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‘Capote’ screenwriter humbled by Oscar nod

Dan Futterman had a tough time with his first script but it paid off
/ Source: The Associated Press

If genetic karma has anything to do with it, Dan Futterman will walk away with an Academy Award.

His wife, Anya Epstein, is descended from Oscar-winning screenwriters: Grandfather Philip and great-uncle Julius won for “Casablanca.” She’s a TV writer-producer herself. And Futterman’s own brother works as a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Of course, the 38-year-old actor turned screenwriter of “Capote” knows it’s going to take more than DNA — by blood or marriage — to snag Hollywood’s most coveted statuette.

The adapted screenplay category includes Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for “Brokeback Mountain,” which has become an awards juggernaut.

“The gay cowboy thing is big this year,” Futterman cracked during a recent interview in the AP Television studios.

More seriously, he added: “I have two incredibly proud moments professionally, and one was walking on stage on Broadway for the first night that I did ‘Angels in America’ that Tony Kushner wrote, and the second is being nominated along with him in this category.”

Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the play, co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” with Eric Roth; the other nominees are Jeffrey Caine (“The Constant Gardener”) and Josh Olson (“A History of Violence”).

A tough script to writeGiven the competition, Futterman — who managed to score an Oscar nod with his first script — said he now knows it’s not a crock when people say a nomination feels “humbling.”

He’s already won the USC Scripter Award for best adaptation, been cited by the Los Angeles film critics association and nominated for a BAFTA.

The genesis of this success involved family, too.

His wife, who’s on maternity leave from ABC’s “Commander in Chief” after giving birth to their second daughter in December, helped “enormously.”

“I was lost at the beginning of it,” Futterman matter-of-factly conceded.

He was interested generally in the relationship between a journalist and subject and specifically in the bond between Truman Capote and Perry Smith, one of the murderers in Capote’s nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood.”

“But I had no idea how to get into it. I had never written a script before, and I had started writing sort of random scenes with Truman and Perry talking about what I considered to be interesting things in the jail cell. But it was not going anywhere; there was no narrative drive. And she was extremely clear with me about the fact that I needed to have a narrative drive, I needed to have an outline where one scene led to another ... And that was a revelation to me. It’s probably perfectly obvious to anybody who’s written a screenplay before, but I hadn’t. I think had I not met her at the beginning of this process, it would never have gotten done.”

They met when he appeared on a 1999 “Homicide: Life on the Street” episode she had written.

“For a writer-producer of a television show, there’s no scarier phrase than an actor saying, ‘Listen, I have a great idea for a screenplay,’ but she decided to take it seriously, for one reason or another.”

Intrigued by journalist-murderer relationshipFutterman became interested in the reporter/source symbiosis through his mother, who’s a a shrink, and his journalist-brother. They read Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer,” which posits that Joe McGinniss may have betrayed convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald in McGinniss’ best-selling book “Fatal Vision.”

“MacDonald thought that McGinniss was going to write a book that showed him to be a saint, and it was a real hatchet job when it came out,” Futterman noted, pointing out that the book raises such questions as “How could a convicted murderer think that a book about him was going to be exculpatory and make him look good? How could a journalist have so misled a subject?”

Futterman was intrigued by the book and found it inherently dramatic.

“And when I read a couple chapters in Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote about this period in his life (when he was researching ‘In Cold Blood’) it seemed like a perfect way to get at that subject.”

Once he got going, Futterman informed director Bennett Miller — a friend since they were both 12 — that he was going to write a script. But Miller seemed, well, skeptical.

“Yeah, look, he’s known me since I was getting into car accidents ... Then I was an actor for years,” Futterman said. “And I wrote an outline, a pretty detailed outline, and gave it to him, and I’m pretty certain he has yet to read that outline.”

But Miller encouraged him, and when Futterman presented the finished product, he pressed Miller to read it.

“He’s also one of those friends who doesn’t impress easily. And so if you get a good reaction from him, it actually means something,” Futterman said. “So it was important for me to hear from him something about the script, whether it was good or bad.”

Eventually, Futterman and Miller got Philip Seymour Hoffman — whom they befriended at 16 — to fill the title role.

Thrilled for HoffmanNow, even though Futterman isn’t the odds-on favorite to win in his Oscar category, Hoffman is the front-runner in the lead actor competition. So Futterman could see a longtime pal win for uttering the words he wrote.

“It’s a pretty great thrill,” Futterman said. “I’ve always been impressed with his acting. In fact, as an actor, I’ve found it almost shaming at times that I’m trying to do the same thing he’s doing.

“Whatever it is he’s doing, I’m not near that.”

Futterman compares Hoffman’s work in “Capote” with Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull,” saying it’s “one of the great film performances” of all time.

Futterman’s own performances include playing Robin Williams’ son in the 1996 film “The Birdcage,” the title character’s brother in the TV series “Judging Amy” and Karen’s cousin on “Will & Grace.” And he was the cute pastry chef Charlotte dated in a 1999 “Sex and the City” episode in which she wondered: Is he “gay-straight” or “straight-gay”? More recently, he’s had a recurring role on the WB’s “Related.”

While he intends to continue acting, he has an idea for a political thriller, and he’s written a romantic comedy with his wife — whose brother happens to be Theo Epstein, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox.

Raised in a Westchester County suburb north of New York, Futterman says he doesn’t have to be a Sox fan to keep peace in the family; custody of his daughters is another issue, he joked.

“I did give my first daughter, Sylvie, to Red Sox Nation. I’ve claimed my second one (newborn Eve) as a Yankee fan, much to Sylvie’s chagrin. We’ve been arguing over her. But she’s mine. She will be a Yankee fan.”