The Queerty Interview

Director Ebs Burnough hunts for Truman Capote’s lost masterpiece in ‘The Capote Tapes’

Ebs Burnough

“It’s my first TIFF for a film,” Ebs Burnough says with smooth modesty.

“If you have film in TIFF that’s a good reason to be here!” we retort. The two of us sit in the posh coffee shop of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, amid cherry paneling and gilded tile. Burnough sips coffee with a smile as we discuss his new film The Capote Tapes.

Burnough long worked in communications and public relations, serving as Senior Advisor to First Lady Michelle Obama during her husband’s presidency. He also served White House Deputy Social Secretary. Less than a year after marrying his husband, Belgian hedge fund director Pierre Lagrange, he makes his directorial debut with The Capote Tapes. Using a compilation of archive footage, new interviews and a series of audio tapes (which also became the basis for Geroge Plimptons acclaimed biography Truman Capote), Burnough reconstructs the inner world of the latter-day Capote, and hints at the contents of his lost manuscript Answered Prayers.

Affable, warm and charming, Burnough betrays his Washington background when he lets slip that he has Googled my own artistic history. Never one to be thrown by flattery, we get Burnough to open up about making his directorial debut with The Capote Tapes, the gay, literary legend that inspired it, and the fate of Capote’s gossipy lost magnum opus, Answered Prayers. At the time of this writing, The Capote Tapes lands in theatres September 10.

The figure of Truman Capote is so irresistible. It’s not hard to see why you’d be fascinated by him. But for your first film…why him?

Ya know, it wasn’t even that way. It just kind of—it chose me.

How does that work?

I was reading a book a few years ago, a biography of Bill Paley who was in on the founding of CBS. And I read it, and as you sometimes do, I got to the end and was like another straight white male tycoon? But by the end of the book I was fascinated by his wife Babe, and her relationship with Truman. I knew about it. I’d started reading Capote when I was about 12. Then I had a librarian who said “I want you to read some short stories.” She gave me “Miriam” and “Thanksgiving Memory.”

[A beat]

I was a bit of a nerd. I started and I couldn’t stop. Then I went to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. But I just loved the literature. Also, when I’d finished reading In All His Glory, the biography of Bill Paley, I said I should reread Capote. So I went back and reread, and I had the luxury of knowing Babe Paley’s daughter, Amanda.

USA. New York City. 1966. Truman CAPOTE at his “Black and White Ball” at the Plaza Hotel.

But why a film?

God, in film we had Capote and Infamous, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones, both of whom are great. But both of those films really focus on In Cold Blood. But I thought there’s so much more to this person than that. Then I couldn’t stop myself. Everything kept going. I fell into Truman. I was going to bed every night reading.

So why not a biography?

You know, that was the thing. There is Gerald Clark’s incredible biography, which was the basis for Capote. George Plimpton had written a wonderful biography. Again, as a first-time filmmaker, I just saw a shot, and I had it. I figured I’d give it a go. I just felt like his story had not been told fully. Where he was from, his relationship with Harper Lee, what it was to be a gay man in that era—an openly gay man, which is who he was. I don’t know that he was fully proud, to be honest. But he was out. I thought, there’s something in there. So I got to work

What you say about his relationship with his “Swans” as he called them—women like Babe Paley—is so interesting because…do you think it was his queerness that made him benign to them? Did that allow them to open up? What was so disarming about him?

Great question. Louise Grunwald says in the film—I can’t remember how she phrases—but there’s something about relationships between men and women like that. Often, I think it has to do with unhappy marriages where men are the starts. I think that group of women–Babe Paley, Lee Razwell—they were all trapped in these gilded cages.

Sure.

I think as a gay man he was totally non-threating to their husbands. So we’ve eliminated sex.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 1959: Author Truman Capote ice skating at the famous Rockefeller Center rink. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

They were definitely not having affairs.

We take sex out of the equation. And he was brilliant. He was someone you wanted to have at the dinner table. Your husband can talk with him. Your best friend can talk with him. He cared about style. He cared about fashion. But I think he met a need—a husbandly non-sexual need—of someone to talk to, because their husbands didn’t talk to them much. Their husbands viewed them as an ornament. So they had someone they could trust. They had a male companion they could go to dinner with, and nobody thought they were having an affair. So he filled a lot of roles. As such, they gave him the leeway to bring his boyfriend around.

Nice work if you can get it. At the same time, there’s something so enigmatic about him. It’s always interesting to see art in the context of the artist. If you look at In Cold Blood, or especially Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you see the elements of his life trickle in. But the one question I’ve always had after viewing his work was, is he a good guy, or a bad guy?

[Laughter]

Here’s this impish, intelligent, funny, gossipy guy who’s also extraordinarily thoughtful, a great listener, sensitive, but he’s also so damn manipulative and opportunistic. You know Capote as well as anyone at this point. What do you think?

I’m going to answer that in a roundabout way. I think in any of us, we’re all made up of so many different things. We’re all made up of good points and bad points. So it’s hard to say that’s a good human or that’s a bad human. I think—and this was an issue I struggled with in making the film—I had a production team that largely did not like Truman as we started the project.

Interesting.

They grew to fall in love with him over the course of making the film. But for the first year, everyone was like what a horrible little man. You’ve got to understand: my great grandmother used to say we are the sum-total of our life’s events.

Yes.

You have to take people for who they are. So, he was tiny. He was gay. He had a unique look about him. He was from a small, southern town. He was orphaned by his parents. You go through all the things, and save for being brilliant, this was a life that might not have actually ever come to full term. There was nothing for him not to have committed suicide. There was nothing for him not to have seen life to its fullest. So first, I loved the fact that he was a fighter. As Norman Mailer said, he pushed right through all of that. He was born in 1921. We have to remember: it’s a lot to be a small queer person in Alabama today. So you go back to 1921 and it’s a whole different story. So that was one thing.

Yeah.

The other was when I met Kate [Harrington, a designer and daughter of Capote’s boyfriend John O’Shea]. Kate is really his adopted daughter. I loved her immediately. She’s an incredible mother, and incredible costume designer. She’s done extraordinary things and she has a great soul. You can’t raise a person like that and not have some great qualities yourself that you put into that person. That, to me, showed his greatness. That said, yes, he is a good guy.

Right on.

That said, was he also a pain in the ass? 100%.

Even to his friends. You don’t go into it in the film, but he had a long rivalry with Gore Vidal and even with Harper Lee. At times he claimed to have actually written To Kill a Mockingbird, which is probably a stretch. But what you say about his life not coming to fruition: the spectre in this film is Answered Prayers, his lost manuscript which was partially published. That said, nobody ever saw a full draft. In short, does it exist?

I think Answered Prayers existed.

He destroyed it?

I think he may have destroyed it. There is a possibility that he hid it somewhere. He was cheeky enough to have done something like that. But I do think he was caught off guard by the backlash. He was devastated by losing Babe Paley. So I think, when you talk to Kate Harrington, she said “Look, I was with him when he was writing it. He had notepads stacked, so I know he wrote hundreds of pages.” What he did with it thereafter remains a mystery. I don’t think it was as a literary hoax. He did put in the work. He was a worker. I mean, you’re a writer…

Yes.

He took his writing very seriously. I don’t think he would have not seen it through.

What’s interesting about that is the idea that writing In Cold Blood took so much out of him creatively because it took so many years to write, but also because of his friendship with Perry Smith, whom he may have fallen in love with. I know both Infamous and Capote posit that they were lovers, which I always thought was a stretch. But he was so wrecked by going through that. That’s when his drinking and drug use increases. Do you think going through that process, realizing true greatness with In Cold Blood, was a suicide in a sense? Did that rob him of the effervescence that made him such an amazing writer and so great in society?

Yes and no. It was hard work, and it was a lot of year, and there’s no question in my mind that he had an emotional affair with Perry. I highly doubt there was a physical affair. But emotionally, 100%. I think he looked at Perry and said to himself there go I but for the grace. I think he looked at Perry and saw himself, and thought that could easily be me if I hadn’t been this brilliant to get out. And maybe not even the brilliance; he thought Perry was actually very intelligent. But he didn’t get out.

Yeah.

So I think the murderers, their execution—it was all devastating. But without that, and without the book, you don’t get the black and white ball. You don’t get international fame that he worked hard for and wanted. It was a different time. On the Plimpton tapes, you only hear people drinking.

[Laughter]

And you hear George fiddling with the golden cassette player. You hear people saying “Is it on?” Then he starts one tape and he says “I didn’t get that last 40 minutes, it wasn’t recording!” Then you hear someone say “Get me a drink darling.” They’re constantly asking for another drink. It was an era where people drank a lot and took a lot of uppers and downers and prescription drugs. That’s not a case-specific to Truman; everyone did it. I think he had an addictive personality, and I think he didn’t have anyone to really keep him on track. But I think there was so much more in him. He was just a very sad guy.

There’s a cautionary tale in Truman’s story for us writers. Not only did his addiction increase, but his celebrity increased after In Cold Blood. It reminded me quite a bit of Hunter S. Thompson in that he sort of became the story, rather than writing it. The cautionary tale is don’t become the story, because you lose your gift if you allow your narcissism to be indulged in that way.

A hundred percent. I think the cautionary tale isn’t just for writers, which is one of the reasons this was an important story to tell. Whatever we each, as human beings, may think, people have gone through this world before. They have endured varying degrees of what we’re enduring, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s the greeks, whether it’s Stonewall. These struggles are different struggles, but they’re all struggles. So I think his story is a cautionary tale for anyone, whether you’re dealing with addiction issues, or whether you’re writing, or whether you’re thinking about stardom. He became the story, and that was part of the problem. But the biggest part of the problem was that he fell in love with fame.

Cruelest mistress of all.

He fell in love with fame, and fame is like falling in love with luck. Maybe you hit it, maybe you don’t. But he fell in love with fame, and it took away from his writing. Kate talks about how he wanted to be on Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett more than he wanted to be in the writing room. So I think fame was his biggest downfall.

Ok, last question. This is your first film. Making a film is a monumental achievement, especially the first time.

And exhausting.

What do you, now having gone through this process, realize about your own talents in living with Truman?

I realize that I wanted to take the good elements that I learned about him, after living with him for three years. I felt I excavated from the graveyard, and I learned that I wanted to be the way he was: an engaged parent to Kate, the way he introduced her to things. That Auntie Mame element was something I wanted to bring to our family, specifically to my youngest son. I wanted to open his eyes to things that were a little more avant garde, or maybe woren’t the norm. So that was something. I also realized that I’m very regimented, which is great, but I also realize you can’t control everything. When you’re making a film, you can’t control every little thing. Sometimes you just can’t get that audio to work, the sound doesn’t get cleaned up enough. So I had to learn about letting go and saying “We’re going to do the best we can to tell this story authentically, truthfully, and honestly,” and parts of it won’t be what I wanted them to be, but it’s the best we could possibly do. You know, you can’t always get what you want.

Words to live by, though Truman would hate that.

Truman would hate that.

The Capote Tapes arrives in theatres September 10.