ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The fall of Dalton Trumbo took him from being one of Hollywood's highest-paid writers to a Hollywood pariah. He wrote the scripts for dozens of movies in the '30s and '40s, among them "Kitty Foyle" and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo." His antiwar novel "Johnny Got His Gun" won the National Book Award in 1939. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The National Book Award was then known as the American Booksellers Award.]
Then, in 1947, Dalton Trumbo was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, part of the Hollywood Ten questioned about their ties to the Communist Party. Dalton Trumbo refused to testify based on his First Amendment rights guaranteeing free speech.
Mr. DALTON TRUMBO (Screenwriter, Novelist): I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence that supports this question. I should like to see what you have.
Unidentified Man: Oh, well, you would?
Mr. TRUMBO: Yes.
Unidentified Man: Well, you will pretty soon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of gavel banging)
Unidentified Man: Witness is excused.
Mr. TRUMBO: This is the beginning of...
BLOCK: Dalton Trumbo is saying there: This is the beginning of an American concentration camp for writers. And for Dalton Trumbo, it was the beginning of the end of the writing life he had known. He was found in contempt of Congress, was kicked out of the Screenwriters Guild, and blacklisted by Hollywood studios. He served nearly a year in federal prison. The story of Dalton Trumbo is told now in a documentary that bears his name - simply "Trumbo."
It's directed by Peter Askin, based on a play by Dalton Trumbo's sonChristopher. And Peter Askin and Christopher Trumbo both join us to talk about the project. Welcome to you both.
Mr. PETER ASKIN (Film Director): Thank you very much, Melissa.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER TRUMBO (Playwright): Thank you.
BLOCK: And Peter, let's start with you, as the director. You have, as a device, many, many letters that Dalton Trumbo wrote over the long period of his blacklisting. They're read in the film by actors from Liam Neeson and Donald Sutherland to Michael Douglas.
(Soundbite of movie, "Trumbo")
Mr. MICHAEL Douglas (Actor): (Reading) Perhaps I should not be as angry as I am against the weaklings, cravens and liars who've succeeded in banning me from motion pictures, for I feel a sense of relief.
BLOCK: It's one thing for that to work on stage, in a play. It's quite another thing to have it work on film. What was the challenge there?
Mr. ASKIN: The challenge really was to see how long we could sustain both a direct performance of the letters and intersperse that with visual footage which was relevant to what was being discussed. And what we discovered was that they could be sustained quite well.
BLOCK: Christopher Trumbo, let's bring you in here. You were, I believe, 10 years old when your father went to prison for being in contempt of Congress. How was it explained to you?
Mr. TRUMBO: It's something that was revealed over a period of years, and it was presented to us as that he believed in one thing, and the government believed in another. And he was going to have to go to prison for a short time.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about a painful scene in the movie, Chris, when your father has written a letter the principal of your sister Mitzi's elementary school. She's 10 years old at the time, in fifth grade. And she has been, as we learn, essentially blacklisted by her peers. Apparently, the PTA has been meeting secretly about your parents, and all of that suspicion has filtered down to the children. Let's listen to part of this letter. It's read here by the actor David Strathairn.
(Soundbite of movie, "Trumbo")
Mr. DAVID STRATHAIRN (Actor): (Reading) Small, childish conspiracies are directed against her, patterned in secret after the conspiracies of the parents. And she is quietly and incessantly persecuted and boycotted and shunned as long as the school day lasts. This slow murder of the mind and heart and spirit of a young child is the proud outcome of the patriotic meetings held by a few parents under the sponsorship of the PTA and the Bluebirds.
BLOCK: Peter Askin, do you remember when you first saw that letter, how you felt?
Mr. ASKIN: Just as moved as I am at the moment listening to David do it again. I think anyone who's a parent - and even if you're not - can empathize with those circumstances where you stand helplessly to one side and, you know, watch your child have to deal with something of that magnitude.
BLOCK: And knowing, too, that right or wrong, you have brought this on your child.
Mr. ASKIN: Of course. Of course.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the later chapter of Dalton Trumbo's writing life because your father, Chris, did go on to have quite a prodigious writing life. But he's always writing under other names, a long list of pseudonyms that he has.
Mr. TRUMBO: Yes, at least 13. As my sister said, that was never a wrong number as far as she was concerned. She just assumed that whoever it was, you know, it was for him, whatever the name was.
BLOCK: People would be calling and asking for Sally Stubblefield, one his names, or Marcel Klauber...
Mr. TRUMBO: Exactly.
BLOCK: ...things like that.
Mr. TRUMBO: Yeah, sure.
BLOCK: Dad, it's for you.
Mr. TRUMBO: That was the attitude.
BLOCK: Peter Askin, talk about that time, with Dalton Trumbo writing under all of these names and the kinds of pieces he was writing.
Mr. ASKIN: Seemed like he would take whatever job that was offered to him. Some of them, I don't think people have heard of, but there was a film like "The Brave One," which he wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich, which was nominated and then awarded an Academy Award. And I think it was at that point when the search commenced for Robert Rich - it was the only Academy Award that was never picked up at the awards. The night of the award, no Robert Rich came forward. The next day, I think six or seven Robert Riches came forward. But at that point, I think Trumbo believed that through the press, he was now in a position to begin to fight back and manipulate the press to his advantage. Because he was questioned. There were suspicions that Trumbo was, in fact, Robert Rich.
BLOCK: We hear in the film Michael Douglas reading the words of Dalton Trumbo from this time, when he finally says, you know, he has joked about this character Robert Rich before, but the time is come when it's no longer a joke.
(Soundbite of movie, "Trumbo")
Mr. DOUGLAS: (Reading) I can invent no more witticisms about the Oscar he dares not claim because that small, worthless golden statuette is covered with the blood of my friends. I cannot laugh about it any longer because my belly is filled with the poison of this blacklist, and my heart is filled with its grief and my ears roar with rage at its injustices. And my heart, for the first time, is filled with something very close to hate.
BLOCK: Do you think the experience of everything that Dalton Trumbo went through with the blacklist, did it filter into his writing in the end? Peter Askin, what do you think?
Mr. ASKIN: Well, certainly, we do find clips from different films where it's just too much of coincidence that certain things that are spoken by actors or characters don't reflect back on his life.
BLOCK: What kinds of things are you thinking of?
Mr. ASKIN: Well, "Spartacus," certainly.
Mr. TRUMBO: We've got an example from "Spartacus." There is the scene in "Spartacus" where Sir Laurence Olivier, as Crassus, asks the remains of the defeated slave army to reveal Spartacus or to show him the body of Spartacus. Kirk Douglas, as Spartacus, is about to stand up.
(Soundbite of movie, "Spartacus")
Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (as Antoninus): I'm Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #1: I am Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #2: I'm Spartacus.
Mr. TRUMBO: Others stand up and say, I'm Spartacus. And what they are doing is they are refusing to let him betray himself. They are refusing to let him become an informer against himself, and it is the general who has solicited them all to become informers, and all of them resist.
BLOCK: Well, Peter Askin and Christopher Trumbo, thanks very much.
Mr. TRUMBO: Thank you.
Mr. ASKIN: Thank you.
BLOCK: And you can watch clips from the documentary "Trumbo" at our Web site, npr.org.