SWAN SONG -- the 'noir' mystery with a new chapter every week!


Q:What was the inspiration for SWAN SONG?

A: Several real murder cases, both famous and obscure, and all unsolved (no matter what the L.A.P.D. tells you).  I'd been researching the murders of Thelma Todd, Nick Adams, George Reeves and, of course, Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, and the frustration I felt at the injustice of it all finally got to me.  I saw myself walking in the footsteps of dozens of writers and hundreds of cops, wanting to shake the dead body by the shoulders and plead, "Give me something to go on!"  That frustration led to SWAN SONG. 

Q: This is really your version of the Black Dahlia case, isn't it?

A: No, the Swan is not the Black Dahlia, but that case was my jumping-off point.  In early drafts she was Beth Short.  But I felt constrained -- if I was going to use her real name, and the names of all the people involved, I felt I'd have to stick closer to the facts than I really wanted to.  After all, those facts haven't led to a definitive solution.  Fictionalizing it gave me the freedom to take the story anywhere I wanted.

Q:  Brian DePalma's film of James Ellroy's THE BLACK DAHLIA was just out this summer, and it wasn't exactly a huge hit.  Does that worry you?

A:  Not really: I figure interest in the case, and similar crimes of the period -- like the far better (though flawed) film about the death of George Reeves -- can only help to stimulate public curiosity.  And there's certainly no shortage of new books on the case.  Besides, Ellroy's take on the material is very different from my own.  Even if my film were in the can and ready for release tomorrow, I wouldn't be too concerned.  Few people remember that two westerns about the 'Hole In The Wall' gang, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE WILD BUNCH, came out the same year, but are extremely different, and both are considered classics.  

Q: Haven't there been other movies inspired by the Black Dahlia case?

A: Two that I know of.  WHO IS THE BLACK DAHLIA? was made for TV in 1975, directed by Joe Pevney, and starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Lucie Arnaz as Elizabeth Short.  The modest budget works for it -- it has a tough, gritty feel.  Lucie Arnaz's performance is heartbreaking.  I highly recommend it.  Then there's TRUE CONFESSIONS, directed in 1981 by Ulu Grossbard.  Despite terrific technical credits and art direction, it's an unwatchably bad film, which John Gregory Dunne, with wife Joan Didion, adapted from his unreadably bad novel.  How can anyone take virtually unlimited money, the setting of Los Angeles in the 1940s, an astonishing true crime, Robert Di Niro, Robert Duvall and a strong supporting cast, and end up with a movie as dull as kindergarten scissors?

Q: How long have you been working on SWAN SONG?

A: Five years on and off anyway -- it's hard to recall exactly when I stopped looking a the story as a non-fiction project, and let myself be free to fictionalize it.  It was under option for six months, but happily I got it back, and unfixed it.

Q: Unfixed it?

A: One of the things that always happens when you option or sell a script is that the buyer wants changes -- sometimes little ones, sometimes massive.  In this case the buyer wanted massive changes to, among other things, the mystery's solution, changes which I frankly hated.

Q: If you hated the changes, why did you make them?

A: As a writer-seller, you have just a few choices.  Choice #1, you can stick to your guns and say that you won't sell the script if they insist on those changes.  I have made that choice several times in the past, and as a result have had additional careers in telemarketing and food delivery.  Choice #2, you can sell the script and walk away -- let someone else ruin it.  Choice #3, you can sell the script with the proviso that you get first crack at making changes.  On the one hand, since the script is your baby, you are molesting your own child for the pleasure of others.  On the other hand, you can do your best to protect the material and limit the damage.  Often, after the changes are made, the producers will agree that the changes didn't work, and you'll be in a position to put it back the way it was.  Another writer will want, instead, to make different changes, to make the material more their own.

Q: What kind of changes were you asked to make?

A: Well, since you haven't read the entire script, the answers would be too specific to make sense to you, and would give away too much.  I always try to keep an open mind on suggestions -- I have improved scripts many times by taking suggestions from producers, directors, sound engineers, editors, actors.  In a movie I wrote called DOUBLE CROSS, my favorite line of dialogue came not from me, but from actor Patrick Bergin.  When Jennifer Tilly tells him, that he's suave, sophisticated and urbane, he says, "Urbane -- that's urban' with an 'e'?"  It grew out of my scene, but it was his line.  Good suggestions come in all forms.  Oddly, the bad suggestions from producers are very uniform.

Q: Uniform in what way?  

A: Almost all bad suggestions from female producers involve inserting some sort of extraneous political statement into the material.  Almost all bad suggestions from male producers involve inserting something else -- they always want wrong-choice characters having sex with each other.

Q: Do you think, in your screenplay, you have solved the BLACK DAHLIA case?

A: Absolutely not.  Although there are some real historical figures in the story, and others loosely based on real people, the majority are completely fictional creations.  So don't try to find the real killer through my story: I made him/her up! 

Q: Your website opens with the quote, "Los Angeles is a town that's always thrived on beautiful women who've run out of options." -- Del Wilson.  What does the quote mean?

A: I've lived in Los Angeles since 1979, and like everyone else here who has their eyes open, I've seen an endless succession of hopeful women who arrive seeking stardom.  Just like in the 1920s, and ever since, they have tremendous faith in their own talent and beauty, beauty which, where they come from, may be unique.  It's not unique here, however: it's a glut.  There's too much beauty and talent for too few jobs.  People get hungry and desperate, and end up doing things they never would have thought themselves capable of.  There's a reason why there's always been so much prostitution in L.A., and why the San Fernando Valley is the porno-producing capital of the world. 

Q: And who is Del Wilson?

A: Del Wilson is a character in the screenplay, a retired newspaper crime photographer, and best friend of our much younger detective, Scott.  Del is partly based on a couple of people: Will Fowler, the reporter who was first on the scene of the BLACK DAHLIA crime scene, and Delmar Watson, a newspaper photographer who was also there, and gave me a fascinating interview.

Q: Whose work influenced you in writing SWAN SONG?

A: I don't know if I believe in fate, but when I was having trouble with the early stages of the script, I was working at a restaurant, and took a telephone order from a lady whose name was pronounced 'Block,' but spelled 'Bloch.'  I asked, "Like Robert Bloch, the author?"  She replied, "Yes.  Robert Bloch was my husband."  That is how I met the widow of the literary hero of my teens, the author of PSYCHO.  She gave me a book of his short stories, which included THE DEAD DON'T DIE, which I'd read in high school, and rereading it helped me get a handle on the story.  Other influences have always been Chandler, Hammett and James M. Cain, John D. and Ross MacDonald, and especially Cornell Woolrich.  Woolrich worked in despair the way Rembrandt worked in paint.  Cinematically, I was influenced by all the noirs  you'd expect, especially I WAKE UP SCREAMING, all the films of Billy Wilder, Val Lewton and Phil Karlson.