22 May 2009 - 10:10 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Douglas McGrath – Infamous

How do you step out of the shadow of a famous film dealing with the same subject matter as yours? Acclaimed New York writer-director DOUGLAS MCGRATH manages to go one better on Capote with the mordantly funny and heartbreaking INFAMOUS. BY FILMINK'S JULIAN SHAW

Infamous director Douglas McGrath speaks with the erudite patter of someone plucked straight from Truman Capote's 1950s social cluster. In fact, with his elastic verbal play and glowing sense of irony, he's almost like a modern-day Capote, though a more accessible and suave version of the word-wizard, mind you. Infamous probes Capote's writing of the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, and ultimately the famed author's multipart relationship with convicted murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who slay a Kansas family in the story's gruesome centrepiece.

But Infamous departs in a big way from Capote, casting the famous author not as the star, but as a player in an ensemble piece. “The story is most interesting by placing Capote at the centre of a social circle, so we could feel how much of a journey he really went on,” McGrath explains down the phone line from New York. “This was not just a reporter who went to Kansas to write a story; this was the pearl in the oyster of New York society. So here we get to see how he fitted within that group, and how he won them over with his charm.”

McGrath rues the fact that anything resembling the literary intelligentsia featured in his film is gone. “In my research, I saw that Truman appeared on a TV talk show with Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker. That's a standard talk show of the era. Compare that to today's line up to see how 'far' we've come,” McGrath offers witheringly.

When talk turns to the “elephant in the corner”, McGrath jumps in with, “Oh, no, we don't have to acknowledge it. Don't feel forced to.” It is, of course, that film Capote, which stole the thunder of Infamous and rode all the way to an Oscar gong for Philip Seymour Hoffman. A settling of scores has taken place though, despite McGrath being friends with the makers of the doppelganger feature. He's patiently waited for his moment in the sun, and simply went about making a picture of superior depth and insight in the meantime, which history should remember as the pick of the pair.

Just as Hoffman was instrumental in his film's success, McGrath believes that his Capote – British actor Toby Jones – deserves ample recognition. “Infamous is a high social comedy that eventually becomes a very dark romantic tragedy. To play Capote, there had to be someone who could handle the high-minded and the lowbrow, the heartbreak and the yearning, the romance and the ruin,” McGrath sounds off poetically. “There are not many that could do that. But Toby Jones is breathtaking. His performance is not showing off.”

And from the repertory that surrounds Jones, one performance stands out imperiously – Daniel Craig's tender, tough portrayal of the killer Perry Smith. FILMINK believes this to be, in recent memory, the performance most unlucky to miss an Oscar nomination. “I certainly do feel that way,” McGrath says. “The depth and complexity of his performance is so multilayered and full of feeling, and Daniel does that with a tenth of the words that the other more articulate characters get. One of the reasons to cast Daniel Craig at the time was because nobody knew him. Well, that's certainly changed,” McGrath says laughingly of the man now ensconced as James Bond. “The thing was to find the actor to convey the violence persuasively and the tenderness he had. He had to be really magnetic, because the truth is that Truman and Perry had a moment of locking eyes and feeling an electric exchange. Let's not forget that he didn't talk to Truman for a long time, except to say that he didn't want to talk to him. There had to be something magnetic to keep Truman interested.”

The wrenchingly emotional final act of Infamous speculates on a key moment between the two protagonists, but careful research rather than dramatic license is the raison d'etre. “I really believe, without knowing for sure, that there was something intimate between them, but maybe not physically. My curiosity was to discover what happened after In Cold Blood and what made Truman go off the rails after his greatest success. The only thing that made sense was that he fell in love with Perry Smith in the most complex way. It must have tortured him enough to bring him unhinged. And that would have happened if just once they had some kind of intimate connection. But Perry was always a fantasy to Truman. If they kissed just once, and if Truman had the memory of that kiss, the touch, the scent of it, and he knew he could never have it again…”

This perfectly calibrated argument is vintage Douglas McGrath, and you can now add “amateur detective” to the tag “writer/director”.