Dustin Lance Black: Telling The Story Of 'J. Edgar'
This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 6, 2011.
In the first part of his career, J. Edgar Hoover was often hailed as a hero. As a young man, he helped reorganize the cataloging system at the Library of Congress. Later on, after Hoover became the first director of the FBI, he introduced fingerprinting and forensic techniques to the crime-fighting agency, and pushed for stronger federal laws to punish criminals who strayed across state lines.
And he did all of this before 1940.
"I think if he had retired [at that point], he would be seen as a great hero in this country," says screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. "But he didn't. And ... he began using the tools and methods that he learned in his youth to do great harm to this country, and to rob people of their civil liberties and their privacy."
Black's movie J. Edgar, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, examines Hoover's later years, when the FBI director began to secretly amass dossiers on political leaders, purported spies and celebrities.
"I think that he understood the power of secrets, and he used that against many people who also had secrets in their personal life," Black tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. ... It's those folks that have something to hide that really use secrets to intimidate."
The Secrets Of J. Edgar Hoover
Black's biopic examines the most closely guarded parts of Hoover's life, including the questions of his sexuality and of his close relationship with Associate FBI Director Clyde Tolson, played in the film by Armie Hammer. For background research, Black read as many Hoover biographies as he could — and then spoke to former FBI investigators who knew Hoover and Tolson at the agency.
"A lot of them will talk in a way about J. Edgar Hoover in a way that they wouldn't have 20 years ago," Black says. "So I think if I were doing these interviews 20 years ago, people would have been very tight-lipped. But even some of his closest associates will say, 'We don't know.' And it's possible. And when you start to look at the facts surrounding Mr. Hoover and Mr. Tolson, they [raise] a lot of questions."
Black notes that Hoover and Tolson traveled to the FBI headquarters together in the same car. They went to lunch and dinner together every day, and shared hotel suites on vacations.
"This is a time before carpooling was popular, and they certainly could have afforded their own rooms," he says. "And as you get closer to them, you find that there's a very, very close relationship there."
On a visit to Washington, Black met with retired men in their 80s and 90s who had worked for the government during a time when coming out wasn't an option.
"They described the rules to me, and they described the behavior to me — and all of a sudden, J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson snapped into very sharp focus," he says.
The men also helped Black figure out how to portray the relationship between Hoover and Tolson in a way that was appropriate for the time, he says.
"Let's face it, if you read these biographies, many of them get very, very explicit. They talk about J. Edgar Hoover in a ball gown at Roy Cohn's house. There's accusations of cross-dressing, of prostitution, of photographic evidence — all of that fell apart. None of that rang true," Black says.
"What rang true to me was that two men — by their nature — were, at the very least, not heterosexual. There's a lot of evidence that they were incredibly unsuccessful being heterosexual, and at the very least, these men cared for each other greatly and wanted to spend their lives together.
"But in order to be truthful to the period, I could not have them talking about their love for each other. That was inaccurate. ... And I do think a lot of people in the gay and lesbian community were hoping for that kind of film, but I think we have to be truthful about what gay life was like back then, and it looked nothing like it looks now."
J. Edgar And His Mother
From Hoover's own writings, says Black, he discovered that "this was a young man who, from a very young age, was never given the right to love" — by himself or anyone else. His mother's journal, says Black, contains lines like, "I'd rather have a dead son for a son rather than a lily for a son."
"[Hoover's mother] was a very ambitious person in Washington, D.C., at a time when you needed a man to take you to the parties ... so you could be on his arm," he says. "And her husband was quite ill. ... I think she saw it as a great gift that she had a son who was not particularly interested in women. She could help him along with his career, and encourage that, and say, 'Probably the most important thing is your career and the admiration of your fellow man in Washington, D.C.' And I think that was what he was left with, a hole in his heart. And he tried to fill that hole with political admiration."
Black says Hoover spent much of his early career trying to win over the public's admiration. And in his later years, Black says, Hoover couldn't let that sensation go away.
"That's all he had — he didn't have a love life to go home to or a home life to go home to," Black says. "And I think that's where the darkness comes from, because if that's all you have — political and public admiration — that is fleeting. And when it starts to fade, as it always does, you'll do anything to hold onto it. And I think you lose your moral compass."
On being closeted
"For me, the challenge was not projecting my own feelings into [the film]. And I knew that would be a challenge. I didn't want to project my pain of having been closeted onto J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. So I had to constantly ask myself, 'Am I doing that?', and make sure that I wasn't. At the same time, as it became clear to me who these men were, I do draw on my own personal experience, and I do probably understand it on a level that many wouldn't, especially in my generation. Because I grew up in the atmosphere of the Mormon church, in the military, where I also had to stay closeted for my own survival."
On how he and Clint Eastwood, who directed the film, differed on their vocabulary
"We have a generational divide in terms of vocabulary. People ask him, 'Do you think J. Edgar Hoover was gay?' And he says, 'I don't know.' And for a man who just directed this film, that's a surprising answer, because I think the audience walks away with a clear impression [that he was]. But for Clint Eastwood and his generation, to be gay means a sexual act. And for him to know means that he would need proof of that sexual act. And I've had this conversation, and I've said, 'For my generation, you don't ever have to have sex to be gay or lesbian. It's a part of your nature. It's who you are. It's who you bond with, who you fall in love with.' So we have a divide in terms of vocabulary."
On the Mormon church and community
"I miss family and community. I grew up quite poor, and the Mormon church was always there for us as a family. I have a disabled mother, and she was raising three boys by herself, and they always made sure we felt taken care of, and that we had presents under the tree at Christmas.
You can make fun of the food all you want, but I love casseroles with chips toasted on top and all that sort of thing. I miss a lot of it. I still work closely with the church. I still have family in the church. I think that they need to move on gay and lesbian issues, and I keep those channels of communication open in hopes that we can understand each other better and create that change. ... I feel like it is a religion that has shown an ability to change with the times, and I hope they do so on gay and lesbian issues. Because they've hurt a lot of young people in this country. They hurt me with the words I heard in the church on Sundays. And I think with understanding, it can [change]."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. "J. Edgar," the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, is now out on DVD. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and written by today's guest, Dustin Lance Black. Black also wrote for the HBO series "Big Love" and won an Oscar for his screenplay for the movie "Milk," about the assassinated gay activist and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.
"J. Edgar" portrays Hoover as a man who transformed law enforcement but became so paranoid about communism that he spied on anti-war and civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King. Hoover, in Black's movie portrayal, collected secrets about others and used those secrets against them while keeping his own secret, his relationship with Clyde Tolson, whom Hoover promoted to the position of the bureau's assistant director.
You may have heard the interview Terry recorded last week with journalist Tim Weiner, who has just written a new biography of J. Edgar Hoover. Weiner remains unconvinced by the accounts of other written and film biographies, including "J. Edgar," that the FBI director conducted a long-term homosexual relationship with Tolson.
Other biographers have concluded that the two men were engaged in what in essence was a sexless marriage. In the movie "J. Edgar," the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, with implied sexual overtones, is at the heart of the story. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover. Armie Hammer plays Tolson.
Before we get to Terry's interview with Dustin Lance Black, recorded last December, let's play a clip from "J. Edgar." Here's DiCaprio from the film's opening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "J. EDGAR")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As J. Edgar Hoover) Communism is not a political party, it is a disease. It corrupts the soul, turning even the gentlest of men into vicious, evil tyrants. What we are seeing is a pervasive contempt for law and order. Crime rates are soaring. There's widespread, open defiance of authority. Mark my words: If this goes unchecked, it will once again plunge our nation into the depths of anarchy.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Dustin Lance Black, welcome to FRESH AIR, welcome back. Before we talk about writing the screenplay for "J. Edgar," would you just mind giving us a little bit of your assessment of Hoover before we get into what his sexual orientation was and what we know about that?
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: Sure.
GROSS: But just in terms of like the FBI and our country, what are a couple of things you really give him credit for and a couple of things you think were really harmful to America?
BLACK: In my research, I found the story of J. Edgar Hoover is a story of two men, in a way. If you look at his youth, he was so brilliant and so promising, and I give him credit for a lot of things. He helped organize the Library of Congress at a very young age.
He had a belief in science that a lot of people did not share and believed that science could help solve crimes in a way that hadn't been used before, that this sort of evidence, like fingerprinting, some of the forensic science, could help solve crimes that before you could not solve because all people really believed in was firsthand accounts of a crime.
And also probably the biggest thing he did was to understand that in this country we needed federal laws. We could no longer put up with criminals robbing a bank in Texas and crossing into Oklahoma and being able to mock the police right across the border. And he knew that needed to end because it had created this air of lawlessness.
Now, he did all these things before 1940, and I think if he had retired, he would be seen as a great hero in this country. But he didn't, and he became a dinosaur, and he started using the tools, the methods that he learned in his youth, to do great harm to this country and to rob people of their civil liberties and to rob people of their right to privacy.
He was really a man who should have retired much earlier, and I think his legacy would have been set.
GROSS: But your film wouldn't have been nearly as interesting.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLACK: No, it wouldn't.
GROSS: So what led you to do a film about Hoover? Was that your idea, or were you asked to write a screenplay?
BLACK: I had been interested in Hoover for some time. It was actually my little brother, I think in 2007, might - gave me a Christmas present, a book called "Young Hoover." And you read this book, it really only goes through the time up until Hoover starts creating the FBI, and it was not the man I knew.
The J. Edgar Hoover I grew up with was this monster, and that was not the person portrayed in this book, and I started to do a little bit more reading, and really I found that all of these biographies out there about J. Edgar Hoover contradict each other.
And certainly none of them seemed to get into what I was really interested in, which was why, and how is it that we have this man who shaped this country in the 20th century, arguably the most powerful man in this country in the 20th century, and we might know what he did, but we have no clue why.
GROSS: The emotional story you tell is of, you know, a man who is very sexually repressed and is probably in love with the person who he makes his number two, the associate director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson, but can't physically express that love because he is so repressed and because of the way his mother brought him up.
I mean, his mother would probably rather see him dead than gay. Your film kind of says: Is this maybe why he was so paranoid about other people and about whether there were communists, and is this maybe why he spied on people, including spying on their sexual liaisons? So do you...
GROSS: ...think that, that sexual repression might have been behind what made him, as you describe, a monster?
BLACK: I do. I mean I think that one of the symptoms is that he understood the power of secrets, and I think he used that against many people who he knew also had secrets in their personal life. For me, what became clear was this was a young man who from a very early age was never given the right to love.
If you read his mother's writings, it was very clear that she did not feel this was something he could do. Some of the quotes in the film about I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son are slightly changed from her own writings, where she said she'd rather have a dead son than a lily for a son. And...
GROSS: When did she say that? I didn't know that there were writings that she left behind.
BLACK: Yeah, there's not a ton, but she and her son did keep journals, thankfully, and so you can read some of the things she wrote. She was a very ambitious person in Washington, D.C., at a time when you needed a man to take you to the parties. And if you were going to be involved in the social life of Washington, D.C., you needed that man to take you so you could be on his arm.
And her husband was quite ill, mentally ill, and I think she saw it as a great gift that she had a son who was not particularly interested in women, and she could help him along in his career and encourage that and say, you know, probably the most important thing is your career, and it is the admiration of your fellow man in Washington, D.C., and I think that's what he was left with.
And I think that's actually where the darkness comes from because if that's all you have is political admiration and public admiration, that is fleeting, and when it starts to fade, as it always does, as it does with any political figure, you'll do anything to hold onto it, and I think you'll lose your moral compass.
GROSS: So you were in the position of writing a movie about the most secretive part of Hoover's life.
GROSS: I mean, that's not all the movie's about, but that's the kind of central part of it. It's the - that's like the core of the film. I mean, no matter how much research you did, and I know you did a lot, that's the part of his life that he kept secret.
So how do you find out like: Did he really love his associate director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson? Did they really have an intimate relationship? Did they ever consummate that relationship? How do you get insights into that?
BLACK: Well, I started by reading everything I could on the man, and for me it's important to try and get firsthand sources. And thankfully there are still a lot of FBI guys who are around that knew him, and a lot of them have settled down here in Simi Valley in Southern California.
And a lot of them will talk in a way about J. Edgar Hoover that I don't think they would have 20 years ago. I don't think that even folks from that generation feel that being gay means you can't be an American hero, and that's a huge shift.
But even some of his closest associates will say, you know, we don't know, and it's possible. And when you start to look at the facts surrounding Mr. Hoover and Mr. Tolson, they beg a lot of questions.
These men showed up to work together every day in the same car and went home together in the same car. They went to lunches together every day and dinner every night, all of their vacations together, shared hotel rooms. These things are easily found and easily provable.
GROSS: Shared hotel suites, so they could theoretically each have had their own room.
BLACK: Yes, well, sometimes - in Miami, they didn't share hotel suites.
GROSS: Oh, okay.
BLACK: But there were - you know, that wasn't sort of a one-time thing when they went on vacations together. And this is a time before carpooling was popular, and they certainly could have afforded their own rooms.
And some of the evidence that gets more personal are things like the collection of photographs that J. Edgar Hoover has that he took of Clyde Tolson sleeping. As you get closer to them, you find that there's a very, very personal relationship there.
Now, that's not proof in any way, but as you start to learn about the rules of the time, which was the next layer of research for me, and I went to Washington, D.C. and I talked with many men who are now in their 80s and 90s who spent their time working for the government in a time before you could come out, pre-sexual revolution, pre-Stonewall, they described the rules to me, and they described the behavior to me.
And all of a sudden, J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson snapped into very sharp focus.
GROSS: Give me an example of some of the rules that they were telling you that helped bring Hoover and Tolson's relationship into focus.
BLACK: Well, a lot of it was very heartbreaking to me. I thought I knew the history of gay people, and some of it I didn't know. And a lot of it was what you couldn't say and what couldn't be discussed, what couldn't be said even in the privacy of your own home, just the danger of ever acknowledging that you had these feelings.
And certainly one of the things that I found really heartbreaking and that it really informed, I think, the way I portray their relationship in this film, is that oftentimes, if the relationship was consummated, that was the signal for the end of the relationship. It was just too dangerous.
And so a lot of these relationships weren't consummated, and if they were, it was never discussed, and you would absolutely need to take on, you know, a wife of some sort if you wanted to continue to rise in your position in the federal government.
GROSS: Well, let me play a scene from "J. Edgar," and I think this will give us a good sense of how you've handled their relationship. This is a scene at lunch, at a very nice restaurant. Hoover and Tolson are already very close and already working together. This is the scene in which Hoover offers Tolson the job as his number two, the associate director of the FBI.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "J. EDGAR")
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) Clyde, I've been meaning to ask you something.
ARNIE HAMMER: (As Clyde Tolson) Feel free.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) I need someone who understands what's at stake here, you understand? Someone who I can trust, an associate director of the bureau. Now, I know you've only been in your current position for, what, 12 months now...
HAMMER: (As Tolson) Almost 18 now, sir.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) You're missing my point, Clyde. I want you to be my number two man.
HAMMER: (As Tolson) I'm not much for the spotlight, Edgar.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) I need you, Clyde. Do you understand? I need you.
HAMMER: (As Tolson) On one condition: Good day or bad, whether we agree or disagree, we never miss a lunch or a dinner together.
DICAPRIO: (As Hoover) Well, I would have it no other way.
GROSS: Okay, so in that scene Clyde Tolson accepts the position under the condition that they always have lunch and dinner together, even if they're angry with each other. Is that how you imagined it, or is there an evidence that it actually happened that way when Hoover offered the job to Tolson?
BLACK: Well, it's all rooted in fact and discovery. They did have these lunches together from then on, every single day, and it only changed locations because the one restaurant closed.
And certainly the fact that Clyde had only been there for 18 months before he got the number two position - he was not qualified for the position, at least not in the way that Hoover defined qualified for everyone else that he hired at the FBI - these two had a very personal connection, and they would admit as much.
And there were effusive letters that went back and forth between them. And so at a certain point for me, I like to ground everything I can in some sort of reality, especially on this movie, where there's so much myth out there about him and such a lack of clarity about the truth.
But then at a certain point, when it's two men alone who are both gone, and you can't get a firsthand account, you have to fill in the blanks. And that's why I try and spend as much time as possible, in this case about a year and a half, researching them, understanding how they talk and the sort of words they would use and so that it's as close to accurate as possible. That is my goal when I'm writing these things.
GROSS: You know, one thing I find so paradoxical about Hoover, at least about Hoover the way you've portrayed him in "J. Edgar," is that on the one hand, like, he and Tolson, assuming they had an intimate relationship, were so closeted. At the same time, they were so out.
I mean, they had these public lunches and public dinners together all the time. They drove to and from work together all the time. They vacationed all the time. They shared hotel rooms. Like...
BLACK: But according to the FBI - well, actually not the current FBI but the sort of older generation of agents, they were just married to the FBI. But you bring up a great point, which is these two lived what today would appear to be a gay relationship. It checked all the boxes.
But one of the things I found in my research of that time is that as long as you were polite about it, as long - and that's the word from the time - as long as you were a polite homosexual, and you didn't throw it in people's faces, and you didn't discuss it, and you didn't bring it up, people would look the other way.
BIANCULLI: Dustin Lance Black, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the screenplay for "J. Edgar," the movie about longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The film is now out on DVD.
GROSS: So the movie is written from J. Edgar Hoover's point of view. The movie's seen through his eyes. So you had to figure out how to write in his voice.
GROSS: Did you find tapes, like extensive tapes of Hoover speaking - not just making speeches, but speaking extemporaneously?
BLACK: Yeah. You know, there's a lot there, and it was wonderful to do that research and to dive into his very strange accent, which isn't one, I think, you would find today; it was an amalgam of a lot of different sort of East Coast accents, and he invented his own words.
And he loved animal metaphors. He liked slippery, slimy, snaky sort of word choices to describe criminals. And so it was fun, in a way, to mine that from both his public speeches, which were slightly different than, say, his phone conversations and thankfully, we have some of those tapes because the presidents, you know, from Nixon to Johnson would tape those conversations.
GROSS: What was it like working with Clint Eastwood? Did he want to talk with you about the script and your motivation for writing certain scenes? Did he ask you for insights and ask you about subtext and things like that? Or did he just like take the screenplay from you, wave goodbye, and direct it?
BLACK: No. It was - thankfully, our introduction was over the phone - once he agreed to do it, we had one meeting in person - because then I wasn't just staring at Clint Eastwood, and that would have been rather intimidating, at least at first.
And so, it was over the phone, and he would call and we would spend quite some time going through the script. He wanted to know where everything came from. He wanted to read all of the books I'd read. He wanted to hear the interviews I'd done. And he wanted to make sure that things were grounded in fact. And I really respected that.
GROSS: I'm wondering if he asked you about this: Part of the experience that you could write from in writing the story of J. Edgar Hoover is knowing what it's like to be closeted because you grew up in a Mormon family and didn't want to admit to yourself that you were gay for a while, let alone to anybody else. I mean, you were afraid you were going to go to hell.
GROSS: So, I mean you know what it's like to have this secret that scares you and that you know would scare other people even more - and that you could lose everything if they found out. So did Eastwood ever want to know from you, what is it like to be in the closet and to be afraid of your own feelings?
BLACK: You know, Clint never asked, and we had long conversations. We spoke for hours and hours and hours on end over the phone and then in person and then on set. I was there each day, and he had every opportunity to, and he just didn't need to. And I think Clint knows plenty of gay men who - of his generation - and I think he's heard the stories now. He knows what that was.
And it was one of the great benefits of doing this with Clint is I didn't have to describe everything. He lived the history. He got the Post Toasties box with the FBI badge in it when he was a kid, so I didn't have to describe that.
For me, the challenge was not projecting my own feelings onto it. And I knew that would be a challenge. I knew I did not want to project my pain of having been closeted onto J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. And so I had to constantly ask myself, am I doing that, and make sure that I wasn't.
At the same time, as it became clearer and clearer to me who these men were, you know, I do draw on my own personal experience, and I do probably understand it on a level that many wouldn't, especially of my generation, because I grew up in an atmosphere, in the Mormon Church, in the military, where I also had to stay closeted for my own survival.
GROSS: So did you and Clint Eastwood agree on your interpretations of Hoover and his motivations, the reasons behind his paranoia?
BLACK: Yes, we did. And yes, we do. But we have a generational divide in terms of vocabulary, which is often fascinating in the interviews because people ask him, well, do you think J. Edgar Hoover was gay? And he says, I don't know.
And for a man who just directed this film, that's a surprising answer because I think the audience walks away with a clear impression. But for Clint Eastwood and his generation, and - to be gay means a sexual act. And for him to know, it means he would need proof of that sexual act.
And I've had this conversation with him, and I said well, you know, for my generation, you don't ever have to have sex to be gay or lesbian. It's a part of your nature. It's who you are. It's who you are attracted to, it's who you bond with, who you fall in love with. And so we had a divide in terms of vocabulary. But we were always absolutely talking about the same thing.
GROSS: Well, Dustin Lance Black, it's really been great to talk with you again. Congratulations on the film, and thanks so much.
BLACK: Oh, thank you for having me.
BIANCULLI: Dustin Lance Black, speaking to Terry Gross in December. He wrote the screenplay for "J. Edgar," which has just come out on DVD. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.