Truman Capote Documentary Director Reveals First Look at ‘Capote Tapes,’ Talks Writer’s Legacy (EXCLUSIVE)

Truman Capote was many things to many people. A high society princeling turned pariah. A crafter of crystalline prose. An evangelist for the true crime novel. A tiny terror.

Yet civil rights pioneer is rarely a part of that conversation. “The Capote Tapes,” a new film about the writer’s rise and fall, may change that. At a time when gay people faced prison and social ostracization, Capote was out and proud.

“As a black gay man who grew up in Northern Florida, I was always taught to remember the people on whose shoulders I stood — the people who made life a little easier for me,” Ebs Burnough, the first-time director behind “The Capote Tapes,” told Variety. “Truman was openly gay in the 1950s at a time when black and white people couldn’t even be married to each other. He was who he was. My hope is that this film demonstrates that gay, straight, black, white, we all stand on his shoulders.”

“The Capote Tapes” premieres at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it is looking to sell distribution rights.

Burnough had been a fan of Capote’s for a long time and grew up reading his masterworks, “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Burnough, whose resume includes a stint as former White House deputy social secretary and senior advisor to Michelle Obama, knew he wanted to make a documentary about the author, but he worried he lacked the skills to pull it off.

“I went in search of a director, but one day my husband said, ‘You’re only going to irritate that director to no end, so do it yourself,'” remembers Burnough. “It’s been a real learning curve. I didn’t know anything about camera angles or 4K or any of that, but it’s been really fulfilling and I’ve been able to use a different part of myself.”

Burnough also lucked out. After befriending Sarah Plimpton, the widow of George Plimpton, he discovered that she had stored hours of interviews that the late journalist conducted with the likes of Norman Mailer and Lauren Bacall for his 1997 book, “Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.” The over a hundred hours worth of interviews form the narrative thread of “The Capote Tapes.” It serves as a sort of greek chorus while the film charts Capote’s early, unhappy childhood in Alabama taking viewers along to his emergence as one of the preeminent writers of the post-World War II era.

There’s all of the requisite stops along the way. The friendship with Humphrey Bogart and John Huston during the making of “Beat the Devil.” The publication of “In Cold Blood” to tremendous fanfare. The wine drenched lunches with high-society doyennes such as Babe Paley and Slim Keith. The triumphant Black and White Ball. That’s the fun part. The movie doesn’t shy away from Capote’s tragic end. His decision to air the dirty laundry of his Park Avenue social circle by publishing chapters of his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” led to his ouster from New York’s power elite and accelerated his descent into drugs and alcoholism. Some armchair psychoanalysts suggest that Capote did all of that to exact revenge for his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, a social striver who was largely shunned by the same society types who later embraced her son. Burnough doesn’t entirely buy it.

“I don’t personally believe Truman blew it all up intentionally,” he says. “I do think he was a writer and, as a writer, he couldn’t resist telling a good story.”

There’s also speculation that Capote never got much beyond the handful of chapters he published in Esquire Magazine. “Answered Prayers,” that thinking goes, was basically an elaborate literary hoax. But Burnough came to a different conclusion after speaking to friends of Capote who remember him laboring over the novel, hunched over a yellow legal pad while writing the book he hoped would be his masterpiece by longhand.

“I do think ‘Answered Prayers’ was written, but where it is or whether he hid it in a safe deposit box or burned it, we may never know,” says Burnough.

Even without “Answered Prayers,” Capote’s literary legacy is assured. “In Cold Blood,” a meticulously crafted look at the 1959 murders of the Herbert Clutter family, helped elevate the crime novel to literary heights and inspired a wave of imitators.

“Truman took that genre and really moved it forward,” says Burnough. “I want people to realize that without ‘In Cold Blood’ you don’t get ‘Law and Order’ or ‘Chicago PD.'”

Watch an exclusive clip of the documentary above.

More Film

  • Gerard Schurmann, Film and TV Composer,

    Gerard Schurmann, Film and TV Composer, Dies at 96

    Gerard Schurmann, whose 1960s film scores included “The Bedford Incident” and “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” but who also composed extensively for the concert hall, died March 24 at his home in the Hollywood Hills. The cause of death was not announced; he was 96. Schurmann’s death was announced by his music publisher, Novello & [...]

  • Rita And Tom Hanks Coronavirus

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson Return to U.S. After Coronavirus Diagnosis in Australia

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are back home in the U.S. after they revealed they had contracted coronavirus and were quarantined in Australia. Hanks gave an update on Twitter Saturday morning, thanking everyone who had helped them in Australia and assuring people that they are still isolating themselves in the U.S. “Hey, folks…We’re home now [...]

  • Film Comment Magazine Goes on Hiatus

    Film Comment Magazine to Go on Hiatus as Film at Lincoln Center Lays Off Half of Staff

    Many companies are being financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Film at Lincoln Center is the latest organization to have to lay off employees and pause some of their operations. On Friday, executive director Lesli Klainberg released a memo announcing that the center had to furlough or lay off about half of its [...]

  • "Birds of Prey" egg sandwich

    'Birds of Prey' Actor Bruno Oliver Recreates Harley Quinn's Famous Sandwich

    When actor Bruno Oliver booked the role of short order cook Sal in “Birds of Prey: (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” he had no idea how significant Sal and his breakfast sandwich were to the story. “You couldn’t tell from the audition necessarily and as actors, we always worry about our scenes [...]

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content