In Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller presents the clockwork of a murder. And, while Steve Carell grabs headlines (and deservedly so) for his transformative performance as the killer, John Du Pont, it's the man behind the camera who gives Foxcatcher its foreboding, doomed edge. He's already won Best Director at Cannes this year, and the Oscars await.
Miller, who directed both Capote and Moneyball in recent years, has a restrained gift for visual storytelling that both enhances the incredible performances of his actors and, at the same time, challenges the audience to think about what they're seeing onscreen. Nothing you witness in Foxcatcher is accidental. The true story of the strange relationship between one of America's richest men and an Olympic wrestling champion is brought to vivid life and the details are presented unapologetically.
Given the chance to speak with Miller about Foxcatcher, we were excited to learn about the director's powerful method. He explained his train of thought and intent while approaching certain scenes and touched on the many themes inherent within the film.
Zimbio: The initial shot of John Du Pont is from far away. Could you talk about the decision to introduce him that way?
Bennett Miller: Interesting question, nobody's asked that before. Well, I actually covered it in a few different ways. I just have a real strong aversion to doing things in a sensational way and I wanted who he was to creep up on us and to have his introduction be mundane—not to come out of the gate too strong. I just wanted it to feel like a mundane reality that we're familiar with. Something we recognize as, well, this is what life feels like. It wasn't a big decision. It was just: This is a moment not to be movie-like.
After that shot, we get in and trade back and forth. That opening scene between Channing Tatum and Steve Carell is my favorite in the film. Can you talk about what exactly you wanted to show us and maybe what you didn't want to show us?
I gave names to chapters within the film that you'd never know about, but there's a chapter that begins with the phone call to Mark Schultz inviting him to Foxcatcher Farms called "Seduction." And as Mike Nichols likes to say, every scene is one of three things: It is an argument, or it is a negotiation, or it is a seduction. If it's not one of those three things, it's not actually a scene. And this scene is a seduction. It is about one man appealing to another. It's about John Du Pont opportunistically sensing Mark Schultz's need and, intuitively, he understands how to appeal for his devotion. And it was probably the hardest scene in the film to shoot. It's the only scene between two people we reshot and the only one we reshot during production. I get tired thinking about it. We labored on it. So many versions of that scene had been written, improvised, and teased out. It was so easy to cross the line and do too much and I just wanted this to be an awkward, difficult—maybe not difficult—but an awkward bonding.
The seduction is amazing stuff. Throughout your career so far you've dealt with true stories and I wondered, in your selection process, is it the story no matter what it is? Is reality important to you?
It is kind of a coincidence, but I'm attracted to real stories because I like being able to examine something and search for hitherto unexposed or undiscovered truths that you can find if you stick to the story. This story was reported when it happened, but the sensational nature of it, I think, contributed to the kind of coverage that ignored the deeper interpersonal aspects, which were just much more interesting to me. So to take something that actually received national coverage—and even a couple of books were written about it focusing largely on Du Pont's madness at the trial—go back and reexamine it and see if there isn't something else there that's of relevance and worthy of a film and that might possess allegorical qualities; so it is very satisfying to get to the truth—the very real grounded dimensional truth behind the sensational aspects of it.
You've got a number of universal truths in here from the corrosive effects of money to family rivalries. Are themes like these something you think about before shooting, or is it an organic thing that comes?
Yeah I do, but that's part of what drew me into the story. These themes are partially what made it all so attractive to me. But when it comes time to actually make the film, the focus really needs to be shifted simply to the characters and the actions. Those things are baked into the story there isn't much more to do about it other than to remain aware and sensitive to the treatment of them along the way, but it's all in the atmosphere and they're all undercurrents.
But you punctuate this stuff with everything from production design to the score. Like in Capote, the music is subtle, at times, to show connections between people so all this stuff combines to make the big picture. How much control do you have as the director really, and how much do you just kind of let happen?
I would say full responsibility and control, it depends on the day. But I have a deep understanding with my key collaborators and we, as a group, talk about it. And each department head is very aware of what the other departments are doing. As much as possible, I meet with everybody at the same time so we can discuss these things and how they will manifest. If the production designer shows me a sketch for a set that doesn't quite work, my notes on that sketch are very good for the D.P. and the costume designer to hear just because it's going to align everybody with a similar perspective of the challenge at hand. It'll inform how their parts are going to contribute to this. It's not accidental, but it's a consequence of a collaboration of really gifted people.
I wondered if you kept anything from Foxcatcher, the sweatshirts or anything to remember the film by?
Yeah, one of the real wrestlers who had been down at the farm, named Robbie Calabrese, gave me one of the actual sweatshirts that's 30 years old, and I kept that. I was given, as a gift, a ring that John Du Pont wore that somebody had purchased during the estate sale. It was the ring that was given to him or that he purchased in 1976 when went to the Olympics as part of a support staff and I don't really know what to do with it. It's a little bit...
It's a little, "eerie" is a good word. And another thing that I have is the trophy that Du Pont wins during the masters tournament and then presents to Vanessa Redgrave and lays on her lap.