'Infamous' delay avoids dueling Capotes

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"Infamous" interview: In talking to Doug McGrath about "Infamous," his film about how Truman Capote came to write "In Cold Blood," he knew what my first question was without my even having to ask it.

"It certainly has confirmed my suspicion that there's an interesting story in Truman Capote going to Kansas," he said, knowing immediately that I wanted to know how he felt about coming out with his film about Capote a year after Bennett Miller's much admired "Capote." Miller's version of the Capote story, of course, received five Oscar nominations, including best picture and director, and brought Philip Seymour Hoffman the best actor Oscar and Golden Globe for playing the brilliant but deeply troubled writer.

McGrath's "Infamous," opening today via Warner Independent Pictures in some 50 major markets including New York and Los Angeles, stars Toby Jones as Capote, Sandra Bullock as his researcher and friend Nelle Harper Lee and Daniel Craig, soon to be seen as the new James Bond, as Perry Smith, one of the Kansas killers Capote befriended in order to get the inside story he needed to write his non-fiction novel. Also starring are Peter Bogdanovich, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, Sigourney Weaver, John Benjamin Hickey and Lee Pace.

Produced by Christine Vachon ("Boys Don't Cry"), Jocelyn Hayes ("A Home at the End of the World") and Anne Walker-McBay ("Before Sunset"), it was executive produced by John Wells ("The West Wing" and "ER"). McGrath, whose directing credits include "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Emma," co-wrote "Bullets Over Broadway" with Woody Allen, for which they were Oscar nominated. McGrath's screenplay for "Infamous" is based on the book "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career" by George Plimpton.

"They looked at it in their way, which was a very interesting way, and we're looking at it in our way, which is, I believe, also a very interesting way, but funnily enough an entirely different way," McGrath explained. "One of the things I've learned in the great deal of research I did about Truman Capote is that whatever else you may want to accuse him of -- and he was accused of quite a lot of things -- he was never accused of not being interesting enough. That charge has never been leveled against him. So I always felt there was more than enough material. I don't know Dan Futterman (who wrote 'Capote') very well, but I wouldn't be surprised if he felt as I did -- I shouldn't speak for him -- but I know in my experience of writing it there was never a question of not having enough material. It was actually a question of having so much material and having to make the hard choices of what to leave out.

"And I knew that I was coming at the material from a very specific point of view, which is that I believed if you look at Capote's life it was kind of an unbroken trail upward of success after success after success. Early success and then continuous critical acclaim and commercial acceptance. 'In Cold Blood' was the greatest of all those books of his. It received the most amount of attention. It had great critical response and was a huge, huge bestseller. Obviously, it was sold to the movies for a lot of money. And then from that point on, that line that was going almost continuously up turned and goes almost continuously down. And you think, 'What happened to you? You come and have your greatest success and thereafter almost nothing goes right.'"

As a result, McGrath continued, "I came at the material thinking to answer that question, 'What happened to him?' And I believe that what happened to him happened in Kansas. So I knew it was my answer to that. They may have a different answer and they may have come at it from a different way. I doubt if they were coming at it from that particular angle. So I wasn't that worried about it -- anymore than I'm worried about everything, which is worried enough at my usual level of worry."

Does he believe the year's delay in releasing "Infamous" was a good idea? "Well, we were finishing our editing in October of last year, which is about when they came out," he replied. "We could have rushed to finish and come out at the same time, but nobody seemed to think that was the right idea. Dueling Capotes. Or maybe we could (have opened) a Capote-plex, where (it would have been) all-Capote on all the screens. So then the question was, 'What's the right amount of time (to have between the two films)?' A year seems about right."

His film, McGrath pointed out, "is an entirely different take albeit covering the same period. And our experience of showing it either to the audiences we showed it to as we were getting it ready or at three festivals where we've shown it -- at Venice and then at Telluride and then at Toronto -- is that audiences support that. They come up and feel very much like they've seen a different story. And the story is different enough and the emphasis is different. My film, I think, is more comic than theirs was because I found his time in New York and his early time in Kansas quite humorous. It's also, I think, probably more romantic.

"I haven't seen their film yet. I want to see it when everything's done and I can enjoy it and judge it more fairly. And also because I don't want people saying, 'Did you think your person's better than their person and that this is better than that?' because I like and admire those people very much and I don't want to ever have to be critical. Also, I expect that I will like and enjoy it very much. But my impression is that they are different enough so that people don't feel like (they're seeing the same movie again). In a funny way, what we're hearing from people is that they actually enjoy seeing how two entirely different movies can be gotten out of the same period in someone's life."

I told him I'd describe "Capote" as a very serious movie. "That's what I've heard," he said. "I think of my film ultimately as quite tragic, but I felt that to set that tragedy off and to make people feel the tragedy as fully as I hoped they would feel it, it was important to show the distance he came, which is to say to start the film in a very light, witty bright way so that you see him set in Manhattan high society, where he was living his life before he came to Kansas. We designed the film so that those sections are particularly lush and rich with color and rife with jokes and, we hope, witty dialogue and clever conversations and music and everything that makes that sort of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' world of Truman's seem so glamorous and enviable to people.

"So by the end when he's lost all that you feel the distance he's come and you feel how much he's lost. Part of the appeal of the story to me was that the story has a beautiful intermingling of the comic and the tragic, but throughout -- meaning it's not that the first half is funny and the second half is tragic. It's that the two things kind of swim in between each other, much as they do, sadly, in life."

The key to any film about Capote is casting the right person to play him and both films did quite well in that department. "Sam Cohn, the great agent, and Ellen Lewis, who's my casting director, both suggested Toby (whose film credits include 'Mrs. Henderson Presents' and 'Finding Neverland') on the very first day when I sent them the script. They said, 'Oh, it's too bad you can't get this guy who was in 'The Play What I Wrote' (written by Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben and directed in 2001 by Kenneth Branagh, which won the Olivier Award for best comedy in London and later was Tony nominated after playing on Broadway in 2003). It's an English play and Mike Nichols brought it to New York and both Ellen and Sam had seen it. And I said, 'Well, I know one thing -- we're not casting the guy from 'The Play What I Wrote."

"And I must say I've learned since then that pretty much any time I think if there's one thing I know, it almost always turns out to be incorrect. Because, of course, we did end up casting him after a long, long search of better known actors where we auditioned and tested and met with lots of people who really wanted to play the part. But when I read with them -- and they were wonderful actors -- they always seemed like wonderful actors doing a very good impersonation of Truman. But they didn't actually fully become Truman Capote. You never fully forgot who they were and accepted them as Truman -- until Toby. One of the things a number of people said -- (Vanity Fair editor) Graydon Carter pointed it out when he wrote about the film and David Thompson (also did) in the wonderful piece he wrote for (London's) The Independent -- is that he doesn't seem to impersonate him, he doesn't seem to act him, he just is him, he becomes him."

In "Infamous," he added, "it's a very thrilling moment when he appears because you have no adjustment to make. It just somehow seems as though in defiance of physics we somehow got Truman Capote to come and play Truman Capote in the movie. I will say he has an uncanny physical resemblance to Truman, but that would only be interesting for about one minute if he weren't a superb actor. But luckily for all of us he is a superb actor."

McGrath has surrounded Jones with a cast of high profile actors: "I felt if I had been doing, let's say, a Mother Teresa story it wouldn't make sense to cast the other sisters with people like Gwyneth and Sigourney and Isabella. You'd just think, 'What kind of sisterhood is going on there?' Capote's world was full of glittering, sparkling famous people. So it felt in that way that it made a lot of sense and I wanted the audience to keep getting jolted in a pleasant way by (seeing), 'Oh, she's in it' and 'Oh, she's in it' so that they had that feeling of what it was like to be in his world, which is that every time he turned left or right he bumped into someone beautiful and famous."

Asked if the actors were aware when he was casting "Infamous" that another Capote movie was also filming, McGrath told me, "Yes. I think they finished shooting in November '04 and we started shooting in late January of '05, so we were just a few months apart. But they had finished so it was known that they had done that. It didn't seem to be (difficult to get actors to sign on for 'Infamous'). We got everyone we wanted. It's a wonderful group. Frankly, I think people read the script and there certainly aren't that many good parts out there if you're an actor of the caliber of Sigourney Weaver or Jeff Daniels or Hope Davis.

"I have a lot of sympathy for those actors because they have so much talent and there are not a lot of places that they can show it off. They can take parts all the time, but parts that really test them or give them something meaty to sink their teeth into sadly don't come along that often because there just aren't that many good parts period. So if you're an actor like that and you get a part that has a little meat on the bones (you like that). And it's not like we tied them up for eight months. They come and they're in the movie for two or three weeks and they get to have a good meaty part and they're surrounded with other really good actors. It turned out that getting the actors wasn't very hard."

With so many top actors in the film, there had to have been an assortment of different acting styles. "You're right," McGrath agreed. "I worked with Toby and Sandy and we were able to rehearse a little. But everybody else's schedule didn't allow them to rehearse much because they were coming just for a little and then they would be gone. We organized the shooting of the film into three sections. The first section was Truman and Nelle Harper Lee in Kansas. The second section was what we called The Swans, which was Gwyneth (as El Morocco singer Kitty Dean) and Sigourney (as Babe Paley, wife of then CBS chairman William Paley) and Isabella (as Neapolitan princess Marella Agnelli) and Hope (as New York socialite Slim Keith) and Juliet Stevenson (as legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland) and all the New York section of the movie, which was a lot of fun.

"It was so wonderful because not only did we recreate El Morocco, but we recreated Diana Vreeland's apartment -- Juliet Stevenson plays her to a tee -- and every time we got to go to the Diana Vreeland set people noticed I was much happier than when we were on the dusty streets of Kansas. You just think, 'Somebody lived in this red, red, red, red, red room all the time?' It was so fantastic."

Interrupting his own narrative here, McGrath pointed out, "We built everything in Austin so we built Diana Vreeland's apartment down there. We built P.J. Clarke's (saloon in New York). We built (the posh New York French restaurants) La Grenouille and Cote Basque and (the exclusive New York nightclub) El Morocco. It was so wonderful to come to the soundstages at an old airport there. It's Texas. It's a bright big sky. Sunny. You walk in off that tarmac and they close the door and you're at La Grenouille! Much better. So that was the middle section. And then the third section was the Truman and Perry Smith section with Daniel Craig. That was quite a gloomy section because that's all much darker than the rest of the film. It was kind of appropriate to build toward it and to end there."

When it came to recreating places like El Morocco and La Grenouille, he explained, "Judy Becker was my production designer and she was fantastic. Here's what we did. Luckily because it was 1959 and not 1909, there's a lot of photographic record of how these places looked. In the case of El Morocco there are books about (it). Now because of the Internet it's not hard to find out what they looked like. In the case of Grenouille and Cote Basque and P.J. Clarke's, they're still here (but) in each case different to some degree. And funnily enough what we did is we just went to each restaurant and told them what we were doing and then, of course, they're delighted because it doesn't involve cooking you any food. There was a waitress at P.J. Clarke's who said, 'Wait right here. I have a bunch of pictures in my locker from when they closed the restaurant.' P.J. Clarke's was renovated (five or) 10 years ago. She scampered down to her locker because she'd taken a bunch of pictures of how the restaurant looked before they renovated it. She laid those all out on the table for us.

"Different people just came out of the woodwork at each place. Cote Basque, which is just up the street from where my office is, used to be on East 55th Street, then had moved to West 55th and then they kind of closed a year or two ago and renamed themselves (as the more informal Brasserie LCB). But they had kept all the same murals that were painted by this great French restaurant painter named Bernard Lamotte. He was the man of the hour in the '50s when restaurants really cared about murals. He was the painter for The Colony and he did the paintings for Le Pavillion (which was originally located at La Cote Basque's East 55th Street site. Le Pavillion moved to Park Avenue and 57th Street in 1957 after its owner Henri Soule had a dispute over an increase in rent with Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn who owned the 55th Street building. After Cohn's death in 1958 Soule launched La Cote Basque in the 55th Street space). The paintings were all seaside paintings. He also did some paintings at La Grenouille."

Indeed, Lamotte, who died in 1983, had his artist's studio directly upstairs from La Grenouille on East 52nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Among his many New York restaurant murals was a port scene of St. Jean de Luz, painted for a corner of La Cote Basque in 1958. Lamotte, by the way, had an interesting connection to the movie business stemming from his having married Lilyan White Kent, the widow of Sidney R. Kent. In 1932 Kent had succeeded William Fox when the pioneer movie mogul was forced out as president of the Fox Film Corp. Kent agreed to merge the financially troubled Fox Film Corp. with Darryl F. Zanuck and Joseph Schenck's hot independent production company 20th Century Pictures in 1935, after which Kent became president of the new 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

"Grenouille's a favorite of mine," McGrath told me. "And the man who owns and runs it now, Charles Masson (whose late father Charles Masson opened the restaurant on December 19, 1962), was very helpful to us. He showed us where Capote liked to sit. As soon as I told him what we were doing, he took us back to his office and took out all the old pictures of the restaurant. He said, 'We try to make it seem like this is how it always looked, but in fact there have been improvements over the years that have made it look better.' And so he showed us what the original (restaurant looked like). They have these beautiful banquettes with some kind of red velvet He said originally they were red plastic (or perhaps it was) vinyl. We didn't go that far because we liked the red velvet. So we got all this information because there are enough people living and still in the business who could help us in addition to what we found through books and pictures."

Coming back to how he worked with his actors, McGrath observed, "Everybody has a different acting style, but most actors just want to have an intelligent conversation about what they're doing and if you treat them with respect and listen to them I find they listen back. Luckily, I don't ever have to tell them how to do something, I just have to tell them what I hope they'll do and they know how to do it. Because I wrote the script, we weren't ever very far apart on anything because I was always explaining, if any explanation was needed, what the intention of the scene was and because I'd written it they accepted that. It was a very easy friendly group, I thought."

Asked if his director self and his writer self get along okay, McGrath laughed, "It's the most beautiful relationship I've ever had. I wish I could get other relationships to work out this peacefully. You know, I try really hard to work out all the problems in the script as a writer. As a writer, I have no faith in the directing half of me to solve anything on the set. I try to figure it all out. And, I tell you, it makes a big, big difference because I try to show up on the set with a script that I've shaken and knocked and poked at every way I can. And if you're lucky enough to have smart actors, which we had piles of on the movie, they're really helpful. They'll ask a question and they'll point something out and you'll think, 'Ah, that's great. That's right.' And you can quickly adjust things on the set. So that then you really have the time to just talk about what their performance is and how you want to shoot it. But you're never stuck with explaining what the motivation is or why someone's doing something and then trying to make sense of a scene that doesn't make sense."

How did "Infamous" come to Warner Independent Pictures? "Christine Vachon's company, Killer Films, and I were doing the picture together," he replied. "I'd taken the idea to Christine originally back in 2000. I went to her and said, 'What do you think of this idea?' and she said, 'Oh, that would be great. Why don't you do it?' I wrote half of it and then I had written a film of the Dickens novel 'Nicholas Nickelby' and I'd gotten a green light to make that picture so I had to stop and go make "Nicholas Nickelby.' And then I came back and finished ('Infamous'). Killer Films had a first look deal with Warner Independent so we were obligated -- not that we didn't want to -- to show it to them first and they loved it. In fact, the difference between our film and the other was that we had our money right away because they said, 'We'll make it and we'll make it for this price.' I mean, it was a rather fluid price.

"I don't know what our final cost was, but it's about a $12 million movie. I know that is but the crudite budget on a real big head-exploding, knuckle-cracking Hollywood movie. But it looks quite lush and I think (that looking at it) you won't feel we were pinched in any way. Also, on a movie like this nobody really works for any money so all the money goes up on the screen, which is very nice. But anyway, we had our money from the very beginning and then needed to find a Truman and I think our friends on 'Capote' had their Truman right from the beginning because Philip was always attached and needed to find their money. And so we funnily enough set out on our twin roads."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From April 8, 1988's column: "In recent years the Academy Awards ceremonies have mushroomed into an international spectacle. Their origin, of course, was as a private dinner held in 1927 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, but since there was no network TV then to provide full coverage of the event we had to leave it to our imagination.

"With the opening April 29 of Tri-Star's 'Sunset,' directed by Blake Edwards and starring Bruce Willis and James Garner, moviegoers will get a chance to experience what went on at those first Oscar ceremonies.

"'We recreated the original Academy Awards,' Tony Adams, who produced 'Sunset,' told me recently...'We did a lot of research because even though one of the theme's of the picture is 'Is that the way it really happened?' Give or take a lie or two, we tried to be very true to history. But obviously in bringing it to the screen and trying to make it dramatically interesting we had to take a lot of license.

"'But we did (tell the truth) in terms of the Hollywood Roosevelt and the first Academy Awards. The room was recreated to look exactly as it was. It really is that room and redecorated to the way it was at that time.'

"Of course, moviemaking being what it is, the scene in 'Sunset' wasn't filmed only in the room at the Hollywood Roosevelt: 'What we did was film the interior in that room. Then we have a big shoot-out that takes place in the corridors and stairways outside (the room in which the Oscars are being held). We shot that at the Wiltern Theater (in Los Angeles). The exterior at the Academy Awards was shot at the back of (the department store) Bullock's Wilshire, one of the great Art Deco buildings in Los Angeles. So we used three great Art Deco monuments to do it effectively.'

"That first Academy Awards was, says Adams, 'a very informal affair. It was just people who gathered together for mostly a celebration and dinner. Obviously, here weren't (TV) cameras present. They just handed out the awards."

Update: "Sunset" may have shown the Oscars, but it wasn't much of a success on the awards front, itself, landing only a nomination for its costume design. It didn't do well at the boxoffice either, opening Apr. 29, 1988 to $2 million at 1,023 theaters ($1,986 per theater) and winding up with just $4.6 million in domestic grosses. Tony Adams, who was always an interesting interview over the years, sadly passed away following a stroke at the age of only 52 on October 22, 2005.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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