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Articles

Douglas McGrath: "It's just such a joy to learn"
By Hannah Eaves
October 13, 2006 - 5:04 AM PDT


"Perry sees through him every time."

One of the most interesting aspects of George Plimpton's book is that it's an oral history, and that means that there are contradictory accounts of real events, like whether Truman stayed for Perry's execution or whether he ran out. This doesn't just happen once in the book, it happens all the time. How did you choose which version of "the truth" to use? Or whose opinion to trust? Or is that important to you?

No, it was. I had a lottery system [laughs]. No, no!

We had some straws and some scissors!

Well, I picked the ones that supported my view, not surprisingly. I thought that there were things that he was dishonest about, and things he was honest about - Truman.

I think the book, In Cold Blood, is a superb piece of writing. When I adapted Emma and Nicholas Nickleby, I would have to spend months analyzing the book, taking it apart like a car engine to put it back together inside a smaller car. That's really what it is. And in each case, part of the joy of those jobs was to see how, in a way even in school you wouldn't, when you're reading something because it's all just theory there, you really see how a great artist puts something together. And you see how careful and how thorough and how far away things start and stop; you learn everything. It's really one of the great joys of my work because it's just such a joy to learn those things.

I don't think Truman Capote is quite in their class, and yet, I will say this: In Cold Blood is very, very, very strong writing. I've read it several times and it never ceases to be interesting. You keep discovering layers and chimes from here to there and how this image refers back to this image and it's a very strong piece of work. So I'm not denigrating the book, and I think that the essential thrust of the book is true - the Clutters were killed, the boys did it, and all that. But I don't think there's any question that he made certain improvements. I'm sympathetic to it. Meaning, if twelve law enforcement people were breaking the case and doing the thing, and he makes it seem like there's three of them, and mostly it's Al Dewey, I don't think that's the biggest crime in the world, although it's probably terrible if you're one of those other law enforcement officers. The book itself is still extremely interesting and he's not achieving a real falseness. It's hair splitting. I don't want to sound like a writer defending another writer. But I picked the things that I thought were the most... like that quote of Perry Smith's ["I liked him right up to the minute I cut his throat."]. I've never believed that quote. It just seems like something a writer would write. It's just too perfectly put together. Now I don't know that it's false, it's just my belief. I always want to be clear that the film is not a documentary. It just represents what I genuinely believe but, and I'm loathe to mention this, could be wrong about.

In a lot of ways, you as a filmmaker are doing the same thing that Capote was doing when he was writing In Cold Blood. You're choosing which facts to show, how you show them, and creating things that you don't necessarily have any evidence of. But you don't ever highlight that in the film. The film still feels like you should believe everything. It's played straight. You don't draw attention to the fact or make reference to the fact that you're taking the same liberties, as it were.

I don't. I didn't know how to. I just thought it was implicit, in a way. Now initially, the film was titled "Every Word is True." A title I was sick to lose, but that's another story. That was my way of saying, I'm doing the same thing he is. Because in the movie, I kept showing how every word of his book wasn't true. But I do always think, and I don't say this to run down my department, but, it's a movie. You know, I remember when Oliver Stone's movie JFK came out, people were just having fits about this that and the other thing. I went to see it. I thought it was quite entertaining, and then I went home, you know, it didn't change my life; the person who was president was still president, I could still turn on the hot water and hot water came out. It's a movie! Believe it or don't believe it. It is not a history book, that's all I mean.

Now how did you go about writing Harper Lee's sections? That must have been tough. I mean, unlike the other interviews used in the film, you had to make that stuff up.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird and I read To Kill a Mockingbird and I read To Kill a Mockingbird. Slim Keith wrote an autobiography; I read it. I read everything I could about everyone, because I knew these were real people and even though most of them are not still alive, you know, a lot of them have children. I wanted it to be as right as it could be within the limits of what I could do based on my not knowing some of them and based on the material being sometimes limited. But you know, you can't read a book like To Kill a Mockingbird and not have a very vivid sense of who that author is. I know some people who know her and I've read a lot about her in the limited way you can read about her, but most of the things that are in her character I just deduced from reading To Kill a Mockingbird. She's humane, she's moral but not moralistic. I mean, this is how I portray her in the movie; I don't know if she really is, but this is what I am assuming from To Kill a Mockingbird.

And she's funny. You know, there was for years this rumor that Truman might have written To Kill a Mockingbird. It's impossible. He couldn't possibly have written it. It's entirely too humane. If you've read his writing, it doesn't seem like his writing at all. And although Truman's very funny in my movie, his writing isn't really that funny. I'm not saying he was humorless, but it's not her humor, which is a very sarcastic, dry sense of humor, and I felt it was important that she had that sense of humor in the film. I grew up in Texas, so I have an ear for - Texas isn't the South exactly, but I have an ear for Southern dialogue. So in a way, that was my template, just thinking, "What mind could produce that?" And then using the few physical things I knew about her.

There is a scene in the film where Perry tells Truman he doesn't like his books because he's not kind to his characters; he's laughing at his characters. I wonder if this somehow pushed Truman closer to Perry in an attempt to make his characters in In Cold Blood ring true. The comment obviously stung him.

Well, I will say this about that section. I don't know if this will address it in the way you want, but the hardest stuff for me to write was the Perry stuff, because very little was known about what their relationship was like. We just know this. He kept letting Truman into his cell and then saying, "I don't want to talk to you." Whereas Dick would let him in and then talk to him ceaselessly. And I thought, "Why is he letting him in if he doesn't want to talk to him?" If he didn't want to talk to him, he just would say, "Don't come in." So I thought, well, he must want to talk to him, but there's a problem. Then I thought, well, what's the problem? This would be, like, ten days on each question! And then I thought, well, the problem is that he looks at him and he thinks, "You're going to make fun of me."

But he likes him, too, because he seems different than everybody, he seems different certainly than Perry, but pretty much, I think it's safe to say, different than everybody. Well, Perry felt different than everybody. He always did. And so he thought, "You could maybe understand that, but probably you wouldn't, and you'll probably laugh at me," and he's had a whole life of people laughing at him. And that was ten more days. Then I thought, "Well, how are they going to get around that?" And I realized that he has to force Truman, he essentially auditions Truman. I knew that Truman had sent him pornographic magazines and that Perry didn't like them. I thought, well, that'll intrigue Truman, because he'll think, "He doesn't like porn? What kind of prisoner is he? What kind of murderer do you call yourself?" And then he did send him his own things.

I do find in Truman's early writing that kind of condescension towards his characters. And I thought it would be reasonable that he might assume that, too, because Truman takes a slightly superior tone to the people he's writing about. In addition to being full of great writing, there is just a little tone in there. I find it in The Muses Are Heard. It's judgmental in the worst way. So all Perry's scenes are him seeing through Truman, setting a bar. Truman tries to trick him, "I'll give you royalties," "I'll arm wrestle you," and Perry sees through him every time. What's interesting is that Perry's the smarter one, really, in their scenes.

That's what made Truman so vulnerable. My final discovery was when I realized that they both had lost a mother to suicide, and I thought, "That's what would bring them together."

There is an overwhelming feeling from the beginning of the film that Harper Lee represents artists that create a great work and then, knowing how difficult it is, how much it has taken out of them, are unable to work again...

It's a thing that upsets me a great deal about my country. I don't know if it happens in other countries, but you look at Orson Welles. One of the great film artists of all time, and everyone always goes, "Isn't it a shame he never made another movie as great as Citizen Kane?" You think, "Well! Did you?!" How about, "Isn't it great that he made the greatest talking picture in history?" But no, because he didn't do it five more times, they think he's some kind of failure. Many people judge [Harper Lee] that way. The moderator last night at this Q&A said, "Isn't it terrible she never wrote another book?" And Sandy Bullock said, "Why? The one she wrote was so good. Isn't that enough? Isn't one masterpiece enough for you?" It's that pressure of, "Okay, that was good, what's next?"

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"What event would ruin your life?"
"Perry sees through him every time."

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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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