Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The director of "Infamous" begs your indulgence

Several weeks ago, we got the first advance notices for critics' screenings of Infamous, Douglas McGrath's just-about-to-open biopic about Truman Capote and the events surrounding the writing of In Cold Blood. Yes, those same events were covered in a big studio picture just last year. Yes, Capote was up for Best Picture, and actually won Philip Seymour Hoffman last year's Best Actor Oscar. So isn't it a little soon for another film about the exact same thing? McGrath knew exactly what we were thinking, so the screening invites went out with the following letter from the director, which asked us all for a little understanding.

And you know, call me a soft touch, but I actually found the letter kind of endearing, possibly because he seems more abashed than brash about the whole thing, and because he comes across as begging for a chance instead of bragging that his film will kick that other one's ass. And I did actually go into the screening with a slightly more open mind as a result. But maybe I'm an isolated case. You be the judge.


I felt a word was in order about the unusual situation that exists between my film and "Capote." Who knew that Dan Futterman, the gifted screenwriter of "Capote," and I would be in the same predicament as those people who made the competing asteroid-hitting-the-earth movies?


I remember when I first heard about the other movie. I had called Bingham Ray, for whom I had made my film of "Nicholas Nickleby," to say that I wanted to send him my new film about Truman Capote. In his characteristically economic way, he said, "It's on my desk."

I glanced down at my desk where the script was. "How can that be," I asked, "since it's still on my desk?"

He said, "I'm looking at it right now: 'Capote' by Dan–" At this point, there followed what we in the WASP community call an uncomfortable silence.

That was the summer of 2003, and Dan and I were both going out at the same time with a film not only about the same author, but about the same time in that author's life. Furthermore, in addition to his script, Dan had a spectacular asset: his pal, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was attached to star. (When I heard of his casting, I told my wife, "Philip is a great choice for Truman." I think it's safe to say I've been vindicated on this point.)


We made a deal early on with Warner Independent to make the movie. We had our money but no Truman. The "Capote" team had their Truman but no money. And for a couple of years, we both looked for what we needed. Funnily enough, within a couple of months, we both found it. They got their money and started shooting in the fall of 2004, we found our Truman and started shooting a few months later. Because the other film had started first, Warners wanted to hold our picture so the two films didn't step on each other.

What was it about this tiny man that made him big enough for two pictures? I'll tell you what it was for me. What interested me was not the story of a writer from New York going to Kansas to write about a terrible crime, nor was it of interest that he was a gay writer from New York going to Kansas. What I found fascinating was that Truman Capote was a gay writer from the very top of New York society going to Kansas to write about this crime. He was court jester and confidante to the cream of Manhattan high society, and I placed everything in the story within that context.


Knowing he is coming from that chic and spoiled world makes his early time in Kansas a comic one. (His version of a care package, for instance, was when Babe Paley sent him a tin of beluga caviar.) But what starts out as a comedy of manners slowly descends into something darker, and in the middle of the film, I bring him back to New York to show how his deepening ties to the murderer Perry Smith are changing him. I end the picture in New York, as well, consciously echoing the beginning, but now all the lunches that looked so pretty and fun seem wrong, because he has been irrevocably altered by what happened in Kansas.

The gradual but ultimate shift from light to dark, from comic to tragic, match the shape of Capote's life: his early years were marked by his insouciant wit and effervescence, his outrageous self-assertion, and the beguiling, almost sunny pleasure he took in conquering the world. These were succeeded by the later years of bitterness, a failure to produce the work he promised, a break with friends, reckless and ill-chosen love affairs, and a debilitating taste for drink and pills that only hastened his decline. It is that shift, from the triumphant to the tragic, that "Infamous" chronicles.


While it was a surprise to me on that call with Bingham Ray to learn that there was another script on the same subject, I can't say it was a mystery. Given the riveting contradictions in Capote's character, the rich range of people who made up his circle, and the comic and dramatic turns that marked the period, the real wonder is that there were only two scripts.

I salute our friends on the other film, and am happy to welcome you to ours.


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