MHS Grads Create Oscar Contender: "Capote"

by Callie Schweitzer

(November 8, 2005) Twenty years ago, amidst PACE (Performing Arts Curriculum Experience) performances and soccer games at Mamaroneck High School, Danny Futterman had no idea his life would turn out to be so successful. Bennett Miller, also a PACE and MHS alumnus, remembered barely making it to graduation in 1985. But now the two are headed toward Academy Awards nominations for "Capote," written and produced by Mr. Futterman, directed by Mr. Miller and starring another friend from their teen years, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Futterman & Miller
MHS '85: Danny Futterman ( left) wrote the screenplay & Bennett Miller directed "Capote." photo by Attila Dory, courtesy  of United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.

The project began with Mr. Futterman deciding to take a stab at writing after a steady career in acting. “I’ve been acting for 15 years and while I love acting, I always had a feeling that some part of my creative self was going untapped,” he explained. The result was the screenplay for “Capote,” that centers on the life of author and New York socialite Truman Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) in 1959 to 1965 when he travels to Holcomb, Kansas to write a magazine story about a quadruple homicide. Unexpectedly, the writer becomes increasingly intrigued by both the story and by one of the killers, Perry Smith. Truman Capote’s love of journalism and love of Perry Smith conflict and he is faced with tough moral decisions that ultimately result in his true-crime classic, In Cold Blood.

Mr. Futterman attributes the inspiration for his screenplay to Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, that created considerable controversy when it first came out. He explained, “The book follows a particular case, and Malcolm demonstrates that a relationship between a journalist and a subject is inherently deceitful. ‘Seduce and betray,’ were the words she used. Both parties agree to what goes on but the journalist is always withholding what he thinks of the subject, making the subject extremely surprised at how he is eventually portrayed. After I read her book I happened to pick up the biography of Truman Capote [by Gerald Clarke] and there were two long chapters that talked about this period in his life [1959-1965], where he has this exact kind of relationship with the prisoners. Capote was faced with conflicting desires—he cared about Perry, maybe he even loved him, but he also had a purely mercenary interest in him and saw him as his ticket to writing his great work. At some point those two goals collided.”

“Capote” is currently playing at the Scarsdale Fine Arts Center and is scheduled to open at New Roc City in coming weeks.

Once the script was complete, Mr. Futterman called on his good friend, but Bennett Miller was hesitant at first. “ ‘Capote’ was not the movie Bennett envisioned directing as his first feature; it had a lot of complications, it was a period piece about a historical character, and it had a very tight budget,” Mr. Futterman explained.

Mr. Miller’ directorial credentials at this point included one well-received documentary and a good number of commercials. “There’s a certain mechanical aspect to filmmaking which you get to practice while directing commercials which is very helpful,” Mr. Miller remarked. “That applies to storytelling, but it also has to do with working with a crew and practicing all the disciplines within filmmaking.”

“Danny forced me to do this film, and that’s part of the reason I eventually signed on,” Mr. Miller said. “ "Capote" had the possibility for failure, and it seemed like a very difficult film to make, but at some point, you have to take a chance.”

In casting the film, the two reached out to an old friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom they had met twenty-five years earlier at a state arts program. Mr. Miller’s vision for the actor’s interpretation of Capote was one of “nuance and complexity:” “Danny’s script allows for so many complexities. Phil’s performance really was communicated on many levels,” Mr. Miller said. “Danny didn’t make the script explicit, and I was hoping that through our method of rehearsing and shooting this character, we would be scrutinizing him in a way that is different from other films. I hoped that Phil’s performance would be all about profound subtlety.”

Since “Capote” premiered at the New York Film Festival in September, the buzz about the movie has critics speculating that it will receive several Academy Award nominations. The New York Times called the film “dramatized without undue didacticism by Mr. Miller,” and nodded toward “Dan Futterman’s fine script.” After stating that it was the first feature film for both the screenwriter and director, The Wall Street Journal noted: “It’s all the more remarkable, then, that “Capote,” seethes with well-founded confidence and is studded with fine performances…” Variety commented: “The mesmerizing performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the celebrated writer dominates every scene, while director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman's penetrating study enthralls in every aspect.”In addition, Mr. Futterman’s script was called “meticulously researched,” and Mr. Miller’s direction described as “perfectly conceived,” by USA Today. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Miller and Futterman avoid the pitfalls of the genre by refusing to mythologize the artist, plunging instead into the soul of the man."

Up until “Capote,” Mr. Futterman was best known for his acting. His past credits in TV include roles in “Judging Amy,” “Sex and the City,” “Will and Grace,” and now the new WB hit show, “Related,” but he believes writing may lead him on a new path in his life.

“I’d miss acting too much if I quit. However, one of the things that I love about writing is that you have the opportunity to explore parts you could never play in the acting world,” Mr. Futterman commented.

As for his future work, Mr. Futterman and his wife, Anya Epstein, who is also in the film industry and currently working as a staff writer on ABC’s new hit show “Commander in Chief,” have written a romantic comedy together that has Debra Messing attached. “Now I’m reading a lot of material that people have given me, and I’m trying to find something else that I’d like to work on,” he said.

Mr. Miller has been deluged with new offers but also plans to continue making commercials. “Commercials are still fun. I’ll probably be much more selective and do fewer of them, but lots of great filmmakers have continued to make commercials throughout their film careers,” he said. “I’m not working on anything right now, but I’m looking for my next feature idea. There are lots of scripts coming in, but it’s a matter of finding the right thing. So if anybody out there in Mamaroneck has an idea, I’d love to hear it.”

Mr. Futterman, whose parents still live in the Larchmont house he grew up in, will always think fondly of his time in Mamaroneck, and comes back frequently to visit with his family. “I think MHS is a terrific school, it’s so unusual for a suburban school to be so stimulating,” he commented. Mr. Futterman and Mr. Miller both hope to come back to visit MHS in January after the press excitement surrounding “Capote” calms down.

“My path has been very different from someone who was always single-minded in what he was interested in. I worked hard to get an education that was much more expansive than what I ended up focusing on and I’m glad that I did that,” said Mr. Futterman, who attended Columbia University and heeded his parents advice to do more than acting at college. “I was forced to take a variety of classes and I don’t know if I would’ve ended up writing “Capote” if I hadn’t been exposed to as many different teachers and books and ways of thinking as I was at Columbia,” he admitted. “Everyone has their own path that they take to find their creative self; things come up in life that are surprises, and it’s great to be able to embrace them.”

“PACE is my absolute best memory of MHS,” exclaimed Mr. Miller when asked to reflect back on his education. “I loved the theater and video portions.” In his days at the high school, PACE had a video component that was later taken out of the program to flourish on its own. “PACE was my salvation at the school - I was a terrible student, and I barely graduated.”

“You have to be really honest with yourself about what it is you like doing, not for ego reasons or any kind of peer or family pressure. Find what you love doing, if you can do that, you’ve taken care of a big part of life,” Mr. Miller commented. “And then even a C- student can do okay, I mean look at where it got me.”

As for the future? This may not be the last collaboration between the two MHS grads. Mr. Miller said, “I’d absolutely love to team up with Danny again if it could happen, so we’ll see.”

Callie Schweitzer, a junior at Mamaroneck High School, is a regular contributor to the Larchmont Gazette.