Cover Story: Drawing Blood

In Cold Blood broke Truman Capote; will a movie based on his experience do the same for its lead actor and director?

Oct 26, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Drawing Blood

Being an Average Joe allows actor Philip Seymour Hoffman to show up for interviews with large sweat stains under his armpits without embarrassment. Sloppy sweat is just one of the numerous things that make him a regular guy, as do his ultra casual clothes.

Actors often dress up for press conferences and media interviews to impress the photographers, TV cameras and international reporters in attendance. But here at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival Hoffman wears a striped short sleeve shirt that appears baggy around his shoulders and a size too small for his thick arms and beefy belly.

He might have an actor's dream resume — all four Paul Thomas Anderson films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love), David Mamet's State and Main and Todd Solondz's cynical sex satire Happiness, plus many others — but Hoffman's laid-back appearance puts him at the level of everyone in the room. He's more a Phil than a Mr. Hoffman, although it's difficult to change gears when it comes to movie actors. They're promoted as people who occupy a stratosphere well above average people.

When a young female publicist for Hoffman's new film Capote, about writer Truman Capote's experience writing his landmark novel In Cold Blood, escorts the 38-year-old actor into a meeting room filled with eight odd journalists waiting around a table, she stops and instructs the group to introduce themselves to Hoffman.

"Why?" asks a Milwaukee-based film critic who's sitting at the table. "It's not like he's going to remember us anyway."

Hoffman appears injured by the comment, an insinuation that he wouldn't bother to remember the crowds of press he's going to meet today, not to mention the journalists he's met over the years.

"Why would you say that?" Hoffman asks the critic incredulously.

The room is tense until a wise crack turns the mood.

"He's going to remember you now," I joke from the corner. Because being a regular guy, at least by Hoffman's standards, means saying hello to the journalists who gather around to speak with you and remembering their names — or at least pretending to.

Talking up the film
What Capote director Bennett Miller calls the "creative time" — when he was busy preparing, filming and editing the movie — is over. What's happening now, since the film's first public showings at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and continuing with massive public screenings and promotion in September in Toronto, is the post-creative stage of moviemaking.

Miller admits reaching for a different set of tricks. It's the time and place to say and do the things that will persuade people to love your film.

Actors and filmmakers often travel with friends, family and paid staff to help ease the tension of publicity work. But Hoffman, his longtime friends Miller and actor-turned-screenwriter Dan Futterman and Catherine Keener, an actress like Hoffman known for her independent streak, make up their own gang.

Miller is dressed in Manhattan black, a serious wardrobe that matches his dark hair and darker eyes. Keener has long brown hair, a narrow face and green eyes that see for miles. She smiles at the slightest good humor and laughs frequently.

The center spot belongs to Hoffman, who looks into photo flashes and TV cameras through small metal glasses. Capote would have approved of the capacity crowds and the attention here in Toronto.

Hoffman, Keener, Futterman and Miller are joined in unity with the young actor who plays convicted killer Perry Smith, Clifton Collins Jr. White cardboard signs list their names on a raised table alongside glasses of water and microphones — standard press conference setup.

For the next 30 minutes, Hoffman is asked about playing the most famous author of his time and answers questions with the deliberate pace of someone who chooses his words carefully. He's in no hurry to get to the next question despite the line of journalists waiting for their turn to ask something. He emphasizes quality answers over quantity of quotes.

After the conference is over, Hoffman, Keener, Futterman and Miller crisscross on the Sutton Hotel's second floor providing accidental entertainment to the lines of festival participants waiting to pick up tickets to screenings. They have their own Capote screenings to attend to greet and take questions from the audiences. There are more interviews, photo sessions and nighttime gatherings.

The press work is just picking up steam in Toronto and will continue through the slow release of the film, a few cities at a time, throughout October. They'll have the opportunity to say all there is to say about the film and themselves.

'The end of innocence'
On screen, a young girl enters a white clapboard farmhouse to meet a school girlfriend. But this time, in the home of the Clutter family in rural Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, she discovers something horrific — all four members of her friend's family have been slain.

It's a solemn, quiet but brutal beginning to what might be the best American film this year.

Amber waves of grain fill the screen, and Kansas is beautiful but desolate. It's flyover country, and author and reporter Truman Capote, the quintessential New York insider, is a fish out of water among the good farm folk.

We see Capote back home, beneath the nighttime Manhattan skyline, doing what he does best — cocktail chatter and entertaining his friends. He's already famous thanks to his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms and his story, Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Capote tells New Yorker editor William Shawn that a news story in The New York Times on the murder of the Clutter family and its impact on the small Kansas town is what he wants to explore next. He goes to Kansas with his childhood friend and fellow writer, Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird).

The question is what drew Capote to Kansas and this crime tale. How did this story about the end of innocence for a small town become something more and something personal for the sophisticated, big-city writer?

Was it destiny that he'd read about the Clutter murders buried on the back pages of The Times? If so, another act of destiny, what turned Capote's original reporting assignment for The New Yorker into something far more personal, was the arrival of the accused killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

It's January 1960, and Capote and Lee join the Holcomb townspeople on the courthouse steps as they watch the two suspects, recently captured in Las Vegas after eluding police for weeks, taken into custody. Smith wears heavy black boots and jeans cuffed at the ankles. His is the pretty face of an innocent, and Capote notices him right away.

Later, while Smith sits in his temporary cell in the sheriff's apartment, Capote makes an unscheduled visit to meet the cold-blooded killer up close.

"I could kill you if you got too close," Smith tells Capote, who appears flustered by the threats. Yet he decides that the story dangling in front of his eyes, Smith's story, is worth any discomfort or hardships that might result.

Capote soon realizes that the scope of the story is too much for a magazine article. He tells Shawn that he's going to write a book about the Clutter killings and, especially, the killers.

He's bold in his predictions for the project: It will be the book he was always meant to write, the nonfiction book of the decade. Time proves Capote correct, and the resulting book would become his dream and downfall.

Part of the post-creative moment for director Miller is listening to other explanations about the meaning of the film he worked so hard to create.

Not waiting to be asked, I use our interview time together to tell him that Capote is a celebration of writing as well as artistic inspiration that morphs into crippling obsession. It's about a writer growing too close to his subject.

Miller agrees that Capote is a tragedy and that In Cold Blood, the book that changed Capote's career, is also the book that broke his career. But he also has his own take.

"It's about the end of innocence," Miller says with verve. "This is a 9/11 moment for these people. This is their world coming to an end, and that's what Capote wanted to capture. The country was changing. The Kennedy assassination was around the corner. Vietnam was happening. Capote witnessed the change in this small Kansas town and captured it."

After years of reporting the story of the murders and the killers, Capote eventually wants only two things: to see how the story ends and for Smith to recount what happened that night in the Clutter home.

He gets what he wants on both issues but pays a terrible price.

'Anything but a clownish figure'
Hoffman is all charm as the charismatic Capote. He immediately makes an impression because he looks the part with full lips, wispy blond hair and round face, although his body is slightly fuller than Capote's at that time in his life. His tools for the part are tortoise shell glasses, the trademark high-pitch voice and a slight lisp to soften the squeaks.

Capote stands out among the Kansas workers clad in denim, work shirts and inexpensive clothes with his tailored suits and overcoats. When it comes to Miller's movie, Hoffman stands heads and shoulders above his actor peers with a performance that dominates every scene of the film. Part of his good work is posturing, the physical re-creation of Capote the clotheshorse and dandy.

"Bergdorf's," he tells the small town cops, gesturing to the long luxurious scarf dangling from his neck.

One Kansas cop points to his grey fedora as rebuttal: "Sears Roebuck."

Hoffman isn't a star despite his work in 35 or so films since 1992 and frequent stage work, meaning that he alone can't guarantee box-office success for even a small-budget movie like Capote. But he's a critics darling, the type of actor who attracts attention from film press and film buffs and often favorable notice.

He brings critical cachet to Capote, making it the type of film people talk about and worthy of Academy Award attention. If an Oscar nomination comes its way, either for Hoffman's performance or for the film itself, its box office would surely rise.

Capote could be a breakout film, an art-house drama that crosses over to mainstream audiences. (It's playing at multiplexes in Greater Cincinnati in addition to the Esquire Theatre). At least that's what the gang who worked hard to get it made hopes.

Forgetting the slight that he'd never bother to learn or remember the names of journalists interviewing him, Hoffman settles into his chair and gets down to business. He does his job well, offering insightful answers about playing Capote and about the danger of making Capote's speech and mannerisms clownish. He even talks pleasantly with the journalist who offended him just moments earlier. Interviews are work, and days of nonstop interviews are hard work.

"It took time to get his voice right, but there's more to Capote than the famous voice," Hoffman says. "It's about mannerisms and tremendous self confidence. It's a state of being. But I understand what you're saying about consciously keeping things subdued so as not to play the clown. Because he was anything but a clownish figure."

Hoffman is committed to doing it well, because his commitment to Capote goes beyond a paycheck. It's something he fought to do with his friends.

If there's a personal upside, it's that Hoffman's film career originally was focused on extraordinary supporting work in good ensemble dramas like Boogie Nights, the Civil War drama Cold Mountain, the '70s Rock drama Almost Famous and the comedy The Big Lebowski. He's enjoyed starring roles before, as a gambling junkie in Owning Mahowny and as a drag queen in Flawless, but Capote looks to cement his status as a man who can light up an entire movie with a performance.

What Hoffman has done before onstage in New York — wowing audiences with leading roles in revivals of Sam Shepard's True West and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night — he finally accomplishes with a film.

What's the matter in Kansas?
Words bring stories alive, and few writers describe a scene with greater detail than Truman Capote. That's his gift — to place readers around the people and into the places he's put on paper.

Director Miller and screenwriter Futterman admit that the film remains distant by comparison despite the intimacy of close-up lenses and hand-held cameras. Coverage — making sure all the characters are in focus and in the shot when speaking — requires broader brushstrokes.

In Cold Blood readers know minute details about Hickock and Smith, from their crime spree before the Clutter murders until their walk to the gallows on their execution day. But Miller's camera stays at a distance, soaking in the entire scene and failing to offer specifics.

Miller admits that there's only so much a 110-minute film can show. It's a different medium, one that requires economy unheard of for writers, and changes are made for a number of reasons.

In the film, Capote travels back from the executions weeping on Shawn's arm because there wasn't enough money to cast another character. Random House Editor Joe Fox actually accompanied Capote on his final visit with Hickock and Smith. Great questions are left unanswered for the sake of pace and narrative flow, including the key question: Did Capote fall in love with Smith?

When Capote feeds Smith baby food and nurses him back to health from a crippling hunger strike, it's clear that he's crossing an ethical line to get the better story. But the extent of their feelings remains intentionally ambiguous. There's only so much Miller is willing to tell, despite the abundance of material. He prefers audiences make up their own minds.

Capote watches, listens and remembers everything around him — whether it's a Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective or an unsuspecting businessman who gives him a ride — but he doesn't tape record interviews or take notes. He wants a natural interaction with the people he meets and speaks to. And he brags that he has a 94 percent sense of recall.

Without the trappings of the ordinary reporter, Capote ingratiates himself to the locals with celebrity encounter stories involving Humphrey Bogart and John Huston. He opens the closed caskets at the local funeral home but looks away upon seeing the dead bodies of the Clutter family, their heads wrapped in gauze like mummies — an experience he'll re-create for his book and bedazzle capacity crowds with at book readings years later.

To accomplish this feat, Capote retreats to his hotel room at the end of each day in Kansas and writes down everything he remembers from his interviews and encounters. His friend Lee does the same, and they compare notes for accuracy.

To answer that Milwaukee film critic — could Hoffman possibly remember the names of the journalists from today or any other day — he could if he were Capote.

One scene that sends chills up your spine is when Capote tells Alvin Dewey, the law officer who wants to solve the crime at any price, "I decided on a title for my book and I think you'll like it — very masculine — In Cold Blood."

Dewey's reply in the coffee shop is terse: "If the boys get off, I'm coming to Brooklyn to hunt you down."

Capote explains the title as referring to the vicious crime, but Miller hints at the grander meaning. Hickock and Smith will add another victim to their list once the book is done and published: Capote will become a victim of his success or perhaps guilt over his success.

Critic Ned Rorem summed up In Cold Blood like this: "Capote got $2 million, and his heroes got the rope."

The most rousing moment in the film occurs when Capote reads passages from the book to a packed audience at New York's 92nd Street YMCA. His editor is thrilled by the response.

"I think this book is going to change how people write," Shawn tells Capote.

While Capote reads passages from his book, Miller flashes back to scenes of Smith in his cell. There's a federal appeals court ruling that stays the executions. Capote isn't getting an ending to his story, and he's unhappy.

Upon a return visit to the Kansas Penitentiary, Smith wants to know one thing: "What's the name of the book?"

Capote lies repeatedly. "I don't know," he says. He lies, almost in a biblical sense, numerous times, whenever he's asked, as if to underscore how the title In Cold Blood describes his final treatment of Smith and Hickock and the means to his personal success.

Smith senses his fate when he watches a prison tractor haul a dead body from the warehouse where the executions take place. All Capote can see is the adulation of the YMCA audience who loved the passages of his book. He can't wait for the completed version.

A 'timeless' film
There's an ensemble of players surrounding Hoffman in Capote just as the true-life writer received plenty of support during his time spent in Kansas. Keener is a solidly sensible voice as Harper Lee, and she brings brilliant subtlety to Hoffman's flamboyance.

Chris Cooper is rock solid as Alvin Dewey, the law officer who wants to solve the crime at any price. Dewey takes an instant dislike to Capote and his apparent lack of respect for the Kansas townsfolk, but he learns to admire Capote's work ethic and dedication for the truth.

Miller is the film's workhorse, willing to carry cameras and equipment to a distant location to film pick-up shots of a passing train. There's no one else to do it and no money to hire someone to do it. So Miller is there, uncomplaining, because he's dedicated this chunk of his life to the film.

Hoffman is the marquee for the movie, the man on the poster, the most recognizable name on the trailer.

"The only thing I can compare this to is a stage play I did recently where you're on every night and you're in every scene," Hoffman says. "I remember the grind. I remember thinking I could not possibly continue and growing desperate. I swore never to put myself in such a position again. But I became attached to this story. I went to the studios to ask for financing, and I committed to play the lead. It was hard. I won't say it wasn't. But I don't regret it."

Capote opened Sept. 30 in New York and Los Angeles, and Miller admits that the reception has been everything he could have wished. Reviews are glowing, and audiences are filling cinemas. The gold ring is within his grasp: a small, adult movie that becomes a commercial and critical hit.

Capote was famous when he first went to Kansas to begin work on In Cold Blood, but Miller was unknown to most people when Capote opened in theaters earlier this month. "A guy who came out of nowhere" is how many people describe him.

Miller admits that few people know his excellent documentary The Cruise, a fast-paced tale about a hyper New York City tour bus guide. Still, he sees the similarities between Capote the man and his creative shutdown and Capote the movie. The possible outcomes leave him uneasy.

"Phil (Hoffman) and I were having dinner last night and he was talking about that," Miller says. "I don't know what to say. I'm feeling too vulnerable. But I know what you're saying."

Miller describes the film's quietness as his favorite characteristic, the one thing he hopes audiences will notice and latch on to. Yet if there's a correction he wants people to know about, it's the assumption that an acclaimed hit movie is somehow easy to make.

"People were always receptive to the script, but everyone said no," he says.

Miller interrupts his answers with the same self-effacing questions. "Am I rambling? Am I making sense? It's early in the morning." He asks because he takes seriously the promotional stage of this project. He wants to do whatever possible to get people to see Capote. He wants it all — strong box office and great acclaim — and he believes the film has a shot.

Miller's assistant interrupts the phone conversation, granting the director pause between his answers and the chance to reminisce about the time he committed himself to moviemaking.

"I was 14, and I remember watching Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and thinking that was everything a movie is supposed to be," he says. "I saw Walkabout and for the first time thought, 'I can make movies like that.' A timeless movie, I'm not ashamed to admit it, that's what I want Capote to be. I want it to be another Graduate, a film people talk about as timeless." ©