Like his first two narrative features, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is based on real events, but that doesn’t mean everything you see onscreen happened in that particular order, or even happened at all. “It’s a representation,” says the 47-year-old filmmaker, heading off at the pass the kind of intricate media scrutiny that can attend fact-based films, especially during Oscar season. As he speaks, his soft voice (which Miller claims he is congenitally unable to raise) barely rises above the din emanating from the kitchen of Emilio’s Ballato, the charmingly untrendy Soho Italian joint Miller has chosen for our interview.
“These are actors wearing costumes, captured through lenses that have been chosen and placed in environments that have been created and lit,” he continues. “You’re not actually living the event. There are decisions made in every molecule of what you’re experiencing. I think it’s fair to ask how truthful a film is as opposed to how factual it is.”
Miller is fond of quoting from a letter he received shortly after the release of “Capote” from Truman Capote’s longtime friend, “To Kill a Mockingbird” novelist Harper Lee (played in the film by Catherine Keener), in which Lee described the movie as “a demonstration of fiction as a means toward truth” — a guiding principle Miller keeps in mind to this day. “I need to feel secure that nothing dishonors the characters and what they credibly could have done,” he says. “If I change the time of a thing or conflate two events, I try not to allow anything to be uncharacteristic.
“Foxcatcher,” which hits U.S. theaters Nov. 14, is a darkly perverse slice of American gothic that Capote himself would have surely relished: the story of the eccentric Pennsylvania millionaire John du Pont (played in the film by Steve Carrell) and his obsessive relationship with athlete brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), which ended in tragedy on the grounds of Foxcatcher Farms, the sprawling estate Du Pont had transformed into a training facility for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
It’s easy to imagine a lurid, ripped-from-the-headlines movie based on the Dupont-Schultz affair. But that wouldn’t suit Miller, who infuses his work with a cool, contemplative air that he himself describes as “an austere haiku style” — an attempt to say a great deal while appearing to say very little. In the case of “Foxcatcher,” that meant figuring out the repressed, subliminal forces that bound Du Pont to Schultz and his wrestler brother, Mark — forces that eventually ripped them apart. It wasn’t Dave Schultz’s murder that first drew the helmer to the story, but rather, he says, “the notion of people existing in worlds where they just don’t belong. I think all of my films have that element. In this case, it’s two worlds overlapping, and these guys allowing themselves to believe they are bound in common cause, when in truth they belong to separate ways of thinking and separate classes.”
The more Miller dug into that idea, the more “Foxcatcher” evolved into a portrait of a particular kind of damaged American male psyche. “It was apparent, from the very first wave of research, that these guys had father issues,” Miller says. “Both of them had fathers who split when they were 2 years old. Both became obsessed with patriotism. It also seemed a very American thing to not have a father, as a country that committed patricide.
“Somebody once pointed out that there are two dominant characteristics among children who grow up without a father,” the director continues. “One is the belief that anything is possible; the other is an unending anxiety and insecurity, and the paranoia and aggressiveness that’s born out of that.”
The result is a penetrating study of ego and empire — a kind of “Citizen Kane” with mouth guards and headgear — and a movie that nobody was much interested in making, even after “Moneyball” earned the filmmaker a second consecutive Oscar nomination for best picture, and a very respectable $110 million worldwide at the box office.
Enter Megan Ellison. As she has done for so many similarly waylaid ambitious American auteurs, the producer-financier stepped up to fully fund “Foxcatcher” through her Annapurna Pictures. And when Miller and his post-production team were rushing to complete the film for a 2013 holiday opening, it was Ellison who opted to give the director more time to finish the film at his pace, postponing the release by an entire year.
“She just wanted the movie to be what it was meant to be, and that trumps absolutely everything else,” Miller says, noting that, at the time, a 2013 festival premiere (at AFI Fest) had already been announced, a trailer released, and actors’ schedules cleared to do publicity. “Her sense was that we’d benefit from a couple more months to finish it. That is a big decision that was on her and her alone, because she was the one paying for it.”
Ellison’s patience dovetailed perfectly with Miller’s haiku style. “If something is to be quietly powerful, it requires more balance than a film that allows for more freneticism,” he notes. “That’s a process that can not be accelerated. You have to slow your mind down and sensitize yourself to what the actors gave, what the footage is.”
Miller regards movies as fluid and ever-changing objects that don’t even begin to find their final shape until well into the edit. “Everything else is shopping for groceries,” he says with a crooked smile. Like Robert Altman and Mike Leigh, he fosters a closely collaborative environment with his actors, and regards the screenplay not as a sacrosanct object, but rather as a guide or a springboard. “Which isn’t to take anything away from the script or the process of writing it or the significance of it,” he says. “But we’re trying to conjure something that can’t necessarily be described, because with cinema, you’re entering a different dimension. If it could be written, there’d be no need for cinema.”
On set, Miller strives to create an atmosphere charged with possibilities. Actors are expected to be able to improvise in-character at any given moment. And even when a scene is precisely scripted, Miller may ask the actors to warm up by ad-libbing several minutes of material leading into it, then give a silent signal to the cameraman to roll when he feels things are getting interesting. “Sometimes those improvisations produce surprises that accomplish what we’re after better than the actors doing the improvising could have preconceived,” he says.
Miller points to one of “Foxcatcher’s” most discussed scenes, in which Dupont and Mark Schultz take a cocaine-fueled helicopter trip to Washington, D.C., where the wrestler is going to introduce his patron at a benefit dinner. As scripted, Miller says, the scene itself was the star. “It was all about the fact that they were doing drugs,” he explains. But during one take, Carrell and Tatum hit on an inspired riff, turning Dupont’s personally scripted intro — “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” — into a tongue-twisting absurdist mantra. When editors first cut the scene, they left the improvised footage on the cutting room floor. Miller suggested they try using it, and it’s in the final cut.
“You can see it in the actors’ eyes; they’re listening, they’re watching each other. They don’t always quite know what’s going on,” he says. “There are things each actor will know about their character and circumstances that they’re not sharing with the other actors. Just like life. You don’t know where I came from today or what I was up to. The same could be said for you. You might have a hidden land mine someplace.”
Searching for those land mines takes time, too. Although Miller says he regularly receives Hollywood offers, he’s more inclined to develop his own projects, immersing himself in research and discovery until something feels right, even if it means a hiatus of several years between movies.
“I know what it’s like to be genuinely intrigued and compelled by a story, and to have a sense that there’s an adventure to be had and a film to be conjured,” he says. “One of the biggest turnoffs is being presented with an idea that’s already to a degree complete. That’s not an adventure, and it’s not a learning experience. It’s more of a chore. Then you become a technician with taste, as opposed to an explorer and an author.”