'Capote' director remembers his star, old friend
Bennett Miller says it took Philip Seymour Hoffman a few weeks to get character right
CHAMPAIGN — Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman "was very, very nervous" when his old friend, director Bennett Miller, talked to him about portraying author Truman Capote in Miller's narrative feature debut.
"I weigh 240 pounds right now," Hoffman told Miller. "Capote probably weighed 15 pounds." And Capote was 5-foot-2. Hoffman was much taller, between 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-11.
"This is just the stupidest idea ever," Hoffman would say.
"Looking back, I'll never do anything like that again — cast somebody who's physically inappropriate," Miller said after the screening of "Capote" at the Virginia Theatre on Saturday afternoon, the third day of Ebertfest.
Hoffman, who died in February, went on to win the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal. The movie and Miller also earned Academy Award nominations for best picture and director.
Released in 2005, "Capote" tells of the time in the late '50s and early '60s that Truman Capote researched and wrote his seminal nonfiction novel "In Cold Blood," about the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family at their home near Holcomb, Kan.
Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker, who was onstage with Miller, called "Capote" and Miller's two other movies — one not yet released — American stories, saying the director captures the underbelly of America in complex ways.
Miller's "Moneyball" stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team. Despite his team having the lowest payroll in the major leagues, Beane leads his players to an excellent season.
Miller's other movie, "Foxcatcher," will be released in November, also by Sony Pictures Classics. It tells another true story, that of John du Pont — played by an unrecognizable Steve Carell.
Du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune, shot and killed wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996 at the Foxcatcher National Training Center for wrestlers on Du Pont's estate near Philadelphia.
After Barker repeatedly described the movies as American stories, Miller asked: "What's all this 'American' stuff?"
The director said he doesn't like being put in a box but admitted Barker might be right.
"I'm American. What do you want?" he quipped.
The director, though, went on to say he makes movies about the search for wisdom. In that regard, "'Moneyball' and 'The Wizard of Oz' are the same story," he said, to laughter from the audience.
The laughs belied the subdued nature of the onstage conversation.
Miller, who is 47, had been friends with Hoffman since Miller was 16. In a soft and almost halting manner, Miller talked of the actor in the present tense.
"Phil is a terrible procrastinator," Miller replied to Barker's question about how the actor prepared for a role. "He says he's a terrible procrastinator. He has a long, anguished, self-brutalizing process."
To capture Capote's lisp and high-pitched voice, Hoffman turned down the offer of a vocal coach. He instead listened to tapes of Capote speaking.
Hoffman also asked a lot of questions.
"Phil's process is to understand," Miller said. "He wanted to understand and challenge everything and ask questions. He asked questions not just of me but also himself."
Over the six months before Miller and crew began actually shooting the movie, Hoffman was not getting the character right, though.
"When he didn't have the core," Miller said, the actor's portrayal of Capote came off like a bad "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
After the first week of filming, Hoffman saw the dailies and said he never felt so terrible about anything he'd done. Hoffman would say the same thing about his other efforts, Miller said.
"I'm terrible, I'm a fraud. I can't do it," Hoffman would say.
"He was struggling," Miller said.
During the second week of shooting "Capote," Hoffman and other cast members rehearsed a scene in the kitchen of Marie Dewey, wife of the chief investigator of the Clutter case.
It went badly until they told Hoffman to improvise. At first he said he couldn't. Miller urged him to do it, to go ahead and find his voice.
Suddenly, Hoffman began speaking with Capote's lisp and high pitch.
"Throughout the rest of the movie, we improvised," Miller said.
Though the Clutters were murdered at their farm near Holcomb, Miller and crew shot the movie — a 35mm print was shown Saturday — near Winnipeg, Canada, "due north of Holcomb, Kansas, in the same plain we're in now," Miller said.
It was "Capote" screenwriter Dan Futterman — also a longtime friend of Hoffman and Miller — who had suggested making the movie, based on Gerald Clarke's biography "Capote."
Miller was reluctant at first; he felt the project had long odds of ever getting off the ground. He eventually took a first step by asking Hoffman to star in it.
Barker asked Miller whether he and others involved in the project ignored the fact another movie about Capote was being made at the same time: "Infamous," starring Toby Jones as the author and directed by Douglas McGrath, covers the same time period as does Miller's movie.
"We definitely didn't ignore it," he said.