Movie Interviews
10:50 am
Tue December 6, 2011

Dustin Lance Black: Crafting The Story Of 'J. Edgar'

Originally published on Tue December 6, 2011 12:17 pm

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."


Interview Highlights

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]."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "J. Edgar" stars Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI who held the position for 48 years. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and written by my 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. While collecting secrets about others and using those secrets against them, he kept his own secret, his relationship with Clyde Tolson, who Hoover promoted to the position of the bureau's assistant director. That relationship is at the heart of the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover. Armie Hammer plays Tolson. 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 our authority. And mark my words: If this goes unchecked, it will once again plunge our nation into the depths of anarchy.

GROSS: 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?

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?

DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: Well, I really - in my research, I found it's - 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, that we'd come to a time where 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.

And those are some of the stories we hear about him wiretapping people in order to maintain his own power in Washington, D.C, intimidating people with their secrets, even though he had so many secrets of his own. 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 found it really interesting. And it - 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: Well, 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...

BLACK: Right.

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 some of that is public. 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. 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 the 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, there 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, and 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.

ARMIE 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, getting to know them, walking in their footsteps so that I - 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.

GROSS: My guest is Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar" starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar." He won an Oscar for his screenplay for the movie "Milk," and he used to write for the HBO series "Big Love."

You know, it's interesting: Is there any evidence that anybody ever tried to spy on Hoover about his sexual life since he spied on others and their sexual lives?

BLACK: There are reports that the mob did, but that also fell apart...

GROSS: Because he was trying to investigate the mob, so they'd have reason to try to get something on him. Well, Bobby Kennedy wanted him to investigate the mob.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLACK: Yeah, Bobby Kennedy wanted him to spy on the mob. But I think Hoover actually had a decent relationship with those fellows. They weren't in, you know, his crosshairs. He was far more interested in communism and domestic radicalism, and I think he thought that was the enemy that could be controlled.

He also liked going to the track a lot, and we know who ran that, and they did do him several favors there. So that didn't hold water. It seemed like that relationship was: Hey, I'm not going to bug you, don't bug me. And, you know, there's - he was the man who came up with these ideas of surveillance and pushed to be able to spy on people without warrant.

So he was such an innovator in the world of spying on people that I don't think anyone ever really got to him. Now, I don't think a J. Edgar Hoover could exist today. Secrets don't stay hidden the way they could back then, and I think he would be under surveillance, and i think his secrets would come to light if he were around today.

GROSS: Let me play a scene here about Hoover spying on people. Not just people, this is about President Kennedy. And this is a scene where Hoover is in the office of Bobby Kennedy, who at the time is the attorney general, serving under his brother, JFK.

Hoover lets Bobby Kennedy know that he has a tape of the president in a sexually compromising situation. And the back story to this scene is that Hoover wants to keep spying on civil rights groups, and Bobby Kennedy's saying, look, times have changed, they're not communists. Communists in America aren't really the problem. The Cold War, that's where the communist problem is. We have different problems at home.

And Bobby Kennedy's priority is breaking the mob. So here's a scene, and it starts with Bobby Kennedy trying to convince Hoover to recognize how times have changed when it comes to the threat of communism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "J. EDGAR")

JEFFREY DONOVAN: (as Robert Kennedy) There's a new face to communism, Edgar. Ness isn't it. Communism is a foreign threat now, not domestic.

DICAPRIO: (as Hoover) Mr. Kennedy, before you were even born, I heard that very same argument from a Mr. Mitchell Palmer. Do you know what it took to change his mind? A bomb. If he would have sat in his rocking chair five more minutes in 1919, we would have been lucky enough to find an intact index finger.

(as Hoover) Now, I do not want that to happen to you or your brother, sir. There's no reason we both can't get what we want. We can wage a war on two fronts, sir. Do you understand?

DONOVAN: (as Kennedy) You can go now, Mr. Hoover.

DICAPRIO: (as Hoover) Yes, sir.

DONOVAN: (as Kennedy) Please leave the transcripts here with me.

DICAPRIO: (as Hoover) Yes, sir. Oh, and feel free and share them with your brother. Oh, and let him know that I have a copy of my own in safekeeping.

GROSS: And that's Hoover at the end saying, you know, let your brother know I'm keeping my copy of the transcript. And the Palmer that he referred to there was Mitchell Palmer, who was the attorney general when Hoover was very young and first getting interested in crime fighting. And Palmer's house had been bombed by people believed to be anarchists. So that's what he's referring to about, you know, a bomb going off, I wouldn't want that to happen to you or your brother.

BLACK: And these bombs are going off in 1919, and Hoover lived a few blocks away from where they were going off, and I'm sure it was very frightening. But what he learned from that was that if you could take that fear and spread it, that you could gain power, and that people would start to give up their rights to privacy in the name of safety.

Now, I think he always did it thinking he was doing great good for the country and keeping the country safer, and you see him trying to scare the attorney general there and to say let me wiretap illegally because, you know, it's scary out there, and I want to help keep you safe. And that was his style. He always came to people saying let me keep you safe from these recordings I have on you and your brother, let me keep you safe from the attack that we don't know is coming but might be, and let me wrestle away a little bit more of people's right to privacy.

GROSS: Dustin Lance Black will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI. Hoover held the position for 48 years. 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 collected other people's secrets to use against them but had his own secret, his relationship with his assistant director, Clyde Tolson.

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.

BLACK: Yeah.

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 is 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 then 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.

I dug up as much as I could, and when I felt comfortable stepping into his voice, did so, and included them.

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 subtexts 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 and, I mean 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.

BLACK: Sure.

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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BLACK: 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 clear and clear 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've 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: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black and he wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar," which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover. It was directed by Clint Eastwood. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black and he wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar" starring stars Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, directed by Clint Eastwood. And Black won an Oscar for his screenplay for "Milk," about Harvey Milk who was a gay supervisor in San Francisco and very active in the gay rights movement. And he also wrote, for several seasons, of the HBO series "Big Love." And "Big Love" was about a group of people and basically the FCLDS, the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, which claims to be, like, the true Mormons, but the actual Mormon Church has completely disavowed this group, doesn't want anything to do with it.

BLACK: Right.

GROSS: So, you are now working on a movie that's very connected to what you did in "Big Love." Well, you're about to start working on it, I should say. You're going to be adapting Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book "Under the Banner of Heaven" into a movie. And the book...

BLACK: That's right.

GROSS: The book is about two brothers from the FLDS who committed a double murder.

BLACK: Right.

GROSS: So you've done the fictionalized version of this story, really. So do you feel like you already know a lot?

BLACK: Well, I do feel like I know a lot on the subject. But I don't feel that I was able to say everything I wanted to say on the subject with "Big Love." "Big Love" had a certain tone and it, in a way, it was showing what did and didn't work about this idea of polygamy. And I grew up a Mormon. I grew up in the Mormon Church and I have a very strange relationship with that. You know, there's things that I miss very much about that community and there's things-but I'm not so pleased with. And certainly I feel like this conversation, the conversation of what happens when we lose a reason, what happens when we put belief before reason, and in fact, belief before our how we value human life.

You know, I think this is a subject that needs to be discussed. And we think of religious extremism as this thing that lives outside our borders and it doesn't. It lives right here in this country. And I felt like this was a way to discuss it and a way to discuss it that I understood, because I grew up in the more mainstream version of this religion, but in doing so, I certainly learned a lot about the fundamentalist side.

GROSS: So you are no longer in the Mormon Church. You say you miss certain things about it. What do you miss?

BLACK: Well, I miss family and community. And it was, you know, 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 that we felt taken care of and that we had presents under the tree at Christmas. And there was a real community and I miss a lot of it. I still work closely with the church. I have family that's 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 mean that's the sort of political side of my life. But 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 'cause I think, you know, they've hurt a lot of young people in this country. They certainly hurt me with the words I heard in church on Sundays and I know that that needs to stop, and I think with understanding it can. But that means communicating.

GROSS: What words did you hear?

BLACK: Well, when I was a little boy I heard - they would broadcast on Sundays, they would broadcast the president of the church at the time, it was Spencer W. Kimball, and they would broadcast his speech across the country sometimes. And he said that next to the crime, next to the sin of murder, comes the sin of sexual impurity, homosexuality. And I'm paraphrasing maybe just a tad there, but it was comparing being gay to being a murderer and saying that that was an equal in terms of sin and would be punished thusly. And when you're a little kid and you know that that's what's in your heart and it's something you can't change, even if you wanted to, it's really frightening and it makes you question your worth on this planet. And I think, sadly, a lot of kids heard that sort of message and decided to take their lives.

GROSS: So if you thought that because you had those feelings in your heart that you would be sent to hell, what was your image of what hell was?

BLACK: It would mean not being with my family and whoo, I get emotional thinking about it, still. You know, I love my family and I love my extended family and I loved all the people in my church at the time and it meant you're not going to be with them. I mean the whole promise of the afterlife in the Mormon religion is eternal family, that's what heaven is, is to be with your family forever. That might sound like torture for some people but, you know, I actually liked my family and I didn't want to be taken away from them, and I was six years old to 10 years old, and I'm hearing these messages and that's terrifying. And so, you know, it's the removal of love is hell in the Mormon Church. And, you know, I didn't hear a lot of fire and brimstone and that sort of thing, but this was far more - isolation was far more terrifying. And it is the threat of coming out in the Mormon Church - that you will lose your family, you will lose your community. It's what I think J. Edgar Hoover was worried about, losing his status, losing his community.

GROSS: You had mentioned that your mother is disabled. Can I ask what her disability is?

BLACK: My mom had polio when she was a young girl, and so she is unable to you use her legs. So she walks on - with braces and crutches, or uses a wheelchair to get around.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Were you in the position of being a partial caregiver when you were growing up?

BLACK: Sure. My father, my Mormon father, took off when I was a young man and, or actually very young, I was like six years old, so a young boy. And that - I was left with my mother and an older brother and a younger brother, but we're all pretty close in age. And so we started to take care of her. I mean emotionally she was still very much there for us, but there are fun little stories about us all sitting in her giant Malibu Classic car, which is a beast, if you know what those look like, and helping her learn how to drive, and we're talking about a two-year-old, a six-year-old and a 10-year-old, so it was a little bit of a wild way to grow up. But it means, I mean my mom is my best friend in the world and I talk to her every day. And in a way we kind of grew up together 'cause she was very sheltered. I think because she grew up in Children's Hospitals and then went right into the Mormon Church, which is very sheltered and all of a sudden we all had to discover the world at the same time and to start to explore it at the same time.

GROSS: Did it kind of shatter your faith in the Mormon faith when your father left, 'cause faith is so centered around family and then your father breaks up the family.

BLACK: You know, it didn't. It's all I knew. My mom remarried and it was...

GROSS: A Mormon?

BLACK: It was a Mormon man.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BLACK: And, you know, I took his last name and that's where Black comes from. And we tried again to stay in the Mormon faith. And it was not until I was a teenager that some of the abuses of the church and the men that we grew up calling dad, just seemed not right. And the church at the time, that church excused what these men did, both physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, in the name of priesthood, saying that they were the priesthood holders in the family and they knew what was best. And if something was going wrong it was - the woman was not building the proper home. And at a certain point I loved my mom so much I said this can't be right. I mean, this is a good woman and she's trying her best and she's being punished. And that was very difficult. And then I went away to a Baptist day camp, just thinking I was going to get some great food and hang out with some Baptist folks in Texas. And they had a class on cults and of course you sign up for that immediately. You're like that sounds really scary and interesting. And the entire class was about Mormons.

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BLACK: I had never heard it called a cult before. It cracked the door open just enough that I started to look outside of the Mormon world a little bit. And there was this whole world out there that I didn't understand. I didn't – the rules were so different and I became curious. And I think curiosity is not always the best thing for a religious belief. And so I started investigating the things I was curious about and slowly my belief in the Mormon religion fell apart.

GROSS: So the Mormon faith was so central to your life and then you left the church. What, if anything, has replaced the church in your life?

BLACK: You know, for a long time I became almost atheist. I believed in nothing. And it was tough for me to believe in anything at all because I had believed so strongly. And I divorced myself of spirituality, I think. But, you know, I felt such an emptiness over those years – and that was really the college years – and it did feel like something was missing.

And I have replaced that now with a very personal private spirituality and it's not a belief that has a name or an organized religion attached to it but that I think it's important that we have a spirituality. And mine is much more connected I think to my fellow man than any god but I don't want to lose that again.

GROSS: The church is pretty visible right now in part because of "The Book of Mormon," which is a huge hit on Broadway.

BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, it's a musical comedy on Broadway. And also because Mitt Romney and John Huntsman, both running for the presidential Republican nomination, are Mormon. And a lot of people say, oh, well Mormons say they're Christian but they're not really; they're something separate. So I think that the Mormon church has been actively trying to get out its vision of itself to the public.

So I guess I'm wondering what it's like for you to watch this play out, to watch two, you know, Republican presidential candidates who are Mormon.

BLACK: Right. Well, I mean, I'm not Mormon now but I also feel like they are at a point where they see themselves succeeding in becoming more mainstream and certainly an indication of that is that we have two candidates for the Republican presidency that are Mormon and are willing to talk about it.

And I – as much as they want to move into a more accepting, more tolerant, more mainstream place in this culture, I want to encourage that because I think it only can benefit the young people who grow up in that religion. I think there are some people who see the shifts that the Mormon church are making right now in terms of becoming more mainstream. They're very skeptical of them and they think it's only PR and it's only aimed at getting Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman potentially elected.

And to that I say, well, great. I think the more we can get this religion more mainstream and more accepting of people of, you know, different colors, different race, and different sexual orientation, the better. Because there's a lot of people that grow up in this religion and it is one of the fastest-growing religions in this country.

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.

GROSS: Dustin Lance Black wrote the screenplay for the new movie "J. Edgar." Coming up Kevin Whitehead reviews a new DVD box set of "Jazz Icons" including Monk, Coltrane, and Blakey performing abroad. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.