On its deepest level, The Usual Suspects is a story about the implication of telling stories, and about the inherent ambiguities of the storyteller’s role, especially when his motives may be a story unto themselves, with myriad roots: to convey a putative reality, to refashion events or make sense of them, to purge himself, to deceive. As with any narrator, what he amplifies or diminishes, includes or omits, and the infinite variations therein, are what make the story what it is. Thus in the best of film, as in literature, there is always the story behind the story, the word within the word, the revelations that come not only from content, but from seeing how and why a story is being told, and with what particular fusion of those disparate essential elements: memory and fantasy, truth and lies.”

 

 

My starting point for this adaptation project is James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia”. This is the fictional re-telling of the infamous murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles on January 15th, 1947. My reasons for picking this book were various. One was the writing style of Ellroy – his handling of language and especially dialogue is unique and very powerful to read. His sentence construction and general use of rhythm and pace is compelling to read – Elmore Leonard described it as “High intensity prose. Reading it aloud could shatter your wine glasses.” Secondarily – the time and place of the novel are a rich grounds for visual exploration. The book at the same time has a sense of authenticity for 1940s LA, but also draws from a film noir, more fictional view of this time and place. The hard-boiled sense of place is matched by the hard-boiled sound of dialect and words spoken by the novel’s characters. My intent was to visually explore this innate tension in the novel.

The third and most potent tension is not the novel itself- but how the novel is located in the life of its author. In Ellroy’s own words, ‘The Black Dahlia’ is “A curious mix of fact, fiction, and some personal demons...” James Ellroy’s own mother was murdered eleven years after Elizabeth Short ten miles away. In interviews he speaks extensively about the catalyzing effect of this event and his writing career. This novel in particular was an ode to his personal history. In short, this novel is fascinating intersection of fact and fiction – an intersection Ellroy draws much attention to.

This project was to be my true testing ground – the site wherein I would use all the strategies I have been deriving generatively – truly to generate my own visual narrative. Using this book as a starting point, I was able to apply each strategy for suspense again and again – in different visual forms and in both motion and print media. As I document the entire process; the notions of framing, pacing (pause, gaps and echo), and visual clues were all applied in the creation of the final book and motion sequence. They became tools by which I formed narrative, and tools by which I was able to communicate with my audience. They finally and genuinely transformed from theory on a page, techniques used by others – to become my own working methodology that allowed me to generate and analyse the story I was designing.

 

 

I was transfixed by this strange and powerful relationship between the author’s life and his art, the line that he deliberately blurred in creating a fiction from a non-fiction, which in turn mirrors the non-fictional events of his own life. There was an innate tension within and outside this source narrative that I wanted to capture; to visually manifest in my own projects.

This novel surpasses a traditional crime/detective fiction story and becomes something very dark and very haunting. From the very start I felt I wanted to use the power of point of view as a structural and emotive story-telling device. I knew I was dealing with frames of perspective in approaching this novel; the frame of storyteller; of Ellroy’s own authorial voice, the media perspective of the original Dahlia case, and ultimately my own authorial framing of all this material. While I would need to consider localized suspense storylines within the re-telling; there was a level of underlying meta-suspense I was dealing with – and this was the tension between these voices, these frames of story. Finding apt visual equivalents and metaphors for this deep tension was the constant challenge and driving impulse.

This project was an adaptation within an adaptation; taking the novel into a book form, and then taking this book form into a motion sequence.