Winner of the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, director Bennett Miller is one of those rarest interviewees —you can see him think carefully about his answers to questions. After his prior non-fiction films “Capote” and “Moneyball,” Miller has made what may be his finest film to date with “Foxcatcher.” Based on the true story of multimillionaire and industrial scion John du Pont (played by Steve Carell —read our interview with him right here) and his patron-turned-killer relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) in the ’80s, it’s a tale that chills, but is also a rich examination of the promises in the American Dream, specifically how often they can lead to an American nightmare (read our review). We spoke with Miller in Los Angeles.
“Foxcatcher” feels like a Venn diagram of previous themes you’ve explored: true crime with “Capote,” and money and athleticism with “Moneyball.” Was it deliberate or was it just that this was a great story?
Interesting perspective. I wouldn’t have looked at it like that. If you’re looking for a through line, I would say that my four films, including my documentary [“The Cruise,” 1998], all feature outsider-type characters, people who are looking for their place in the world. People living in worlds where they don’t really fit. In each case, there’s also a great ambition that is meant to remedy the problems or damages of their lives. And I didn’t realize that through line until recently, when my producing partner John Kilik was asking me what other stories am I considering in the future. He said, “oh, it’s just like your other movies. People in worlds where they don’t belong, trying to find their place.”
The double-edged sword of the American Dream is that it tells you, simultaneously, you can be anyone you want … and at the end of the day, that may not be enough. Is that the point, that discussion of self-creation and how it can become self-destruction, and how American culture really allows for that?
Or foments it, possibly? I like how you’re phrasing your questions, because that’s what it is: “Is it worth having the discussion”? These films ultimately are not pedantic. They’re not striving to make conclusions and make statements, but they do look at dynamics in the world and in society and our places within it that I think are relevant. They’re relevant to me, and I feel like these things are under-examined and I am attracted to the notion of ambition within a society.
Some time ago, the classes, the walls, and the barriers separating the classes began to be dissolved, at least in our minds, meaning that there is freedom in opportunity. With that dissolution, I think, comes an anxiety about your station in life, because wherever you are, there is a station above you, and with it now is the understanding that the only thing keeping you from it is not some law or societal construct —it’s your own inadequacy if you fail to get there. There are prizes that we are meant to aspire towards. I do think that’s part of the American concept.
I’ve grown up in the long shadow of the Reagan years, one which I have no problem arguing still falls to this day, and there are systemic things that keep you from being the best you can be. And we never talk about them.
That’s right, but what I’m saying is that the idea is motivating us and governing us. It’s sort of a North Star ideal, which, when the rubber hits the road, we discover is a little bit more complicated.
It’s the whole maxim about how even the poorest American thinks of themselves as a temporarily-disadvantaged potential millionaire.
Yeah, exactly. For the record, I have to say that this is getting very, as George W. Bush might have said, “philosolophical” (laughs).
I loved all these very frosty, long, locked-down shots of wintry expanses or huge, Kubrick-ian sterile rooms, but matched with this supple, Altman-like sound editing, where no matter what you’re looking at, you can hear everything in the room. When John du Pont is playing grab-ass with his wrestlers, you still hear everything even as you’re watching his face. How hard do you think about composition, as opposed to sound editing?
I think that they both require your full attention and full care, not just individually as departments, but how they work together. When you commit to an austere style, you’re inviting all sorts of difficulty because of how unforgiving the style is. It’s a double-edged sword. When you have an austere style, it really does sensitize you profoundly, I think, to what you’re seeing and hearing and feeling. So if something is misaligned or something is false, it tends to get amplified. Likewise, if there is a subtlety within a performance that is suggestive of some inadvertently-expressed feeling, that too will have the benefit of being amplified. But how it all works together is a delicate dance, I think, because your awareness and sensitivities are so heightened.
To use a really clumsy metaphor, it’s the whole thing of the starker the background, the better you are able at appreciating the smaller differences.
I do not expect accuracy out of a fiction film, but I’m curious: what was the dramatic purpose of protracting the timeline from as long as it was to as brief as it seems in the film?
The one big concession in the film is that the time from which Mark left the farm to the time of the killing is collapsed, or seems to be collapsed. We don’t indicate how much time passed when we fade to black, or during the montage of the passage of time, but one does have the sense that time has passed. I compressed it because it kept everything in communication with each other.
It maintained a velocity that it otherwise might not have had?
Yeah, but also a connectivity. It’s just dramatic expediency. We’ll leave it at that.
Mr. du Pont seems like someone who doesn’t even have delusions of grandeur, but just delusions of competence … but he’s got enough money to make that irrelevant. He’s got so much cash, and he gets in his helicopter, and Anthony Michael Hall hands him his cocaine kit … how do you write somebody like that without turning them into a Batman villain or a caricature of something so completely inhuman that it’s unrecognizable?
I think it begins with really trying to understand them and make the best case for them, because they don’t see themselves as a Batman villain or a caricature at all. When you really begin to examine a life like this, all of the answers are right there. There’s something absurd and ridiculous about him, but on the surface. The more you look at him, and the more fairly you look at him, the more you realize that he’s a human being, and a troubled one. My feeling about the film from the first time I read about [the events inspiring the film] was that it was all very funny until it’s not, and then it’s not funny at all. The truth was the guide.
A film can evoke many reactions: There’s a reaction of applause in the theater, and the reaction of dead silence in the theater, and then plenty of hushed, enthusiastic conversations in the lobby. Which do you prefer? Do you feel like you can go for both, or which would you rather try and attain?
I like it all, but because it’s a film, the actual experience itself I value over the discussion afterwards, and laughter is great. Silence is absorption, and when you’re watching a film and you’re that quiet and you’re that still, at least from my experience of watching films, that indicates an absorption, where you’re really in the moment. You’re really present. What you’re seeing is vital to you in that moment, and it’s tingling and it’s alive and it matters. So to me, to sustain that note of captivation, is … (pause)
What you shoot for?
Exactly. No pun intended. But also as an audience member, that’s part of what I love about the movies that I love.
“Foxcatcher” opens in New York and L.A. Nov. 14. Below is a clip from the film along with a 14-minute discussion with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Vanessa Redgrave, Bennett Miller, writer Dan Futterman and producer Jon Kilik, plus Bennett Miller’s full talk from the New York Film Festival.