Movies: “J Edgar” Interview, Dustin Lance Black’s Cautionary Tale

I think when you compare his behavior and his life with the gay men of his time, many of which I met with and interviewed — that was a  big part of my research — he matches up fairly well, like incredibly well. The more you look into his relationship with Clyde Tolson, the more it mirrors all of these relationships that were going on pre-Stonewall pre-Sexual Revolution. You know you don't drive to work each morning, lunch together, drive home each evening and dine together because you're trying to save on gasoline. It was way before carpooling was fashionable. 

And they weren't exactly poverty stricken!

Right. They could have afforded two hotel rooms. And the collection of photographs that Hoover had of Clyde Tolson sleeping tells me a little something.

[Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson. Can you blame Leo for hiring him on the spot despite his pointed lack of credentials?]

Was there ever any discussion to take this further than you did, though. Do you worry that gay audiences will expect to see more of their relationship? 

I do. I think that they will. I think some gay audiences will think 'Why is this not more defined? Why isn't this discussed more candidly?' And I'll say that I think that would be dishonest to the time. The gray zone this lives is accurate to and based on the research I did with these men from Frank Robinson to Frank Kameny and people even older than them about what life was like as a gay man in those times. And the first thing they'll say to you is 'We didn't even have a word. We didn't have the word gay. That meant something incredibly different. It meant you were having a good time.' Homosexual wasn't used yet. That came later when people started discussing it as a disease. It was this nameless thing you didn't even disucss with the person you had feelings for. And certainly it was never discussed after a sexual encounter. It was just too dangeorus. There was no such thing as being out and surviving at that time.

Now, the couple of scenes that do address it more candidly in the movie. Were those always the only scenes? As a writer do you try a lot of things?

You know, the things that are in there are based on research. They are things I felt certain I could put in and anchor into something that I knew happened that I had sources for, say the fight in the hotel room. There are many accounts of that fight. In fact, Clyde Tolson couldn't go to work for a week afterwards because he had a black eye; these things were witnessed or overheard. I felt like after having read so many biographies of J Edgar Hoover — and they were so extreme with the depiction of his personal life or just had nothing to say about it — that I felt like I wanted to avoid pure fiction. I wanted to try and base it, as much as possible, on things I discovered.  And really what that does is, it makes the audience have to draw its own conclusions a bit. I think even though it's defined in a bit of a gray way I don't think audience members leave feeling uncertain about his sequality. I think people know. I think it's pretty clear…

I didn't write a big sex scene. To me that wasn't even necessary. I just needed to know what it was that was in his heart. Or, really, the truth is I need to know why there was such a big hole in his heart and why he was trying to fill it with admiration and political admiration and why he wouldn't let go of it. I needed to define that hole. The more I looked into it the more it seems he was a closeted man who was told by his society and his own family that he would never and should never love.

[Clyde, J. Edgar, and the mother who does not approve. She tells coded stories about "daffodils".] 

After you've written a script, you're still involved when they're filming. But to what extent?

Then you become a historian. So at that point it's a lots of conversations with Clint. He wats to know where things come from. You share your research. I did the same thing with Leo: took him to Washington DC, met with people, took him through Hoover's home, childhood neighborhood, The Department of Justice. You know, he gets a better tour than I did when i went through, he had Attorney General Hoder himself! At that point doors are starting to open a bit. People who had been sort of quiet up until that point wanted to have their side of the story heard. So there's still work to be done there because you're discovering new things. That led to a few changes here and there in the script. In fact, the FBI was incredibly helpful. They did a fact check pass of my script and I learned sow new things that were fantastic.

We always hear screenplays described as blueprints. So what surprised you most about the finished product as opposed to what you wrote?

Well, it became a Clint Eastwood film. It became far more classic than anything i'd imagined. There's a certain polish to it that, you know, I didn't think of initially. I walked into these sets and they were gorgeously done and beautifully lit and it felt like I was in a classic Old Hollywood movie. I hadn't thought about it like that. But you know, [Clint] is not known for not changing a word of the script. In fact, when I wanted to tweak something, I'd have to write it up and audition it for him. 

Lance-oscarThis sort of film always arrives with Oscar buzz in tow but can we revisit your big Oscar night?

Three years ago?! 

A lot of winners say they don't really remember the night. It's too much of a whirlwind, too exciting.

That's true. [Long pause] Boy. You know, I think the most vivid memory… if you watch that speech you sort of it can see it happening. At a certain point as you're up there speaking — I  think i had listed thanks for cast and crew and a little thing about marriage — I look up and there's a giant clock flashing in my face and it's saying, 'WRAP IT UP. WRAP IT UP.' and I thought 'There's so much more i want to say still! Are they going to cut me off?'

And it all had to process in half a second and I thought, well, 'Screw it. I know Bill Condon and Larry Mark are the one's producing it up there. Two gay guys. Are they really going to cut this off? I'm gonna go for it. I'm going to keep talking. Thankfully they didn't start playing the music. That's a very vivid memory, that big giant red 'WRAP IT UP'. I knew I wasn't done yet.



  1. Contrarian says

    Black is a talented and articulate writer. I wonder whether Murdoch’s Fraud Noise (and the far-right echo chamber) will claim the sexual orientation angle is some “homo” writer doing propaganda for the cause. At the risk of getting piled on here, what’s with Black’s prep schoolboy look? Perpetual teenager is so yesterday, and somewhat stereotypical for a gay man.

  2. Zlick says

    Nice interview. Very pointed and insightful, considering its brevity.

    Well, this is one gay man who did NOT expect anything explicit about the bachelor gentlemen’s relationship. Haven’t been to the movies in a long time, but this is one my bf is dying to see – so off we will go. (And if he’s disappointed there’s no explicit gay in the film, I’ll find some way to make it up to him afterwards.)

  3. WanderingStar says

    This was an interesting, though unfortunately short, interview. I have to admit that I was unaware that Black was the one writing the script. That makes me all the more interested in seeing the movie.

    I am also to intrigued that he’s working on an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. That was a fascinating book about a couple of fundamentalist Mormon brothers who murdered the wife of their other brother, because they believed they had been told by God to do so. It’s a very interesting exploration into the ways that faith can grasp hold of the mind, and do some very strange and frightening things. I imagine the film will be just as compelling.

    Great post, thanks for the read.

  4. Gus says

    This is a great interview. I’m glad Mr. Black did his research. My late uncle was about Hoover’s age and did not live his life even in private. “The love that dare not speak its name” was also the love that dare not be consummated for many of their generation.

  5. ColinATL says

    Well crafted interview for a short amount of space.

    Forgive my nitpickeyness, but there were a lot of weird spelling mistakes in this interview. Almost like it was scanned in and some of the letters didn’t get captured right (e.g. “sequality” instead of “sexuality”).

  6. Keppler says

    Great interview. It gives a fascinating look at the process of creating a film such as this.

    You guys really, SERIOUSLY need to proof-read, though. The interview is riddled with typos.

  7. ray says

    The movie sucks. Really hackneyed and the whole cross-dressing scene was laughable. Don’t know whether it’s because of Eastwood’s heavy-handed direction or the hokey script. Really lame and retro.

  8. Keith says

    Perhaps Mr. Black would like to do a movie about his good friend Ken Mehlman? Ken as you remember was the architect of the Bush 2004 re-election campaign that demonized and vilified GLBT Americans to distract from the President’s failed policies. Mr. Black bent over backwards to support Mehlman when Ken offered up a nice fat check to AFER from the blood money he made in politics.

  9. says

    Besides Keith’s comment above, this is the first evidence that Black is a capo. A script about J Edgar Hoover? That snake? Talk about making us look like dirt. Maybe he should get a job at with the GOP crafting lines to scapegoat us.
    He couldn’t find a gay historical giant, like Baron von Steuben, or Leonardo, or Sommerset Maughm, or those two lesbanims who saved lives in Norway?

  10. says

    Speaking as a person whose script made seven hundred million gross, Milk was adequate at best. The direction was nutty, shifting from history to movie tense made us suspend disbelief a bit too much. The script was ok. But please. Let’s not kiss the ass of someone just because he’s got the backing of corporate rubes.

  11. Corey Spears says

    Watching this movie was like a bio-pic of J. Edgar Hoover. It humanised him through Lance’s honest dialogue. Though hard to enjoy Hoover as a person, you do get a piece of humanity and flawed nature which has integrity. I may be biased to Lance but “awards or committees” aside, this was beautiful in it’s honest portrayal of a complex life that is no so different from many high powered people today who choose the importance of their “job” over their existence..ugly , redemptive or not, Lance nailed it.

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