Directing the Observance of a Story
A Q-and-A with ‘Foxcatcher’ director Bennett Miller
Based on the tragic true story of multimillionaire John du Pont and his relationship with wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, Foxcatcher offers an insightful exploration of not only elements of 1980s America, but also a myriad of themes related to the management of wealth and power.
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, director Bennett Miller’s masterpiece invites the audience inside the minds of its characters without fanfare, providing a stark look at the realities of dependency, loneliness and the search for success.
How much did Mark Schultz contribute to the making of the movie and what was it like to work with him?
He wanted to have his version of the story out there, so when we embarked on this thing he was eager and enthusiastic.
The difficulty came when I would return with questions about things I had learned from other people and sought to get his perspective on aspects of the story he would have preferred to have kept guarded. But we had a few very open, very honest conversations about the kind of relationship that we would need to have if we were going to proceed with this thing.
It really did mean him being honest and to concede all power because it can’t be his telling of his story. He really had an option to either participate or not, and he chose to. To his credit, he really did open up. There’s also so much information coming from every direction that I think it’s hard to deny. In his original telling, there was no discussion of drugs, for example.
When you initially began production for the movie, did you have Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell in mind at all?
Tatum was the first. Before I even had a script, I saw him in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and seeing him actually was a little bit of incentive to continue to pursue the development of this film, because I felt that there was somebody who could do it. I was also attracted to the notion of a complete unknown for that role, which he was at the time. Then his career went into all sorts of different directions, but it never shook me from the original impression that he’d made in that role and that movie.
Ruffalo was in my mind from very, very early on, just because I think he’s a great actor. I tried to hire him to be in Capote, and I knew that he was a wrestler. He was brought on probably a year before we started shooting and Carell was brought on a little bit beforehand.
Were you conscious that there was a line between showing du Pont more sympathetically as a lonely, eccentric millionaire, and showing his sinister side that is capable of murder? Where was the balance between these?
It’s just trying to make the best case for him and everybody, and there is that urge to simplify things and to succumb to the temptation to make one character solely responsible and villainous.
The more time I spent with this story, and really the more time I feel like one spends truthfully examining anything, you have to admit the yin within the yang. It’s never as simple as all of that. These were relationships that culminated in the outcome of a murder. If you withhold the sorts of judgments that might simplify a character, like du Pont, and just really examine in an unflinching way, you would see that there is some kind of a collaboration within these relationships that led to this outcome. There were decisions made by everybody. It’s not simply a villain and victim, which is what makes the story interesting and relevant.
There is such a tendency, the extreme example is within politics, to such violently polarized views of people and events and issues, that it really ends up in a destructively ignorant understanding of how to proceed, I think. That’s one guy’s opinion.
Foxcatcher, like your previous films Capote and Moneyball, is based on things that actually happened. How do you know when you have found the meaning you are looking for in a story and can proceed?
It’s almost too good a question, because if I could answer that perfectly, maybe I wouldn’t make movies. But I was seeking some sort of experience of what feels truthful to me about these sorts of relationships. For me, movies are most compelling when you can look at them and say, “That’s right. That’s life as I know it. That illuminates something that I’m familiar with but had never been expressed.”
I do think there’s an absence of this kind of perspective in our culture at large, just because we’re so insanely polarized about nearly everything. We just want to thrust this dynamic on everything. I came to believe certain things about the story, including how lost and lonely John du Pont was, the discomfort of the lie that he was living, and the inability to process the unacceptable feelings that life confronted him with as he tried to play this role. Those moments when you see him struggling to teach, to charade as a coach in front of his mother, and not have one person acknowledge it, is a different kind of loneliness. It’s just so friendless.
The setting and architecture contribute significantly to the feel of the movie, more than actors in some scenes. Was that a conscious decision during filming, or was that more post-production and editing?
A couple things come to my mind. It’s all very deliberate. It’s all part of a design. When [Mark] lands in the helicopter on the estate and he is led into the library and left alone there, there’s this big wide shot, and he’s standing and doesn’t even know how to move, he’s like a bull in a china shop. That shot and those moments are simply called “bull in a china shop.”
Before the scene, I just wanted to have a moment of him there and so there are really two characters. There’s him and then there’s the room with these paintings, these portraits.
When I think about the scene in the helicopter where he does the coke, that was an atmosphere chosen for that moment. The first time he is administered cocaine can happen anywhere, but it just seemed to be an environment that would most convincingly justify why. He’s literally trapped inside this cabin with this crazy light and the world is distant and soft, dark outside the window. The light is crazy and the sound, there is so much to get lost in. He’s taken so far out of his element that it shook up the rules. He’s also wearing a suit and he’s being taken to a place and he’s being given a role and he’s being relied on. There’s nowhere to go, there’s no alternative. That’s the setting for something like that, and many others like the horse stable. There are many things like that, which I would say are characters.
Since Foxcatcher is based on a true story, how important was it for this film to stick to the true material, and what was altered?
We compressed time, we condensed time, and there are all sorts of little details where this actually happened to a different wrestler, or this kind of thing had happened to Mark but it’s a similar type of thing, but this works better in the story.
This is cinema and it’s a narrative film and you’ve got actors playing roles. It’s necessarily fictionalized and there’s no way around it, period. It’s built largely from facts and anecdotes and it’s informed completely by what happened.
There is a distinction between factually accurate, which is absolutely impossible to achieve. No film ever, even a documentary because there are decisions being made every frame, from what to include and what not to include, and is there music? What lens did you choose? Where are you standing? Everything that affects you, in any way, from the lighting to the color.
What does matter is this more elusive term of truth, and that there’s some kind of truth to be derived from this story that can only be derived via cinema. You can write a non-fiction account, a book based on the story and there are areas where that medium can reach that film cannot reach. We can talk about it or it can be an oral history or all sorts of things. But film can do something that no other medium can do. In order to do it, it does employ artifice, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of the truth that the medium can expose.
Where do I draw the line? To the best of my ability and assessment, there is nothing within the movie that violates a sense of who these characters were and the decisions they made and the events that happened. So it’s essentially true.
That’s my feeling about it, and as we’re now showing it to many people who lived part of the story and who were close to Dave Schultz, because he had a thousand best friends, many have said that it’s hard to look at, and it’s emotional. Some might not have been happy about the fact that a film was being made. But nobody has, to date, expressed to me, directly or indirectly, anything other than respect for the truthfulness of the film.
Your style of filmmaking is quite understated, versus the more aggressive, dramatic styles that shove the story down the audience’s throat. Do you prefer the understated style, versus more sensationalistic styles?
The style of the film is dictated by the need to detect the undercurrents of the story, the aspects that are not explicitly stated. It’s a very austere style that’s meant to sensitize you to the subtleties of the performances and the atmosphere and the dynamics that exist beneath the dialogue. The camera doesn’t move unless there’s reason. There’s a sparseness within the sound design, within the music.
Movies are like people; you trust them or you don’t. This film attempts to examine people, behavior and events. As you say, it’s not shoving it down your throat. It’s not telling a story. It’s not a pedantic, didactic telling of a story. It’s the observing of a story, the style of the film also is meant to put you into a consciousness. You should feel like you are inside someone’s head. There’s a voyeuristic sense of this film.
When I was growing up watching movies, it was the films that had that quality that really spoke to me, that respected my space but also drew me in with what you could feel was real scrutinizing interest, where you could feel the interest of the film. Like Hitchcock’s films, like The Birds or 2001, or The Pawnbroker by Sidney Lumet, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout or Salesman by the Maysles, films like that, that feel conscious. That’s the brief of the style.
Why did you choose to shoot on film rather than digital?
I did tests and it just didn’t feel right. We did everything we could do to get the digital to feel in the world that we wanted. But the fact that it’s a period piece, set in the 1980s, there were aspects of what had to be done that just felt like needle scratch when we explored the digital option. I just couldn’t get comfortable with it.
Did you work personally with the actors to find their voices in the roles, or was it more letting them go off on their own to figure things out?
No. They really just did it. I helped them get materials to review. Carell had a lot of du Pont’s voice, all sorts of footage. Du Pont had these documentaries “made” about him and the documentary filmmaker [David Bennett] gave us those documentaries, and he gave us all of the raw footage that Carell could study.
Then [Bennett] ended up playing himself in the film. He’s the guy who interviews Dave Schultz. He’s actually the guy who did the documentaries.
Many people know Steve Carell best as a comedy actor. Do you feel that this pre-conceived perception makes his performance all the more effective, because he is subverting expectations and perhaps creating surprise and unease?
Part of the challenge of casting somebody like Steve Carell is that there is some kind of bias that’s been formed about him and his abilities and his identity. Part of the challenge was to transcend that within seconds. When I spoke to Steve about it, when I spoke to Bill Corso, our make up artist, about it, we all had that goal. It was the three-second goal. That’s how much time you have to convince somebody that you’re in it. Because if after three seconds you’ve not bought into it, forget about it. That was on Steve, that was also on Bill Corso, the make up designer. I do think that Steve is so authentic, so committed and convincing that it really transcends the fact that it’s him. I think you really do forget about it.
Steve’s big joke in Q-and-A’s about his prosthetic nose is that “I willed my face into that.”
Foxcatcher is now playing in theaters.