“It’s a time of his life where he has become what he realized,” says director Bennett Miller of Truman Capote. “He found what he was looking for, and suffered the consequences of getting it.”
Miller heads a table at which the actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr. and the actor-turned-first-time-screenwriter Dan Futterman are also seated. It’s a humid September day in Toronto and its famous film festival is less than a third of the way through. This group of people, the minds and faces that comprise the drama Capote—opening in Halifax this week—has set the festival ablaze with buzz and Oscar predictions. (None more so than Hoffman, whose carefully calibrated, complex performance as legendary writer Truman Capote is being touted as the performance of the year.)
Avoiding the typical biopic mistake—trying to pack a person’s whole life into a movie-sized form for mass consumption—made by the makers of The Doors, Ray and Walk the Line, Capote instead focuses on the six years of Capote’s life during which he wrote his genre-inventing narrative non-fiction classic In Cold Blood.
The film opens with the grisly discovery of the Clutter family, all four brutally murdered in their quiet Kansas town. It shifts to New York, where flamboyant literary star Capote announces he will write about the Clutter murders for The New Yorker. Setting up shop in Kansas, he becomes obsessed with murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr), an orphan like the author himself, and decides to turn his story into the novel that will become his all-consuming, life-crushing masterpiece. As he gets closer to Smith, and Smith gets closer to the gallows, Capote is wracked with guilt over his exploitation of the man for his book.
“Those who get what they want in life,” says Miller, “inevitably end up miserable.”
“I don’t think there was ever going to be enough love for Truman Capote,” adds Hoffman, just crowned best actor by the New York and LA film critics’ associations and nominated on Tuesday for a Golden Globe. “The idea of somebody who experienced being abandoned at a young age—he had this character flaw. I think he’d give all the money in the world away if he knew everyone would hug him.”
The consistently terrific Keener, a longtime critics’ favourite, plays Capote confidante Nelle Harper Lee, who is writing her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird as she accompanies Capote to Kansas. (The monumentally self-absorbed Capote is interested in neither his friend’s literary success nor the achievements of the subsequent film.) A sturdy, chain-smoking woman in cardigans, Lee helps Capote navigate the conservative Kansas landscape, stepping in to save the cause whenever his celebrity turns off the locals, which is often.
Keener is the only actor who portrays a living person—a person who is a famous recluse.
“I’m apprehensive because I don’t know if it’s anything like her,” she says of her performance. “I just culled it from what I read. She smoked and her hair was short and she didn’t wear makeup. Now I’m caught with this thing that could be a lie and a disservice to somebody.”
For his part, Hoffman says, “I actually didn’t want to mimic him. I had to practise all of these things technically”—including Capote’s trademark lispy helium voice—“but if the story wasn’t the potent element of the film, it wasn’t worth it. It would be a viaduct into the story.”
Keener, fretting slightly now, adds, “I have enormous respect for Harper Lee and I hope I’ve done her justice. I hope it comes off as truthful.”
Miller, whose only other film effort is The Cruise, the documentary that either blessed or unleashed upon the world the talents of Timothy “Speed” Levitch in 1998, is eager to shake off Capote’s biopic label, knowing it brings with it massive expectations and pressure. “The fact that it’s based on a person is just incidental,” he says.
“It’s rare,” says Hoffman, “to see a biopic that takes a slice of life in order to illuminate the rest of it.”
Capote opens December 16 at Bayers Lake.