How Dalton Trumbo's Kids Changed 'Trumbo'
Notes from daughters Niki and Mitzi's changed ending, which paint an unvarnished picture of father haloed by history.
Dalton Trumbo’s surviving children played a key role in shaping Trumbo, the Bryan Cranston-starring biopic about the Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted in the 1940s and 1950s for his suspected Communist ties that premieres Sept. 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival. John McNamara, who penned the script, reached out to daughters Niki, a 76-year-old psychotherapist (depicted in the film by Elle Fanning), and Mitzi, a 70-year-old photographer, at the urging of director Jay Roach ("from my experience on Recount and Game Change, I encouraged him to get to know the people directly involved").
Through this process, the ending changed. Originally Trumbo shares a let-bygones-be-bygones moment with adversary John Wayne, which Mitzi found to be "corny" and unearned: "It seemed like putting a big happy bow on the whole thing." Likewise, they made sure that director Otto Preminger’s relatively lost-to-history role in breaking the Blacklist by offering Trumbo a screen credit on Exodus was depicted in the film as concurrent with Kirk Douglas’ own assistance on Spartacus (the star has proudly, and loudly, taken credit for it for the past half-century). "That was very important to me," says Mitzi.
For Niki, weary of a too-saintly depiction of her father, "what I wanted was the more three-dimensional Trumbo. I particularly wanted his flaws to be seen. His substance abuse — the alcohol — wasn’t there at all before." Niki’s recollections of how, during the darkest days of the Blacklist, the family was enlisted in a small chicken farming-and-butchering operation, helped McNamara shape the final act’s caper shape, in which Trumbo puts the kids to work on his pseudonym-fueled screenwriting comeback in the schlock film market.
"Jay was right," says McNamara. "Hearing them out carefully brought out so much."
The Trumbos are happy to have been heard. "Coming from my perspective, it was not a story that would ever be told," says Niki. "Because it was too dangerous. There’s a moment in this script where 'Communist' is first said out loud. I had a moment thinking, 'They’ve gone too far. This is not going to be acceptable.' And I realized it was a hangover from growing up and living this story."