In Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (2020), director Lisa Immordino Vreeland invites us to listen to the words of Truman Capote, voiced by Jim Parsons, and Tennessee Williams voiced by Zachary Quinto. She reveals the struggles they laboured under and the cultural impact of the two iconic American writers who, in her words, “…redefined for a younger audience, and reevaluated with a contemporary eye.”
Vreeland’s previous credits include Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012), Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015), and Love, Cecil (2017), about the British photographer and set designer Cecil Beaton, who won Academy Awards for his costume design on the musicals, Gigi (Minnelli, 1958) and My Fair Lady(Cukor, 1964). She also directs the short documentary series, Art of Style (2016-).
In conversation with PopMatters, Vreeland talks about the torturous act of writing, her surprise at the beautiful words the struggle gives birth to, and her thoughts about these literary giants.
To begin, how would you describe your relationship with the written word? Do you have a curiosity about writing and the creative process?
Writing has always been difficult for me. I have two published books, but they’re more visual [accompaniments to her documentaries – Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011) and Love, Cecil: A Journey with Cecil Beaton (2017)]. Writing is important in the filmmaking process, but filmmakers often approach it in a different way.
There are other filmmakers that can sit down and write a ten-page treatment that’s absolutely brilliant, but that’s not how it comes to me. The story begins to unfold in a narrative and a visual way through the process of gathering all of my research. Writing is a torturous process I go through, and I’m always happy to hear that talented writers go through that same torturous process.
What attracted me to the idea of making the film was the words. It started as a Truman Capote project only, and it was his words that I wanted to emphasise. I wanted to be able to show and talk about much more than the life of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
It’s fascinating to learn about the person behind the words, but it’s also interesting to have to grapple with finding the writer in their stories. Truman and Tennessee transcend their work. That denies us the opportunity to lose ourselves in the uncertainty of the separation of the author and their work.
The concept of a writer’s name becoming more famous than his writing is certainly something we could talk about in a classic way when it comes to Truman Capote. Fame was something that propelled him in life. From a very young age, he was on the move to become famous. Embracing the concept of celebrity before celebrity was a big thing, he did it in a way that was important for him. But it ruined him.
In the case of Tennessee Williams, it was about writing and the creative process, and writing for writing’s sake. The creative process was never-ending for him. He was someone who, at the end of his life, was destroyed not by ambition, but by the lack of approval of his work. Yet he had to continue to write and create because it was something that was so much a part of his being.
You have two different literary voices, who in the end, it was the creative process that helped destroy them. It drove them to alcoholism and unhappiness because they’d both achieved great fame, then later in their lives they did not. It’s the idea of chasing the dream that can ultimately be destructive.
Is the mind of the writer both a gift and a curse?
Writing and being an artist are internal. When they’re internalised like this, inner demons are being expressed, and there’s a certain solitude in writing. I’m in awe of some writers. I ask them how they make it look so easy. They tell me what they have to go through on a daily basis to write. It’s difficult–I’m surprised because they’re able to create such beautiful words and sentences–that they make it seem a lot easier than it is.
Are we guilty of romanticising the creative process and the experience of the writer? Are we indifferent to the struggles?
Thank God we have people who devote their whole lives to this lonely path. We need that, especially now. There are so many great people in history who have devoted their whole lives to creating different platforms. I wish I could see the fervour and passion today that we did in other times, where everything in their life was sacrificed.
I’d bring up the question, what is the creative process? What does it do to somebody? What kind of role does it play and how much does it torture them? How much satisfaction does it bring them? It’s usually torturous, and there’s a sacrifice. In the case of Truman and Tennessee, the sacrifice is their lives, their alcoholism.
… The addiction is hereditary, but it’s accentuated by the fact that you have these two souls who are trying to create something. It’s the instability of that. I like having these forces in life that are like this, and it’s why I choose to tell these stories. They’re worthy and important enough to be redefined for a younger audience and reevaluated with a contemporary eye, instead of the way [their stories] have previously been told.
What are your first memories of discovering the work of Capote and Williams?
Truman Capote, it was not his writing, it was Breakfast at Tiffany’s [Edwards, 1961], and that’s the way a lot of people discover his writing. This became the stylistic vision of Audrey Hepburn more than anything. It wasn’t about Tiffany’s, it was about Audrey Hepburn for me.
The first book of Truman’s I read was In Cold Blood (1965). It resonated because I loved his investigative work. He created a non-fiction novel and told the story in an almost documentary fashion. He was trying to understand the behind the scenes story [the 1959 murders of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas].
In the case of Tennessee Williams, it was The Glass Menagerie (1944), but it was a version that was on television in Italian. … Then I saw his work in movies, but mostly always in Italian. I didn’t watch them until I was older, in America. Then I got to know Tennessee’s persona, falling in love with him as a human being and as a writer through the research for this film.
Has the experience of making the documentary changed your perspective of the two men?
I was familiar with Truman on many fronts because he had been circulating in my realm of characters for some time. He was friends with Peggy Guggenheim. He wrote part of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) at her Palazzo in Venice, and he was very good friends with me. Did I find out many new things about him? I did, but my perception of him didn’t change. It was Tennessee that opened up.
I knew precisely in my mind how I wanted this film to be made. I didn’t want to use “talking heads”, I only wanted to use their real words to tell the story, and I was precise about the visual aspect and the content. There was clarity, and since it’s not a biography, it’s a moment in time.
This film gave me and my editor, Bernadine Colish, the freedom to take the story wherever we wanted to, which was liberating. You feel like you’re a kid in a candy store because you can choose from so much material, instead of saying, this is what happened. Chronology doesn’t matter and it’s hard to get away with that when you’re doing a documentary.
“Talking heads” is typically someone speaking about another person, or a subject. Could we say your approach is an introspective reimagining of the “talking head” format, using clips from talk shows featuring Capote and Williams, as well as their own words?
A good question is how do you define “talking head?” It’s when a person weighs in on someone’s legacy, or career. I can see clearly when somebody should have something to say. In Love, Cecil, it was clear to me why the English photographer Tim Walker had something to say about Cecil Beaton, or why a fashion curator, or historian has something to say.
In the case of this film, we have all these incredible words and writings of both writers. To have these wonderful actors, Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto speak those words–to let them act them out for their characters to come alive–has this ability to create intimacy. As an intimate conversation, it creates this feeling of being able to eavesdrop on whatever the two men are saying, and then be in conversation with the real words. It gives an authentic stamp to the content of the film.
Watching the talk show excerpts emphasised that the written word allowed them to express themselves more comfortably and articulately. It gave them time to shape the language and to discover the intent of their expression.
Their written words were there inner beings. It’s important too, because they felt they needed to express themselves, whether it was good or bad about what was going on in their lives.
Truman had a very sad childhood. He’d been abandoned… His diversion into popularity and social lights was important because he was trying to fill up that hole because he didn’t have much inside of himself.
Tennessee had a different quality with words. There was an authenticity, something profound about his statements, which I didn’t find or feel with Truman’s words. You felt this was a reincarnation of himself because he was so wise in the depth of his words. He used his words to express so many things that were going on in his life, in his actions, in his sadness, and in his worries. It was important because when those words came to life, in his plays and on the stage, it introduced a whole new language of expression that didn’t exist before. It was very honest. Things were stripped down and he talked about topics that people didn’t talk about.
He was talking about these things that were not addressed back then. Mental health wasn’t spoken about, and then there was the whole concept of addiction. We wanted to be very open and clear in the film that these two men were children of alcoholics and they became addicts and died because of that.
For me it was closely linked to having to strive, to always be so honoured, and continue to produce, which is also connected to mental health. Tennessee never shied away from the fact that he suffered from depression. From a very young age he wrote about it in his journals.