'He'd have been happy to hang us'

Director Richard Brooks was an obsessive. And when he filmed Truman Capote's <i>In Cold Blood </i>in 1967, he took 'method directing' to extremes. Star Scott Wilson tells Geoffrey Macnab about a film he wishes had never been made
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The Independent Culture

It was Clutter-killing day in Holcomb. Director Richard Brooks had invited the world's press to a farmhouse in rural Kansas to attend the filming of the key scene in his adaptation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. The two drifters Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickcock (Scott Wilson) were about to murder the small-town family all over again. The camera crew set up shop in the Clutters' old house, which had lain empty since the killings. Enterprising props men had even bought back all the old furniture. The Holcomb Farm looked exactly the same to these photographers and journalists as it had to Smith and Hickcock when they broke into it eight years before in November 1959 to commit the crime which so obsessed Capote.

It was Clutter-killing day in Holcomb. Director Richard Brooks had invited the world's press to a farmhouse in rural Kansas to attend the filming of the key scene in his adaptation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. The two drifters Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickcock (Scott Wilson) were about to murder the small-town family all over again. The camera crew set up shop in the Clutters' old house, which had lain empty since the killings. Enterprising props men had even bought back all the old furniture. The Holcomb Farm looked exactly the same to these photographers and journalists as it had to Smith and Hickcock when they broke into it eight years before in November 1959 to commit the crime which so obsessed Capote.

"That was quite an experience. We re-enacted the scene in the basement for the press and it was remarkable. All the photographers had their bulbs flashing. They were like grasshopers jumping to get a shot of us doing that. I was very aware of the morbidity", recalls Scott Wilson, the unknown actor Brooks chose to play Hickcock.

Speaking to Wilson, you realise just what a perverse undertaking the screen adaptation of In Cold Blood (which is being screened in a restored version at the London Film Festival) really was. Brooks was determined to be as faithful as possible to Capote's book. Capote, in turn, had tried to stick strictly to the facts of the case.

Achieving what Wilson calls "the aura of reality" was crucial to both men. The filming took place in exactly the locations that Capote had described, the motel rooms, five and dime stores, gas stations or city streets. Seven of the original jurors featured in the court scenes. Blake and Wilson wore clothes identical to those of the killers. The Kansas police officers who'd arrested Smith and Hickcock were special advisers on the movie. To help the production, local newspapers reproduced exactly the same issues they had published on the case, but substituted the faces of the two actors for those of the killers. Brooks chose to shoot in black and white to give the film more of a documentary edge.

The director, Wilson testifies, had a monstrous ego. As far as Brooks was concerned, this was Brooks' film of Capote's book - they were the only two names that mattered. That was one of the reasons he had chosen Blake and Wilson to play Smith and Hickcock. The actors' names were kept off the advertising. "Brooks never mentioned my name or Robert Blake's name in relation to that movie. He called us 'the boys'. On reflection, Brooks wanted to create a film so unique to itself and so realistic that no-one would relate it to movie stars. I think he would have been happier if he could have hanged us at the end of the film so we couldn't talk about it."

Former child star Blake's own biography was curiously similar to that of Perry, "the psychopathic son of a wandering gold prospector and a handsome pure blood Cherokee rodeo rider" as Capote characterised him. Like Smith, Blake was small, with a bad leg. He, too, had spent much of his youth "bumming around", drinking, playing the guitar, eking out an existence. "With the same circumstances, I could easily have ended up the way he did - on the gallows", Blake told the press. The actor (most recently seen in David Lynch's Lost Highway) remains elusive today. When I tried to contact him, the publicists at Sony had to admit that they didn't have a clue where he was.

The Georgia-born Wilson's background was slightly different (ironically, Wilson and Blake had met as kids - when Blake was starring in the "Red Ryder and Little Beaver" kids' movies, Wilson had asked him for an autograph). He had been parking cars and working in gas stations to pay for his "acting habit", as he calls it. His first movie role was in Norman Jewison's In The Heat Of The Night. It was on the recommendation of that film's star, Sidney Poitier, and its composer, Quincy Jones (who also scored In Cold Blood) that Brooks gave him an audition.

Looking back, Wilson now sees something comic about Brooks' many tantrums. The director of Blackboard Jungle and Elmer Gantry could be charming when his wife, Jean Simmons, was on set, but more often he was an ogre. He didn't allow his actors to have lunch (he felt that the blood would go from their brains to their bellies as they digested their food and they'd give more sluggish performances as a result). He never allowed Blake and Wilson to see the script ahead of time. As Wilson sardonically remarks, this didn't make much sense: both he and Blake had read Capote's book and already knew they were headed toward Death Row.

The way Wilson describes it, Brooks was like King Lear on the blasted heath. He had a "volcanic temper," and would bawl out anybody, from the head of the studio to the best boy. One day, he stopped a scene because the birds were making too much noise. The crew failed to scare them away. "Finally, Brooks went over, looked up at them and in the top of his voice, yelled 'shut up, you're ruining my movie'... and one day, he felt the clouds needed to be cleared. He started to holler at them to go away and stop raining. By God, they did!"

During a break in shooting, Wilson was in a grocery store where he met a little old lady who had known Dick Hickcock. "I tell you one thing, he was very polite to his mother", the woman told him of Hickcock. Wilson's own attitude toward the character was extraordinarily hostile. "I never wanted the audience to like my character. If you engender that kind of response from the audience, it would be self-defeating. These two guys were not in search of something better. They weren't rebelling. They were just trying to exploit somebody's weaknesses. I don't think they were anti-heroes, they were a couple of jerks who got together and committed a heinous act."

Smith and Hickcock were petty crooks. There was nothing to suggest they would turn into killers. Beyond the cod psychological explanation that they brought out a side of each other's characters that would otherwise have lain dormant ("the two of them's personality merged to create a third person"), Wilson can provide no explanation for their behaviour. Nor can the book. Capote had struck up a close friendship with Smith, but never really connected with Dick Hickcock. "He [Capote] didn't give any psychological justification for Hickcock's actions", Wilson notes. The actor steeped himself in clinical reports and crime books and spoke to the Kansas police officers in an attempt to work out what made Dick tick, but still seems baffled by his conduct.

In Cold Blood came out at around the same time as Bonnie and Clyde - another story, as Wilson puts it, "of two real-life people who committed horrible acts". Unlike Brooks, Arthur Penn treated his protagonists as counter-culture anti-heroes. His film was stylish, in strident colour and didn't moralise. In reality, Wilson insists, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were vicious white-trash crooks who "robbed little people as well as banks". Nevertheless, Penn's movie struck a chord which In Cold Blood did not. And you can almost see why. Despite Conrad Hall's superb, widescreen black and white cinematography and despite, or because of, the meticulous recreation of late Fifties middle-America, the film often appears like a museum piece. Magnificently oppressive to some, for many it just proved stifling.

Bizarrely, given that he actually received virtually no personal publicity, Wilson became a star on the back of the film. It's the movie which continues to define his career. It is taught in film schools. Chris McQuarrie recently cast Wilson in a key role in The Way Of The Gun because he remembered his performance as Hickcock. In Cold Blood also helped give Wilson an international profile. He has worked twice with the Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, most recently on Our God's Brother (1997), which was based on a novel by Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla). The film was screened for the Pope at his summer residence outside Rome. After the screening, just as Truman Capote had all those years before, the Pope congratulated Wilson on his uncanny ability to get inside the skin of his characters. "He told me it was a great responsibility to play this role. He stood there for a long time, holding my hand and looking in my eyes and said 'you have reached deeply into the character'." At any rate, Wilson says he doesn't regret making Our God's Brother. But he is not so sure about In Cold Blood. "I would rather the film had never been made, the book never written and the crime never committed."

'In Cold Blood' screens at The London Film Festival , 14 Nov

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