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Why 'Trumbo' is actually a thriller: Screenwriter John McNamara on his Oscar-nominated film and Hollywood history




Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in
Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in "Trumbo."
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

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Of all the movies nominated for an Oscar this year, the one that best fits our show at Musso & Frank for lunch with martinis and vichyssoise is "Trumbo," starring Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter. He’s been nominated for an Oscar for best actor; his words are by John McNamara, who also produced the film.

McNamara has also been a writer and producer on TV shows including "Aquarius," "The Fugitive" and "Lois and Clark" — as well as "Revenge of the Nerd" on the CBS Afternoon Playhouse in 1983.

On Dalton Trumbo's history at Musso & Frank

I think there's credible documentation that he did [dine here]. He lived not that far away — several times in his career he was within shouting or cabbing distance. And he was a raconteur, a bon vivant, a boulevardier, so he liked all the places. He liked Ciro's, and he liked Perino's. He was known to like to have a cocktail or two. 

On sharing a corner booth in a place where Trumbo once worked

I started coming here, I think, the very first week I moved to Los Angeles, which was 1984. And I remember just enjoying the ambiance then — you can just sort of feel in the walls, the booths and the waiters. In fact, a friend of mine later said, "the nice thing about Musso and Frank is the waiters who are rude to you were rude to F. Scott Fitzgerald."

On whether "Trumbo" is a biopic

I don't think it really is, because it really begins and ends with this battle. I think a biopic sort of starts with a crying baby in a hospital and it has a kind of a "David Copperfield" sort of sweep of childhood to teen years. It'll take you through the whole of someone's life who may have done one or two interesting things. 

I mean, I sort of structured it more like a thriller, even though it may not have ultimately ended up that way on screen. The structuring and laying out of the plot at the early stages of writing it, I thought, "I can't really begin the story until the antagonist appears," and of course the antagonist is HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). So they appear very early in the movie, and by the time they're disassembled more or less, the movie is over.

On researching the script and the value of talking with Dalton Trumbo's surviving relatives

All the detail of his moods, his language, his behavior, his habits — like the fact that he wrote in the bathtub later in his career because he had a bad back. I never knew why he wrote in the bathtub, and it was because of this terrible pain he was having from years of writing. Which I could very much understand, having developed a sort of bad back myself.

The fact that you think he chain smoked this much, but he really chain smoked more than you could possibly imagine. 

He was such a lover of freedom, of dissent and of debate and discord, but not in his home. He did not like the idea that his oldest daughter, who is the most like him, stood up to him. And it was her memories that really formed the core of that relationship with Elle Fanning and Bryan Cranston in that movie. 

On whether Academy members knew Trumbo was the real author behind his Oscar-winning screenplays

I think it was a kind of process of whispers. I think that they had no idea that Ian Hunter wrote "Roman Holiday," and he was the first Oscar winner to use his name only. But by the time you get to Robert Rich, a huge portion of the voting Academy knew and were sending a message — that this is ridiculous. I think it's a very good movie, and it was deserving of the award, but I think there was also a political message behind it by the left.