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Aaron Eckhart.

Universal executive Marc Shmuger acquired "Dahlia" while it was in production in May 2005. Luckily, after studio chairman Stacey Snider left to join DreamWorks, Shmuger landed her job and seems particularly invested in making this neo-noir film work at the boxoffice: It opened the Venice International Film Festival on Wednesday and opens Sept. 15 in the U.S.

Linson figures it is his job as a producer to will a movie like this into existence without complaining about how hard it is to work with the studios. "There's not a lot of risk-taking," he says. "If you can't get (Johnny) Depp or (Brad) Pitt to do a cop genre piece, then you have to fight to get it made. Most executives with courage are in cable TV. It's up to the filmmakers to be great. Waiting for studio execs to be great is silly. I've never met one director who wasn't willing to go through all kinds of pain if the material is great. My job is to find that diving board for a director like De Palma to jump off of."

De Palma first read Ellroy's novel in the '90s but couldn't figure out how to make a movie of it "because of the complexities of the story line," he says. But when Curtis Hanson's adaptation of Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential" came out in 1997, De Palma was duly impressed. Maybe he could pull off "Dahlia," too.

Linson brought De Palma the screenplay after Friedman had been working on it for many years. "The script had kept close to the story line of the book," De Palma says. "I wanted to keep the integrity of the way it was laid out. It's not your usual police procedural of the '40s and '50s."

De Palma's Herculean task was to make a visual and comprehensible movie out of Friedman's sprawling 135-page text. "I kept trying to keep it complex without simplifying too much and taking away the structure of the story," the director says. "These problems had to be solved, to keep the texture the way it was without shortcuts, so you felt the complexity of the world that Ellroy created."

De Palma was juggling simultaneous plot lines "that overlap in ways you don't realize until later," he says. "Some things I changed were too complex for audiences to absorb unless they were able to pick up the book. I had to pare down a lot of the eccentricities of the storytelling. If four things were going on simultaneously, we didn't need five."

The filmmakers also decided to use new information about the unsolved Dahlia case, which has stayed rooted in the popular imagination for almost 50 years, to alter the movie's ending. In this case, they agreed, one particularly nasty character just had to go down. "This is like Wyatt Earp and Eliot Ness," De Palma says. "They're all characters in mythology now."

The particularly gruesome way Short was murdered partially accounts for "Dahlia's" longevity. "It's like someone literally sculpted her with a knife," De Palma says. "Jack the Ripper didn't have photographs like that. I've never seen anything like it. This lived through history because once those photographs get into your subconscious, you can't get rid of them."

Combing through period footage, De Palma decided that planting visual clues from Paul Leni's 1928 silent "The Man Who Laughs" into the movie would help to root the audience without the aid of "George the Explainer at the end of 'Psycho' trying to put all the pieces together," says De Palma, who did employ Ellroy's omniscient voice-over narration, "to lend some insight."

Instead of a Keystone Kops caper, De Palma placed murder victim Short in a vintage porn flick and added improvised black-and-white screen tests to make the actress more empathetic. At one point Mia Kirshner, who plays Short, looks at the camera and says, prophetically, "People tell me I'm very photogenic."

Originally, Kirshner had been set to play the film's juicier femme fatale part -- until two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank became interested. So De Palma and Friedman beefed up the Dahlia story to keep Kirshner on board.

When De Palma first joined the project, Fincher already had interested Hartnett in playing the relatively honest cop who falls in love with corrupt partner Eckhart's girlfriend, Johansson. "He'd been in a couple of movies, 'Black Hawk Down' and 'Pearl Harbor,' " De Palma recalls. "By the time this project came around, he had made a couple of movies that were not too successful. This was not a Josh Hartnett go picture."

But De Palma stuck with him for one reason: "What he carries with him is that Gary Cooper integrity. In the slimiest situations in the most compromised universe where everyone is a liar and nobody tells the truth, this guy has moral authority."

Budget concerns forced the filmmakers to substitute Bulgaria, where most of the movie was filmed, for Hollywood, and Hollywood, where some exteriors were completed, for Mexico. Picking locations was key to creating De Palma's signature set pieces. Only when he saw the Los Angeles Spanish building location with a spiral staircase twisting up to the roof did the movie's stunning climax start to come together in his mind. De Palma has cited famous staircases in his movies before, from the Odessa Steps in Sergei Eisenstein's "Potemkin" to Hitchcock's "Vertigo." "Staircases are very dramatic," De Palma says. "Everything you see on screen has to visually captivate. But first it has to fit dramatically into the script. To have a sequence like that in the wrong place is not very helpful. You've got to bring together, like a war, a confrontation of a bunch of dramatic lines. In these sequences when you have many elements converging, they're more dynamic."

The dark cloak-and-dagger stairwell scene took five nights for De Palma and longtime cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund to shoot. Exactingly storyboarded, the scene involves a sturdy steadicam operator roaming the prelit stairwell, one character in disguise, a shadow on the ceiling, a knife across a throat, a noose, a patricide, and a magnificent death fall crash down the stairwell and into a fountain.

As De Palma tries to explain each character's motivations in the scene, he stops. "It's a Greek tragedy," he says. "I've only been living with this thing for three years. Believe me, it's all there. To try to understand the complexities of the solutions I've come up with -- please! This is the Ellroy book. If it's successful or I go down with it, this is what it is."
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