Truman Capote, the American novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and actor, made his mark on the world for his way with words and his impact on society, and his impact is still seen today even decades after his death. But what some people may not realize is that there is a softer side to the man who wrote “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” one that doesn’t revolve around juicy gossip, sinister killers and a high-brow look at society. In director Ebs Burnough’s new documentary feature “The Capote Tapes,” the life and style of the infamous storyteller is examined like never before with layers of Capote unveiled through never-before-seen audio archives and transcripts along with interviews that shine a light on the man who many thought they knew.
But of course, there will be some juicy gossip because it wouldn’t be a film about Capote without it. Burnough sat down to chat more about what went into directing “The Capote Tapes” and why the writer’s life is one worth exploring.
Where did your interest in Truman Capote start?
Well, my initial interest in Truman started as a young kid. I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida and had a librarian who really encouraged me and introduced me to Capote… she was always giving me books to read, and that’s when I first got introduced. Then about five or six years ago I was reading a biography of Bill Paley and the founding of CBS, and in the book the two most interesting people to me were Truman and Bill’s wife Babe and their relationship. That led me back to reading all of Truman’s books and then realizing that there hadn’t been a film that really delved into Truman’s life. Both of feature films that were made (2005’s “Capote” and 2006’s “Infamous”) were about his writing of “In Cold Blood,” and this was something that I thought some new light needed to be shed on.
In your opinion, what makes his life so interesting that there should be a documentary film exploring it?
There are a few things: One of those basics is that I think he was one of the first people who married the mix of intellect and celebrity. You could have [then] writers on late-night talk shows and he was kind of the ultimate mix of a high-brow intellectual that also had a gossipy side to him who was just a brilliant writer. But also, one of the things that struck me when I was digging into the story, Truman lived as an out, gay man in an era when that was really not done. He didn’t hide it, he wasn’t in the closet and it wasn’t like he was pretending. He also wanted a family by nature of the time and this stood out for me as a gay man — through the course of this film [I] got married and I have a sixteen-month-old daughter and three older stepchildren… I thought, ‘Wow, what he had to go through to kind of create a family and life, so many people, myself included, take for granted these days.’ In LGBTQ history Truman doesn’t stand-out as a force but he stands out as intellect, and I think there’s something to be said about certain elements — not all — but certainly, some that speak to the courage through which he led his life to the story. The other thing, he really is an American success story. A little boy who grew up very feminine and who grew up in a very small, very rural town in Alabama who then goes on to become an international celebrity and darling of the jet set and king of New York… that’s one of those only-in-America sort of things.
What went into the research for this film?
I had a great production team working with me, and a lot of good friends. I think one of the major components of the film certainly are the audio tapes that George Plimpton took when he was doing his oral research of Truman. But it was really going out and talking to people and trying to dig in and find people who were still alive — which was a struggle in many ways — and then letting [it all] direct me to different places. I was really lucky where George Plimpton’s book on Truman was such a huge research tool, and then his widow was great source of memories as well as inspiration. One day she said, you know, I might have some of these tapes at [my] place in the country tucked away, so we slowly started uncovering and finding those. It was boxes of old cassette tapes being transcribed and digitized and we just went through them.
What from your research surprised you about Truman’s life?
I think Kate Harrington is one of the great finds, she really humanized Truman in an amazing way. That was one of the things I didn’t realize that Kate shone through… It goes back to kind of what I said earlier with his real desire to have a family and be loved. To adopt, in essence, your lover’s child and then your lover leaves basically and goes elsewhere, and the kid stays with you. I just saw Kate and she really considers Truman her father and [has so much] love and respect for him. Truman wanted and sought to give that love and attention — I thought that was really eye-opening. There had never been an element of Truman that I had seen that in… we’ve seen Truman the writer, Truman the forensic journalist and Truman the person who was determined at whatever cost to get the story, but not just purely Truman the I have nothing to gain except to give my all to this little person…. that we haven’t seen.
Another facet of Truman that is explored is his unfinished novel, “Answered Prayers,” what are your thoughts on this piece of work?
There are so many I wishes—I wish he’d finished and I wish he hadn’t been so ill with addiction because of drugs and alcohol. It has the potential to be a really strong book, and yet, unfortunately, you can tell things are certain missing in it just because Truman isn’t at his finest. He’s just not fully up to the challenge. Yet, it is a completely tantalizing piece of work that tells you so much and reveals so much about the upper echelon of global, jet-set society and how at the end of the day he’s a writer and he couldn’t divorce himself from these 25-30 year friendships. He couldn’t divorce Truman the friend from Truman the writer… which does make it all the more interesting. That’s why there is so much in rapture [when looking at] Truman the father, because that was the one place clearly that he did not allow his own ambition to supersede the relationship.
What do you hope people take away from ‘The Capote Tapes’?
The first thing I hope people do, I hope people pick up a book — you know that’s very old fashioned of me — or log in and download a book. I think his writing is so beautiful and fresh and lively and colorful that I think I encourage people first and foremost to read the work. Then through history, there are so many works that reside in the graveyard and Truman’s is one that you maybe think you know it all, but there’s more to the person. I hope people recognize and think a little broader about him, he wasn’t just a tiny terror. Like all of us, we have many layers to us. There’s a lot of texture to who we are and it’s easy to see someone and think you know the story. But there’s a lot for us to learn and a lot for us to be thankful to him for being courageous years ago, and we have benefits [of that] now. So, I think seeing him in a new light is something audiences can take a moment and see.
“The Capote Tapes” releases in theaters Sept. 10 and is available on on TVOD & DVD Oct. 26.