How do you produce a documentary about a person who passed away well before the film was even conceptualized? You can include archival footage from when the subject was still alive; you can feature interviews with the subject’s surviving friends and relatives; or, you can recreate the subject’s voice through performance. Peter Askin combined all of these approaches when he directed Trumbo, his film about the famous blacklisted screenwriter. Though archival footage and sit-down interviews with family, friends, and colleagues provide critical context about Dalton Trumbo’s life and struggles, the heart of the film lies in the performances of Trumbo’s written words. Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Brian Dennehy, and David Strathairn are among the actors who read letters that Trumbo wrote throughout his career, bringing his voice to life. Trumbo’s letters reveal the humor, stubbornness, and personal conviction that were necessary for his survival during his years in jail and in exile from Hollywood. By building the rest of the film around the letters, Askin has positioned Trumbo as the narrator of his own story.
After the screening, Askin joined filmmaker and friend of STF, Hugo Perez, for a discussion.
Stranger Than Fiction: What was your first experience of Trumbo as a reader? Had you read his work or seen the films or have an awareness of who he was?
Peter Askin: I certainly had some awareness, and I had seen some of his films, like Papillon, Spartacus, and Roman Holiday, to name three. But I was not aware of his letters until I was approached to direct the stage play, Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted. And that was truly an eye-opening experience.
STF: Can you talk about the stage production and working with [Dalton Trumbo’s son] Chris Trumbo to realize that, and how the play evolved into the film?
Askin: Sure. Chris was first approached by somebody in Los Angeles. The University of Southern California was putting in a sculpture garden based on the blacklist, and somebody who knew Chris and knew him to be a writer asked if he would put something together for a benefit. He ended up constructing a version of the play that we ultimately did in New York and around the country. That was a two-character play, one character obviously being his dad, and the other one was based on himself. The character of the son read short, interstitial paragraphs, which mostly helped connect and contextualize the letter you were about to hear and the letter you’d just heard. But the play was a series of Trumbo’s letters, many of which are in the film. Not all of them are. One of the big challenges was editing the letters. Some of these letters go on for 15, 20 pages. And obviously, you can have a lot more spoken word on stage than you can in film. That was certainly one of the challenges of the film.
STF: I think that making the kind of biopic documentary can be one of the most challenging things to do in an interesting way, and I think the approach that you took, which was inspired by the stage production, gives you a truer sense of who he was and his voice than what would have been possible in a traditional talking-head documentary.
Askin: Right. Well, there would have been no play without the letters. The whole point of the play was to bring his letters to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise read them. In the stage version, one actor did all the letters. For various reasons, most of them pragmatic, we had the idea of splitting the letters up with different actors. I wasn’t positive it would work with different actors all giving us one voice, but once we found the amount of interviews that existed with Trumbo, I felt much more confident it would work. And I also felt, to my great relief, we wouldn’t have to employ a narrator or have any voice over, except for Trumbo’s own voice.
STF: I love that interplay between Trumbo’s voice in the archival interviews and Trumbo’s voice through the actors, and I think it drives the film forward in a really compelling way.
Askin: Thank you. I agree, and I was happily surprised to see that work as well as it did. The other challenge was creating a narrative out of letters, so that it made sense to an audience. We took some liberties with that. Not all of those letters are arranged chronologically, and some of the letters are split up. When Liam Neeson does one letter to the liberal producer who was as responsible as anyone for the blacklist, the first two-thirds of that letter was at the beginning, and the last third of it, which we did with all the actors reciting excerpts from it, that to me was always the end of the film. I wanted to save that for the end of the film, but the first part really belonged at the beginning of the film, so we split that up. And then the letter on masturbation, which is one of the delights of the film – Nathan Lane does such a great job – if you pay attention to the chronology of the story, we present that when he’s in Mexico, but in point of fact, Chris Trumbo was not a freshman at Columbia at that time. But nobody seemed to pick that up.
STF: One of the things I find so compelling about Trumbo’s story is that I think many of us often ask ourselves what we would do if we were put to the test. In this case, Trumbo could stand his ground, or he could give in. And that seems to be the central dilemma or conflict of his life, somebody who could choose to give in and have an easier life, or he could stand his ground and have a more difficult existence.
Askin: I think that’s true, and I don’t think it was ever really a question. As Chris said, that was always who his father was. I’m sure it was a dilemma, but it was never really a choice for Trumbo. It was just so in his nature. He became the spokesman for that group of writers, and he certainly showed some delight in that role. I think he loved the sound of his own voice, and he was compelled to write.
At the time when he was blacklisted, he didn’t have a phone at the ranch, and they lived about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. At that time, there was no superhighway going up, so it was a long drive. But he delighted in that isolation, and as Chris and Mitzi said in the film, he delighted in letters. He could not wait for the mail to be delivered every day, to see what response he would get to his letters. And he always kept carbon copies of what he had written, so that he could respond accurately and consistently with what he had written.
And he had some famous arguments. One of the things this film does not do, and which it has been criticized for not doing, is show another side of Trumbo. I mean, Trumbo had his flaws, and he had some famous written controversies with even his former friends, such as Albert Maltz. When Trumbo gave the Laurel Award speech, which is the first thing you hear in the film – David Strathairn does it – and in that speech, he talks about how there were no heroes, but only victims. That speech happened ten years after he was reinstated, so that was 1970, and those ten years, and the fact that he was back in the good graces of Hollywood and his name was on screen all the time, I don’t think it changed his principles, but it softened his views. And Albert Maltz was infuriated about that, as were some of the others who were less fortunate than Trumbo. So he had some of these battles that showed other aspects of his character.
Audience: I wanted to ask about the actors that you’ve assembled. Obviously, some of them like Michael Douglas had a personal connection to Trumbo, but even with the rest of the actors, I imagine that this was something they wanted to take on.
Askin: Absolutely. They certainly weren’t paid for it. I think many of the actors were sympathetic to Trumbo’s point of view. Some were not. I mean, Brian Dennehy famously did not agree with any of it, and he’s an avowed Republican. But Brian Dennehy is an actor, and he’s no fool – he recognizes great material. Ironically, Brian Dennehy ended up doing the part of Trumbo more than anybody else. He did it on stage for a month, he traveled with the national tour, and then he did the film. A few of the actors, Paul Giamatti being one and Brian being another, had done some of the stage versions. I think Paul was the first actor who said yes. We arranged to shoot to their schedule. We just shot it on stages in New York when actors were available, and we shot over two or three months, and no actor worked more than a day. But I think it’s the material. The material attracts the actors.
Audience: You only interviewed two of Trumbo’s kids. What happened to his third child?
Askin: Niki was his third child. She declined. It’s funny, when I talked to Chris about getting his family on camera, he said, “Well, you’ll get Niki to do it, because she’s done this before, but you’ll never get Mitzi.” And the reverse turned out to be the case. I think she just felt that she had told her story, and she didn’t want to go through it again.
Audience: Have you shown this to younger audiences? And, if so, how did they respond?
Askin: Yes, and I think that even though I haven’t been asked to personally show it to audiences, I have been at a couple of Q&A’s at different schools. And I’m quite sure that over the years, it will get shown again and again and again in the school systems, as part of American History.
Audience: What was the editing process like?
Askin: We went through different incarnations; the way documentaries tend to. The thing we knew we had going for us before we started was the letters. We knew the letters had to be a major component, and we would try to find a clear narrative within them. And instead of the character of Chris Trumbo contextualizing the letters and helping with the chronology, we knew we wanted to use archival footage. I also knew we could get talking heads. I knew there were family members and friends like Ring Lardner Jr.’s daughter and Hugo Butler’s wife who would participate. And then we had film clips. We knew we could use film clips. When we did the stage play, we were going to run some of the film clips in the play as well as in the lobby before the play. But listening to the language – unless, you know, you’re looking at the film – the language of the screenplays, as good as they were, pales in comparison to the letters. So we ended up not doing that, because we thought it was a bad way to introduce what people were going to see. But we wanted to use film clips in the documentary. So we started researching. And then, at the same time, we were constructing a chronology of Trumbo’s life, and making the letters work to tell that chronology against the larger background of the blacklist. And then we just started moving things around. So it was making sure that the, for those audiences that didn’t know the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklist period, there had to be enough of that context in there. And then there were the film clips. It was complicated.
Audience: The one piece I wanted to know more about was how the blacklist and the long period of unemployment impacted Trumbo’s family, specifically his wife, Cleo. She’s kind of talked about in the film, but we really never get to know her.
Askin: Right. Well, Jean Rouverol, Hugo Butler’s wife, talked about Cleo being staunchly protective. But that’s a good question. It’s not just his wife, but the kids, too. Chris Trumbo was incredibly reticent about his own life. He just wanted to talk about his dad all day. He rarely talked about himself.
I don’t want to overemphasize the deprivation to the family, because they never were starving. They didn’t suffer the way some of the others on the blacklist had. I mean, they probably would’ve been even more comfortable if their father didn’t love such a luxurious lifestyle. He really spent the money as it came in. I think the hardest period was when he was in jail. Cleo had to make family decisions for them then. They really had to borrow money during that time. But it seemed like it never had an effect on her loyalties or love for the marriage. I mean, the marriage – there must have been problems, because Dalton was quite an alcoholic at times. He was a functioning alcoholic. He introduced that to Chris, who ultimately died from liver cancer. Mitzi didn’t talk about it much. Chris refused to talk about it, beyond a certain point. At one point he described his family as a carnival, and that’s as close as we got. I don’t know more than that.