Director Douglas McGrath on the other critically acclaimed Capote biopic, 'Infamous'
Much has been written on the unusual challenges the Austin-shot Infamous faces. It follows the success of another Truman Capote biopic covering much of the same period of the author's life and career: the writing of his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Capote garnered an Oscar for its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Critics have noted that Infamous boasts a tour-de-force turn, as well, with British actor Toby Jones inhabiting Capote. It examines, with humor, the New York cafe circles in which Capote traveled and, with more somber depth, his relationship with the killer Perry, played here by Daniel Craig. Alongside Jones, the cast includes Sandra Bullock in a pensive performance as Harper Lee. McGrath recieved an Academy Award nomination along with Woody Allen for Best Original Screenplay for the film Bullets Over Broadway. He also wrote and directed the films Emma and Nicholas Nickleby.
McGrath and I have been lifelong friends, growing up together in Midland. We co-wrote and co-directed a short film commissioned by Saturday Night Live called "Laurie Has a Story," starring Catherine O'Hara and Laurie Metcalf. I was an associate producer at SNL for many years and have recently relocated to Austin with my husband and son. I have just completed filming a documentary through the south and a screenplay for Lucky Monkey Pictures in New York. It's there, at his Midtown office, where I spoke with my old friend about his film.
Austin Chronicle: How did you find the experience of filming Infamous in Austin, particularly after filming both Emma and Nicholas Nickleby in London?
Douglas McGrath: The Austin crew was great very skilled and professional. Sometimes we asked a lot of them, and they always had the right spirit and jumped right in, with those good Texas manners. We were shooting at this place called TroubleMaker Studios, Robert Rodriguez's studio out at [Austin Studios].
AC: The soundstages out there?
DM: I think they're called soundstages because they have a lot of sounds in them. The first day we shot straight-to-camera testimonials in the, uh, quote-unquote soundstage, and everybody quiets down and Sigourney [Weaver] takes her seat and she starts, and in the background, birds birds just like out of a Disney movie, like Song of the South. We had a hard time getting them out, and then, because it was Texas, someone offered to shoot them.
AC: Ambient noise syndrome. But sound editors also have at their disposal every imaginable recorded sound available to mix into the soundtrack.
DM: Sometimes too much. In an early mix, I'm watching a very tense prison-cell scene with Toby [Jones] and Daniel Craig, who portrays the killer Perry. Daniel was back in the corner of the cell smoking a cigarette and every drag he took sounded like the burning of Atlanta.
AC: You have worked with many of the same people in all of your films. Like one of my favorites, the English actress Juliet Stevenson, who was in both Emma and Nicholas Nickleby.
DM: I love her ...
AC: And Gwyneth Paltrow, making a dazzling cameo appearance as a Peggy Lee-like singer. Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley; you've worked with her before. Your composer Rachel Portman and the costume designer Ruth Myers are both here again. Artists clearly like coming back to the experience of working with you.
DM: Either that or they don't work that much. You are lucky if you can find good people who really get what you're going for. Like with [Stevenson, who plays Diana Vreeland], I said, "Think of Mrs. Vreeland's voice as crunching celery." And if you watch Juliet, she just bites her way through each line; chomping off each thing. With Gwyneth, we'd done Emma; she was the lead and we developed a very close rapport, so in Infamous, when she's just coming in just for a day, I didn't have time to not be very clear and quick. And Gwyneth's very, very quick.
AC: And how did that work out? She was coming out of a well-publicized break after the birth of her daughter. Did you just call her directly?
DM: Called and begged. That's about sixty percent of my job, is calling and begging. About thirty percent is calling and apologizing; about ten percent is directing the movie.
AC: So Gwyneth came down to Austin and brought the baby and her husband ...
DM: And they were so sweet. They came and they had such a good time. They loved Austin; it was just great. When we shot her musical number, she got all the nuances I was looking for right away, so it's very nice to work with people you've worked with before, because then you can cut to the chase.
AC: And Weaver, who plays one of Truman's swans as he called them Babe Paley.
DM: You know, I read a quote of Truman Capote's, talking about Babe Paley, and he said, "Babe only has one flaw, and that is that she is perfect. Other than that, she's perfect." That is exactly how I feel about Sigourney.
AC: Which brings us to Toby Jones.
DM: Well, we heard from many people that Toby Jones looked a lot like Truman Capote, but much better than that, was a great actor. I arranged to meet Toby in the lobby of my hotel in London before we tested him on camera and I said to Ellen Lewis, my casting director, "How will I know who Toby is," and she said, "Don't worry, you'll know!" And so I came into the lobby, and gasp I saw Toby sitting over there and I thought, "That's, that's, that is Truman Capote." They're going to think I exhumed him. It was actually such a great match that I thought, "Please don't look this right and then turn out to be wrong."
AC: Toby gives an extraordinary performance that you never feel is self-conscious in the least.
DM: The thing about Toby is, he doesn't really act. I mean, that's what he calls it, but he just studies it and studies it and then he becomes that person. He just feels everything. If he's meant to be gossiping and having fun at lunch, he gossips and has fun at lunch. And if he's meant to be wrestling with the hardest memory of his life, which is to say his mother's suicide, he tells it in a way that seems like a man talking about his mother's suicide. He does not affect anything; he just absorbs it and then returns it with complete reality. What person after person has said to me about Toby is that it just seems like it is Truman Capote. This is not an actor doing a good impersonation of Truman Capote, it just is Truman Capote.
AC: And how about she might not have come to mind right off the bat to portray Nelle Harper Lee is Sandra Bullock.
DM: Sandy is wonderful. Austin's own.
AC: She gives the most poignant performance particularly her testimonial at the end that really leaves you with the lump in your throat.
DM: Well, what I want to say about Sandy is that I have always liked her so much as an actress. She has what we needed Nelle Harper Lee to have, which is a number of things in contradistinction to Truman. She could be quiet while he's blabby and gossipy and needs all the attention on himself. Nelle Harper Lee was a decent, proper, amusing, smart, gracious, well-mannered lady. Well, that's not very far from what Sandy is. Because Harper Lee was also smart, you need someone who is smart, and Sandy is very, very smart and a key part of Harper Lee and you know this if you read To Kill a Mockingbird is she's really funny. And Sandy's real funny. Yet, she gives the most quiet performance, and she's very effective; extremely moving. Of course you're not surprised when she's amusing earlier in the movie but that she could be this poignant. When we shot her testimonial scenes, she talks about how hard it is to create art that is lasting and about how impatient America is: An artist might achieve something great like In Cold Blood or To Kill a Mockingbird, and then it's "That's great. What's next?" It's like, "Done. We need something else."
AC: More. Entertain us.
DM: And the way Sandy speaks of it has such sympathy in it and such feeling underneath it, without in any way ever showing off. It's one of the most powerful quiet performances I can think of.
AC: With just the right Southern accent, I might add. So often, actors get tangled up in doing Southern accents and it comes out sounding insulting and stereotyped. I think Sandra Bullock nails that, too.
DM: She picked a very subtle accent. An actress who is less sure of herself would have done much more.
AC: You are also known as a director who can gracefully handle the difficult task of working with a large ensemble of actors. From what I've observed and often heard, actors love working with you. Aside from the people we've talked about, you also have Jeff Daniels, Isabella Rossellini, Hope Davis, and Peter Bogdanovich, plus some local Austin actors in some memorable featured roles.
DM: You know, one of the most haunting speeches in the movie is made by a rancher, and this wonderful local actor did this scene in one long take and he is just as natural and beautiful as can be, and I found that with so many of the Austin actors.
AC: I suppose we must acknowledge that there was another film out last year that garnered attention and covers much of the same ground. But honestly, it would be a misconception for people to think that yours is the same movie.
DM: I used to joke that our tagline should be "If you're only going to see two movies about Truman Capote this year ..."
Infamous opened in Austin last week. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.