The American Society of Cinematographers

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Black Dahlia
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Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC brings an air of dread and doom to The Black Dahlia, whose plot springs from Los Angeles’ most famous unsolved murder.

Unit photography by Rolf Konow, SMPSP

Just after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947, a young housewife named Betty Bersinger was walking south on Norton Ave. in Los Angeles, pushing her 3-year-old daughter in a baby carriage as she made her way to a shoe-repair shop two blocks south of 39th St. Strolling down the sidewalk, which bordered an empty field, she suddenly noticed a pale-white figure lying among the weeds. As she slowed to take a closer look, she mistook the form for a discarded mannequin because its top and bottom halves were lying a foot apart. On closer inspection, however, Bersinger realized to her horror that she was staring at the mutilated corpse of a neatly bisected female. Bersinger quickly pushed the baby stroller to the nearest house, pounded on the door, and told the woman who answered to phone the police. That call set off a rapidly growing sensation at the crime scene, where the late Elizabeth Short would, in death, finally receive the attention that had eluded her as a would-be Hollywood starlet. The ghastly tableau inspired months of lurid headlines in the nation’s newspapers, which referred to the raven-haired victim by her nickname, “the Black Dahlia” (a moniker inspired by the 1946 noir movie The Blue Dahlia). A gruesome landmark in the annals of L.A. crime, the Black Dahlia murder remains the city’s most notorious unsolved crime. Numerous authors have written books detailing their pet theories on the case, but no one has definitively identified the killer. Surprisingly, given the classic noir trappings of the case and its era, few films have used the incident as a backdrop. Aside from the 1974 telefilm Who Is the Black Dahlia? (a production that employed retired lead detective Harry Hansen as its “technical director”), the 1981 feature True Confessions (which incorporates elements of the case into its plot), and the recent indie-film exploitation effort Black Dahlia, this seemingly fertile material had remained neglected.

Enter director Brian DePalma, who knows a thing or two about creating morbid thrills onscreen. Rather than adapting one of the true-crime accounts of the case, DePalma opted to adapt James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia, in which Short’s murder threatens to destroy the lives of two Los Angeles police detectives who team up to hunt the killer. Ellroy, of course, has staked a claim as the king of literary noir by exploring men’s darkest impulses in such books as L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid and My Dark Places.

Intent on lending his picture an appropriately stylized ambience, DePalma recruited his old friend Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, who had worked with the director on Obsession, Blow Out and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Zsigmond relished the opportunity to apply his skills to a noir drama, although he admits he was unfamiliar with source material. “I didn’t know much about the Black Dahlia before I signed onto the project, so the whole story was basically fresh to me,” he says. “I didn’t read Ellroy’s novel, so my approach to the movie was based on Josh Friedman’s script and my discussions with Brian. Of course, we all knew this was a film-noir idea. I’d seen L.A. Confidential and knew it was based on a book by Ellroy. That movie is a good example of what I call ‘color noir,’ because it’s shot in color but has the feel of a black-and-white movie.”

Zsigmond was well prepared to explore Ellroy’s shadowy milieu of hardboiled cops and dangerous women. A native of Hungary, he grew up watching an era of black-and-white classics such as Citizen Kane and The Third Man, and learned most of his lighting techniques while shooting black-and-white projects. “In film school, I got my training in black-and-white only, because it was 1951 and we didn’t have color film at the school yet,” he recalls. “During my final year, we started to get some color film, but I never got to use it. Black-and-white always depended on light and shadows, so we had to learn to light well. With black-and-white film, you cannot just bounce a light into the ceiling and get good results, because it would look so boring you wouldn’t be able to watch it. You have to create lit areas and shadow areas, and essentially, the shadows are more important than the lights.

“When I started to shoot color, I still lit like I was working in black-and-white because that’s the only way I saw movies. Later on, when soft-lighting techniques came along, I tried to use them but never really enjoyed it. I find soft lighting very boring. I grew up studying painters like Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour, whose lighting is more realistic, with light coming through windows and from sources like candles or fires. For me, lighting is always about trying to duplicate the romanticism of sources. I think the more abstract forms of lighting, like soft-lighting techniques, don’t create any tension in movies, especially crime movies. When you’re doing a crime film, you have to create shadows. The Black Dahlia was certainly that kind of movie, so I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to light it.”

Lighting was only part of Zsigmond’s challenge on the show, however. He and a fellow Academy Award winner, production designer Dante Ferretti, were also tasked with creating a believable facsimile of 1940s Los Angeles in Bulgaria, where tax incentives and inexpensive labor helped reduce the project’s budget. Zsigmond recalls, “There was talk about shooting in France, and then they talked about shooting in Italy, and then Germany, but we ended up in Bulgaria. That was a shock to me, because I thought we’d lose a lot of familiar territory by not shooting in Hollywood. Ultimately, we did about eight days of shooting in Hollywood, and I think we got enough flavor from the real locations. At any rate, the site of the murder doesn’t look like it did back in the Forties because it’s become a more residential neighborhood. It was easier to re-create that street and others from scratch in Bulgaria, where the mountains actually looked pretty similar to the Hollywood Hills. Of course, if we had shot in the States, all the interior sets would have been built on stages anyway, because I don’t think we could find many interiors today that look like they did in 1947. By building everything from scratch, we were able to better re-create the period.

“Still, it’s a shame that doing a picture in Hollywood now costs so much, because it would be so much easier to stay in town,” he continues. “It’s hard to believe that shipping heavy furniture and props and hiring local technicians would reduce the budget by 50 percent. It’s a real struggle to shoot in L.A. for economic reasons, so you have all of these shows going to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Romania. It’s really a pity that we cannot somehow find a way to make these movies in Hollywood.”

Ferretti was also nonplussed when he learned he would have to build wholly believable L.A. settings in Eastern Europe. “Brian basically gave me the script and said, ‘Good luck,’” he recalls with a wry laugh. “He felt that I knew L.A. very well and could pull it off. Nevertheless, I did a scout in L.A. just before we left, and we did a lot of research about the Black Dahlia. I looked at the real murder site, even though that street doesn’t look the same today, and I also looked at all of the pictures that were taken back in the Forties. When you have good information at your disposal, it’s not that difficult to design convincing sets. What makes it difficult is when you have to work in an unfamiliar country with crewpeople you don’t know very well. I brought all of my key people from Italy, the States and London — construction coordinators, painters and so on. Plus, I brought a graphic designer from L.A. to work on all of the neon signs and posters for our street sets. But I also used a lot of Bulgarian laborers from Sofia, and they were very good. We hired local carpenters, plasterers and other craftsmen, but most of them had only worked on low-budget projects, so we had to teach them certain things about working on a movie of this size.

“Initially, I was told I could find whatever I needed in Bulgaria, but after two weeks I realized I couldn’t get anything,” continues Ferretti. “So I spoke with my set decorator, who then went back to L.A. for several weeks to collect props. In all, we shipped over about seven containers full of props and set dressing; we even shipped over the period cars! We ultimately built everything from scratch in Bulgaria, including about 25 interiors that were constructed in an abandoned paper factory. I started my work four months before shooting began, and it was a very big job.”


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