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Capote redux: Another film examines 'In Cold Blood'

Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times

Excited to have finished a draft of his screenplay for his new film about Truman Capote, writer/director Douglas McGrath called independent film executive Bingham Ray to talk about it. Ray, who had been involved with McGrath's previous film, "Nicholas Nickleby," said he looked forward to reading the script, and that it was on his desk.

"I said, 'Well, that's funny, I have it here on my desk,"" remembered McGrath, in a telephone interview. "He said, 'No, I have it right here.' He had it there, but it wasn't mine." On Ray's desk was the screenplay for another Capote movie: "Capote," written by Dan Futterman.

That phone call, in summer 2003, was how McGrath learned that there was another movie like his in the pipeline, each dealing with the period of Capote's life in which he wrote "In Cold Blood," about the murder of a Kansas family and its aftermath. "Capote," directed by Bennett Miller, was completed first, opening theatrically in fall 2005 and ultimately winning an Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. McGrath's movie, "Infamous," arrives in theaters this month.

With a story as compelling as Capote's, said McGrath, there's plenty of material for more than one version. "I don't know if Dan Futterman felt the same way, but when you're doing the research on a story like this, one of your concerns is not 'how am I going to get enough material to tell this thing?' The real challenge is making some decisions about what to leave out."

McGrath's interest in Capote began long ago, "in a kind of classic, light-bulb-over-the-head kind of way," around 1980, when McGrath was working as a writer on "Saturday Night Live." After work one night, McGrath was watching the Dick Cavett show, on which Capote turned up as a guest. It was close to the end of the writer's life (he died in 1984, after a drug overdose), and substance abuse and depression had taken a toll.

"I had never seen Truman Capote, and I didn't know much about him," remembered McGrath. "(Cavett) said he was one of the great writers of the last half century, and called him a master stylist. Truman came out. He did not seem like a master of anything; very strange and sad. He was quite overweight, perspiring a lot. He was talking quite poignantly about Tennessee Williams who had died recently. He said how cruel he felt America was to its artists.

"But he could barely keep his head up straight, and I had kind of a double reaction to him. I was appalled by him but very protective of him in some way. I remember really clearly looking at him, unable to reconcile that introduction with the person I was looking at, and I thought, boy, buddy, what happened to you?"

McGrath dove into reading works by and about Capote, pondering how a promising young writer could diminish so dramatically. He came to believe that Capote fell in love with Perry Smith, one of the convicted Kansas murderers. "I started reading about his life," said McGrath, "and I saw that what happened to him happened in Kansas. It was really Perry."

As his own screenplay began to take shape, inspired and aided by George Plimpton's 1998 oral history of Capote, McGrath found a dual focus: the writer's lively social life in New York, and how much he gave up to write the Kansas story. In the movie, Capote's friend Harper Lee (played by Sandra Bullock) remarks that writers "die a little, getting it right." "Infamous" - like "Capote," but in a very different way - is the story of a slow death.

As if knowledge of the competing movie wasn't enough, "Infamous" had a huge hurdle before cameras could roll: finding an actor to play Capote. McGrath knew that Hoffman was connected to "Capote," and that his film couldn't settle for less.

For a year, he tested actors, finding no one who was quite right for the demands of the role. And then somebody mentioned the little-known British actor Toby Jones, said to have an uncanny resemblance to Capote. McGrath thought it unlikely that the producers would let him cast an unknown in the lead role. But he had business in London anyway, so he arranged to meet Jones, in a hotel lobby. "I looked over, and really, I gasped," said McGrath. "I saw Toby sitting in that chair, and the breath went out of me."

Only half joking, he compares it to the famous moment in cinema history when Vivien Leigh arrived on the set of "Gone With the Wind." "That's how I felt: Here's my Scarlett O'Hara. It made me so nervous. I thought, please don't look this good and then not be good. At the end of the day, it wasn't close. It was Toby or no one. He was so complete and so great."

As "Infamous" enters theaters, a long journey comes to an end for McGrath - one in which he's kept his sense of humor. (He jokes that his next project will be also be with Toby Jones: "a biopic of Philip Seymour Hoffman.") And he's optimistic about audiences finding room in their moviegoing for a second Capote story.

"A lot of people (are) curious to see our film. I have a feeling that when you learn the real facts of (the two movies), what happened and that we were both aware of each other and we both went ahead and did ours in our own way. There must be a reason (we) went ahead, after the other had started. A lot of people tell me they're curious to find out what that reason is."

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