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

Leonardo, Clint and "Historian" Dustin Lance Black on the J EDGAR set

...would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

Last week we had a very brief chat with Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Milk fame. After that historic success he had the opportunity to direct a picture (What's Wrong With Virginia?) and now he's back with a biographical screenplay for another famous director, Clint Eastwood. After brief introductions, we jumped right into the movie at hand and our conversation in full follows. Lance's sprawling screenplay for J EDGAR leaps back and forth across the decades to chart the entire professional life of the infamous FBI man J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) while perpetually glancing sideways at his notoriously intimate relationship with his right hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The movie is proving divisive but Oscar buzz, particularly for DiCaprio's baity lead performance in Best Actor, continues.

JedgarpremiereTOWLEROAD: This is your second feature film biopic of a famous gay American. Will we get a trilogy?

DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: No, You know... no plans in the near future. I'm doing the 'Barefoot Bandit' story on Colton Harris-Moore and then Under the Banner of Heaven after that. So nope. But these two, for me, Milk and J. Edgar were sort of bookends in a way. One is a mirror of the other.

J Edgar being the more cautionary tale?

Yes. I think so [Laughs]. One of them had extraordinary political power. The other one was just trying to get a small piece of it. One came out of the closet and by doing so spread hope. The other one stayed in the closet and spread fear and insecurity.

There is some poetic justic here. J. Edgar Hoover was known for prying into people's personal lives and here you are investigating his. Were you nervous about doing so, given that some people get angry when others speculate about the sexuality of the famous and the deceased.  

Well people have been speculating about J. Edgar's sexuality for generations now. People have been saying 'Oh, he ran around in cocktail dresses!' That, to me, didn't ring true and in my research proved not to be true. But also in looking into his record as a heterosexual he failed miserably. And so it becomes quite clear when you look at what he did and didn't do that whether or not he ever consummated it, this was a guy who was not straight. 



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.