LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
In 1959, two ex-convicts murdered four members of the Clutter family on their farm in Holcomb, Kansas. Truman Capote and his friend Nell Harper Lee traveled from New York to Kansas to investigate that case for The New Yorker magazine. Truman Capote became obsessed with the crime. He expanded his article into a four-part series and then into a best-selling novel.
A new movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman chronicles the five years in which Truman Capote lived and wrote the now classic "In Cold Blood." "Capote's" screenwriter, Dan Futterman, joins us from Los Angeles, and the film's director, Bennett Miller, is in New York.
Mr. BENNETT MILLER (Director, "Capote"): Thank you.
Mr. DAN FUTTERMAN (Screenwriter, "Capote"): Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Why did you decide to make a movie about Truman Capote, and why did you choose Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Capote?
Mr. MILLER: It was Danny's idea, so you should start it up.
Mr. FUTTERMAN: I was intrigued--I read two books in quick succession. One was a Janet Malcolm book called "The Journalist and the Murderer." And just after that, I read Gerald Clarke's biography of Capote. And there are two long chapters where he talks about this period in Capote's life where he worked on "In Cold Blood" and he became extremely close with particularly Perry Smith; also Dick Hickock, but particularly Perry Smith, one of the murderers. That transaction, that relationship, intrigued me. Truman Capote genuinely, it seems, cared about, possibly loved, Perry Smith. He also had a purely mercenary interest in him and saw him as his ticket--as he says in the movie, as a gold mine and his way to write the masterpiece that he knew he was always meant to write.
WERTHEIMER: You know, I was fascinated that you would choose Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the role. I mean, this is sort of a like a big bearlike guy playing this slender, tiny creature, Truman Capote.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah.
WERTHEIMER: What--it's very odd casting.
Mr. MILLER: Well, the interest that Danny just described that he has in the story was there, and I hold that interest, too, but there was something else when I read it that I also felt. When I read the screenplay originally, what I really--what the story was and what the character had going on internally is something that I can't really imagine another actor doing quite the way Phil did.
WERTHEIMER: He does a remarkable job with the voice. He sounds to me a lot like I remember the way Truman Capote--let's listen for just a second.
(Soundbite of "Capote")
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Truman Capote) I wonder if you'd let me look at your investigation notes? Elvin(ph), I mean, do you not want me to look at your notes? You are permitted to say no.
WERTHEIMER: Mr. Futterman, you had to try to write a Capote who might have come from the moon, it seems to me, as far as these Kansas people that he was meeting were concerned, and yet they made a connection with them. They distrusted his sophistication, his homosexuality, yet still they connected with him. How did you think about doing that?
Mr. FUTTERMAN: It was my reading of this time that people had a very strange reaction to him, and people have that kind of reaction when they watch this movie. They see Phil and think, `Are you serious? Are you really going to do this for an hour and a half?' And then immediately you forget about it, and you believe that this guy is Truman Capote and you believe his enormous talents. I think that people had that reaction to him in life, that he was shocking.
WERTHEIMER: Well, when you were writing, did you feel sympathetic to Truman Capote? I mean, did you--were you writing a character you liked?
Mr. FUTTERMAN: Writing a character I admired a lot, and I still admire, but I was also aware of the fact that he had what I see as a fatal character flaw, that he was deeply, deeply ambitious, and that ultimately he was willing to do whatever he had to do to write the book that he wanted to write. And if that meant turning his back on particularly Perry Smith, with whom he had become extremely close, then he was going to do that.
WERTHEIMER: Now we have a clip of Capote talking with Perry Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr. We should keep in mind as you listen to the clip that, if you watch the movie, you will have already seen him deeply engaged in writing the book, tapping away at his little typewriter.
(Soundbite of "Capote")
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I haven't written a word yet.
Mr. CLIFTON COLLINS Jr. (Actor): (As Perry Smith) Whatta ya been doing?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Research, talking to you. I had hoped that...
Mr. COLLINS Jr.: (As Perry Smith) Well, what are you calling it?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) You mean the book? I have no idea, Perry. If I'm going to write about you, we need to talk about, you know, the murders and that night at the Clutter house. Do you worry what I'll think? Is that it?
Mr. COLLINS Jr.: (As Perry Smith) Dick says you know Elizabeth Taylor.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I know a lot of people. And I prefer to be here with you.
Mr. MILLER: It's interesting. This scene on the page, it almost seems outrageous. But the way Phil manages to do it, it's like the music doesn't quite fit the lyrics, that there's two completely contradicting streams of emotion going on here.
WERTHEIMER: Bennett Miller, Capote describes the convergence of worlds that he is looking at here, conservative Kansas and the minds of these murderous men he meets. But this is a compelling convergence, as well; I mean, ours with Capote, I guess. How did you work out how to kind of paint that picture of this very sophisticated New Yorker going to Kansas?
Mr. MILLER: Something that makes this a very interesting story for the screen is that there are two things going on. There is the--on the surface there is the story of a writer who is going about the business of writing his masterpiece. And then beneath it is a much more private and internal tragedy that's happening, about a person who's pursuing something in such a way that is going to end up destroying him.
WERTHEIMER: We have a clip here in--of Capote and Harper Lee at the movie premiere of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and he is very depressed. He's trying to finish the book and he can't finish it until he knows the ending, and now the murderers' convictions are being appealed to the Supreme Court. And she finds him sitting by himself at the bar at the opening of her movie.
(Soundbite of "Capote")
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) And now with the Supreme Court. And can you believe it? If they win this appeal I will have a complete nervous breakdown. I may never recover. And I'll just pray that it turns my way.
Ms. CATHERINE KEENER: (As Harper Lee) It must be difficult.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) No, it's torture. They're torturing me.
Ms. KEENER: (As Harper Lee) I see. And how'd you like the movie, Truman?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I frankly don't see what all the fuss is about.
WERTHEIMER: He's horrifying in this scene. We've watched him allow the two killers to believe that he's trying to help them, and in this scene, of course, he just wants it to be over. He wants--he's on the same side as the folks in Kansas: Hang 'em. Let me write my book.
Mr. FUTTERMAN: I think that's right. I mean, I think that this is the scene where you see him at his most monstrous, and Phil is just absolutely stunning in this scene. He was desperate for an ending at that point. These appeals had gone on for almost five years now, and he was desperate to have an ending and knew that the best ending for his book would be if these killers were finally executed. And this is the point in the movie where he expresses that most explicitly. And I think you're right: It is monstrous.
WERTHEIMER: He says in the film that he believes that writing about these murders--he says this before he does it in the movie--will alter his life. That's the word he uses. It made him famous. It made him rich. I gather, Bennett Miller, that the two of you think that it also ruined his life.
Mr. MILLER: There's no doubt that in the course of researching and writing this book that something inside him was destroyed. And it's his words later in life when his life was in ruins and when it was clear that he was in a place where he was not going to recover, that he said that he just--he never recovered from the writing of "In Cold Blood." And the famous quote was had he understood what the process would have taken out of him, he would have driven right through Kansas and never stopped and would have driven out of there like a bat out of hell.
WERTHEIMER: Dan Futterman wrote the screenplay for the new film "Capote," and Bennett Miller directed the film. Thank you both for joining us.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you.
Mr. FUTTERMAN: Thank you so much.
WERTHEIMER: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.