ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN BLACKBOOK MAGAZINE, FALL 2005.
It takes an actor of the caliber of Philip Seymour Hoffman to bring an American original like Truman Capote to life. Already tipped as an Oscar contender, Hoffman brings all his talents to bear in a bravura performance as the flamboyant literary star who responded to America’s intoxication with celebrity by turning himself into one. Covering the period in which Capote wrote his nonfiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood, about he brutal murder of the Clutter family, Capote zooms in one the relationship between the celebrated writer and one of the two killers, illuminating and subtle, and sometimes deceitful art of journalism as Capote nails his story. Originally written for The New Yorker, and published over four issues in what was unquestionably a literary event, In Cold Blood reflected a high-watermark in American journalism, when writers of the stature of Capote, Mailer, Baldwin, and Didion were as comfortable in the realm of journalism as fiction. David Remnick, who has overseen a revival of The New Yorker’s reputation for reportage since taking over as editor-in-chief in 1998, sits down with Hoffman to discuss Capote’s life and legacy.
DAVID REMNICK: Capote’s voice and his mannerisms—the way he presented himself on TV, was an exaggerated self. But that’s a tough thing to do without acting as if you’re [celebrity impersonator] Rich Little.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: Yeah, I was worried about that, too, because I knew about Capote was from the ‘70s when I was a kid, and he was on these talk shows. I knew he had written these great books, but the foremost thing if you were coming of age at that time was that he was famous as a raconteur, saying things that made your jaw drop. But when I read the script I stopped thinking about it, because the script is about something entirely different.
DR: It’s focused on In Cold Blood.
PSH: It’s really about a lot of things that center around the story of this guy who sees something that could be his great piece for work. I think any artist has a secret yearning to create something that will last, and Capote saw that, and it brought up a lot of issues about art and journalism and the death penalty, and how far you can go—the compromises and lies and the people that might get hurt or deceived.
DR: As a reporter, too, it was interesting to see his way of working. He never took notes, and more than once in the film, you hear him pride himself on having 93 or 94 percent recall. Harper Lee [Capote’s assistant] would also listen and then they’d go back to their motel at night and reconstruct the interviews.
PSH: That was another reason for taking her with him. He had this great recall, but he needed another mind there, that he could bounce it off of.
DR: Did you feel you were playing someone who was deceptive? In the movie are moments when he feels he has to play manipulative games with killers in order to glean more information. Some people read In Cold Blood as if Capote had been somehow sympathetic to one of the murderers, Perry Smith.
PSH: Well, Capote was attacked when the book came out, by one of the main critics of the time, who said that the big crime was that he didn’t really help these guys.
DR: That he didn’t save Perry?
PSH: Yeah, you know, “Screw the book—he obviously just let these guys go to the gallows.”
DR: Truman Capote was against the death penalty, but he was hardly a political crusader.
PSH: Exactly, but I don’t think when this started that his interest was to see them hang. I think his interest was getting as intimate as possible with them, and ultimately to get the story, like any journalist would. And I think that at the time he knew that keeping them alive was important, not only because he might have liked them, but because he needed them alive for the book. Then I think there was a time when that changed, when he started to see the end of the book, and he realizes—and this is, again, me theorizing—What a better ending?
DR: Well, he knew what the better ending was. He had to wait things out.
PSH: And if they’re not there, then they’re not a problem when it’s published. Meaning he had to have a lot of people sign off on this thing.
DR: Yes, it also had to pass through New Yorker checking. If you’re doing a straight journalistic piece where you are not interested in sounding novelistic, it’s not a big problem to announce to the reader that, say, the names have been changed. It’s much harder to deal with that kind of awkward moment if you’re after what Capote was after. He was pursuing a form—the “nonfiction novel”—that he thought as completely new under the sun. But it was not entirely new. The idea that nonfiction could be as rich or as deep as a novel has been around since the 17th century, at least, or—preceding Capote at The New Yorker—Joe Liebling writing about World War II, or the fights, or food; or Joe Mitchell writing about the city.
PSH: Were those pieces written to be perceived as fiction though?
DR: Liebling and Mitchell were presented as nonfiction. You were to take that as factual, no less than In Cold Blood is.
PSH: Yeah, well the thing is, Alvin Dewey [the lead detective on the case] and other people claimed that there are things in the book that they don’t think happened. They’re like, “Actually, I didn’t say that…”
DR: In fairness to Capote, it’s clear that no one will ever have precisely the same view of what a conversation was 15 minutes later, much less five years later, which is the time elapsed in this reporting.
BLACKBOOK: You’ve touched on an interesting question about authenticity, which is that it’s very possible for fiction to present itself as a fact or history, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Richard III or Schindler’s List.
DR: Right, or JFK. I’m sure there are people that are more deeply affected by Napoleon’s presence in War and Peace than they are about the fairly routine academic historical survey, but I think it’s a great loss if we somehow we just all throw our hands up and say truth is relative and Oliver Stone’s truth about JFK is no more or less valid than anybody else’s. What I think is legitimate is to have artistic interpretation of historical events, which we do all the time. And those stand or fall on their own merits.
PSH: Well, the thing is that Capote is not in the book. That’s a huge thing. After all, he was the one conducting these interviews that are presented as conversations between other people.
DR: And prodding them into shape.
PSH: Meaning that there’s huge license taken in the book to get what he wanted.
DR: But again, to be fair to Capote. that is not unique to him. It happens all the time in nonfiction writing that the author or interviewer initiates an interaction and then sands back and watches it happen.
PSH: That’s not my point though. My point is that you can’t say anything is legitimate truth. You can’t. Because he’s going to illuminate it the way he wants you to see it.
DR: But there are all kinds of degrees. He’s a historical truth: William Shawn did not go to Kansas to accompany Truman Capote to the execution of the Clutters as he does in the film. Does that make it illegal to do that in the film? No, I think that’s OK, as long as we know the difference between a film that has no problem mixing fiction and fact, and a documentary. And we know documentaries are filled with material that’s been manipulated too. Ideally, the audience knows what’s going on in these cases. But there are degrees, and if you didn’t pay attention to those degrees and just throw your hands up and say, “Who knows what is truth,” that’s where I—
PSH: No, I don’t disagree with you. I’m just saying that I’m not being unfair to Truman Capote by saying that he was the one having these conversations, and had to find a way to take himself out. That was what he says was the hardest part of writing the book. and I think that was one of the reasons I did the movie. I was fascinated by how he did it. He had a way that enabled so distinctly mannered a person to chameleon himself to whatever he needed to be to win the adoration of all these different people.
DR: You know, if you compare In Cold Blood to Executioner’s Song, which he hated—
PSH: The battle, the battle.
DR: Capote was resentful of Executioner’s Song because Mailer didn’t do the lion’s share of the research. Larry Schiller went out and interviewed everybody in Utah that had anything to do with the case—Gary Gilmore, the girlfriend, the criminal justice officials involved, the whole thing—and provided Mailer, as Mailer readily admits, with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcript.
PSH: Of course Capote was pissed off by that.
DR: Then Mailer went out and made a partnership with Schiller, did some reporting of his own, and wrote this great book, which many people consider Mailer’s middle masterpiece. Capote hated this, because he had spent all these nights in Kansas.
PSH: [laughing] Well yeah, having spent two years with Capote inside my head, I feel like I’ve got his back all the time now. So with that story of Mailer, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m with Capote.” And the reason I made the film was because he suffered, tremendously, making that book—I mean, can you imagine, going out to Kansas and talking to this guy and writing letters for years, all this stuff, and then some guy writes a book [without any of the effort] you know?
DR: Well in fairness, people have gone through a great deal more to write a book. The worst thing in the world is not a motel room in Kansas. The truth is that when you’re a reporter and you are in the presence of what you know is going to pay off enormously as material, you are thrilled—unless you are some sort of saint. And I don’t care whether it’s on death row or in the worst circumstances, if you know you are getting something fascinating you are pleased.
PSH: [laughs] Absolutely.
BLACKBOOK: Would a piece like In Cold Blood be published in The New Yorker today?
DR: I’d be delighted and honored to publish such a thing. The question is, “How do you go about getting it?” Well, for one thing, there aren’t a hundred Truman Capotes in any literary moment. It’s my experience, and I hope to be proved wrong, that there was a moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s in which novelists were very interested in rotating their crops, in going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. You had Norman Mailer going to political conventions and boxing matches and at the same time writing his novels. Joan Didion is another example. I see less of that today. If this were the ‘70s you would have novelists going to Iraq as well as reporters.
PSH: True, true.
DR: But it had to do with the engagement and the times. And you know, you cannot the reactions to In Cold Blood when it came out. First of all, everybody knew for years it was coming. So there was all tis build up of anticipation because Truman Capote was a master of publicity. Then there were these delays and then it came out, not just a bit of it, not 5,000 or 10,000 words, but the whole thing. Four fat issues of The New Yorker. People were literally chasing delivery trucks down the street. That doesn’t happen in the life of a magazine that often. Remember there’s also a pulp aspect to In Cold Blood. It’s Truman Capote married to a story of real horror, so it had aspects of high art, but also bright, primary colors—a murder story.
DR: Look at what Capote did after he published the book. He threw the Black an White ball at the Plaza Hotel and made the guest of honor Katharine Graham, who was just emerging as a great publisher in Washington. So he got Washington, he got high New York society, and they all came out for this crazy party that he apparently didn’t even spend all that much money on. And all this in the midst of the Vietnam War!
PSH: Yeah, that’s swept under the carpet, that very issue, about throwing a party like that during the war.
DR: Pete Hamill wrote a column, I think, for the New York Post at that time, and juxtaposed the party with the sound of choppers over Mekong Bay just to rub it in.
BLACKBOOK: You don’t think there’s not a couple of high-society parties going on right now?
PSH: Oh boy, yeah.
DR: Paris Hilton versus Fallujah.
BLACKBOOK: Capote also wrote about other things of course, including a now famous profile of Marlon Brando, which Brando hated because it was supposedly all off record.
PSH: I’m not sure it’s like he would have told Brando it was off the record, but again, if you’re in a hotel room with Truman Capote, and Truman Capote’s like telling you this and telling you that, it’s disarming. You’re going to say things you might not say otherwise. I mean, it’s Truman Capote. Truman Capote’s going to write about me!
DR: But now [Hollywood publicist] Pat Kingsley’s sitting over here.
PSH: Now it’s a different thing.
DR: Now Pat Kingsley or whoever your publicist is—they’re in control. John Lahr does profiles for us of actors. And if John comes back and tells me that actor A said, “The only way I’ll do it is 45 minutes at the Chateau Marmont with my publicist in there,” forget it. It’s not worth it.
PSH: I think it goes both ways, meaning that sometimes you get in circumstances where you’re talking to somebody and half way into it you realize: This person doesn’t want to do this.
DR: The writer is not fair, or is ignorant, if he or she doesn’t realize what they’re asking of the person when they’re writing a profile of them. You are asking them to expose themselves in an enormous way. So it’s a very complicated transaction.
PSH: There’s been a few times I’ve read something, and it might even have some critical things in it about me, but I can just tell there’s been some time taken. It’s a real piece of writing, and you read through it and you’re like, If somebody reads this they might know a little bit more about what acting really is. But then there are certain times when you read it and you’re like, Wow, I didn’t say that. The way she’s putting it, in other words, has nothing to do with our conversation, it’s like a whole other thing.
DR: It’s always gonna be a whole other thing.
Photo by Inez and Vinoodh