Commentary: 'Trumbo' recalls '50s Hollywood witch hunts

Oscar-worthy documentary opens Friday

"Trumbo" tribute: Although we live now in the age of e-mail when almost no one writes so-called "snail mail," there was a time when people routinely wrote letters, especially if they felt strongly about something.

Such letters, written more than 50 years ago on a manual typewriter by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, are the way in which Peter Askin was able to construct his Oscar worthy documentary "Trumbo." After opening Friday (27) via IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films in New York and Los Angeles, the film will expand to other top markets. It's something Academy members, in particular, should make a point of seeing.

Directed by Askin, its screenplay by Dalton's son Christopher Trumbo is based on Christopher's stage play "Trumbo." Produced by Will Battersby, Tory Tunnell, Alan Klingenstein and David Viola, the film is executive produced by Jim Kohlberg. Trumbo's letters are read on screen by an all-star cast, including Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn and Donald Sutherland.

The documentary is a fitting tribute to Trumbo, who -- here's some quick Hollywood history -- was subpoenaed in 1947 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC for short). He was one of 19 witnesses who declared themselves "unfriendly" to the committee's inquiry -- or witch hunt, as we now know it was -- into subversive influences in Hollywood. Trumbo was one of the first 10 screenwriters called, all of whom refused to say whether they were members of the Communist Party.

The Hollywood Ten, as they became known, were blacklisted by the studios less than a month after HUAC's hearings closed. In the aftermath of the blacklist a black market for stories and scripts developed, enabling these writers to work anonymously for very short money as they struggled to survive. Trumbo, who in 1950 served a year in prison for contempt of Congress, wrote undercover until 1960, doing some 30 original and adapted screenplays and dozens of rewrites.

The first step in breaking the blacklist came in 1956 when the Oscar for writing "The Brave One" was awarded to Robert Rich. When Rich couldn't be found it was learned Trumbo had written the screenplay under that borrowed name. Trumbo used the resulting scandal in an effort to bring about an end to the blacklist. This ultimately paid off in January 1960 when Otto Preminger revealed that Trumbo would receive screen credit for "Exodus." That August Kirk Douglas announced Trumbo would receive screen credit for "Spartacus."

After enjoying an early look at "Trumbo" I was glad to be able to talk recently to Peter Askin about the making of the film. Among Askin's credits are co-writing and co-directing (with Douglas McGrath) the 2000 comedy "Company Man," starring Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Woody Allen; and staging "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" in New York, L.A. and London.

"It really came about because I was introduced to his letters as a potential project for the stage," he told me. "That was a long time ago -- pre-9/11. A producer gave me an early version of a stage piece that Chris Trumbo had assembled for a benefit. I think he went to his father's letters because he thought, 'I need to do something quickly that actors don't need to rehearse.' Obviously, he was well acquainted with his father's epistolary career and knew the book "Additional Dialogue" that was assembled and edited in 1970 before (Dalton) died.

"It's a 600 page volume of most but not all of Trumbo's collected letters. Chris put an evening together for a benefit (for the) sculpture garden at the University of Southern California (which remembers) the Hollywood Ten and the blacklist. He got Steve Martin and Ed Asner and, I think, at that point it was a six character play. That evolved into what we ultimately did in 2003, which was a two character play."

Trumbo's letters were, Askin explained, "such an extraordinary discovery for me. I'd read other people's letters -- Oscar Wilde, in particular, (did) some wonderful letter writing -- but I'd never read Trumbo's. While the play didn't work as well as I thought it could, it sent me to that collection of letters. I was actually in London directing a production of 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' which couldn't have been more different. But I would rehearse that during the day and go home at night and read another 40 letters, some of them going on for 20 pages. I gradually worked my way through the book and just became hooked on the material."

Today, of course, all we'd be likely to have would be a file of someone's recently sent e-mails. "That's right," he agreed. "Well, you can imagine for someone who has that kind of voice -- not to mention career -- having that stifled by the power politics of HUAC and the studios slamming doors. The man needed to write and he found an outlet in letter writing and a lot of it went on during those blacklist years."

As he went through Trumbo's letters the question Askin had to answer was how could he bring them to life on the screen? "There was a big question mark as to how it would translate with actors," he noted. "These actors were working all the time so there wasn't a lot of rehearsal time. The people who were introduced to (the letters) recognized good material. As Liam Neeson said, 'You don't often get material like that.' Nathan (Lane) said, 'There are a lot of writers who write funny, but Trumbo's material also reads funny.'

"I think most actors recognized it as wonderful material. Then it was a question of their timetable. I felt (it was more likely to work) if I don't ask them to memorize and we use the convention of the letter in front of them and some of them refer to that more than others."

But there also was the need to see how using the letters this way would work on screen and how long it would be possible to sustain it with visuals: "I knew there was archival material because I knew that one of his daughters, Mitzi Trumbo, as well as his wife, Cleo, were both professional level photographers. When I got involved in the stage version I had seen hundreds of wonderful family photographs -- the kind of material that only a family member has access to.

"So I knew there were stills we could (use and) go to voiceover and see what we were hearing about. I knew there was some archival documentary footage because I'd seen a couple of documentaries on the blacklist. But the great bonus and discovery was finding as much material of Trumbo being interviewed, himself. That was extraordinary."

Had Askin thought about just casting one actor to play Trumbo and read all the letters, himself? "When we did it on stage," he replied, "we would have one actor do the whole evening with a second actor being the other character, most frequently Chris Trumbo. But to get some of this A List (acting) material and to get as many of them in the film as possible we thought we can use different voices and (it would be good) if I can find a unifying element. I always felt we could use voiceover and narration if we had to. But once I found the interviews with Trumbo I thought, 'No, he could narrate his own film.'"

Trumbo's letters served as the film's backbone without which, Askin emphasized, "we wouldn't have tried for a film. Not that someone couldn't make a good narrative biopic on Trumbo, but I wanted to preserve his voice through his letters. The challenge -- and it was a big challenge -- was to take letters and make them a dramatic narrative through-line when they're never intended to be.

"They're individual. They're idiosyncratic. They're about specific things. They're not meant to be part of a dramatic arc to any story. But through editing, through breaking them up, through moving them around chronologically in time we were able to construct a truthful through-line to his story. That was the challenge."

Although the blacklisting of Trumbo and the political events that precipitated it took place over 50 years ago, the material has surprising relevancy to our own troubled times. "I met the material pre-9/11 and by the time I started working on it first we had Bush's first election and then we had 9/11 and then we had the Patriot Act and John Ashcroft," Askin observed. "As we started working on the play this material became -- I think sadly in terms of our country's history -- more and more relevant to today.

"Tim Robbins came in and did it onstage briefly and his first day of rehearsal his film 'Bull Durham' was pulled from (the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in) Cooperstown because of Tim and Susan (Sarandon's) outspoken politics. A Chris Cooper fan came up to him after he did the show and said, 'You just made John Ashcroft's list.' And they weren't joking. And then, of course, the Dixie Chicks spoke out (against George W. Bush and were boycotted for that). So you do have blacklists today. It's just more insidious.

"One of the redeeming things for me was, I'm not a documentary filmmaker and I didn't want to try to do a historical or educational film. I didn't want to do a film specifically about the blacklist. I wanted to do a film specifically about this larger than life person. He had a (constant) belief in himself. He never really second guessed his choices. Plus, he was all these other things. He was ornery and he was contentious. He came from the working class and he believed in the working class and yet he loved money. He just became a fascinating character to read about through his own words."

Trumbo emerged as a spokesman for the Hollywood Ten, Askin pointed out, adding, "I don't think that was ever a choice. It was just through dint of his personality. A lot of them were from the East. Trumbo was different. He was older than many of them. He came from this small town in Colorado and watched his father go broke. He watched his family go through the Depression. When he was a young man he worked two or three jobs and he supported his two sisters and mother because his father died shortly after they moved from Colorado to L.A. But he just was this fascinating character. I wanted to do a character study and I thought, 'Well, the blacklist will be there, but it's this one man's story set against that.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel