Early in his career director Bennett Miller made documentaries, but now he has developed a specialization in features like “Capote “ and “Moneyball” that are based on real events but treat them in ways that take stories beyond their particulars to suggest their broader meanings. During a recent Dallas stopover he talked about his latest, “Foxcatcher,” which dramatizes circumstances surrounding the 1996 killing of Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz by John E. du Pont, the multimillionaire who had become a financial patron to Schultz and his brother Mark, undertaking to help them—along with other young wrestler—train for upcoming competitions at a state-of-the-art facility on his Pennsylvania estate.
Asked about his penchant for stories based on real life, Miller said, “I like having something material that I can really examine. I’m drawn to the aspects of these true stories that feel like fiction, the allegorical component to them. They’re true stories, and yet they feel that they have certain the power that fiction has to get to deeper truths, truths that are larger than just the stories themselves. Whatever coverage had been done of this story, what interested me were the parts that had been overlooked—the human components to it. It’s very easy to take a sensational story like this, send a news truck down and write it down and whip up very satisfying, frothy stories that work for a couple of days, that people can consume like junk food and then move on. I was very interested to revisit this thing that had always been covered in such a way and to try to unearth the humanity of it—not as an investigator or a journalist, because I’m neither of those things. I’m a filmmaker, and I was drawn as a filmmaker to a story that seemed to have allegorical power.
“When I say truths,” he added, “I think that making this film taught me a great deal, that personally I’m drawn in, and I feel that this story has something to do with me, and I want to pursue it. The question of ‘Why did he do it?’—it’s sort of against my nature to give a simplified answer. And I really like to resist—and the film resists—concluding anything, because the moment you conclude something, by definition you end thinking about it. And I think that the themes of this film are very alive in the world today, in our culture and our society. And to smack a label on something, to give a diagnosis, to give a conclusion, about any of this feels political. And this is not meant to be that. So for me the truth has more to do with the character and drive of these forces that govern different interests. Within the story are characters who are obedient to the impulses of wealth and class and power and patriotism and exceptionalism and family—and especially the questions of our perceived differences. This is a tiny little weird, obscure story that nonetheless, I think, embodies in a very simple, haiku way, larger themes.”
Asked why he thought the story of Schultz and du Pont remained relatively obscure in an age that seems to prize such true-crime tales, Miller replied, “I do not have the answer. I’ve asked myself that question before. Part of my intrigue about it is that the coverage is so disproportionate to the sensational value of it. It came and went awfully quickly. And I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t know anything about this story. He [du Pont] is the wealthiest American ever to be convicted of murder. And almost nobody knows about the story.”
One aspect of “Foxcatcher” that will undoubtedly attract notice is the extraordinarily acting by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum as Dave and Mark Schultz, and by an unlikely choice, Steve Carell, as du Pont. How can Carell cast? “Well, his name was offered by his agent,” Miller said, “and when I came to his name on one of the lists, I paused, because it made an intuitive kind of sense to me, because it was such an oddball thing—nobody expected DuPont top murder anybody, and [I liked] the idea of casting somebody who would surprise us in that way, too, because this is not the sort of behavior you’d expect from Steve Carell.
“When I first met Steve to talk about the role and the film, he said that he’d only ever played characters with mushy centers, and that DuPont seemed to have a mushy center but he didn’t. And also [from] the seriousness with which Carell discussed the role and the film, it was clear that Steve himself does not have a mushy center. Seldom do people with his measure of success have mushy centers. And being a comic, he, by necessity I think, has to have an aspect of himself that he keeps guarded from public view. And we all know how dark comics can get—I’m not saying that he’s darker than most or anything like that, but he does have private side that is not at all goofy, not at all mushy. He’s very smart and also, in my estimation, a pretty intense person, and beyond his talent as an actor—which I think is considerable—and beyond his peculiar sense of humor, which is not inappropriate for this role, that kind of out-of-place awkwardness, the fact is he expressed a commitment and a determination to participate in a process that would be genuine and would explore to the best of our ability who he was and what happened. And that willingness, that eagerness and commitment, goes a long way when deciding who your collaborators are. And very quickly I thought I couldn’t imagine anybody that I’d rather have do it, if he could pull it off.”
Carell certainly proved a dedicated presence on the set, Miller said: “Few of us ever saw him out of makeup—he was the first to arrive and the last to leave. And because the makeup was so good, he was naturally a repellent presence on the set. Nobody had any bearings on who was behind that makeup because none of us knew Steve, really—not by any grand design, but just naturally, he kept to himself and people kept from him. And I think it served him and the film well.”
The film is remarkable for its cool, clinical sense of menace it builds through its patiently unsettling approach. “So much of what happens is unspoken that you need to be sensitive to the subtleties of what’s happening,” Miller explained. “People express themselves in all sorts of intentional ways in what they say, but they also express themselves inadvertently, and for me an austere style that really scrutinizes behavior and puts these actors under a microscope was needed to sensitize you to the signals coming off of these people. So you might find yourself getting anxious and tense and feel the constrictor begin to squeeze, but you might not always know why. To me it’s a dynamic style of filmmaking, and the film is very dynamic, because it gives power to things that ordinarily are meaningless in a frenetic film.” He spoke particularly of one scene between Carell and Ruffalo: “It just feels like a bow being pulled back to the point where it’s about to break.”
Miller closed with some observations about the practical challenges of shooting the wrestling scenes—both training sequences and competitions. “It’s such a hard sport—Channing himself has no doubt of that,” he said. “From my perspective shooting it has its challenges, because there are a lot of bad angles in wrestling. It just seems like it’s impossible for five seconds to go by without ending up with a bad angle, so a certain amount of thought has to go into the choreography and where the camera lands. Other than that, shooting it is not that difficult. All of the work has to come from the prep, mostly from the actors to just get to the place where they’re capable of executing, and then from the choreographer—to figure out what we can do that’s expressive in such a way that wrestling fans and neophytes alike can appreciate. But because it’s so taxing and exhausting, you can’t do takes all day long. It’s really about preparation and knowing you’re only going to get two or three takes.”