Capote tells the story of how New York-based author Truman Capote, in writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood about the life and death of two banal Kansas killers, made a Faustian bargain that gave him his literary triumph at the cost of losing his creative soul. The film’s complex subject matter rivals In Cold Blood, the pioneering non-fiction novel, in its riveting intensity.The making of the biopic is the story of fresh talent coming together to create a movie that seems like it only could have been done by seasoned professionals—even though the group more closely resembles the friends in TV’s Friends. Director Bennett Miller’s background is mainly in commercials. He had done one documentary but Capote was his debut as a director of a feature film. For Dan Futterman, Capote was his first screenplay. He and the director had been pals since high school. And for crew, Miller primarily went to people he knew and had relied on during his years as a commercial director, and with whom he had developed a strong personal bond. Here Miller talks about how he and those friends came to make one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2005.Below the Line: Capote was your first experience directing a theatrical feature. How did you get involved in doing the film?Bennett Miller: I directed a lot of commercials, and while I was biding my time doing that, I started looking at feature scripts to direct. A while back a good friend of mine from high school days, Dan Futterman, had read this story about Truman Capote going to Kansas to write In Cold Blood, and he told me he was going to do something he had never done before—which was write a screenplay. This would be his first screenplay. He had been a successful actor. I wished him good luck. A few years later he showed me the first draft. And it didn’t take long to convince myself to do the project. And we were off and limping.BTL: You had a virtuoso acting performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and from all your other actors. But your below-the-line people were just as sure-footed. How did you assemble your crew?Miller: As a commercial director I had already worked with many of the people who would be my keys for the film—cinematographer Adam Kimmel, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone. Kasia, Jess and Adam were my primary go-to, first-call people when I did television commercials. We had developed a shorthand way of communicating that worked well, and we had all become good friends. So I naturally turned to them for the movie.Beginning a few months before the shoot started, the four of us would have regular design meetings. We began with the overarching issues, and then we’d go through the entire script by scenes. We’d talk about the meaning of each scene. What was the tone? What was not being expressed explicitly but was going on beneath the surface. We also discussed issues of color and of camera movements. By the time we went up to Winnipeg to really prep the movie seven weeks before we began shooting, we were all so philosophically harmonized that they were each able to go off to do their work, based on what had been communicated during the meetings.BTL: Chris Tellefsen, your editor, was the one key you hadn’t worked with before. How did you come to pick him.Miller: I knew his work and loved the diversity, and the ease he had in working with different styles, different types of directors, different genres. He didn’t seem to have a single approach. He was basically a highly gifted and facile editor. When we first met I talked with him for over an hour, and after that conversation I quickly concluded that he was the right guy to hire. He may have cost a little more than what we budgeted for, but I decided there was just no way of doing without him.BTL: How did you conceive the look of Capote?Miller: I wanted a style that would serve the demands of the film, which meant experiencing and appreciating some very internal drama. So much in Capote is happening beneath the surface. The result is a kind of prose style of filmmaking designed to sensitize viewers to the subtleties of what’s being expressed. What I was looking for was something still, quietly intense, focused, earthy and natural. So Adam Kimmel’s camerawork was very deliberate, still and controlled. The camera didn’t move unless it had to. When it did move, it was to heighten the experience. Adam generally used very long takes. We also employed the close-up a lot.The same with Jess Gonchor’s production design. Instead of hitting viewers over the head with the late 1950s, early 1960s period, he focused on the essentials, communicating through tonal composition and color. We were all diligent in respecting the period, but we never even for one frame, tried to “sell” the period for its own sake. That went for Kasia’s costumes too.BTL: The scene at the beginning where Truman Capote displays his wit at a Manhattan party was such a great launching pad for what comes later. I understand it was really an afterthought, and not in the original script. Is that true?Miller: Yes, we added the opening party scene fairly late. We actually had a fine cut of the whole movie before we shot that. Previously the film started with Capote cutting out the newspaper story about the Kansas killings and the call to New Yorker editor William Shawn, whereupon he set off for Kansas. By adding the cocktail party, the intention was to draw as great a contrast between the world he came from and the world he was about to enter. This was an opportunity to see him in his own element as a social animal. When we did shoot it, it was a great moment of inspiration for Phil. We just created a party and let him improvise. He went with it and came up with lines off the top of his head.BTL: Chris Tellefsen was editing while you were shooting?Miller: Yes, Chris was assembling during the shoot. After the shoot wrapped, I arrived in New York at the editing room and gave him a few days to finish. The movie was two and a half hours long at that point. And it was moving way too fast and too much was going on. Everything still needed to be discovered and realized. The scenes were too constricted. We spaced things out and gave the scenes a lot of air, and started to cut things to a half or a third of their length. So we both expanded scenes while shortening the film as a whole.BTL: The deliberate tempo you achieved really worked.Miller: The pace we achieved through the editing is everything. Ultimately, this is not simply a narrative movie. Though some would call it dialogue-driven, I see it as more complex. It communicates on a very subtle, tonal level and does not involve Phil’s simply being Capote through words. The movie is expressing itself on many different levels, like music, where the tempo is paramount.We edited the film to slow the viewer down, to become concentrated and focused. That’s why when we first get to Kansas there’s a close-up shot of the wheat and we hold it one beat or two longer than one might have imagined. You get a cognitive association, you’re in rural farmland in the Midwest. You take in the feeling, the colors, the texture, the randomness and the particular beauty which to me is a lot more potent than mere information.BTL: The way Adam Kimmel shot the prison scenes so close-up and claustrophobic was very powerful in highlighting what was going on in the mind of Capote and the two killers.Miller: When we broke it down, we realized a third of the movie had been shot in this five-by-seven-foot cell. The challenge was, how do you keep that alive and new every time you come back to it. The only way to transcend the actual place was to get in so close and make the focus so shallow, so as to depict what is changing between them; we ended up literally in their faces. Once you move in so tight on something, there is a whole new world you can create in terms of composition.Even though you are dealing with just two heads, and a putty backg
round, it was as important to shoot widescreen as it was in establishing the endless flat Kansas landscape. It became a matter of making their faces like the landscape, and focusing so tightly on them that you’re not at all bored by the monotony of the locations.BTL: Could you talk about the quite striking penultimate scene, the hanging on the gallows?Miller: We had visual references from Leavenworth prison of actual photographs of the gallows from that time. They no longer exist. But I recently had dinner with Robert Altman who at one point in his career did documentaries and went to Leavenworth and shot the gallows that were there. And he asked me if we actually had shot there—it was that authentic.What happened is that Jess found a real gallows somewhere in Canada and then used visual references to help recreate it as a set. I remember we shot that scene in a warehouse and it was 20 degrees below zero that night, and since there was no heat inside, it was nearly as cold.BTL: The film had a small $7 million budget, but the results are anything but parsimonious.Miller: All of us walked into this project with so much commitment and enthusiasm. There’s a Hebrew expression that translates: This is what we have and this is what we will do. Which is how everyone worked. The one thing I remember before I dropped out of NYU Film School is that everyone is making the same movie—whether they are above the line or below the line. This was the guiding principal for me starting months before the shoot and right through completion.
Written by Jack Egan