Rebecca Miller almost didn’t include herself in her latest film, the documentary “Arthur Miller: Writer,” despite the fact that it’s about her own father.
Luckily, as she told the audience in a Q&A after a Sunday matinée at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series, she realized that the personal film, which is constructed in part using footage of interviews she conducted with the famous playwright in the ’90s, wouldn’t be complete without her presence.
“That was really hard, finding how much of myself [to include],” she said. “At first I tried to have nothing of myself. I wanted to be as much out-of-the-way as possible, but then I realized that wasn’t really honest because, after all, I was there. Pretending the whole thing was more neutral felt fake.”
In addition to the hours of personal interviews she’d conducted with her father using film stock she received as part of her 1995 Gotham Award prize, she also interviewed playwright Tony Kushner, Mike Nichols, as well as her brother, producer Robert A. Miller. She also included audio from her own interviews.
“My interviews were all done on an iPhone with the editor. He would just ask me questions and we would talk for hours,” she said. “I wanted it to sound like a conversation and not like a god’s-eye view of, like, ‘This is what happened,’ but rather me talking just as my brother was talking — to find a way of having it be more conversational.”
What resulted was a film that takes the viewer through Miller’s entire life, from 1915 to 2005, touching on the biggest events of the 20th century along the way.
“You can’t tell his story without telling the story of the century and in that sense, the film began to expand,” she explained.
When she first began interviewing her father, she had no idea the footage would turn into a film (even 20 years later and more than a decade after his death).
“I thought maybe I was just putting together footage that I would give to my kids or give to someone. I just thought it was important to record him as he was,” she said.
But she was able to gain not only important access to Miller, but also unfiltered access.
“There were things that were difficult for him to answer…I think he really tried. I think he really wanted to be honest and he wanted to be open,” she said.
Ultimately, the film allowed Miller to see her father in a different light.
“I think that it humanizes him, and it puts his work in the context of his life but it also makes you see him as a human being and maybe go back to his work,” she said. “But at the same time, I think it’s about anybody who’s trying to do something of value, and failure and success. Sometimes you get knocked down and you just have to keep going and you have to survive. I think the movie’s as much about that, about perseverance and just trying be a decent human being even though you’re a flawed person, just trying to do your best and work really hard.”
Plus, she learned more about what her father was like as a person and not her father.
“I felt like I learned a lot even though I had lived with him all those years,” she said. “But when you have a parent, you’re not necessarily taking their wisdom all the time, right? And something about the process of cutting it — which was at times, honestly, very painful — at the same time was really interesting because I got to see him from a little more distance.”
Watch clips from the Q&A below:
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.