R. Williams Talks to Peter Askin, Christopher
Trumbo, Josh Lucas and David Strathairn of
Regency Hotel/New York City
June 19, 2008
Josh Lucas and David Strathairn
Photo Credit: Wendy R. Williams
The story of the
Hollywood Ten has always resonated with me. Ten
writers who refused to "name names" when
they were called before the House Un-American Activities
Committee. It was a story of courage and hardship,
and the "plot" of this story is being
repeated again and again, most recently with the
Bush Administrations "tarring and feathering"
of the Dixie Chicks. Such stories always bring up
the question, would I be willing to give up my livelihood
for my freedom of speech? Or would the call of creature
comforts win the battle? What kind of men and women
would have the courage to simply say no to oppression,
no matter what the cost to themselves, economically
and socially? What makes a Trumbo and what makes
So I was intrigued when
I got an invitation to review Peter Askin's new
documentary Trumbo, based on a play of
the same name by one of the Hollywood Ten's son
- Dalton Trumbo's son Christopher Trumbo. I saw
the film and then attended the press roundtable.
Here is my review of the film. Be sure to scroll
down for the interviews with director Peter Askin,
writer Christopher Trumbo and actors Josh Lucas
and David Strathairn.
Opens Friday, June 27, 2008
Allen; Brian Dennehy; Michael Douglas; Paul Giamatti;
Nathan Lane; Josh Lucas; Liam Neeson; David Strathairn;
and Donald Sutherland. With interviews with Kirk
Douglas and Dustin Hoffman.
Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams
our nation goes out on a collective bender. Something
happens and we get scared and some "strong"
man exploits our fear and we go mad and do abominable
things like: President Franklin Roosevelt fanning
the fear of the "yellow peril" by incarcerating
United States citizens of Japanese origin during
World War II; or (in the fifties) Senator Joseph
McCarthy exploiting our fears by telling us that
there was a Communist under every bed and then
holding Congressional hearings to find them; or
more recently, President George W. Bush exploiting
our fear of Al Queda with a regime of torture
and secret prisons. And after everything is over,
we wonder - how could that have happened? What
made a nation that was founded with such extraordinary
ideas about the rights of man (and woman too,
we hope) stoop to such a despicable level. And
our children read about the "bender"
in their neatly synopsized history books and think,
"Oh, that was the past; it will never happen
Christopher Trumbo had such a "national bender"
story to tell - it was about his father, the writer
Dalton Trumbo, and what happened to him in the
fifties when he was ostracized by Hollywood for
refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities
Committee whether he had ever been a Communist
and most importantly for refusing to "name
names" by telling the Committee who was also
a Communist. The supposed motivation of the HUAC
was to weed out Communist sympathizers from Hollywood
so they could not subtly twist our national psyche
by their "left leaning" words. The motivation
of the Hollywood establishment was appeasement.
wrote a play about his father's life, Trumbo,
which played off Broadway from 2003-2004. The
play told the story of Trumbo's life through Trumbo's
letters, long wonderful letters in which Trumbo
told his friends and business acquaintances the
"diary" of his life. And the play (with
its letters) has now been turned in a documentary-style
Here is a
quote from the press release for the film. "Dalton
Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest paid
screenwriters in the 1940s, penning films such
as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty
Foyle (for which he received an Academy Award
nomination). In 1947 he was called before the
notorious House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC) and, after defiantly refusing to discuss
his political affiliations, was thrown into prison
as one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.”
Upon his release in 1950, he moved with his family
to Mexico, where he continued to write screenplays
– including Roman Holiday and The
Brave One – under various pseudonyms.
When his script for the latter won an Academy
Award for Best Story, the Oscar went suggestively
unclaimed. Finally, in 1960, he was given full
screen credit for his work on Exodus
and Spartacus, thereby ending his professional
tells the story of what Dalton and the other members
of the Hollywood Ten did, how they refused to
state whether they had ever been member of the
Communist Party and how they also refused to give
the names of other members of the Communist Party
(many had flirted with Communism in the 30's when
Russia was our ally against the Nazis, but gave
up their memberships after World War II). And
for refusing to testify, they were ostracized
and their children were ostracized. And this ostracizing
went on for almost ten years. For after Dalton
Trumbo was released from prison, his real punishment
was imposed by the Hollywood establishment, who
refused to let him work under his own name until
finally in the early sixties, Otto Preminger insisted
on hiring him and giving him screen writing credit
for Exodus. Kirk Douglas also insisted
on hiring him for the film, Spartacus,
which has the famous scene where the slaves are
told that their lives will be spared if they produce
the slave called Spartacus and rather than "name
names," they all stand up and proudly declare,
"I am Spartacus."
tells a serious story, but it is also fun because
Trumbo's letters were fun, outrageous and passionate.
And the actors do them justice; Joan Allen, Brian
Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson,
David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland bring
Dalton to life through his own words - his letters.
And newly minted dirty-man-around-town Nathan
Lane (see Lane's foul-mouthed turn in David Mamet's
brings down the "movie house" when he
reads a letter Trumbo wrote to his son about the
joys of masturbation.
Hollywood 10 bender was a bender about the fear
of words, and this fear of words was exploited
by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American
Activities Committee. And these were and are our
words, words that are protected by our own Constitution
in our own First Amendment: "Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging
the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the
right of the people peaceably to assemble, and
to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Christopher Trumbo and Peter
Photo Credit Wendy R. Williams
The Interview with Peter Askin and
Question to Peter Askin
about how he decided to approach the film:
Peter Askin: The
spin was [Trumbo’s] the letters. There was
also a lot of visual footage, photos and film clips.
Chris [Dalton Trumbo’s son Christopher] and
his sister are both photographers. There was a lot
of old film footage with interviews with Trumbo;
we searched a lot of film archives. And there was
the recording of Ring Lardner Jr.’s memorial
speech [which starts the film]. [Ring Lardner Jr.
was also a member of the Hollywood Ten.]
Question to Peter Askin
about the casting of the actors and whether some
of the actors had also been in the play:
Askin: Some of them were – Paul Giametti
and Nathan Lane were in the play. It was a two person
play and two actors played all the parts.
Question about why Peter Askin
choose to cast many actors to read the letters [as
opposed to the two in the play].
Askin: That decision was drive by latent
commercialism. We wanted to have a variety of well
known actors in the film.
Question about why the actors
agreed to sign on:
Askin: Most of them said they were attracted
to the rich, dramatic language.
Trumbo: My father wrote his letters in three
Question about the political message
of the film and how now that era is summed up in
our history books as being a witch hunt that all
thinking people reject:
Trumbo: Not all, there are even now historians
who say that McCarthy was right.
I wanted to contextualize the
time and not tell history as a series of flash cards.
[I wanted to tell the history] through the story
of one person who lived through it.
Question about Elia Kazan and
the controversy when Elia Kazan was awarded an Oscar
for Lifetime Achievement:
Trumbo: My father and I both felt that Kazan’s
testimony [before the HUAC where he “named
names”] was blown out of proportion. He never
should have been asked those questions in the first
place. Also, Kazan was not active in Hollywood at
that time and the names he gave were of New York
actors, he did not name the “Hollywood Ten.”
But the actors Kazan named were not able to work
at all because they could not work [like the writers]
using a pseudonym.
Question about the effect of
George’s Clooney’s film, Good Night
and Good Luck [which depicted the McCarthy
story from the viewpoint Edward R. Murrow at CBS]:
Askin: After 9/11 there was all of this [knee-jerk]
reaction. Bush and Ashcroft were villainizing groups
like the Dixie Chicks. Tim Robbins has talked about
how after 9/11 when he spoke out against the war,
his film Bull Durham was pulled from Cooperstown
Baseball Hall of Fame]. Tim and Susan Sarandon
[who spoke out against the war] said that it was
hard for them to find work.
Then as now, the black list was
a function of the industry, not the government.
Trumbo: There was also a green list [in the
fifties] of people that Hollywood was suspicious
of for things like, “I am not sure about that
person. She/he likes Roosevelt too much.”
Question about why writers were
singled out by McCarthy:
Trumbo: They are more vulnerable. There was
also this fear that they would [insidiously] plant
communist ideas through their words.
Question about whether the country
is smarter now than it was in the fifties:
Askin: We are all exhausted because of the
last eight years. I hope this film reminds us of
Trumbo: One of the reasons that the tale
of the black list is told as such a cautionary tale
is so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Question to Christopher Trumbo
about being the child of a celebrity:
Trumbo: I never thought of myself as the
child of a celebrity. It was the reverse. My father
was in jail so it was more like I thought of myself
as the child of a jailbird. We were ostracized.
Even in 1997 when I put the play
together for the first time [Trumbo], I
thought it would be open for only one night. I was
astounded at the level of interest. The reaction
of the audience totally surprised me.
Josh Lucas and David Strathairn
Photo Credit Wendy R. Williams
Josh Lucas and David Strathairn
Question about why they were attracted
to the project:
Strathairn: I love doing big pieces that
are informative, especially something like this
where the issues are repeating themselves. [It is
a way to] keep these people who set standards alive.
[Plus] The letters themselves
are so colorful.
Question about reading the letters
for the film:
The director [Peter Askin] told us to now worry
about trying to be like Trumbo. The material speaks
for itself in my humble opinion. Each actor brings
his own style.
Strathairn: Trumbo had such an ear for the
human condition. You might think that he had carefully
crafted his letters, but there is such passion and
flow that you know it just streamed out of him.
This is a man who was not at all shy. He did not
Question about Elia Kazan:
Josh Lucas: Elia Kazan wrote a
fascinating book about his life [Elie
Kazan: A Life], but only one paragraph
dealt with his testimony before the HUAC. He basically
said, “You can’t judge me.” And
that was all. McCarthy was the true villain. Trumbo’s
take [that Kazan should have never been asked to
name names] is the most humane.
Question to David Strathairn
about the correlations between his work playing
Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Look
and his work in Trumbo:
Strathairn: History repeats itself. Murrow
and Trumbo were different creatures but they were
carrying the same banner.
Question about whether they had
seen the HBO miniseries John Adams with
its story about the founding of our country and
the writing of the Constitution and Adams' fear
that if there were no strong Constitution , the
American people would give away the liberties they
had fought so hard to achieve:
Strathairn: Paul [Giametti] and Laura [Linney]
were really incredible in that series. And that
[fear of loss of our liberties] is why you need
people like Trumbo and Murrow and Adams.
Question about whether they know
of other writers who have the same passion and commitment
Strathairn: Director Alex Gibney (check back
in July 2008 for the New York Cool interview with
Alex Gibney re his new documentary, Gonzo)
has done some amazing stuff [Academy Award winning
to the Dark Side].
Lucas: I really admire Sean Penn. He had
the courage to go to Iraq (see San
Francisco Chronicle) to see for himself what
was going on. There are also artists such as Susan
Sarandon [who spoke out against the war] who have
talked about how limited their opportunities have
been because of their activism.
In the period of time that Edward
R. Murrow and Dalton Trumbo were speaking out, they
were huge media presences. Today with all of our
cable channels, voices are more diluted. There are
one hundred and eight commentators on cable news.
Strathairn: Back when Trumbo was writing,
the constituency was really small.
[Regarding people who are speaking out today]. On
MSNBC, Keith Olbermann is speaking out against the
Question about what you are doing
Strathairn: I will be acting in a Playwrights
Festival in Philadelphia.
I am working on some independent films.
Question about the pending SAG
strike coming right after the writer’s strike
Strathairn: I can always come back to the
theater, but you can feel the fear. People are losing
their homes because no big films are launching.
The timing is having a tremendous effect, no matter
which side you are on. It is affecting the florist,
I have been trying to get a play
because of this uncertainty. David and I are lucky
because we can work, but a lot of other actors are
losing everything [because of the just resolved
writers strike and the pending actor’s strike].
I know someone who is being foreclosed on.
Question about whether these strikes
are worth it:
Strathairn: Yes. I know that is a knee jerk
reaction but is always good when people stand up.
And it will have to be like this until the means
of production are more equally distributed. With
the new technology and the internet, it is easier
to make an inexpensive film, but then the means
of distribution are not available.
It is always good anytime you stand up for yourself.
And one of the effects of the writer’s strike
is that the community as a whole came together.