Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dan Futterman on "Capote"

Where did the idea to write Capote come from?

DAN FUTTERMAN: I got interested in Truman Capote in sort of an oblique way, and it was almost incidental that it ended up being specifically about Truman Capote.

There was a book that my Mom, who's a shrink, gave me called
The Journalist and The Murderer, by Janet Malcolm. It's about a case in California where a doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald was eventually convicted of killing his wife and children. Joe McGinniss was writing a book about him and eventually, when the book came out -- it was called Fatal Vision -- Jeffrey MacDonald sued Joe McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.

Malcolm’s book is sort of a meditation on how could this happen. How could a convicted triple murderer sue the writer who's writing about his life? How could he convince himself that the writer was going to write something good about him? It dealt with the fact that the journalist is posing as a friend to get the subject to talk, and that the subject has hopes that he's going to be portrayed in a good light, and that the journalist is always playing off of that desire. The relationship is premised on a basic lie that's it's a natural relationship, and it's not, it's a transactional relationship.

That seemed interesting to me, and had there not been a TV movie made about that incident, I might have written about that.

Some years later I picked it up again and read it -- it's a pretty short book and I recommend it -- and just on the heals of reading that I read Gerald Clarke's biography of Capote, called
Capote, and there are two or three chapters that deal with the period in his life where he was writing In Cold Blood and his relationship with Perry Smith.

I wanted to write about that kind of relationship and deal with those kinds of questions. The fact that it was Truman Capote was an extremely lucky accident, because he's fascinating in so many ways and he's so verbal and also was a man who was struggling with some real demons, I think, and that made the work I was doing that much more interesting and deeper.

You had the distinct advantage, as a beginning writer, of being married to a working writer. How did she help you in this process?

DAN FUTTERMAN: Although it doesn't seem like there's a lot of plot in the movie -- it's about a guy writing a book about an event that already happened -- but it is quite plotty when you get down to it. And she was clear and strict with me, saying "If there are any scenes where people are just talking about something that you think is going to be interesting, cut it, because if it's not moving the plot forward it doesn't belong in the script." And that was important to learn. And it was something that I had never considered.

I did an outline, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five pages with a paragraph for each scene, with dialogue suggestions. And the script came out probably 80% tied to that outline.

Did you take any classes or read any books on screenwriting before you sat down and wrote the outline?

DAN FUTTERMAN: No, I didn't take any classes. I read the Robert McKee book (
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting) that I guess everybody reads, and I found that pretty helpful --- his clarity about story. I think that was an important lesson for me to learn over and over again, that story is primary. Clever dialogue is not what it's about. It's got to ride on the story, and then you can hang stuff off of that.

And then it was just a matter of trial and error. And the lucky fact of having a subject who has been quoted as having said a lot of funny things, of which I put as many as possible into the screenplay.

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