Interview: Christopher Trumbo
Fri, 27 Jun 2008 16:06:09
Dalton Trumbo was one of the famed “Hollywood 10,” a collection of individuals who refused to testify about their alleged ties to the Communist party during HUAC hearings. His controversial political views aside, Trumbo was also a celebrated screenwriter, the man responsible for penning Spartacus and a host of other films which he wrote under various pseudonyms during his creative exile. With Trumbo, director Peter Askin examines the outspoken artist’s life throughout the tumultuous blacklisting period, using archival footage, interviews, and recitations of letters Trumbo himself wrote to form a cohesive narrative. Son Christopher Trumbo, whose epistolary play Trumbo the documentary is based upon, spoke with ARTISTdirect about his father, his involvement with the film, and why the story continues to have social relevance today.
Blacklisting is a loaded issue for Hollywood. Do you think this is still the case now, in 2008?
Well, I don’t know that it is. Blacklisting in general [is] recurring throughout history. [The goal] of the people who control government in history is always to have other people conform to whatever it is they believe. And people who don’t, they will often try to see that they don’t work anymore.
Do you feel like the issue has disappeared from our collective memory?
Well, what happens is that over time, the same situations in one way or another tend to repeat themselves. Part of it is because government or power wants to have conformity. It’s the way they maintain power; they really don’t like change that comes from anybody except themselves. History is just littered with people who have been in opposition to government, or whatever power is working. Socrates 2,000 years ago [was] sentenced to death. Martin Luther just said, “I don’t like this,” and [hung] up a note on the church door declaring his beliefs. That changes the world. Voltaire in France, Tom Paine, it goes on and on. You pick out whatever examples you want, but [there’s] a constant and steady line of people who will not conform to whatever power is insisting that they should.
Your father chose a very unique way to chronicle this specific period in his life. Why do you think that epistolary communication was his medium of choice?
It was actually my choice [for the film]. I was conscious of [the letters]; they were available to me. When I decided to write the play they became part of what I used. What I wanted to do was give him a personal voice. When people are vaguely known of, you categorize them in terms of whatever you’ve been taught, whatever you’ve read. What I thought would be interesting is to take the letters, which are his expression of himself, and in historical context tell a story about him and about his family in his own words. So you start to understand whatever that period is through his eyes, or through his voice, and you will come away thinking a little differently about him, maybe.
The language [of the letters] is so meticulous, very cinematic in a way, very precise. Do you think [they] were an alternative to screenwriting for him in a way?
Yes, you’re right, because there are things he’s able to do with letters that don’t have anything to do with work as a screenwriter. He uses letters as a way of developing his thoughts. It’s another way of expression. It’s a way of discovering yourself and discovering what you think. As you start to write down your thoughts, you’ll think, “Oh, that’s not quite what I meant to say. I meant…” It’s a way of thinking and expressing yourself…that’s very difficult to do in other ways.
When you were crafting the play, how did you begin the process of vetting through historical material [and] your own family history? What was the genesis of that for you?
When I decided to do the play I centered in on the letters because I intended for this to be a one night performance to raise money for an arts project. The letters suggested themselves because I didn’t have to have anybody memorize anything. I didn’t have to do much research other than what I already knew because I, of course, [was] familiar with the period and the history. So putting it together was a matter of choosing the letters to tell [a specific] kind of story, to emphasize one thing or another. As the play has developed I think there have been a number of letters dropped and added. So the play itself has changed over a period of seven or eight years.
Because of your intimate connection with the story, do you find it hard to maintain a sense of objective distance, or is that something that you’re not concerned with in the creative process?
I don’t know what advantages objective distance has. In other words, if you’re an actor, what advantage does [objectivity] have? All art has its origins in the subjective. An actor doing a role brings himself to the role. A writer who writes the part has brought himself to it. Objective distance may have its part in the formula process, but creatively it’s not a big help.
There’s a duality I perceived as a viewer between humor and grave seriousness on the other end, but [it’s] fitting. How as a writer do you balance the two when you’re crafting a narrative?
Just think of Trumbo as a character. Characters have dimensions. They have lives, and it’s not all one thing. Since what I was trying to do in the play and what Peter was looking for in the documentary is to get a fuller expression than just one thing, one aspect. What we were trying to do was tell the story of a man and a family through a particular period of time. The idea is to try and present more completely than just sticking to a historical outline.
Was there ever a question of dramatizing the story as historical fiction?
I’ve been approached about that kind of project in the past, but that wasn’t in our minds at all.
Considering today’s political climate, the subject matter is very relevant. Was it a deliberate choice to develop and release the story at this historical moment, or was it just something that you thought needed to be told from a personal point of view?
In a sense it’s both. It’s hard to separate myself from the time I lived it. What happened [was] that I wrote the play for specific reasons, and then the first performance developed enough interest so…people found it to their taste or not, it went on a national tour and more people saw it. It had its own life because people were interested. My intent was really just to tell this story. Does it have political content? Sure. What people will make of it is not really my business. That it is relevant to their time and their lives, I think that’s true. [At the play’s] first performance in 1997, some people came up to me and said, “We need this right now, right at this time. It’s so important.” Well, at that time Bill Clinton was in office, so whatever people were responding to then was one thing, while George W. Bush is president right now and they see another relevance. It’s that kind of story; it has a relevance to whatever time you are in.
As a writer, has this inspired you to explore your own writing in a different way?
Now I’m going to write a book. I think that the play succeeds in telling a particular kind of story, or the story in a particular way and has a particular kind of effect. The documentary does the same thing, but differently. It’s constructed differently, but it covers the same time period and…has a very different effect, also. You can do things with a documentary that you can’t do with a play. The same is true of a book, and I think the book will finish off a lot of what I think is worthwhile knowing about.
So the book will center around the same history?
Same sort of thing. Broader, more details, especially in terms of specific things that happened. Some which you don’t have time for in either of the other mediums.