Betty’s Last Days: Part 3 My Black Dahlia Shoot

In the pre-production phase on my Black Dahlia story, I was only truly concerned with two important elements: The Styling and The Casting. I wasn’t too worried about hair and make up. The murder took place in the 1940’s, there are thousands of visual references to the hair and make up styles of this era and I knew that my tried and true loyal and lovely hair stylist was on board, David Harrington. He would leave no stone unturned in researching for this shoot so I basically gave him the story idea and let him go away to find his vision. We decided to work with make up artist Tia Azahri because David works a lot with her and her work is very good. It’s always a good idea to bring on hair and make up people who work together a lot. They “get” each other and work well together so at least you don’t have any surprise “team disputes”. 

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I set about conquering the issue of finding the right stylist first. Actually, I knew immediately who I wanted the minute I stepped into Man Ray’s apartment. There was only one answer and that person(s) was Michel Berandi and his fiance, Max Smith. I’ve known Michel for over 20 years. We ran in the same Hollywood Rock and Roll circles back in the day. Michel went on to own his own fashion design empire and now he designs haute couture for high end clientele and celebrities. He’s truly one of those people who doesn’t get out of bed for under $10K. Michel has storage units filled with clothing he has designed (you will consider selling your soul for one of his leather jackets) and Max, his raison d’etre, has one of the most unique 1940’s Vintage collection I’ve ever seen. 

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I knew in my gut that Michel and Max would be all over this story because of the Black Dahlia. Michel has always been obsessed with the murder and with Los Angeles Noir. We shared many nights of talking for years and years on the subjects. The tricky part was angling the pitch in just the right wording to get him inspired and to say yes to the project. My bottom line was I had to get Michel and Max or this shoot wasn’t going to be worth the effort I was going to have to put in it. 

I spent days in my head rehearsing the pitch. Literally, days. And I even know this guy! We have a gang of mutual friends, a gang of shared personal experiences, a gang of history! Still, Michel is eccentric and if he’s into the project and he’s in the mood, he may say yes. He is not a stylist per se……He’s a fashion designer. But Max styles and she can put pieces together with him art directing. They are the quintessential partnership for fashion! 

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You know when you’ve been thinking about something that freaks you out and you over think it so you just pull the trigger one day and you kind of “black out” a little from the adrenaline? I literally hit Michel up on Facebook one day and pitched the story. Idiotic FACEBOOK. A place I hate, I know Michel hates, but that’s where I decided to jump off the cliff.  I fucking sat there staring at the Facebook messenger box on my 30 inch monitor staring in disbelief as I saw the bubble pop up immediately with the words Michel Typing…….

So he said yes, he was thrilled, Max was thrilled. That was one huge obstacle that was overturned and now I could move on to casting. I posted a picture of Elizabeth Short on my Instagram and a photographer DM’d me at 2 AM with a link to a model in Los Angeles named Amanda Cox. I have trouble sleeping so I have made a semi-strict rule that I won’t answer any texts, emails, DM’s, after 10 PM EST or wherever I may be in the world. Most days I’m up at 5 AM. Putting in 17 hour workdays…..there has to be a cut off time. But the DM sound woke me up. Disgruntled, I checked the message, clicked on the link and wow, there she was. My Betty Short. One picture really sold me on her. Long story short, Amanda said yes to the shoot. I went back and forth in my head on whether or not to tell Amanda about the shoot. I really wavered on it for weeks. Should I tell her? What if she’s super freaked out by murder stories? What if she backs out after saying yes because she’s afraid of what she’s walking into? Of course, you can google me and I’m all over the place so I guess that could’ve alleviated some of her fears. I decided against telling her exactly what we were up to until the day of the shoot. Kind of risky, I know. That’s just what felt right in my gut. As I walked her into the apartment building complex I briefed her on the Black Dahlia murder and told her a little bit about the shoot and she said, “OMG I love murder stories!” So I would’ve be safe telling her about the shoot. I just chose not to. I was confident once she met me in person and saw the location and the crew, she’d feel safe with us. 

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So I had everything in place. Location. Stylist. Hair. Make up. And Model. 

My idea of the story was this: Elizabeth Short disappeared off the face of the Earth for 1 week before her body was found dissected and exsanguinated on a vacated lot in Los Angeles. For one week, supposedly, there was no trace of Ms. Short. But from what I have read and researched, this is not true. There was plenty of evidence and sightings of Elizabeth prior to her body being found that the Los Angeles Police Department buried. They buried it to protect someone very influential. My idea was about Betty’s Last Days. I believe she frequented Man Ray’s studio, was photographed by him and/or Dr. George Hodel. And either murdered at the Vine Street studio because Man Ray had a darkroom with plumbing that went from inside to a drain outside the apartment/studio or at Hodel’s Franklin House, just a few miles up the road. 

I think Elizabeth wanted fame. She wanted to be a Hollywood star. I think Man Ray and Hodel preyed on this desire and promised her things to bait her into a web of utter despair. The story fascinates me. It has since I heard about it 40 years ago. It still haunts me today. I know it will always have a hold on me in some weird way. Any way, here are most of the final images. Some I have kept to myself and the private collector because some things need to be held sacred for my work. It’s the last piece of me that I can hold on to. But most images are here. 

I shot the entire shoot on a Nikon D800 which I fucking sold to Samy’s the next day after being abused by this camera for 4 years and had had enough. I used an 85mm 1.4, a 50mm 1.4 and a 35mm 1.4 lenses. I wanted wide, I’m shooting in a Landmark building in a historical space. Why shoot tight? The only light I used was a Profoto D1 with a Mola “Demi” dish. I dragged my shutter on a few shots to get the ambient light from the outdoors to push through the windows. 

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Special thanks to Dario Leventi who flew down from San Fransisco to assist me on this shoot. His support through out the day was priceless. He convinced me to trade in my Nikon D800 and replace it with the D750. I should write a whole post about this transition because it has literally changed my life! So big hearty thanks to this dude. Also, he was very helpful on the shoot. Also, thank you to David Neilands who took my RAWS and patiently worked with me as I am quite particular (in the best description) about my images. I hate the look of over-retouched images. Good LORD people!!!!  STOP retouching your images so much!!!! But I wanted to ENHANCE what I had shot to tell my story even clearer. Dave walked the tightrope of keeping things realistic and AS SHOT but incorporating some beautiful, subtle assets to the image. 

And thank you to Arab B. and Shawn N. for allowing me to invade their space for the day and shoot in their lovely apartment, all gratis. The power of my friendships and the team I worked with was really catalystic for me as this was the first time I had picked up a camera, remember, in a pretty long time. (Please don’t reach out to Arab or Shawn. They aren’t interested in renting out their place) 

Next up? The Exorcist shoot with Michel and Max. Shooting in Georgetown DC. In the prep stages now. I have location, stylist, hair and make up! Looking for a beautiful Regan McNeil at age 21. Anybody got any suggestions?? 

See Betty’s Last Days Part 1 & Betty’s Last Days Part 2 here.

Melissa Rodwell