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Past Article

Bennett Miller: On Capote
By Craig Phillips
September 30, 2005 - 11:00 AM PDT

"You want the thing to be embraced."

With Bennett Miller, one gets the hopeful sense that he is just at the beginning of what could, and should, prove to be a long career - and, as with his idols, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, one that may not prove to be as prolific as it is artistically fruitful. At least as evidenced by his remarkably assured first feature, Capote. (Another he respects: "Jim Jarmusch, because he makes his movies. He knows what he wants to do and he does it. Those are three good ones right there.")

Capote could also end up fruitful come Oscar time - at least for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Capote to mesmerizing affect, humanizing the oft-mimicked writer. Miller's long-time friend, actor Dan Futterman, also deserves an Oscar nod for his incredibly astute, sharply observed screenplay. One hopes Miller won't be overlooked either (my review of the film can be found here). The resulting work, one of measured perceptiveness and compassion, focuses on the writing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Cold Blood. Truman Capote's famous book on the brutal Clutter murders that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, remains his most famous work, but as people will see when they watch the film, the end result may not have been worth it given the psychological toll it took on the author's subsequent life.

With the film's success comes a bit of happy news - that Miller's critically acclaimed feature-length documentary The Cruise will finally be seeing a DVD release later this year (or by January).

I spoke with the filmmaker while he made a brief press tour stop in San Francisco on the heels of Capote's national theatrical release.

What were you up to in the period between The Cruise and Capote?

I was looking for a film to do. That's the main thing. After The Cruise new opportunities arose, and I got an agent who began sending scripts. I read a lot of scripts but the other opportunity that came up was directing TV commercials. So in January of '99 I began directing commercials, a substantial amount of them, dozens upon dozens, actually, while reading and looking for a film. I found another documentary to shoot, which took four-plus months to shoot, and is sitting on my shelves right now, logged and digitized. But really, it was looking for that next film while honing my craft shooting commercials.

What was the subject of the documentary?

I don't want to talk about it too much, but [it's] like The Cruise, and like Capote, actually, in that it's another portrait.

Do you see a connection between The Cruise's subject, Timothy "Speed" Levitch (seen at left), and Truman Capote? As real-life eccentrics, with some similar characteristics...

Yeah there's a lot, in their mannerisms, and in being outsider characters. And also the story of a writer and a subject is similar to the story of a documentarian and subject, with some of the same issues coming up.

I spoke to the makers of American Splendor awhile back, who had also made the so-called "leap" to narrative features. And wondered this for you as well as them - do a lot of people express surprise that someone can come from a documentary background and make a narrative feature, as if they're two alien species?

Yeah, people are surprised. I don't deal with questions about it too well, but it is weird. The honest answer is that the creative process, whether you do it in documentary or feature, or drawings or art or whatever else, when you're in your zone it all feels kind of similar. That's the truth. And I didn't aspire to be a Documentary Filmmaker. I was always focused on doing features, and it just so happened that I came across the idea to do The Cruise. But it didn't feel like a big leap to me [to do Capote]. Well, it was a big leap in that it was a whole new level, but I felt like I was preparing my whole life to do it. I waited until I thought I was ready.

A lot of filmmakers are like that kid in class who's always raising his hand, whether he knows the answer or not, just because he wants to hear his voice. Those are the guys who go into making films. [laughs] You know, "Give me a camera!" But I think I was a little more nervous about the whole venture and in school much more introverted and withdrawn. I don't want to step forward until I feel good about it. So Capote was a big step and I did it with some confidence that I was ready.

And you collaborated here with your childhood friend, actor and writer Dan Futterman - what was that process like?

We'd never really worked on anything before. And he did a draft, which was great, but then it was about a year and a half before we actually got together and two and a half years before we started shooting. Revisions did come in that time period and we worked together, and even then after the shoot wanted to do some reshoots and, during the edit, work together some more on the script. We made an agreement early on that the relationship would be more like a director and a playwright than it would a director and screenwriter - where a screenwriter's really treated with a certain level of disregard. We would both sort of agree on at least the shooting script. What happens after you finish a shooting script is a whole 'nother story, because improv happens and stuff gets cut, moved around, shifted in editing, things happen on the shoot? But to get it to the point where there was a shooting script, we were going to agree on that, both sign off on it.

That created more work in a way because if he wanted to hold on to something, a big debate, or discussion, would follow, and ultimately the movie is better for it. Because he had the opportunity to defend stuff and I was forced to have a deep clarity about the decisions that were going to affect how the script would change, or what the script really was. Or maybe I'd missed something that he'd intended? So it was healthy. Whether or not I ever make the same arrangement with a screenwriter again, I think I will insist upon that kind of debate. I really learned a lesson about not disregarding anything, forcing a person to defend themselves, like "Why did you do that?" or "Why do you think that needs to stay - because I think that can go?" Maybe there was an answer and maybe there wasn't, but it's a really healthy process.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener in Capote

What was the genesis of doing a film about Capote?

It was all Dan. He came across the story, he read about Capote going to Kansas and what happened there. He really just on his own initiative, on spec, decided to write this thing. He told me that he was going to do it and I wished him luck - and then lo and behold, he showed up with a quite excellent first draft. It was his doing.

And it was always focused on the In Cold Blood period of Capote's life?

That's right, although, even though it's just that period, it's definitely informed by his life before and his life to come. The story is there but I think you really get a sense of the whole character, the whole persona, within that year. It's not a biopic in that sense; it's a story of a guy looking for something and finding it - and discovering it's not what he thought it would be. But it is also a portrait; isolated in a few years of his life, you get the big picture of what this character is, what his condition is, what his destiny is. And hopefully, if the movie works for you, it amounts to a lot more than just a biopic, a lot more than just the life of Truman Capote. You see what he went through, and how its indicative of larger issues that affect culture and society.

And being a creative person yourself there were probably things you related to as far as his struggle in the process...

Absolutely. To be perfectly honest, it's not difficult to identify with that drive towards creativity and perfection. But also, how you get done with a thing or nearly done and you seriously want it to be appreciated. And I'm sure you've interviewed other directors and some act very cool. But they're liars. You want the thing to be embraced. You just busted your ass for two and a half years about something you care about, and feel very exposed about it because you put yourself in it, and fucking right you want it to play, you want it to register in people, you want them to embrace it and to take it with them.

I think that was part of what was being withheld from Capote, when he couldn't finish his book and couldn't get it out there, it was like poison to his brain. He went mad, he became sick with a desire to have this thing done.

Working on this film, it was hard and miserable, but we were able to finish it on some kind of reasonable timeline, and keep our composure, maintain some bit of grace about it. But if you told me we are where we are now except we are going to postpone it indefinitely because of something or another, and then interview me three years from now, I'd be pouring J&B scotch into my baby food, I'm sure.

The psychological attachment to Perry Smith that Capote formed - obviously it's so traumatic in the film, you can empathize with how painful that was for him, how attached he'd become.

[warning - some spoilers here:]

Well, he was divided, he was conflicted. On the one hand, he did empathize with Perry Smith deeply. He identified with him and cared about him. At the core, they're very similar people. Capote's this famous socialite writer, but the truth is, he, like Smith, was abandoned as a child by his alcoholic parents, one of whom killed himself. And like Smith, he grew up feeling like an outcast, totally alienated and alone and desperate. He tried to take refuge in creativity, and when he comes across, is like, in a way, like a soul mate.

He's got those feelings - but I think what drove him mad at the end was that Smith's survival was an obstacle to Capote. He needed him to hang so he could have the ending to the book that he wanted. That emotionality at the end is him really looking at being in a room, face to face with what he'd wanted. That's it, this is what you'd been making yourself sick over, this is what you wanted, for these two guys to die, and now you're looking at them, seeing the tragedy of their lives mixed with your own complicit will.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote

Did you always imagine Philip Hoffman for this or was there an audition process? After seeing the film, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Yeah, that's what it was like for us, too. There was no other actor on the list. It was him, and if he said no, that would've been it. At least that it would have been it for me, because we scratched our heads about any other person.

How much did he, and you, base that role on footage of Capote from that era? He was such an oft-imitated and parodied personality and archetype, I'm thinking of how conscious you both must have been to to locate the essence of his character, rather than lapse into yet another fey impersonation...

[Hoffman] looked at everything you could imagine. He looked at everything and owned everything, and played it throughout, prepared for several months. But he was also very conscious of what you just said, that the guy was parodied and a parody of himself, and to really get at the character, to be conscious of the pitfalls of playing a character like that, you can't resort to mimicry. I've got a pretty good ear for that kind of thing, and I don't think Phil is a mimic in this movie at all. I think he's playing him from some gut, core level. It's not bullshit.

People usually see Catherine Keener in these acerbic, bitter comic roles - what made you think of her as [To Kill a Mockingbird author and Capote's lifelong friend] Harper Lee?

The qualities we'd hoped to realize in that character are maturity of spirit, sanity, selflessness, morality - these are not the qualities that are not normally attributable to the kinds of people who go into the profession of acting. [laughs] It's true. But I met Catherine and she actually seemed to really own those qualities. It was a very natural choice to cast her, and thank God we found her.

The period detail of the film, too, is really accurate without being "too much." How did you - someone from my generation, not from that era - get the details right?

Simply, research. Fear of getting it wrong also helps. And a real abhorrence of the artifice that often passes for "period." I just wanted to get it right, and you look at Hollywood movies that do that period, and they just hit you over the head with clichés of that time, impose the period on you. But that's not what it was like. And thankfully there are great photographs and films, too, which served as a valuable reference for us.

And also, you know when something feels like B.S. So we just tried to keep it real.

Did you go back and watch the film version of In Cold Blood?

I haven't seen it since we shot the movie, but I watched it before shooting, for the second time. It's such a different movie, it didn't have that much relevance for us, beautiful though it may be. (Conrad Hall shot it.) But the one relevance it had was production design and costume design. I have that thing on my computer where you can capture still frames from a DVD; I watched the movie through and clicked some frames from the Clutter house scenes [where the murder takes place], because they shot in the actual house, so I got every angle they had, interior and exterior. That's the actual courtroom, that's the actual jury, that's actually what they were wearing... So it was a great resource for research, and I stored all those stills and sent them out to my production designer and costume designer and then was done with it.

Are you and Dan thinking of collaborating again on something?

We talk about it theoretically. He actually has an idea that he just told me about, so who knows. It would be great. We're not beholden to each other but it could be a happy thing.

Is there anything else besides the aforementioned documentary that you're working on next, then?

Nope. My life is about to become about decompressing and then finding the next thing. So, if you know of something let me know! I'm looking.

Hmm... [here the interviewer wished he'd brought along a copy of his screenplay]

It's got to be special though.

It's amazing how many very talented, even veteran filmmakers get so few good projects coming their way.

Well, it doesn't matter who you are, good material is hard to come by. It's the truth. Terrence Malick's made three, now four, movies. Stanley Kubrick made how many in the last twenty-five years of his life? Four.

Thinking back to that metaphorical kid in the classroom raising his hand, "Me me me!" - you look at people who are making bad movies, and then go look on the IMDb, and they've all got eleven things developing. Just... load 'em up!

That's another thing I wonder about - after their first independent film gets acclaim, a lot of so-called "indie" directors will be offered projects by Hollywood studios, for more money, for a bigger film. But creatively they lose something. Do you have any nervousness about that?

Yeah. I'm very aware of it. And now it's a new landscape, but as long as the vision is clear, you know how to deal with things. If the vision is to make money, well, that's one thing. If the vision is to make a good movie, that will change how you see it, and the allure of some of the things that tempt others might lose their power. It just depends on what you're after, how much money you want and how much vanity you've got versus how much integrity. We'll see how I fare at that trial. [laughs] Maybe I'm greedy and vain enough to succumb to that, but you struggle for however many years to get to a place where you can really do something. Then at that point, instead of reaching, it becomes a matter of restraint.

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"You want the thing to be embraced."

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Craig Phillips
GreenCine editor Craig Phillips holds a Master's from the California College of the Arts, and is working on a book of short stories. He has also written numerous articles for the Web and several screenplays, one of which is currently attached to an indie director and is in the casting stage. He has his own blog, too, and knows the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow.

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