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Best Director Oscar Nominee Bennett Miller Unpacks ‘Foxcatcher’ In-Depth

Best Director Oscar Nominee Bennett Miller Unpacks 'Foxcatcher' In-Depth

With “Foxcatcher,” pushed back from its original 2013 release date before debuting to raves and winning the Best Director award at Cannes 2014, it was worth the wait.

Miller’s cast jumped into his demanding process as well, researching and living with and constantly reevaluating their characters–who are real people. It was not easy–each was far outside their comfort zone. Steve Carell, known best for comedic roles, digs into the dark belly of a wealthy scion with deep insecurities that drive him to a form of madness. Vanessa Redgrave in relatively few scenes delivers as his critical mother. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play competitive wrestler brothers training for the Olympics. 

Both Carell’s John Du Pont and Tatum’s Mark Schulz are incommunicative and hold their emotions close–until they explode. Ruffalo is as good as ever as the older brother trying to save his beloved sibling from the confusing dysfunctional relationship he has developed with his wealthy mentor.

In the editing process, Miller had to tweak and trim and finesse the right nuances for the complex dynamics that drive this mystery thriller. It’s subtle, not obvious. That’s its genius, and hopefully critics will lead audiences to go on this ride, because it’s not obvious where it goes.

Anne Thompson: I know the development process was extremely long for you. You were nurturing this for many, many years. What’s the difference between how you developed the screenplay (credited to E. Max Frye & “Capote” writer Dan Futterman), what those challenges and difficulties were and what happened when the actors became involved?
Bennett Miller: For me, it feels like one process. Yes, there are different chapters, and there’s conception and actual development of the stories, ideas, and themes. Then there are attempts at screenplays, rehearsal, shooting it, editing it. Throughout every one of those is a singular throughline of finding the story. For me, development isn’t just before you start shooting and then deciding.
And a film like this is one you do discover — right up until the end, you’re constantly discovering. Before we were shooting, it’s really about understanding the story and what is compelling, why it’s gripping, why it’s worth the commitment, and becoming intimate with it. It’s a story that many people stepped forward to contribute their stories, anecdotes, and experiences with it.
So you have the survivors, basically. The wife, the brother, the children.
Many people. Dozens of people. Without exception, everybody was eager to share their side of it, and there was a part of the story that people were uncomfortable with. There’s always something masked, and it wasn’t the same from person to person. It’s not a story that anybody is fully “OK” with, and within that is some mysterious dynamics that captivated me very early.
You responded almost instantly to the story?
Immediately. Immediately. It’s not even an exaggeration. I just read the set-up and knew the outcome. They were trapped like clothes on me; I was stuck.
It’s like a mystery that you’re solving?
For me, the story has within it something that my instincts told me needed to be unearthed for my own curiosity — for my own enlightenment. It’s not just about telling a spectacular story, but, rather, getting to something that is true about the story, that resists sunlight.
It’s about a man of privilege who goes to a very, very dark place, but what leads him there is something we’re all part of: a kind of need for success, affirmation, to win a competition, and love and response. Where you started and where you ended up is what interests me. 
Well, you say matter-of-factly that that’s what the story is about, and if you had four other people sitting here, they’d say, “No, no, no, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about brothers, corruption, and impossible ideals.” I was interested in the story beneath the story — the thing that’s not said, but, when you walk away from the film, people will have different narratives about it. Where I started was probably a much more simplistic and sensationalistic story, because that’s what the kind of reporting on this is.
A story like this, the media immediately wants to label it, put it in a box, put it in this genre. These are the reasons, this is what it’s about, and put a point on it. But where I ended up is a much subtler place, a stronger place, too, to resist concluding at any moment — to withhold and withstand the temptation to conclude and put a point on something, which permits you to go to the next level with it. Where I ended up is where the movie is, which is something that I think resists oversimplification, but that might frustrate anybody trying to explain it. Because it’s an experience.
Is it fair to say that Megan Ellison made it possible for you to do this the way you did it?
Undoubtedly. I got the fever to make it and found a way to develop it into a point where I thought I was ready to begin the practical aspect of making it and could not find support. I made a real commitment to not doing anything before I made this film, after “Capote” — not just for myself, but to others. Years of effort proved that it was not possible, and I ultimately had to concede that it was not possible to make the film. Changes were made and “Moneyball” came around.
After I was nearly complete with “Moneyball,” I started to get the wheels moving on this again, to see if there was a way. If the landscape had changed. In the time that I had let go of my first attempts to make it, Megan had cropped up with a mission statement to make movies that she believed in, and I was put together in a room with her and pitched her the story. On the spot, she said, “I will make that movie.” She came through.
With final cut? And there was a timetable with Sony Pictures Classics that extended to give you more time in the editing room.
With final cut, yes. That’s right. Which is the mark of a producer, because, after this long, long road, to arrive at a place where we felt like there was one more stage of development to go, and to have a choice to call it a day and say, “This is good enough,” or to bite the bullet and keep the process open at her expense and at the expense of an original release plan. The decision to postpone–we can accelerate and we can keep the timetable– and Megan just said, “I think that’s too much pressure, and there needs to be a little bit of latitude.” I just think a decision like that is the mark of a producer, where it happened at her own material expense, but for the interest of the film. (He chokes up.)

You’re very emotional about all this.
Emotional? I somewhat am. To be supported —
When there are others who aren’t. This is not a supportive industry. You feel like a combatant most of the time.
I don’t know about “combatant.” I feel like a laborer.
Now you feel like an artist?
[He discusses, off the record, why he can’t address this.] 
Why can’t you say you are? Because it sounds pretentious?
Because the interpretation of what that means to people is a little bit disgusting. The relationship between art and commerce is one of the great, important things of our time, because within it is the trajectory of our culture and our society, because culture is at the root of our interpretation of life, which is at the root of everything, including politics.
When somebody, like Megan, makes a decision not based on personal, material interests or fear, but for the benefit of something that we regard as bigger than us, I get a little emotional. In movies, by the way, the only thing that makes me emotional is when people are spontaneously good. Those moments in, for example, “Terms of Endearment,” when Jack Nicholson — the playboy, drunk, astronaut, womanizer — shows up at the hospital, and Shirley MacLaine says, “Who’d have thought that you’d turn out to be a good person?”
When people turn out good, it really does affect me. When you work on something like a film and people do put the film in front of themselves — like Megan, the actors, and so many others involved — you do feel a bond and a kinship, something that is going to last, and that we belong to this family. It really is like a family.
Did you take a different direction with the actors than on “Moneyball”?
Yes it was the same. Absolutely. I would say, to a degree, that a great amount of “Moneyball” was improvised, and a great amount of this was improvised. Even in “Capote,” I feel like improvisation was fundamental to the process, to achieving the performances.
You’ve had a tough year. Losing Philip Seymour Hoffman was part of your tough year. I’m sorry.
I already said, I don’t want to get emotional. Thank you.
On the editing side of this, which you haven’t talked about that much, as I understand it — and correct me if I’m wrong — the Sony Pictures Classics people saw eleven different versions of the film. You were trying to find something final and you went through a lot of different iterations? 
When I had a good experience with them on “Capote” and we stayed in touch — and when I found this story — before one word was written or anything, I discussed it with Tom Bernard, and Tom jumped at it, saying, “I want that.” He never let the project get out of his sight. They’ve always wanted it, and I’ve always felt like it’s a very natural thing. I had a good experience with “big” Sony, also, and, when trying to get this made, Megan’s relationship with Amy [Pascal], my relationship with Amy, Amy’s interest in Channing, made it a natural that she’d want to get involved. I explained that this is a smaller and more “peculiar” film than Sony has experience with. It’s less in their nature, but they wanted to be involved, and it was an instance where Amy said, “I’m happy to step in and support it.” I think it’s an unusual situation.
It’s good when a studio has that flexibility. It helps.
I think it’s a very special, unique thing. I think it’s sort of like a one-off thing of, “How is this thing going to happen?” As far as Sony saying they saw eleven versions: ordinarily I wouldn’t share the film with anybody in the developing stages, but I just felt a kind of trust and comfort with those guys to show them where we’re at in the process.
For a film to become a film — which is to say, something that can only exist in the form of cinema and could not exist in the form of a conversation or screenplay — and for it to inhabit the potential of the medium is a process, and it really is about extricating yourself from the left brain. Excavating, organizing the language of moments, which involves everything from, like, cadence to beats to composition — a language that you simply cannot premeditate.
When do you know when it’s done?

It’s like if you go back for however many sonograms when you’re pregnant. There’s a one-month version, or whenever you start. At four months you have this, but you kept searching for that baby and you didn’t have it yet. At six months it was “this,” at eight months it was different again. It develops, you know? What do you know it’s done? You just kind of know when it’s done.
How would you describe some of the different flavors and colors and textures you were exploring?
The first cut just represents what many of the initial ideas were, going into shooting. Whatever place I had gotten to with the outline and the script, although we didn’t really work from “a script,” but the outline and making an assembly of what it represented. You know, we did this and we thought this was going to accomplish that, whatever. You just see where it falls, and so maybe that first pass… to be honest, Anne, I thought it was very watchable. I wasn’t depressed after that first pass.

Talk about your relationship with your writers and editors.
[Off the record, he explains how he hasn’t figured out how to talk about his sense of authorship on a movie.] 
Some people want to kill themselves after that first cut.
Yeah, but it was four-and-a-half hours, which is just simply too much. Some amount of the process was in ironing deficiencies, I guess. You’re asking a question I couldn’t possibly answer, because I think I might’ve said something like this to you with “Moneyball”: at this point, I’ve had so much experience with the story and what we’re after, and there is a spirit that’s looking to be incarnated. I’ve had a sense of where this story has left me, and you kind of want to create the thing that leaves you there…
That leads into how to reach the audience. Not from the studio point-of-view, not from the question of how you get the most people into theaters. There must be some sense of how to communicate what you want them to know.
It’s not just what I want them to know, but a way of seeing. The film isn’t telling a story; it’s observing the story. So one of the main components or characters of the film is the consciousness of the film, and I like the films where every frame feels conscious. I have this feeling when I watch “2001” or “The Birds” or “Barry Lyndon.” You’re inside a brain. You’re inside a perspective. In “Barry Lyndon,” there’s a voiceover, a narrator, which is very different than the perspective of the film. The voiceover is not the voice of the film — the film is observing that as well, and they’re communicating in different ways.
Part of it is just making something. You and I can be in a room and experience something, and we can say we experienced the same thing, because we’re both looking at a guy making cheese sandwiches. As we are right now. But you’re take on it and my take on it don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. You might see something. I see something, and what’s happening over here is expressive in a way that you might not notice unless my representation of it sensitizes you to it and guides you to it. It’s not, “Okay, we’ve got the guy making cheese sandwiches.” It’s more like, “Next, how do you slow time down and bring you in and conjure interest and intrigue about what’s really happening over there.” 
It was fun meeting Channing Tatum. Because I’ve admired him from early on, and he has the thing that few others do: he’s good in everything he does, no matter how bad it is. What was it about him? This is a huge departure, so what gave you the confidence he could do this?
Well, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” I saw that film; I went to the New York premiere, and I’d never seen or heard of Channing Tatum before. His performance in that film was electrifying, dangerous, charged, and I was immediately curious about him. I thought, “Finally, there is an actor who’s got that kind of energy and danger, who could play Mark Schultz.” Before I even knew that much about the character, it was right at the beginning.
Then I thought, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe this guy’s just playing himself. He probably just is this kind of dangerous, unbalanced character from Queens.” Then when I found out he’s from the South and is, like, the sweetest person you’ve ever met in your life, I understood that that was actually a performance he gave and not being himself, I offered him the part. So I offered him the part like six, seven years ago.
That’s a long time ago. Since then, you’ve watched him become an enormous movie star.
Nobody knew who he was.
Then Steve Carell. Again: not an obvious choice. You understood he could do this… how?
You’ve got to believe it when you see it. I don’t know how else to say it, but when you’ve got a vision for something, you believe it. If you could see it in your head, a faith is born. That’s it. It’s not possible without that faith. A Catch-22, maybe, but for it to be a reality, I think you need to have that faith.
So you created this family of actors who are on the journey with you, and you got them all into the same head every day.
Yeah. But a lot of it’s just chemistry, casting, and choosing the right people. People who were at the point in their lives where they were game for something like this. I can’t imagine any of these actors would want to make films that required this kind of commitment to back. If you asked them, they’d probably tell you they’d like to do a few things like this, but probably not many.
One thing you do is refrain, from telling people what to think. At the same time, you do think about how to communicate with the audience? Would you do previews?
I’m on a path toward discovery myself. I’m looking for that experience myself. I’m puppeteer and audience at the same time. I’m trying to conjure something that expresses it. By the way: because of the way this process stirs things up and invites super-talented people to play and improvise, usually the best stuff manifests in unpredictable ways, often unimagined ways, and so part of it is observing what you captured, asking interesting questions about documentary, coming from a documentary place, and knowing that feeling of operating the camera and looking through the lens at something unfolding in real time, and having that magic of cinema — even though it’s a real thing. That’s what we’re after.
Even when I shot “The Cruise,” I didn’t make those moments. But when you get back and really look at them, become sensitive to what’s happening, I myself am being affected by it, and so sequencing things and composing with these elements is what it’s about. Honestly, I swear to God: it really, genuinely, sincerely is not about me thinking in a condescending way, “This is going to have that effect.” It’s more like, “This has that effect.”
As a partner and producer, is there anyone you rely on?
It’s case-by-case. Jon Kilik and Megan were onboard to make this film.
Kilik was with you from the beginning, right?
He serves the film, and his interest is the film. He and Megan are incorruptible. They care about the film, and Kilik has a reaffirming power and elegance to how he affects things and communicates. Megan, also. When everybody agrees on the film you’re making, things are a lot easier.. or, I’ll say, a lot more possible. It couldn’t have been so possible without them. In different circumstances, people would say, “People did like this movie. We did a test. It scored adequately well, and move on.”

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