The Amazing Story of Trumbo


In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hollywood was hit by something even worse than all of the recent and impending guild strikes, as the government started taking a serious look at subversive screenwriters who may be instilling alternative political agendas (translation: communist ideals) into their work, and one of the men targeted was Dalton Trumbo, a prolific and respected screenwriter under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Because of his outspoken politics, Trumbo was put before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 along with nine others, all declared to be communist sympathizers, put in jail and ultimately blacklisted in Hollywood, to the point where Trumbo was forced to write films like Spartacus, Roman Holiday and The Brave One under assumed names.

Decades after his death, his son Christopher Trumbo wrote the touring play Trumbo, based on his father’s personal letters from that era of turmoil, letters so beautifully written that it enticed a who’s who of award-winning actors to recite them as monologues in Peter Askin’s film of the same name. The documentary features the likes of Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, Michael Douglas, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, David Strathairn, Joan Allen and Josh Lucas reading Trumbo’s stirring and amusing letters, interspersed with archival interviews with Trumbo himself, footage of the HUAC hearings and interviews with Trumbo’s direct family and those who knew the man, making it an intriguing and memorable film.

Anyone whose interest in this period in history may have been piqued by Stathairn’s turn as Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck will be interested in seeing how Joe McCarthy’s actions affected Hollywood and one man and his family in particular. had a chance to talk with Christopher Trumbo, director Peter Askin, as well as actors David Strathairn and Josh Lucas, about the making of the movie and why Dalton Trumbo was so important back in his day and why his actions are so relevant today.

“When your father goes to jail and he’s constantly mentioned as an ‘enemy of the state,’ you’re more guarded than anything else,” Trumbo’s son Christopher told us when asked about the origins of the play and now the movie. “Over time, as people became less frightened and more willing to look at what actually happened, rather then what they were told was going on, they started discovering the actual materials and the truth of the matter in what happened, the attitudes gradually changed. In 1997, I put the play together for the first time, and I expected that it was only going to be a one-night show, and the reaction of the audience was so pleasant to me, that I said, ‘This can go someplace else.’ It just kept on growing until I met Peter and that really was the best part, that we were able to develop the play in a very nice way, because everybody needs the input of other people in order to make something work. Peter was valuable in that way.”

“The spine of the play, as well as the movie, has always been the letters,” Askin continued, replying to a query about transitioning Chris’ play into a documentary film. “It’s a question of organizing those to help tell the story and help give a dramatic thru line to the story and then it was a question of trying to utilize a wealth of some visual footage, primarily photographs that Chris’ sister and mother took, documenting their family during this time. They’re both professional level photographers. We knew we had some film clips that we could possibly utilize, and the other aspects was more of a typical documentary with interviews with people like Chris and Mitzi. I guess the nice surprise was finding interviews with Trumbo himself. We tracked some things down we were surprised to find and some audio material was wonderful, like the Studs Turkel interview with Trumbo was great, as well as Ring Lardner’s memorial. I didn’t realize until we got going that the memorial service was recorded.”

“What I wanted to do with this is I wanted to contextualize it so that we don’t have history as a series of flashcards,” Trumbo added. “What happens is you actually have somebody telling their own story in their own words. I don’t think many people have the access to that kind of material or that kind of knowledge but the letters, all of which he left behind, his papers have a way of being able to present a very interesting personality through a specific period of time that tell that story. That was what I actually set out to do, tell the story of one man and one family, but I wanted to do it through the ways he was reacting and dealing with what happened.”

“I love doing big pieces that are informative about bygone times, especially stuff like this where in many ways, the issues are repeating themselves,” Strathairn explained about his decision to take part in a project that parallels his Oscar-nominated portrait of Edward R. Murrow. “To have landmarks, not only artistic in the film industry but theatrical creative arts, to have people acknowledged and remembered, I think is important. We keep these people who set certain standards alive, I love that. Just the material itself is fun to read, because it’s great writing. He was a great writer. There’s so much in all the letters, the colors in there, so it’s just in this performative essence it’s great, and I always learn something from doing things like this myself.”

The original play had stints by Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, both appearing in the movie, as well as Paul Giamatti, who played the secondary narrative role in the original play, but “blatant commercialism” was the main reason Askin gave for the decision to cast multiple actors reading letters for the movie. “In the play, it was different,” he explained. “One actor did the evening with a second actor contextualizing it with monologues that Chris had written for the play. (The movie) was a way of getting a number of actors into the film, which certainly helps with the commercial aspects of it, but once we knew also had some footage of Trumbo himself, we did debate that idea, but it seemed like a wonderful way to present a varied and yet unified voice. I think having Trumbo himself throughout the film, as well as Chris and Mitzi, helped unify those multi voices into one voice. A friend of Chris saw eight different actors do Trumbo and each time, this person said, ‘That person is absolutely perfect for Trumbo.’ They bring different interpretations. No one tried to be Trumbo, thank goodness. That would have been discouraged immediately, but with this kind of language, it attracts actors because it’s rich dramatic material. As has Chris has pointed out when we tried to edit them, his father wrote letters in three-act structures. Some people read funny but don’t sound funny, but Trumbo’s language also sounds funny in the right mouths. Really, Nathan’s letter in the film, he’s a master of comedic timing, not that other actors didn’t do it really well but I thought why would you waste that opportunity?”

As one of those actors, Josh Lucas explained how they shot his monologues. “They had me read a letter that I’m on film doing, the letter we all read at a certain point, the last letter, which is all the jobs he did, and then I did another letter which actually Joan (Allen) did in the movie as well, so some people did multiple letters so he had a choice of which way to go with it.”

“Actors simply respond to this language,” Askin stated when asked how they convinced so many prominent actors to take part in the film. “It’s quite unique and there’s an emotional range to it. It’s stirring and moving and poignant and blisteringly funny and acerbic and Trumbo’s personality seems to come out through it.”

Both Lucas and Strathairn agreed with that sentiment. “You think of a screenwriter writing a personal letterÂ… or is it the other way around? A letter writer who writes screenplays,” Strathairn mused. “He had an ear for the human condition specific to whatever he was writing. You might think he crafted those letters, but they come with such passion and flow that you know it comes from him, but yet again, there’s the mind of a craftsman in there, so that’s what makes them doubly resonant.”

“The direction was ‘Don’t try to be like Trumbo, don’t even think about it’,” Lucas agreed. “But also, the material really speaks for itself. It’s got such depth and poetry and humor and pain and all the different elements of it, and I think what he was trying to capture more than anything. Each actor I think he wanted them to bring their own style and essence of what they do. I’d loved to have seen this play with David doing it and Nathan Lane doing it, so you see the difference in one person going at it the way Nathan goes about it and then the way David goes about it would capture totally different sides of Trumbo and I think both sides of Trumbo were there.”

Askin talked about what makes Trumbo’s story so relevant and timely to today’s audiences: “I think when 9/11 happened and Bush’s first administration, he brought in a guy named John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act was established. You had a sense that Big Brother was watching, and it was interesting in the early days of the stage version, the day Tim Robbins came in to do it, his film “Bull Durham” was pulled from Cooperstown because of Tim’s politics, and a fan came up to Chris Cooper after a performance one night and said, ‘You’ve just made John Ashcroft’s list.’ Then of course, you have the Dixie Chicks, and even though it wasn’t a blacklist, it’s insidious and pervasive in a way that it wasn’t officially government-sanctioned, but it was. You had the religious Right being a watchdog, so I think that’s one of the reasons it’s relevant today.”

“History repeats itself,” Strathairn would tell us when asked about how Trumbo’s story is as relevant as when his movie “Good Night, And Good Luck” was released a few years ago. “They’re very much connected in the issues obviously. They’re constitutional and civil rights and civil liberties issues. They’re different arenas, Murrow and Trumbo, but they’re basically carrying the same halberds I think in a different way. Murrow was a pretty creative writer himself, but he was coming from a different kind of forum than Trumbo.”

To wrap things up, we asked Lucas and Strathairn if there were any writers today who could exemplify what Trumbo was doing in his day. “Writing-wise, I’m not 100% sure if I instantly (think of) a writer who does that,” Lucas told us. “I have a tremendous value for Sean Penn. I lived with him and spent time with him for a section of time, and I think he has done something very similar and he risked his ass. You have to remember he went to Iraq not long after in the same way McCarthy said, ‘By questioning people’s patriotism to create fear’, that’s exactly the same thing that happened with the Bush and Cheney administration. They did precisely the same thing and there wasn’t a clear-cut black list but I just worked with Susan Sarandon who talks very clearly about the fact she felt her and Tim’s involvement, as strong as it was, limited things for them, and made things difficult for a period of time. I think Sean would probably say that. That’s just from an actor’s perspective, but the breadth of media is so much larger now, that there are probably people doing it all over the place that we don’t necessarily know, because it’s contained within their environment. Obviously, Sean is a public personality; that way it’s easier to identify him. In this period of time, Trumbo and Kazan, they were the same sorts of media personalities. I’m sure there are a number of writers out there, but again, that’s what’s changing throughout the industry and media as a whole right now, because it’s so large.”

“Alex Gibney is doing some amazing stuff, and it seems to be more in the documentaries,” Strathairn concurred. “It’s something for discussion and will always be, but back when Trumbo was writing and Murrow, the community was really small, and the industry was 2- or 3-pronged or less pronged than it is now. Murrow was talking to 3 million people; now, Fox News speaks to how many more millions? Every little hub does, as do writers and as does film. As large a personality as maybe Sean and Susan and Tim and Michael Moore, in today’s world, it’s deluded and that’s why it’s great to remember these pillars so it gives some footing to those who were out there doing their own short film somewhere and think, ‘No one is hearing us.'”

Trumbo opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark Sunshine, as well as in Los Angeles, on Friday, June 27.