- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006


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 Mr. Futterman’s brother works as a reporter for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Of course, the 38-year-old actor-turned-“Capote”-screenwriter 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,” Mr. Futterman cracked during a recent interview with Associated Press.

More seriously, he adds, “I have two incredibly proud moments professionally, and one was walking onstage 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.”

Mr. 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”).

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

He already has won the USC Scripter Award for best adaptation, been cited by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award.

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,” Mr. Futterman says matter-of-factly.

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 book “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.” .

Mr. Futterman and Miss Epstein 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.”

He became interested in the reporter-source symbiosis through his mother, who’s a psychiatrist, 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 Mr. McGinniss’ best-selling book “Fatal Vision.”

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

“Yeah, look, he’s known me since I was getting into car accidents. … Then I was an actor for years,” Mr. Futterman says. “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.”

Mr. Miller encouraged him nevertheless, and when Mr. Futterman presented the finished product, he pressed Mr. 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,” Mr. Futterman says. “So it was important for me to hear from him something about the script, whether it was good or bad.”

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

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

“It’s a pretty great thrill,” Mr. Futterman says. “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.”

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