Revered by many and abhorred by others, with literary classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, playwright, and actor Truman Capote left an indelible mark on the world.
Utilizing interview tapes recorded by George Plimpton for his 1997 best-selling biography Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, as well as audio archive and on-camera interviews, director Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes delves into Capote’s legacy.
The documentary will make its US Premiere at the 2019 Hamptons International Film Festival and we had the pleasure of speaking with Burnough about his first feature film.
How did you get ahold of the tapes?
EB: I didn’t know of the tapes, actually. I was already working on this project and then through a family friend, someone said, you know, you should speak with Sarah Plimpton. Of course, George’s book was, I think, in many ways the best biography of Truman, because he really was able to, over the decade I think he worked on it, he was really able to go deep with people who knew him. Then I spoke with George’s widow, Sarah Plimpton, and she said I do have some tapes and it kind of went from there. But, I was already in the process of the doc. The tapes were a pleasant, wonderful surprise addition.
How many hours of recordings did you have from the audiotapes?
EB: There has to be at least 100 hours of tapes.
Was there anything on there that you were surprised to learn?
EB: Well, I think there were certain things on the tapes that I certainly knew. I think more than anything there was some interesting insight into not only who Truman was, but who the people of that era were, in that group, in that friend set. There was a mix, certainly, of humor mixed with bitchiness mixed with intellect. It’s wonderful color and background to an era and a group of people that are really, really fascinating. In a lot of ways, that society isn’t front and center anymore in 2019, as it was back in that era. So, it was reviewing, in a sense, but it was also a wonderful reminder of the past.
What do you attribute that shift to? That Ball that Truman threw was something else.
EB: Totally, and I think André [Leon Talley] is so great, because as he said, arguably, it was the only Ball that mattered. I actually think in a lot of ways Truman was right at the beginning of that shift. It really is a shift going fully into celebrity culture. When we think about it, the Black and White Ball is an excellent example because while the pretense was that it was a party for Kay Graham, the reality is it was a ball to throw a ball, to get all of your friends together and to make such a mix of people. He had a doorman from his building there in a mask, he had the wealthiest people in the world there, a princess, a prince, royalty.
I think that Ball is indicative and we’re in the 60s and coming into the 70s, we’re ahead of Andy Warhol and the 15 minutes of fame of that era. So, I think Truman was really on the forefront of taking us, in a lot of ways, to where we are now. I don’t know that he would have expected we’d go this far with Instagram and selfies and so forth. But, he was definitely at the forefront.
In addition to the tapes, you conducted several interviews with those that knew him. Who was it important for you to speak with?
EB: It was really important for me to speak with Kate Harrington, who was really like a daughter to Truman. When I started the project, you’d talk to people and the first thing they would talk about is his wit, his intellect, but also his kind of bitchiness and kind of being mean-spirited. Certainly his intellectual would come up, but Kate was a great interview, and was an essential interview because she spoke to a parental side of him.
Today, we take the idea that my husband and I can adopt a child or have a child or build a family, and we take it as though it’s not news. It’s just different families. But, the idea that he created that and that out of that is a woman who is really extraordinary. She is an amazing mother, she’s a great friend, she was an amazing costume designer, she’s just an extraordinary human being and a lot of that she attributes to the parenting that came from Truman. I just think that’s rather extraordinary. I think it’s rather extraordinary at that time that he was able to create that family for himself. It’s really inspiring.
So, I think Kate was certainly a necessary interview, and then, of course, people like Dotson Rader. It’s hilarious, but Dotson also provides such a wonderful truism, he’s so honest about what was happening at the time and what Truman was doing and what he and Truman were doing. Dotson was another really important person in trying to get a true understanding of Truman outside of what it seems people had already described or the box that people had already put him in.
Could you discuss the legacy of Truman Capote and how you went about capturing that for this film?
EB: I think the legacy of Truman is really the writing. When I was starting this project, my stepson was 15 and I was really adamant, I think, with everyone I interviewed, I would say, you know, I’m doing this film and I just want something that my kid will watch and be able to make it through in terms of entertainment quality and walk away saying he found something he wants to read. I don’t really care if he reads the full thing. I just want there to be one thing in here that sparks his curiosity.
My son was born in England and so Capote, unlike in America, it wasn’t at the top of the must read list, there was a different kind of reading list than we have. Nothing made me more excited than when all of a sudden, one day I looked up and he had In Cold Blood in his backpack. I never said anything about it and he didn’t say anything about it until a couple weeks later, but nothing made me happier.
I think it’s the literature, because the work is singular in the sense that we can now look and we can see so many things based on it. I think that without In Cold Blood, you don’t get Law & Order. From a TV perspective, you don’t get CSI without In Cold Blood. You don’t get that whole SVU. We have a whole genre, that in reality, is in many ways built on the success of that story, which obviously became a movie.
Then the brilliance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is a seminal movie for anyone that wants to think about that particular time, but also just about New York. There’s something about that film that reminds you or transports you, because in many ways, there’s no other place in the world like that city. I mean, that’s part of the ethos of the book. Then the short stories and Other Voices, Other Rooms … But, I think the legacy really is the brilliance of the writing. He was such a diligent writer that it’s so sad that drugs and alcohol and those illnesses played such a heavy role, because I have no doubt there’s so much more for us to have learned from him.
Despite the fact that only three chapters were published, there was a huge fallout from Answered Prayers. Could you discuss the aftermath?
EB: The fallout from Answered Prayers was intense and the backlash was, I mean, in many ways you can say it ended Truman’s time in the jet set society. I struggled with it, I didn’t want to make a decision for the viewer about why he wrote Answered Prayers. I pose questions, which are did he know what he was doing? Was it intentional? Did he intend to be spiteful to these women? Was he just telling the story? That was something that everybody who was around said, God, it was like a suicide.
I think of Truman as a person who couldn’t stop being a writer. He was a writer, we are who we are, if that’s in your DNA, you’re going to always be a writer and writers write what they see. So, I think there’s an element to the Answered Prayers saga, which is, I don’t think he could help what he had to write. But, I also think there’s an element to it, which is, I think, that he was really in love with these women in a certain way and thought that the lies that they were leading with their husbands, I think he wanted to exalt them. The way to do that was, in his mind, try and tear down the husbands. It was a different era, and I think he missed the fact that the two are inextricably linked, husband and wife. That was really one bad thing about it, because I don’t believe that his intention was to outright be hateful.
Then the secondary thing is, he was over the time that he was writing, and certainly by the time that he published those chapters in Esquire he was sick. I mean, his drug addiction to prescription painkillers, his addiction to alcohol, and there’s no question in my mind that was muddying the waters of his ability to write as clearly as he was accustomed to writing.
Do you think the finalized manuscript will ever be found – if there is one?
EB: I hope so. There’s no question in my mind that he finished it. But, he’s so wicked, in a fun way, that you can see him saying, oh, I put it in a safe deposit box. But, I could also have seen him burning it because he was bereft after he lost those friends, after everyone turned their back on him. He always talked about doing another Black and White Ball. There was always, I think, a sense in him of a return to that grander and he certainly knew that he could never even possibly think that he would return there if he had finished the book.
What are you working on next?
EB: I’ve got three or four different projects in development right now. One of which is a scripted version, not about Truman, but something that had come out of this doc and then another couple of docs. It’s a full docket right now.
The Capote Tapes will screen on Saturday, October 12 at Southampton SH2 at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 13 at East Hampton UA1 at 5:45 p.m.
The 27th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will take place Columbus Day Weekend (October 10 through October 14).
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.