When you hear Truman Capote’s name, you already have an image in your mind of the literary icon. He was immortalized in two feature films in the last 20 years and his work continues to loom over the history of American literature. There have been many innumerable documentaries about troubles writers, but I have never seen anything quite like Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes. Capote’s mark on the written word is undeniable, but Burnough’s film recalls the author’s impact on his friends and New York City’s high society.
By beginning with Truman’s rise to fame, Burnough easily connects us with a young, impish version of him. We see Truman perform in front of a talk show audience, but we also hear how everyone talked about their connection with him. He’s described as hilarious, bitchy, and wicked, and someone remarks that they haven’t had a good laugh since he died. Burnough also wisely interviews Kate Harrington, Truman’s adopted niece. She may be all grown up now, but we are still in awe of Truman Capote through her eyes. Not as a writer or gossip, but as a good father figure.
Burnough hones in on how remarkable Truman Capote was as a man who lived his life authentically in a time where queer people could not live openly. Truman was almost always daring people to say bad things about him but those things wouldn’t be nearly as cutting as a takedown from Truman Capote. This is Burnough’s first film, and it’s a remarkable one.
Awards Daily: Do you think we limit our discussions when we talk about Truman Capote? The big focus is more oftentimes In Cold Blood since it’s considered his biggest masterpiece. Did you want to play with our perception?
Ebs Burnough: That’s a good question. The answer to your first question is yes. We limit our view of him in a couple places. We limit it to In Cold Blood and also to caricature. An element, certainly of the time, is society’s reaction to people who are different–especially gay people. DOn’t get me wrong, a lot of that caricature, he designed in many ways. The person he portrayed is, ultimately, who he really was, but I think society limit him based on how he looked and his high-pitched voice and he became a bit of gossip fodder. He was not the only writer on Johnny Carson in that era and I think he’s typecast.
AD: I agree.
EB: Maybe I did wanted to play with our perception? I fell in love with his writing early on and then I was reading books about Bill Paley and the founding of CBS later in my life. I fell down a rabbit hole and went deeper about Truman when I realized how complex he was. For me, the question became who is the person. Everything I had seen was specifically focused on his writings. The two feature films did that but they didn’t go into the person behind the mask at the Black and White Ball.
AD: I wasn’t going to ask about the feature films, but I feel like they were a jumping off point for some people who are unfamiliar with Truman. Capote was the more well-received film, but there is a quality to Infamous that I really love too. The social aspect.
EB: It’s unfortunate that they came out to close together.
EB: Philip Seymour Hoffman gave an extraordinary performance and it’s a wide-reaching film. It’s a wide-reaching book. Infamous, on the other hand, a little more well-rounded. You have Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley and you have elements of the surrounding players and what else made his life. That’s essential to knowing who Truman Capote was. I think Infamous is highly underrated.
AD: I do too.
EB: Toby Jones doesn’t get enough credit for that performance.
AD: Infamous deals more with gossip and the hierarchy of that rich community. I thought of Infamous while I was watching your film. They complement each other very well.
EB: That’s a very positive thing to say. There’s value in that. I find that Infamous is more fleshed out in terms of Capote the person and what I wanted to do was an in-depth look at the person. If you’re like me and you’re from the South and you see these images of him at parties, you want to know about him.
AD: Tell me how hard it was to capture that New York party culture. I feel like I could see Capote sprawled on the couch and I could smell the cigarette smoke. Was it difficult to hone in on that time and place?
EB: I was so lucky in the generosity in the understanding and willingness of the Plimpton Estate and George’s extraordinary tapes. One of the great things about is the clinking of ice in a glass and there are so many things on the cutting room floor. It is a bygone era. It was important to me to try and give glimpses of what that was. I have three older step-kids who I am very close to and we have a 17 month old daughter, and I kept saying that I wanted to make something that my three boys could watch. They are older now but I don’t care if they are necessarily interested in Capote. One of them walked away and said that it was a very different time. People drank a lot but they were also pretty fabulous. That was important. We have different versions of that today.
AD: What did it feel like to conduct such a wide breadth of interviews? Kate Harrington is such a great person since she speaks about Truman so lovingly, but then there are times when Dick Cavett is talking about Truman as if he doesn’t believe all of his bullshit? Or he’s connecting with us, as listeners, and see if we have the same reaction as him.
EB: Kate is the heart and soul of the film. She changed the film. When I started this, I was agnostic to Capote as a person. I thought he was brilliant and interesting but my production team didn’t like him. They didn’t like how he betrayed his friends. Kate is a big reason that that perception changed. Maybe agnostic isn’t the right word. I have a healthy view on Truman–the good, the bad, and the ugly. I had a year many years ago.
AD: I love the boyishness of Truman in that final image. He’s on the beach and he’s younger. There’s something about that image that stuck with me.
EB: I love that you say that. As storytellers, you add in things and you think it’s for you. I made a promise to Kate when she told me that she knew that she had to tell the whole story. She said, ‘You have to promise me to show the good times. You can’t just let him be a tragic figure.’ It was an instance of someone asking me to tell the story of their parent. I couldn’t sensationalize it. When I saw that moment, I thought that was total Truman. He’s in this Hermès poncho and the whole thing is very him. The other thing for me is that the music. As a Black man, I felt that I was telling a not diverse story. I can’t change that. It was difficult to tell a certain time in America, you completely just pretend that elements of my grandparents’ history and culture weren’t there. The only way that I could accurately and authentically do that was through the music. I made a point to weave that through on the beach.
AD: Do you think Answered Prayers exists in a larger capacity?
EB: I think it existed.
AD: Oh, that’s so sad.
EB: I do think it once did. So many people were adamant with what they saw. The question I have is, is it in a safety deposit box somewhere? I don’t personally think so. There is one story that someone–and I can’t remember who told it–saw Truman leaving the manuscript in a limousine and Truman never got it back. At the end, there was so much addiction and so much sadness and disappointment. I could easily have seen him drunkenly throwing it in the fire. He knew that his work was gold. After the loss of his friends and after Esquire, some people make irrational decisions when they are in irrational states. I think there was much more written than what have seen.
AD: There should be an Ocean’s spinoff where a bunch of gay guys find out where the manuscript and then try to steal it.
EB: Oh my gosh, that’s such a great idea! Ocean’s 14–let’s go.
The Capote Tapes is in theaters and available to rent.