Exclusive Interview: The Capote Tapes director Ebs Burnough

A fascinating documentary exploring the life of one of the twentieth century’s most iconic figures, Truman Capote, received its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. The directorial debut of former Obama White House Deputy Social Secretary Ebs Burnough, The Capote Tapes incorporates compelling never before released audio recordings made by Capote biographer George Plimpton for his 1997 book CAPOTE: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. At the heart of Burnough’s film though is a revealing and insightful new interview with Capote’s adopted daughter Kate Harrington which sheds new light on the man behind the public persona.

As well as archive footage and film clips, The Capote Tapes also includes present day interviews with the likes of novelist Colm Tóibín, journalist Sally Quinn, former American editor-at-large of Vogue André Leon Talley and talk show host Dick Cavett, who interviewed Capote many times. The film takes in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s writer’s childhood in Alabama and his journey to the zenith of New York high society as an openly gay man, and how it all came crashing down with the publication of La Côte Basque in Esquire magazine in 1975. The extract was presented as a chapter from the supposed forthcoming novel Answered Prayers, and was a thinly disguised intimate exposé of the lives of his closest female friends, the ‘swans’ including Babe Paley, who all subsequently rejected him before he took up residence with the discotheque socialites at Studio 54.

Following the documentary’s TIFF world premiere, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with director Ebs Burnough in Toronto.

The Capote Tapes. Courtesy of TIFF.

James Kleinmann: Congratulations on the film, it certainly made me see him in a new light and made me want to go back and reread his work. What sparked your initial interest in Truman Capote, when did that happen and was it the literature or the persona that first drew you in?

Ebs Burnough: “Initially, it was the literature, but that was as a kid. I mean I loved Capote. I had a librarian at my school when I was about twelve and she said ‘why don’t you read some of Truman Capote’s short stories?’ And that’s kind of how I got into it, through reading Miriam and The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory, then that quickly led to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. I read all of his work and I fell in love with it. Then three years ago I was reading a big biography that a friend had written on Bill Paley and the founding of CBS. In the process of reading that I was most intrigued by the relationship between Truman and Bill’s wife Babe and that kind of led me back to Truman twenty five years later. Then I started rereading all of his work and then pushing it on my youngest kid saying ‘have you read this? Are you all reading this in school?’ Then I was just more riveted by the man and who he was and what his path was and his journey from Alabama to New York and the writing. And that’s what re-sparked it. So it came through kind of a roundabout way.”

What about the George Plimpton tapes, his interview recordings with those who knew Capote, how did you discover them?

“Well, I didn’t know the tapes existed. I knew I was making a film, I was already working on the film and I was deep into it. My husband had a friend who was super involved with The Paris Review, and he encouraged me to call him and I did and he said ‘you know, you should talk to Sarah Plimpton she might have something that’s of interest’. Of course I’d read the Plimpton book and I had it earmarked and underlined and dogeared and all of that. Then Sarah and I spoke and we developed a relationship and a rapport and then she said ‘I think I have these tapes somewhere’ and they were literally in the attic in their house in Connecticut where they’ve been languishing for the last thirty years.”

So hoarding can be a good thing, when it’s material like that!

“Yes! Exactly. With material like that it was good thing that it was all kept.”

Why did you choose to incorporate present day interviews, the footage that you include and the film clips, rather than just focusing on the tapes for your documentary? I’m sure there would have been enough in them to have just done that.

“It was my first film, which was really nerve-racking and Paul my youngest son was fifteen I guess when I was starting this and he’s a fifteen year old boy who loves sport, he loves reading, he’s very academic but he’s one of these kids of today, he’s easily on to the next thing. So every interview I thought to myself, I’m making this film with an eye on my youngest kid being able to watch it and then walk away with one thing he was interested in. I didn’t care if he fell in love with Truman, I didn’t care if he fell in love with Babe, but I wanted him to walk away with one thing he was interested in and to be able to hopefully get through the entire ninety minutes of it and be engaged. I felt like just using any one element seemed to me like it wasn’t going to be multidimensional enough to do that, and then the more I got into it the more I realised it wasn’t going to be multidimensional enough to explore this multifaceted human that Truman was. The tapes could easily have us really rooted in the past and then too much of the present day could have us feeling like it was Oprah, like a talk show. And then of course the Pennebaker footage and the Maysles brothers and so forth, so it seemed to me that it gave it a bit of the nostalgia which is what I really thought was important, but the present day interviews I hoped helped anchor it in today. Because Truman’s story is a very current story to me, I think we look back at things and we forget that there is so much we can learn from people who came before us. It’s easy to forget that we’re not the first ones living this life, people have done it before. So I wanted to make sure that we made it current, but that we did a proper nod to the past. So between the tapes and the interviews and the footage that’s what I was hoping we could achieve.”

The Capote Tapes. Courtesy of TIFF.

Something that resonated with me was that court jester type role we see Capote in that I think a lot gay men have found themselves in throughout the years and still today. And that idea of ‘the gay best friend’ that has been built up by movies as well, that teenage girls want and older women might want as a safe confidant. The social acceptability that can come with taking on those roles, but also how limiting they can be.

“Yes, I think that ‘the gay best friend’ stereotype is something that has been around for a long time and I think it’s one of the things that Sally Quinn really pinpoints beautifully in the film, when she says there were ‘walkers’ and people knew who was gay and who wasn’t and nobody really talked about it, but their husbands knew. The word pansy was flying around Park Avenue. What fascinates me about Truman is that I think he actively knew he was playing the role of ‘the gay best friend’ but there was also so much more to him than that. I think it’s really important to remember that there were people who were expected to play a role in a certain way and were put in a box and Truman was expected to do this, this and this, but he was a genius. So he played that role, but he was also openly himself. He brought his boyfriends on those private boats and planes and islands, he was just like ‘this is Jack’ or ‘this is John’, ‘this is my life’. And I think it’s important to pay homage to that. That was one of the things that I hope resonates in the film.”

“For me growing up, I was raised by my mother and I was always taught you know you look at the people who came before you, you don’t necessarily idolise them or look at them as heroes, but you recognise that you stand on their shoulders for what they did before you. In my life that was primarily centred around black leaders in America. From Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks, you stand on their shoulders. I came out in my twenties, but it took me all this time to go back and say I also stand on Truman’s shoulders and I don’t think anyone has thought of him in that way.”

Yes, absolutely.

“It’s so easy for us today when we have Queer Eye in the 1990s and Will and Grace. You know my kid still knows that there are bigots in the world, but he has no concept of the fact that it wasn’t OK to have two dads. He has two dads and a mom, it’s just life for him.”

And I think that’s why it’s so important that you included what Norman Mailer and what Colm Tóibín had to say about admiring Capote’s openness about being gay and the way he dealt with it being so obvious to people.

“You know, I think the Norman Mailer’s quotes were the most revealing in some ways because he was such a guy’s guy, always ready to pick a fight or get bloodied. And we got to see his admiration for Truman as a writer, you know he says ‘no one wrote sentences the way he did, he wrote the best sentences of our generation’. But when he tells the story about him and Truman going to the bar with these surly men drinking at three in afternoon and looking at Truman, and I think he says ‘Truman came in looking like a little faggot prince’. When I first heard the tape I thought ‘oh God, who says that?!’ And then you look back and think this was thirty five years ago, he was just speaking the vernacular of the day and yet he acknowledged Truman’s strength, that Capote said ‘he was who he was’ and he was going to live his life. Mailer said that he’d find that exhausting, but what I hope today is that someone looks at it and says we all live exhausting lives, being yourself, being authentic can be exhausting, but it’s who you are and that’s what I think is so fascinating and so admirable about Truman.”

La Côte Basque, an extract from what was thought to be Capote’s forthcoming novel Answered Prayers, was published by Esquire magazine in 1975 and caused quite a stir. What was the impact on Capote’s life from the fallout of that as you see it?

“C. Z. Guest put it best when she said that he didn’t understood how powerful it would be. I think she’s right. I also think that between the alcohol and the drug addiction at that point I don’t think he was at his peak mentally as a writer. He wasn’t on top form. So I do think he got a little sloppy. When you go back and you trace all of his writing, one of the things he does brillianly is tell the truth. You go back and read an interview he did with Marlon Brando and he gets Marlon to open up about his mother and everything that Brando didn’t want to talk about. You go back to In Cold Blood, the peope are very front and centre and he just uncovers this incredible material out of people. I think the unqiue thing with Answered Prayers is that he did what he always did, but becuase he was a little bit high maybe and a little bit drunk, it was all just a little too visceral and these were his best friends. So I think it was devastating to to him because I don’t think he understood the imapct it actually had. I do think it devastated him. I think loosing Babe Paley as a friend, I think he could have lived without the others, but I think losing Babe was really a heartbreak and I think it sent him deeper into sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and all of a sudden Studio 54 was his new family, whereas before his family was the upper East Side.”

One aspect that I really enjoyed that you included was going back to his childhood because when we think of Capote we don’t tend to think of Capote the child, and then also that you had that wonderful interview with his adopted daughter Kate Harrington.

“Well, Kate’s a dream. George Plimpton tried to interview her several times when he was doing his book and each time she couldn’t do it and so she was a key person to get to talk to. I think enough time had lapsed that she was ready to review all of this. Spending time with her actually changed the entire trajectory of the film for me, because I knew that I wasn’t going down the tiny terror route, I didn’t think Truman was a tiny terror, but I didn’t yet have his soul. I’m a big believer in that when you have children the only thing that really matters in your life is getting that right, if you don’t get that right it doesn’t really matter how much money you have or how many cars you have or how big your house is, it’s just like get the kid right. Everybody I think struggles with that, so the idea that this man who was viewed as this tiny terror, this mean queen, whatever epithet you want to put on him, was this extraordinary father and she is an extraordinary individual, and she has two children of her own. She has a nineteen year old daughter named Truman. And so that said to me OK, so if he got that right there has to be more to him, and I think Kate and her story gives heart and soul to who this person was.”

“He didn’t have a happy childhood, when you really go back and look at his childhood with Harper Lee they were kind of these two misfits together. Going back a little bit farther there’s a great story with Truman, when they were kids. Harper Lee’s mother was apparently very overweight and Truman, I think he was 12, wrote a story all about Harper Lee’s mother and called it Mrs Busybody because she would sit on the porch and notice everything that was going on and tell everything back to everyone. So I mention that story because when we were talking before about his aptitude for writing the truth as he saw it, it went back really far. And his childhood was important in that he did have one person, Souk, who really loved him and whom he really loved and you see it in The Thanksgiving Visitor and you se it in A Christmas Memory, those moments of love. I think that’s the sort of thing he was always searching for and I think that’s why you hold on to something like a tin of her cookies and why you take on a Kate, adopting that child because he was searching for love that he wasn’t really able to find very authentically outside of those two people. Of course Jack Dunphy loved him but it was a complicated affair.”

The Capote Tapes had its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.

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