In his austere, remarkably confident first dramatic feature, “Capote,” Bennett Miller tackles the biopic from a fresh angle. Instead of tracing the standard soup-to-nuts arc, he and writer Dan Futterman zero in on the six year period Truman Capote devoted to researching “In Cold Blood,” the pioneering non-fiction novel that was to alter American letters.
In 1959 Capote, the fey creator of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and courtier of Babe Paley, clipped an article about the brutal murders of the Clutter family by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, and determined to tell their story. The film reveals how Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seemed quickly to identify with Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) as a fellow-outsider, plumbing his psyche — and emotionally seducing him — in order to recreate the mayhem at the Clutter’s. True to the legend, it also reveals that Capote declined to find a lawyer for the final appeal, because Smith’s death would enable him to finish his book.
A selection of the New York Film Festival that premiered Tuesday night (and opens in theaters Friday), this portrait of the artist confronts such complex issues as a writer’s debt to his subject, and the devil’s pact that can underlie a seminal work (and how refreshing after the cranked-up noise of the silly season.) Violating a Hollywood axiom, Miller (best known for his 1997 doc “The Cruise“) blurs the center of sympathy by building empathy for the doomed Smith, while Capote pursues greatness. When the perp becomes the victim of writerly machinations, whom do you root for?
As Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mesmerizing turn has generated early Oscar talk. He’s nailed the Tiny Terror, down to his prissy girlish voice, odd giggle, slouch, tilt of the head, and stubby fingers brandishing cigarettes and martinis. Hoffman even appears to have altered the shape of his mouth. He does not so much channel Capote, as resurrect him, and if you can’t easily condemn the man, it’s because Hoffman makes him so real.
indieWIRE recently spoke with Bennett Miller on the phone about making a risky film, revealing the hidden self, and directing Philip Seymour Hoffman.
indieWIRE: This is such a brave film. How did you have the guts to make it?
Bennett Miller: [laughing] That’s a good question and no one has asked me that. I don’t want to give you a bullshit answer. First of all, it was a great risk for someone like Phil to take this role. This was a character, after all, whose natural state of being could be a caricature. So unless Phil could commuicate through the facade of this flamboyant person, it would have been a laughable embarrassment. There was no safety net. The film requires a performance that transcends all reason.
iW: And what was the main challenge for you?
BM: That what the film is really about is not made explicit in the screenplay. Hopefully its impact is communicated on a visceral level. It’s an unforgiving film.
iW: I’d like to come back to that, but first, what was your budget?
BM: Seven million. This was a period drama set in New York, Kansas, and the Costa Brava — a challenge on a limited budget.
iW: What drew you to Capote’s story?
BM: Truman’s character. Specifically, it’s a story about hidden identity — a public person and his very private tragedy. It has resonance because everyone conceals things. Much of life is very private and lonely. And this story peels back the layers of the man’s public, social self, and exposes his darkest, most hidden self.
iW: What’s revealed?
BM: A person with remarkable personal assets, who’s destined to destroy himself as a consequence of a flaw. Truman was wickedly talented, but harbored an ambition and a sickly desperation for praise and acknowledgment.
iW: How did you arrive at the film’s austere style?
BM: That’s my natural style – my documentary was austere, too. As Truman believed, style isn’t something you choose – it’s who you are. What governed the script revisions was to make a film that communicates tonally the undercurrents and frequencies of the story.
iW: What was it like to direct Hoffman, not only a master actor on both stage and screen, but also Co-Artistic Director of the LAByrinth theater?
BM: It was complex. Phil has a very anguished and unforgiving process – of himself. What he does in order to get where he needs is not fully admitted by him – which is ironic for a director. Preparing for the Truman role was physically demanding and took Phil 5 and l/2 months. He lost more than 40 pounds, had to find the voice and mannerisms. As a director, he’s brilliant at breaking down a script. But when it comes time to shoot, all that preparation gives way to instinctual knowledge. When the camera’s rolling and he’s in the zone, what comes out of him can be unplanned.
For example, when he says goodbye to the killers, Phil argued to play that scene composed and unemotional. And he did just that in rehearsals. Then he entered the room and saw the two men — and he couldn’t contain himself. He’d followed Truman’s reasoning — and then did precisely what Truman would have done.
iW: You and Hoffman and Dan Futterman are all friends. Was there any friction?
BM: Of a natural, healthy, respectful kind. I don’t feel our friendships were ever in jeopardy. But they were put on hold. For the work.
iW: To get back to Capote’s private demons — how did you put such inward moments on the screen?
BM: Through Phil’s complex performance. People express themselves in two ways: intentionally and inadvertently. This film chooses a style that will sensitize you and concentrate on what’s being inadvertently expressed. Example: there’s a moment during the reading, when Truman’s in the wings before being introduced, and we glimpse his terror and desperation. Well, there are a thousand such little moments that only last a second, but add up. Plus a very subtle score and very deliberate cinematogaphy. So these moments begin to register on the viewer – from the start, in fact, the film creates disquiet. Then backstage again, you see Truman yukking it up, which bears no ressemblance to his fear before the reading. But in the next scene, the way Phil listens to Shawn when he says this book is going to transform literature, you understand his reliance on praise. No dialogue is needed. I wanted the film to be quietly devastating.
iW: You took a great risk in exposing Capote’s ugliest side. He described Perry Smith as a “goldmine.” And, to quote you from the press notes, “he wanted Perry dead.” Were you concerned that in blurring the center of sympathy, you might lose your audience?
BM: No, I thought I’d find it. If you worry about losing people, you compromise what the thing ought to be.
iW: But how do you intend for us to feel about Capote? Does your film condemn him?
BM: The movie doesn’t get pedantic about that. Yes, you can root for Perry. And Truman as well. People who do horrible things we can still root for. It’s not that simple. Perry is tragic, because he just wanted to be respected, and he’s saddled with a psychopathic mind. Truman, too, has his own battle between his sympathy for Perry and his ambition. His ambition overpowered him and when he got what he wanted, he could experience the horror of what happened, and what will happen to him.
iW: Why do you think that after “In Cold Blood” Capote never finished another book? Or is that not within the purview of your film.
BM: But it is. In fact, the film is a meditation on the reasons he would never finish another book. What you see is a guy who was sick with desperation to see these guys hang, and he did watch it. And coming to grips with the consequences of those five years was not something he was able to do. Truman himself said he never recovered.
iW: Is that why you chose to show the hanging, which was dreadful to watch?
BM: Yes, Truman was witnessing his prayer answered. He’s looking at what he wanted. Be careful what you wish for.
iW: Do you think “Capote” can play in the heartland?
BM: Yes, because it transcends the particular and has a universal core. It’s a very classic tragedy in American form, and it’s true.