Gus Van Sant interview
Diane Lane and Naomi Watts in FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans (Credit: FX)

Feud: Capote vs The Swans immerses you in 1970s New York City at a time when you didn’t know every single detail about every socialite. There was a bit of mystery to their lives, which only built up the legend when The Swans: Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, and Lee Radziwill clashed with iconic Truman Capote.

After the celebrity and writer published “La Côte Basque, 1965” detailing the sordid lives of his socialite friends in Esquire, his life was never the same. The cinematic potential was immense, and producer Ryan Murphy and writer Jon Robin Baitz concocted a fabulous toxic cocktail of anger, deceit, and revenge. The next pieces of the puzzle were the cast, particularly Truman which would come later, and a director to tie it all together.

Gus Van Sant is one of the most celebrated directors of the past 30 years with a wealth of modern classics that pushed actors out of their safety zones and audiences into uncharted territories. Films such as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Milk, and Elephant continue to either haunt and/or move audiences today. Given the richness of this story, few directors could bring it to life as well as he did in the 6 episodes that he directed. Recently, Immersive had the pleasure of conducing a Gus Van Sant interview over Zoom.

[Note: The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.]

How did you first get involved with the project?

It was through a dinner I had with Robbie (Jon Robin Baitz), who was the writer and was working on this project at Ryan Murphy’s company, and I just asked whether or not they wanted to have an outside director do it. I had been interested in Ryan’s projects and thought it’d be interesting to work on one, so he asked and Ryan said yes, so we did it.

Gus Van Sant interview
Tom Hollander in FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans (Credit: FX)

Had you seen much of Ryan’s work?

There are lots of different things that he’s done. One that caught my eye, I guess Hollywood. At the same time, when Robbie said the Truman story was about him and his relationship with the women, I knew that story and that was the other driving principle. It was something that I always thought was interesting, and Truman always being interesting, that was the other exciting thing.

Truman Capote is such a fascinating figure, so how did you approach portraying not only a real-life figure but also one that has already been explored cinematically?

Gus Van Sant attends the red carpet premiere of FX’s “FEUD: CAPOTE VS. THE SWANS” (Credit:) Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup for FX)

Robbie had written him, so he was many times explaining his artwork, his writing, what he was doing because they were pissed off. And so, he was trying to explain what he was doing to just make amends, which I thought was an interesting aspect and which didn’t exist when I talked to Robbie. It didn’t exist yet. They hadn’t started working on it. It was just a project that was on the books and Ryan had a hand in creating the story with Robbie.

Tom Hollander is incredible as Truman Capote. How’d that collaboration work?

That was the tall order, I guess, was how we were able to create Truman Capote from scratch. There was no Truman around when I started and we were looking at different possibilities. Tom Hollander had been suggested by a friend, and Robbie knew him socially, had known him for years, and so he did a little taping in England where he was doing a play. It just was remarkable.

You could sort of see that the possibilities were very great. Then through a certain amount of work, I think that there was a lot of worry about what he looked like and how he spoke and so forth. It just was hard work getting him to do it, which I think the hardest part had already been done. He had played a lot of different characters that resembled Truman.

Gus Van Sant interview
Naomi Watts, Chloe Sevigny, Diane Lane in FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans (Credit: FX)

What was it like working with the ensemble of amazing actresses? Was there much footage of the swans for them to study?

I think that the existence of Babe Haley (Naomi Watts) C.Z. Guest (Chloe Sevigny) and Slim Keith (Diane Lane), were all so inviting and exciting to play as a group that a lot of the actors knew certain amounts about the characters already just from the legend. They slowly brought them to life.

There was a lot of information and a lot of things you could find that were about them, but there strangely was not any footage that we could find of C.Z. Guest, Babe Haley, Slim Keith, and Lee Radziwill. I think there were a few things you could find, but all four of them were slight as far as just a talking conversation, which nowadays is easy to find on YouTube, almost anybody.

Let’s talk for a moment about Treat Williams, rest in peace. Any fond memories of him you’d like to share?

He and I are the same age and we grew up in Connecticut in neighboring towns, Chloe also was from there. He and I shared a lot of history as far as the habits of our parents in the mid-sixties, and at one point I think Treat just said, “Well, they were all drunk all the time,” and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” I mean, during the daytime, women were, not all of them, but some of them were smashed during the day and the men were having martini lunches.

It was a lifestyle that’s a little bit different today than today, and he was also extremely talkative and friendly all day. We had to kind of remind him that we were shooting, so he had to stop talking because the cameras were rolling, but he’d forget. He was this great, great guy and I knew him from just his early work, in particular, The Prince of the City.

Let us go over to the period aspect of this film, the costumes and production are tremendous. What did you appreciate about the work from those departments?

Lou Eyrich had worked with Ryan since Glee, so a lot of the costume pieces and choices and directions coming directly from Ryan were amazing. I rarely got involved with that type of thing, but she also was under her direction as far as her research was incredible but yeah, it was really thorough. I mean, a huge amount of the costumes, which is great, And also, Mark Rickers’ production design was incredible as well. A lot of energy and work and intensity, and that was really fabulous. The Paley’s house, they just built from scratch, which was great, the interior.

In addition to directing you are also a painter, can you tell me about your work?

I’ve been trying to do visual art over the last 10 or 15 years, which I used to do. I used to paint a lot when I was younger, and so, I sort of started because of an opportunity to work with the Gagosian Gallery. They invited me to have something there and I made some pieces and then just kept going.

As the director of the classic film, Drugstore Cowboy, I’m curious… Do you think it’s bad luck to put a hat on the bed?

I’m not sure the ways I relate to luck, which things are bad luck and which things aren’t. I wouldn’t purposely do it knowing that it might affect my psyche. I tried to figure out where it came from. I heard in India there’s a saying that Turbans were meant to contain insects that were living in your head, so putting a turban on a bed, you would let those insects get in the bed and transfer it to other people. I think that it had some health reasons, and I think cowboy culture has a similar belief, and also a superstition of leaving your hat on the bed was about bad luck.

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans is now available to stream on Hulu.

Eric Green

Eric Green has over 25 years of professional experience producing creative, marketing, and journalistic content. Born in Flushing, Queens and based in Los Angeles, Green has a catalog of hundreds of articles, stories, photographs, drawings, and more. He is the director of the celebrated 2014 Documentary, Beautiful Noise and the author of the novella Redyn, the graphic novel Bonk and Woof, and the novel, The Lost Year. Currently, he is hard at work on a book chronicling the lives of the greatest Character Actors.