Truman Capote often bragged that while investigating the events that inspired the true crime novel "In Cold Blood," he possessed a "94 percent recall of all conversation."
Similarly, filmmaker Bennett Miller claims a comparable gift when it comes to his debut project "Capote."
"We shot something like 45 hours of footage, and I would say my recall for the footage - once we'd gone through it methodically - is probably right around 94 percent," he says.
The former NYU dropout and documentary director (1998's "The Cruise") teamed with screenwriter Dan Futterman (a friend since high school) to bring the story of Capote's quest in Kansas to the screen. Although filmed in Canada, the movie features an uncanny recreation of the Sunflower State circa early 1960s.
It has also been heralded for Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of the titular character, who masterfully reveals the psychological toll the experience took on the late author. Many critics consider the actor a shoo-in come Oscar time.
(The film opened in Kansas City last weekend but won't play in Lawrence until next month.)
Speaking from Toronto, the 38-year-old Miller discusses his immersion into the world of "Capote."
Q: What is it about "In Cold Blood" that continues to captivate new generations?
A: The thing that struck me when I reread it for the first time in 10 years when preparing for this movie is that it really feels like this story is set in a seminal time in the country's history. There's this innocence that was violated right there in November of 1959. There still existed a pocket in the country where these Methodist farmers enjoyed that purity and innocence. When Capote went out to write that article - it was originally an article, not a book - he was not after a story about the murderers; he wanted to write about how it affected the town. He was fascinated with this theme.
Q: Did you put much effort into actually trying to film "Capote" in Kansas?
A: We explored it, but we kind of dead-ended pretty soon. The first thing we considered was western Kansas: Holcomb and Garden City. I sent my production designer there to do the initial scouting. Honestly, so much had changed. Now when you head due north within the same plain and discover Winnipeg and the outlying area, it's very similar agriculture and culture - prairie architecture and stuff. But there are some pockets that have been preserved in time because of economic depression. Then there were some financial incentives. And finally we didn't find a production base in Kansas like we were able to find in Winnipeg, where we could just walk into a situation with everything full-on.
Q: The 1967 movie version of "In Cold Blood" benefits from filming in the actual murder house and courtroom used in the trial. How do you compete with that kind of authenticity?
A: There's a deeper truth to what we're going after. Production design is not a terribly difficult thing to emulate if you have the references and the wherewithal. There's something more difficult to attain than the physical facsimile of the location. There is the deeper truth of what happened, and these characters, their condition and their stories. In the original movie, most of those jury members were the actual jury members. But film and theater is about finding that other truth.
Q: How does a rookie feature filmmaker convince a studio to let him direct a prestige project like "Capote"?
A: I think confidence had a lot to do with it - both mine, and more importantly, Phil Hoffman's. He and I pitched this thing together. I really believed it. That quality is contagious. I was listening to some Stanley Kubrick interviews recently, and he said, "If you're right about something, people tend to know it."
Q: Was there a specific moment you had while filming where you thought, "Hey, Philip might win an Oscar?"
A: I don't think any of us permitted ourselves to think like that when we were doing it. The atmosphere was much more that of a crisis, over greed or vanity of any kind. It was much more like, "Will we survive?" than a situation where we were giving each other high-fives.
Q: Are you surprised that "Have You Heard?" is in production, which basically covers the same subject matter as "Capote"?
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the reason to see "Capote," a meandering study of the defining years in the early '60s during which the author wrote "In Cold Blood" - the famous story about the murders of the Clutters, a well-known farm family in Holcomb, Kansas. Besides getting all the outward eccentricities of the character right, he unmasks Truman Capote's insecurities and delves into his darker side. His relationship with convicted killer Perry Smith is riveting, while the film is less compelling when it strays too far from this thread.
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A: A little bit. I dealt with that surprise way back when. I guess they started shooting six months after we had wrapped. I will say I was surprised by that. I don't think I would have had the gumption to carry on the way they did. I think it's extraordinary that they did.
Q: What's the best advice you've received about making films?
A: One is if you have a vision, obstacles go away. I don't think that's just true for film, but it's true for life - relationships and everything. Another great piece of advice I remember hearing a teacher say before I dropped out of college was, "Really make sure everybody is making the same film." I take that right down to the PA (production assistant). Because even if the PAs aren't being given a creative position, their minds are contributing to the atmosphere. It's important they understand there is a difference in the attitude of working on a movie of the week, and the attitude of working on a serious drama.