Back in late April of this year, I had the great pleasure of catching a screening of a gorgeous 35mm print of director Bennett Miller’s first feature film CAPOTE at Ebertfest 2014 in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois. As of the date of the screening, the film’s star, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who went on to win an Oscar for his role as writer Truman Capote), had not been dead even two months, so needless to say, the screening was a cathartic and emotional experience for everyone in the theater, including Miller, who had not spoken publicly about Hoffman’s passing until that evening.
By pure coincidence and a bit of unexpected fate, the following morning, I found myself on the same flight from Chicago to New York City as Miller. As I approached the gate, I spotted Miller sitting alone and decided to be bold and chat with him for a while, just to express my appreciation for the experience the evening prior and to tell him how excited I was for his upcoming film FOXCATCHER, the true story of Olympic medal-winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and their bizarre and destructive relationship with their sponsor, multimillionaire John du Pont. We ended up chatting for about 30 minutes about all sorts of things, but it was clear that more than anything, Miller was eager to have people see FOXCATCHER (his third feature; his first since MONEYBALL), if only to hear how people responded to how different his actors Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo looked and performed.
We ended the conversation with a handshake agreement that he’d try to make a Q&A screening of FOXCATCHER happen in Chicago, assuming he did a press tour for the film. And I never in a million years would have assumed such a screening would happen, but it was certainly a nice gesture. Well, it turns out that Miller not only remembered the conversation, but he made good on it six months later, and it made for one of the more memorable Q&As I’ve ever moderated. So what I’ve done below is two-fold—the first part is our standard-issue interview that Miller and I did earlier that day; after that, I have edited highlights (mostly taking out repeating information) of the Q&A that night.
As far as I’m concerned, as a director, Miller is batting 3-for-3 for his features (4-for-4, if you include his debut documentary THE CRUISE). And hopefully the combined interviews makes for a more complete look at how Miller views this extraordinary film FOXCATCHER and his other works. And with that, please enjoy my talk (and some audience questions) with Bennett Miller…
Bennett Miller: It’s like I never left Illinois.
Capone: I was telling the publicist downstairs that we met at the airport, and that I had no idea if you’d remember that.
BM: “Come on back and screen FOXCATCHER.” I said I would.
Capone: I find it impossible to believe that’s why you’re here, but I’ll let people think it is.
Capone: You are taking these true stories and not necessarily committing to the facts and only the facts. You do what you need to to make it cinematic. Do you ever vision a day when you might tackle a completely fictional story, or are you committed to digging into these real stories?
BM: I do dig the idea of digging in and examining them. But without a doubt, I’m sure I’m going to get into some purely fictional stuff, if there is anything such as true fiction.
Capone: It seems like what you’re about is digging into these real events and finding the heart of them, finding the truth in them. Do you feel like that’s possible in a fiction world?
BM: Yeah. Of course I do. MOBY DICK: there’s an awfully big truth there. But I get what you’re asking. And again, “Truth” is a big word. It gets tossed around a lot, but I’m working with factual stories, events that actually happened that way. Factual stories or fiction stories, capital truth is another subject. And there are just different means you can aspire to the truth with. Does that sound pretentious?
Capone: No, not at all.
BM: Hopefully these stories—whether they’re based on real life events or whether they’re fiction—hopefully they add up to something a little bit larger than whatever the plot is or the entertainment of the thing is. So I am definitely attracted to themes and characters and dynamics, and so far, it’s always been with true stories. Not to belabor the point, but yeah, I’m sure it’s not too long off before I delve into some fiction.
Capone: The thing I’ve always felt about your films is that they’re so uniquely American. They really are just about the things that we, for better or worse, seem to hold onto, cling to.
BM: Can you give me an example?
Capone: You make films about outsiders trying to find a way in, and not just about money, but that’s part of the American dream—pulling yourself up and fighting your way to a better place.
BM: Absolutely. Also, outsider characters trying to find their way in, with great ambition. I think also that sense of anything is possible. As well as a sense of insecurity, which is like it or not, is American. I don’t know how deep you want to get with all that, but what is it that you can say is characteristically American? In FOXCATCHER, there’s another element. There’s an American patriotism, but it’s not so simplistic. It relates to fathers and fatherlessness. All the characters in this movie are fatherless, which is also like an American thing. We literally killed the king. We literally divorced ourselves from the king and came over and are obsessed with our “founding fathers.”
Capone: John du Pont’s version of patriotism, it’s about winning. That’s as much a part of his patriotism as is the standard issue patriotism. When I was in journalism school, we went away for a quarter to go work at a newspaper, and the paper that I worked at—this was about 1988—was in Wilmington, Delaware, which is where DuPont is headquartered. Some people might not understand how the du Ponts are essentially American royalty in a lot of ways, and along with all the inbreeding that goes along with that. But they seem so isolated in this film. Isolated from the world, isolated from just regular people, and in a sad way what du Pont does in this film almost feels like he’s trying to connect with the outside world a little bit. Talk about what you think his motivation just for wanting to be a part of this sport. Was it about medals? Was it about being a father figure?
BM: Well first of all, everything that you’re saying I agree with [laughs]. So whatever you’re going to write, I just want to preface that with “Yes.” So yes, you are absolutely right.
Capone: In other words, I’m talking to much.
BM: [laughs] No, not at all. I like it that you say those things. I really don’t like interpreting or explaining the film too much myself, because it’s not a film that tells a story so much as it is a film that observes it. And it does have all of these themes within it, but it’s not aggressive. The film is not aggressive about promoting an idea or a message or anything like that. It’s based on a true story that was heavily researched by myself and the actors. And you’re asking about du Pont, and you’re absolutely right. I think there was a very real loneliness there. An extraordinary form of loneliness that could only occur when you’re born into that kind of wealth and this kind of family.
And I do know that from an early age, he longed to be a part of something else and have a community, but he’s also afflicted with notions of his own stature, as his name and wealth entitle him to, according to his own interpretation, regardless of his capabilities. But I really think that he, on the one hand, simply wanted to connect and be vital and be a person be validated. On the other hand, I think he was very tainted by notions of entitlement and exceptionalism.
Capone: That’s exactly it. One of my favorite scenes was right at the beginning, when the brothers just start sparring. It’s so fluid and so beautifully choreographed and so natural looking, Most directors would take pages of dialogue to make the points you make with no words, and that scene feels like you’re throwing away dialogue and saying, “Nope. This is all we need to know about these guys.” We know everything we need to know about them as a family unit in those moments.
BM: Do you know more about this than you’re letting on?
Capone: What do you mean?
BM: When I assembled that scene, I cut about 20 minutes off of it.
Capone: I honestly had no idea. So you shot that?
BM: Yeah. That’s why I say you don’t even need me in this room.
Capone: That’s not true.
BM: No, but what you’re saying is absurdly insightful, because when I worked with the writers, outlining and engineering the script, we devised a number of scenes in the first act whose purpose were to tell you who these guys were and who they were to each other and what their dynamics were. And when I assembled this scene of them wrestling with each other, I saw that wordlessly these actors had accomplished everything these other scenes had aspired to do, and I literally cut them out of the film. There was about 20 minutes of scenes.
Capone: See, I never would have even guessed that, because it feels like you did it on purpose. That and the speech that Mark gives at the beginning to the kids. There’s just something about the way he’s standing there, the look on his face, wearing the medal, the words he’s saying. That’s Mark in a nutshell. I was actually really shocked to see that Mark has a small role in this film, because I can’t imagine wanting to relive any of this. For him, is it still about being recognized? Is it still about achieving something on his own even today?
BM: I got to know him, and we made a deal where I basically purchased his life rights and along with that came an executive producer title. Not just him, but many, many, many people who were involved with this story first hand, including Dave’s family and many of Dave’s very, very close friends—many wrestlers who worked out on the farm also showed up and participated in the film, consulted in the film, assisted in various ways with research; they all lent themselves to be interviewed. I think for many, the process of reflecting on the story and what happened was a catharsis. The film itself became a means to revisit and examine what was very difficult to process years ago when the murder happened.
Capone: A lot has been made about Steve Carell being cast in the film his physical transformation. But you really transform each of these three actors fairly significantly, not always in the most obvious way. Mark Ruffalo maybe more than anyone. Was that more than just about wanting them to look the part? I know talking to actors who even just put on a fake mustache, when they look in the mirror, it makes a huge difference to them, it’s transformative.
BM: It affects them.
Capone: Was that part of the idea?
BM: Absolutely. In Carell’s case, asking an audience to accept him in this role is an ambitious thing. And it was important that from the first moment, like within three seconds, you’re going to accept him or you’re not. And most of it’s on Steve and the performance, but part of it has to do with the makeup and the look, which transforms him. But what you’re saying is also true. If you physically alter your looks, it will affect your behavior. It’s a great thing for an actor to have a mask.
Conversely, the way people related to him when he was in makeup had a kind of profound affect on him, because he was repellent. The combination of how he changed his body for the part. The makeup, the wardrobe, and how he carried himself. People really dealt with him very differently, and no one ever saw him out of makeup because he was the first there, because he has to get there hours early, and when he disappeared at the end of the day to remove the makeup, no one ever saw him afterwards.
Capone: I have some vague recollection of this film being on the release calendar to come out about a year ago, and at some point recently I read something with Steve Carell- saying that what we have now, what premiered at Cannes, is very different than what he saw back then. What were your biggest struggles in terms of cracking this story in the editing process?
BM: It really isn’t that different. It’s simply refined and refined. There’s a lot of subtle information in the film. The matter in which the film communicates is subtle, and the style of the filmmaking is very unforgiving, and it really just required refining. It might feel different, but it was just a matter of the natural course of refining.
Capone: You must have had some inkling that when you made it known that it wasn’t ready a year ago that it wasn’t going to be a three-month delay, because I think this was always going to be something that was going to come out in the fall.
BM: Yeah, ultimately delaying it just bought us a few more months to finish it, but you’re correct in that they chose to hold it to release, but it premiered in Cannes. So it premiered six months ago.
Capone: I’ve read a couple of things recently about you saying [producer] Megan Ellison was crucial to this particular film getting made, and I know this was a story you were working on even before MONEYBALL. Tell me just about her roll in getting this made.
BM: As it turns out, there was only one person in the universe who I could find who was willing to back this thing, and that was Megan Ellison. This is an unusual film.; it’s not a conventional film. Supporting a film like this requires a measure of confidence that comes from your gut and not from analysts who determine value of a perspective film. Whatever methods are used by those who determine, for example, a film’s value for foreign pre-sales are very different than whatever Megan does. She simply has a very personal method in which she responds to the film and the filmmaker, and really decides based on her perception of the validity of the film.
Capone: It’s refreshing that there’s somebody out there like that.
[The formal interview ends. What follows is a partial transcript of our post-screening Q&A that same evening.]
Capone: If I remember correctly, I read somewhere that when John du Pont died, he was buried in his wrestling singlet.
BM: That’s true. According to his will, he was buried in his wrestling singlet with his wrestling medals.
Capone: So he never really gave up, loving wrestling, wow. How did you find this story, or did this story find you?
BM: About eight years ago, I was at an event in a store, and a complete stranger approached me with an envelope containing newspaper clippings about this story. I had never heard of the story before, and he handed it off to me and said, “I think you’re going to like this story.” And a month after that, I was throwing stuff out and opened the envelope for the first time and read the first article, and I was hooked.
Capone: Do you know who this person is now?
BM: I do. He got a credit.
Capone: I remember this was not a huge story when it happened, and I’m baffled by that fact.
BM: I’m baffled by it too. And now that we’re west of the Mississippi, right? We’re west of the Mississippi?
Capone: No, actually. Illinois is actually just to the east of the Mississippi.
BM: Now that we’re close to the Mississippi [laughs], I’d like to do a little survey. This is the wealthiest man in America to ever be convicted of murder. How many of you had heard of this story before the movie? [A small number of hands go up.] I’m going to say 11 percent. Isn’t that a little strange?
Capone: What was it initially about this story that got you to the point where you then considered a film of these events?
BM: I think I’m really interested in people who are out of place. People who are in worlds where they don’t belong and searching for a place where they do belong. All of my films have had that, I realized recently. Somebody pointed it out. But immediately, the notion of one of the wealthiest guys in America having a wrestling team on his estate, what is going on? What is that? What’s the transaction? And it was sort of funny, in an absurdist way. What is going on? And it could have been a set up for a comedy had it not ended tragically. I was compelled, and the more I looked at it, the more I was drawn in.
Capone: Mark is actually in the film, and a production credit to some degree. Did you get a sense that he’s still only now processing what’s happened, because maybe in the aftermath that wasn’t a possibility. From just talking to him and getting to know him a little bit, why do you think he was willing to hand over his life story?
BM: He was tiling bathroom floors when I met him. So, “Would you be okay if I made a movie where Channing Tatum plays you?”
Capone: That’s all it took?
BM: Everybody wants to be understood. I think everybody would like to have their story told. That’s what I think. The older you get the more you just want to be known—not famous, not a celebrity, but at least to the people that matter to you. For him, he’s just a very alone person, a very lonely person. He had been writing his story, which was awfully different from what you just saw, because I read the 80 pages that he had written, which was like an axe-grinding, lop-sided version that didn’t incorporate any aspect of his own corruption or drugs or anything that he might be ashamed of.
I started researching and flew around the country and met anybody and everybody who had anything to do with it and started getting stories and we had a moment where I would ask him about cocaine, and he was like, “Oh yeah, du Pont would do cocaine. I tried to get him off it.” I was like, “Everybody told me that you did a lot of cocaine.” “Uhhh... It’s true.” I said, “Look, I don’t really feel like making a film about somebody who could kill me in a moment if you were fundamentally opposed to what it’s going to be, and either you’re down for this, or we don’t have to do it.” And to his credit he said, “Whatever you want to know, I’ll just tell you.” He was anxious about people not liking him when they saw what happened. But he’s been to many festivals, and he watches it and gets emotional, and he’s really happy that the film exists.
Capone: There’s also a theme here about the role of fathers and of absent fathers.
BM: Yeah, well these are three fatherless guys. That’s where the word “patriot” obviously derives from. The father also wants to be a patriot and is obsessed with the founding fathers. Somebody once told me that if you grow up without a father, you tend to have two dominant characteristics. One is that you believe that anything is possible, and the other is a relentless insecurity. You’re never quite secure, but you think anything’s possible. We’ve had a few presidents, quite a few actually, including the current one, who did not have a father. But that was the case both with John du Pont and Mark Schultz who grew up from the age of two without a father, because the parents split. It also feels like there’s a lot of Americana in the film as a national character. We got rid of our father. We told the king, “Thank you, but no thank you. We don’t want that.” I feel like as Americans we tend to think big and think that anything is possible. We also do have, I think on election eve, a sense of insecurity. Am I wrong about that?
Capone: National insecurity?
BM: That as a nation, we tend to see potential and think big and also look over our shoulder. Who totally disagrees with that? Wildly disagrees? [No hands go up.] I know that you’re out there. It’s okay.
Capone: A lot has been made of the way the actors have transformed, which I know you believe is as much for the actors’ sake as it is for the audience.
BM: That’s what it should be, right?
BM: No, for Steve it’s a role that’s very different from rolls he’s played, and it’s asking the audience to accept him in a role that doesn’t resemble anything that we might expect from him. I think that we tend to judge within three seconds whether or not we buy someone, and I think we all wanted him right out of the gate to be credible as this character. So most of that is on Steve as an actor to pull off. But designing his look is obviously very significant, and we worked with Bill Corso, the makeup artist, who is an artist.
It was a process that took months and many tests, and he designed this character. It looks awfully similar to the real du Pont, but the same way an actor does character work, he did character work and really designed this thing. It’s not just a matter of slapping on a fake nose. He really designed this whole thing. All the actors got their own look. As an actor, it affects behavior. If you put a mask on, you just move differently. It also affects the people around you, which affects you, and because Steve’s makeup gave him an appearance that was repellent, and also you couldn’t see Steve. He’s just not there. You don’t know what’s going on behind that face. People tended to stay away from him.
Capone: That had to be a new feeling for him.
BM: Yeah, the design of what people looked like really served I think the film, but it also served the actors.
Capone: Was there any attempt by the du Pont family to stop this film, or were they helpful?
BM: A few people were a little bit helpful from the family, and nobody tried to interfere.
Question: I saw an interview with the three leads, and Channing Tatum talking about being on set while you were making the film, and he said, “It sucked and it wasn’t any fun.” Now, if we’re going to take him at his word and based on what we just saw, I’d say he is telling the truth perhaps. But I that is true, can you talk about is that something you deliberately tried to construct as a director, or was that just a product of this heavy material.
BM: What do you want? The actor wasn’t happy? Come on. No, I’m playing. I think what he was saying is that it was hard, and it was also heavy. He had to start training, as did Mark Ruffalo, seven months out, and that was a big part of the suck. He never wants to wrestle again. It’s a really, really hard sport, I’m told. It’s a heavy story, and it’s also demanding. The style of the film is very austere. It’s very controlled, and it doesn’t tell a story as much as it examines one, observes it. These actors are under microscopes. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s a very, very unforgiving style for an actor, because there’s nowhere to hide. And sometimes that meant a lot of takes, sometimes that meant a lot of exploration.
People were tired, physically exhausted, beaten up, and the subject matter is heavy. It’s real. This happened. It’s a true story. And we were visited regularly by many people who were involved with it directly, including Dave Schultz’s widow, Nancy, who was there frequently with her children. Mark Schultz came to visit. Dave Schultz was a guy with a thousand best friends, and many of them were around, many of them are in the film. It’s a story that everybody’s willing to offer their help and share their perspectives, but almost everybody has an aspect of the story that they guard. There’s something that’s just not comfortable.
I think many people who were involved showed up and saw Mark Ruffalo step out onto the set for the first time and got emotional because he’s so similar to the real Dave Schultz to the point where he learned how to wrestle like Dave Schultz. Mark Ruffalo was a wrestler in high school. He was a state champion. But he’s a righty [he lead with his right side,] and he wanted to learn to wrestle like Dave Schultz who was a lefty and had his own style. When these guys saw Ruffalo show up and saw how he prepared, it really affected them. And it brought a somberness, a sobriety, a solemnity to the set and maybe some added pressure to the actors who felt a debt to everybody who was helping us to get it right. So it wasn’t really fun. Definitely not fun.
Capone: I’ve also seen Channing Tatum say he thinks it’s the best acting he’s ever done. So the two are not mutually exclusive, necessarily.
BM: Yeah. I think we’re all really proud of it and we have nothing but extremely warm, positive feelings for each other, all of us. I’ve never had such a group that felt so tight. Everybody got really close.
Capone: I remember a few years ago, Thomas McCarthy wrote and directed a film called WIN WIN about high school wrestling, and I did a Q&A with him here, and I remember him saying wrestling is the hardest sport to film because it’s so closed, and everyone’s down low, and it’s not conducive to shooting. Did you find that to be true as well?
BM: There are a lot of bad angles.
BM: There’s that. It’s also something you can’t fake. These guys, they’ve got to learn it. They have to do it for real. They have to do it 100 percent. It’s not something like boxing where there are all sorts of ways on film to fake it; you cannot fake wrestling. And it’s also a hard sport to understand and appreciate. It’s got its own language. What can you do that makes sense to a general audience?
Question: I thought Steve Carell was fantastic in this film, and Jonah Hill, obviously became Oscar nominated for MONEYBALL They’re both known as comedic actors more than serious actors. Was there any sort of draw to Steve Carell for this main roll, and pulling someone out of their element and into a very serious character?
BM: Yeah, definitely. Nobody expected John du Pont to murder anybody. And so it made sense to cast somebody who you would not expect is capable of this kind of thing. So that was one thing. But comics are often awfully dark. One thing I’m pretty secure in saying is that most comics guard an aspect of themselves that you don’t know about. There’s often a dark side, and they’re guarded.
Steve Carell has a public persona. When he goes and promotes a movie, he’s playing Steve Carell. You never see the whole thing, because you’ve got your public self and you’ve got your private reality. When I met him to talk about it, he was deadly serious and committed and determined. He expressed very convincingly a willingness to exhibit other aspects that he had never exhibited in a role before. And also he’s awfully smart and wise, and he understood the film, he understood the character. I just thought the only thing in between Steve Carell as we know him and an extraordinary performance that was new was the opportunity. And I cannot imagine anybody else in the roll.
Question: How did you decide to change some of the aspects of the real case, because apparently more time elapsed between the break with Mark and the shooting. Wasn’t it like nine years? And there were always rumors of what happened between Mark and John du Pont. It’s implied [in the film], but you obviously made a decision not to go sordid.
BM: Yeah. So after the Olympics and Mark leaving the farm, in actuality, eight years passed, and du Pont really descended into a place, and the film compresses that. So that’s one concession. Although it doesn’t say that eight years didn’t pass, it certainly doesn’t do much to tell you that it did. And as far as their relationship, I think the way that it’s depicted is as close as I can glean what it was without masking anything really. Beneath the surface, there were other drives—sexual or otherwise—that never became explicit, that never became lurid, but they were present The atmosphere might have been charged with unacknowledged drives like that, which to make more of it, I think, would have done a disservice to the film, and I think it’s very easy to tip over and go, “Oh, that’s what it’s about,” or, “Oh, it’s about the drugs. Oh it’s mental illness.” It would dominate the themes that I think were beneath all of that stuff.
Question: What scene was your favorite to shoot, and why?
BM: When [Mark] is getting his photograph taken and he’s in baby oil, I liked shooting that scene, even though it ended up being a very small moment in the film. I liked shooting it because it was the first week. It takes a week or two to get your stride, and it was the first time that all pistons were kicking in—the first time they settled into their characters. I could cut together a short film from that footage. It was painful to lose what we had, but there’s probably a four-minute film in there.
Question: I read somewhere that you had Steve Carell write down something he didn’t like about himself and put that in his pocket for a scene. I don’t remember reading where that appeared in the film. I’m just curious what scene that was.
BM: When Channing is cutting his hair, and there’s an extreme close up of du Pont’s profile. We’re in his head there, and you don’t really know what’s going on yet. I had asked him to write down something that no one knows about him that he wouldn’t want to share with anybody, even his wife, and write it down on a piece of paper and put it in his pocket or hold it in his hand. And we just rolled the cameras, and I cut it down. The shot in the original cut, it went on for a minute, and actually that was probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot in my life, because he’s brilliant in it. But ultimately, the film rejected a minute-long close up where you don’t know what’s going on.
Capone: Speaking of Carell’s profile, you never miss an opportunity to show the Eagle’s beak. There’s a lot of profile shots in this movie.
BM: [laughs] The Eagle’s beak, yes.
Question: You won for best director at Cannes. What was that experience like?
BM: I feel the urge to make a joke about it. My first film is called THE CRUISE, and it’s a documentary portrait of a New York City tour guide. The first screening we had at a festival in LA, a tiny festival at 10am on a Saturday, which was the only screen they gave us, that went off like gangbusters, has got to be the most satisfying experience of my career to date. And something like this, it’s wonderful to be acknowledged by your peers; filmmakers toil for long periods in darkness, and it’s personal, you care, and then you come out the other side and face a firing squad, and you don’t know if bullets or flowers are going to come out. And it’s sweet. It’s nice. It’s encouraging. But I don’t think my feet left the ground. I just felt like gratitude, and thank you. You look at the jury, the people there in the jury, “Thank you.” And then life goes on.
Capone: Bennett, thank you so much for coming out and showing us your film.