OSCAR NOMINATED DIRECTOR BENNETT MILLER -- Capote

Written by Stephen Applebaum on . Posted in filmmaker

 “This is the moment where Truman Capote got everything he ever wanted in life. And the moment he had it, and he celebrated himself with his black and white ball at the Plaza, that’s the epitome; the rest is a spiralling into hell. He did what he was attempting to do from the time he was a child, which is he wanted that praise and recognition; but I think once he had it, it’s almost like he resented the world for having that opinion, which was so inconsistent with his own. There’s so much self-hatred there.”

 

What kind of relationship do you think Perry Smith and Truman Capote shared?

“Well, you have two desperate people. Both of these guys were desperate. Both of these guys needed each other. Both of these guys understood each other in a way that nobody else understood them. They came from a very similar background. Both of them were abandoned, alcoholic, had a parent that killed themselves, both of them were short oddities, outsiders, both of them turned to language and writing, and drawing as a means of catharsis and expression. When these guys met up, on the apparent level they’re opposites; but the truth is they recognised each other immediately. As much as had been written about it, and as much as Capote had written about it, I really gleaned insight when Gerald Clarke, the biographer, sent these letters to us that Perry Smith [played in the film by Clifton Collins Jr] wrote to Truman Capote [Philip Seymour Hoffman] over the course of five years. Nobody had ever read these letters and we got them, and you could see in it this power differential, that Truman really held the cards. That Perry was a very sensitive, intuitive, perceptive guy, but naïve in comparison to Capote.

"Capote was able to give Perry something that he needed. He was his only connection to the outside world. Capote helped him with money, he helped him with his esteem, he shared books with him, he was able to like legitimise Perry. Perry saw himself as an artist, totally unrecognised by anybody previously, and now Capote, who was a major, major figure in American culture, is spending five years with him and giving him something profound.

“But the truth of the matter is Perry was trying to stay alive, and wanted to manipulate and use Truman however he possibly could to that end; and Capote had an ambition to be the most highly regarded writer on the planet. And it came to the point in the story where Perry’s wellbeing was an obstacle to Truman getting what he wanted. He had to die. And therein, as they say, is the rub. There’s a real connection, and then there’s a real conflict.”

Is that what destroyed Capote?

“Er, er, I don’t think that helps a person to go through that. I’m sure that’s a hard thing to live with, especially if you’re as sensitive person as Capote is, and especially if you’re as critical a person as Capote.”

You’re talking about conscience?

“Absolutely. Just because somebody does something hurtful or violating or damaging, it doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have a conscience. It can quite possibly mean that person does have a conscience, maybe even a strong conscience, but maybe something stronger than you conscience at that moment overpowered you. It’s not an interesting story if he has no conscience. Of course he has a conscience, but the way he anaesthetises and numbs that conscience, with like alcohol, and the way his own ambition beats it into submission to allow him to do what he needs to do, that’s what’s interesting.”

He even attacked his own friends. His life turned after this, didn’t it?

“Yeah, this is it. This is the moment where he got everything he ever wanted in life. And the moment he had it, and he celebrated himself with his black and white ball at the Plaza, that’s the epitome and the rest is a spiralling into hell. But I think it’s in this movie. You feel that it’s coming. I think what happened, when he turned on all his friends, he did what he was attempting to do from the time he was a child. Which is he wanted that praise and recognition. It seemed like the world had the opinion of him that he just sought to construct and he was successful at it. But I think once he had it, it’s almost like he resented the world for having that opinion, which was so inconsistent with his own. That’s not what he thought of himself. There’s so much self-hatred there. It’s almost like he punished people and he corrected everybody by doing things that caused people to have a new opinion of him, and the new opinion was very ugly.”

How much of the Capote that we see at the beginning of the film is a kind of construct and that’s what we see disintegrating at various moments in the film?

“He has a public persona. He is a charismatic public figure, you know? When you have a public persona, as almost everybody in the world does, whether you’re famous or not, that’s like your first face, that’s what you’ve got to maintain, that’s what you show people. But what this movie’s about is pulling back those layers: what is behind that charisma? What is behind that public persona? What I think the movie attempts to do is reveal a more disturbing condition that contributes to producing that. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. It’s like the man behind the curtain. In that one shot in The Wizard of Oz you see the neurotic, feeble little man and simultaneously the impressive image that he is trying to fabricate and give to the world. That’s Capote, I think.”

Is that the element that attracted you to Capote?

“Yeah.  Maybe more than anything else.”

How difficult was it to achieve the film’s style?

“Well the style is meant to facilitate something that is difficult in film, which is to become sensitive on a subtle, unspoken, non-explicit level. There is so much going on with Philip’s performance, and the style is meant to sensitise you to appreciate it, to feel it.”

What are your influences?

“Filmically there are some films that are stiller, more controlled, like Kubrick, or Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, something like that. But colour palette-wise it’s very Edward Hopper, middle-America earth tones.”

You make it look easy. Was it?

“Easy? No, I don’t think anybody that worked on this movie would say that any part of it was easy. Nobody got away easy. I wonder if when people see Philip’s performance it’s like [snaps his fingers] and he can do it. It’s a lot of work, very painful. I think there’s like a certain aspect of it where I feel comfortable, like even feel some kind of authority doing it, but at the same time it’s like. . .”

Were you interested in the relationship between Perry and Truman in the sense that it mirrors the selfishness or whatever in all relationships and people can see themselves mirrored in the extremes of the relationship?

“Of course, otherwise it’s just a story about someone who lived a while ago. Why make a movie at all if you can’t identify with it. To me it’s a film about Truman Capote but that’s just the surface. It would be meaningless if it wasn’t some kind of window into something deeper that is more timeless and universal and something people can’t identify with. That complex that we’re talking about of just wanting something and what happens to someone in desperation, blah, blah, blah, is something that I think affects and afflicts ourselves, people we know, families, corporations, countries.”

The story in the film is very much like Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer and I wondered how much you wanted to explore the ethics of journalism and the transaction that goes on between journalists and their subjects, especially today with the growth of celebrity gossip magazines.

“Um, I know the screenwriter, Dan Futterman, was very influenced by that book and he’s very interested in that transaction that occurs between a journalist and the subject. But I was never that interested in journalism, no offence intended. I find it interesting, but I think that that transaction is not unique to journalism; I think it’s in almost everything. People need each other, people use each other, people have responsibilities to each other, like a moral responsibility, that I think it becomes challenged and compromised, you know?”

But in journalism there can be more at stake as the result or consequence of that transaction becomes public. When people make themselves available for interviews, the results may well not be what they were expecting or what they wanted.

“Absolutely. That’s right. I think I understand what you’re saying. What you’re saying is that you’re being very polite right now but what’s going to happen is I’m going to open the paper tomorrow and find myself crucified. That’s fine [said with a wry smile]. I understand that. But what you need to understand, what this movie says, is: look what’s going to happen to you. OK? I’m fine. Go ahead. You can fuck me. But just be wary of what you do to get what you want. That’s all I’m saying, journalists! [Laughs] Honestly, I have been really lucky. People have been generous and really good.”

Whose idea originally was it to focus on this part of Truman’s life?

“Dan Futterman’s.”

And how much were you involved in the script?

“By the time I got involved there was a very good first draft Dan Futterman had written. It was very good, but then we had about a year and a half together to modify and correct it. Things got moved around but it was always this period. Danny chose this story. The beginning and the end remain the same. Well, chronologically they did. He had started with a flash forward and stuff. But chronologically the beginning and the end of the story remained the same.”

When did Philip get become involved?

“Philip came in about four weeks after I did.”

Are you looking forward to the other Capote project, Infamous, which covers the same period?

“I’m curious. I’m interested in Capote. It’s fascinating to me to have the opportunity to see how somebody else treats the same story, and hopefully will prove what one suspects to be true, and that is the story is only part of it. How you look at a thing, I think, when you make a film, how you look at it is more important to what the hell it is you’re even looking at.”

Because this film is so good, do you feel under pressure for your next project?

“I’m not that worried about it, really. If I feel that that’s just my own vanity, and I don’t take my own vanity that seriously. Everybody has vanity and ego and if I have those thoughts it’s my ego. At least for the period that you make a movie you’ve got to take your ego and tie it to a chair and like gag it and put it in a closet. So, whatever the next thing is going to be it’s going to be. If the outcome is offensive to my ego, it’s like so what?”

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