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History repeats at Telluride

`Infamous' puts a different slant on the same events that `Capote' scored with.

September 06, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Filmmaker Douglas McGrath says he first started thinking about making a Truman Capote movie in the early 1980s, and started writing his screenplay six years ago. "Looking back on it," he says, "maybe I should have hurried it up a little."

There have been dueling movies about asteroids hitting the earth, urban volcanoes destroying big cities, and even the forbidden dance of the Lambada. But rarely have there been two films about the same subject covering the same exact period of time that have come out so closely to each other as McGrath's "Infamous" and last year's "Capote."

The two productions follow Capote as he reports and writes "In Cold Blood," his landmark account of the 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Both "Capote" and "Infamous" point up the personal cost of Capote's writing the book, feature flashbacks of the violent crime, include long conversations between Capote and killer Perry Smith, focus on Capote's relationship with novelist Harper Lee, and show the hangings of Smith and accomplice Dick Hickock.

But "Infamous" is interested in several different storylines, most noticeably the romantic -- if not sexual -- relationship between Capote (British actor Toby Jones) and Smith (Daniel Craig). McGrath, who loosely adapted his film from George Plimpton's oral history "Truman Capote," was also drawn to Capote's New York social life. His film features a number of Capote's contemporaries, including Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), reminiscing about the author, who died in 1984.

McGrath says he has been gratified by how well the film, which premiered at the just-wrapped Telluride Film Festival, played; because its screenings were sold out, the festival added additional showings to accommodate demand.

"It's not as if we are doing 'Hamlet,' with different actors in the parts," says McGrath, whose previous films are "Emma," "Company Man" and "Nicholas Nickleby." "We are telling the story from a totally different angle." His film's most dramatic statement -- that Capote and Smith were lovers -- will likely prove its most controversial.

Capote's personal and professional decline after "In Cold Blood" was published, as McGrath sees it, was partially a consequence of the author's losing a relationship that went well beyond journalist and subject.

"I couldn't win a court case," McGrath says, of his theory about Capote's affair with Smith. "It's all circumstantial evidence."

The challenge for McGrath and Warner Independent Pictures, which is releasing his film Oct. 13, is that everything these days -- from movies to mutual funds -- is seen in relative, not absolute, terms. Comparisons between "Infamous" and "Capote," which started its road to five Oscar nominations last year with a Telluride premiere, may be unfortunate, but are nevertheless inevitable.

"I'd prefer it to be judged in isolation, as they were," says McGrath, who initially considered making a movie about Capote after seeing the author in a particularly incoherent state on "The Dick Cavett Show" in the early 1980s. "But we didn't come out first, so we don't have that advantage."

McGrath knew well before he made "Infamous" that there might be another Capote movie in the works. He was considering sending the script to United Artists, which was then run by Bingham Ray. McGrath called Ray to tell him to keep his eyes open for his screenplay.

"And Bingham said, 'I already got it,' " McGrath says. "And I said, 'No, I've got it on my desk.' And Bingham said, 'I've got it on my desk.' It was eerily coincidental. But I knew it was bad." Yet even when UA's "Capote" went into production and was destined to debut before "Infamous," Warner Independent didn't shelve McGrath's production.

"What would have been a tragedy for me was not being able to tell it as I saw it," McGrath says. "All I can do is my part. So, in the face of what I would say are incredible odds, I have done my part. And now the movie is here, and people can judge it for themselves. If people want to compare the movies, it's up to them."

After its world premiere at 2005's festival, director Bennett Miller's "Capote" went on to win the best actor Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman. McGrath is hopeful Telluride's awards history (the festival also helped launch last year's Oscar winners "Walk the Line" and "Brokeback Mountain") might also work in his favor.

The filmmaker says that rather than deflate attention, the proximity between the two movies ("Capote" was released last Sept. 30) might actually be sparking interest. "I have to say I am a little surprised," McGrath says. "Audiences recognize there are going to be similarities but want to explore the differences."


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