Talk about an almost overnight success story. Handed a packet of articles from a stranger while signing DVDs at a Tower Records store one day, Bennett Miller reads through them and sees in the bizarre story of billionaire John DuPont and Olympic gold-medal wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz his follow-up to 2005’s Capote. Miller gets an instant yes from Something Wild scribe E. Max Frye. “I’m an ex-jock, and this was the opposite of every sports story, which starts with nothing and builds,” Frye says. “How do you start with two gold medals and a wealthy benefactor and end with all three destroyed?”
They bang out a quick script good enough to get studio funding.
Miller then finds an ideal newcomer to play the pivotal role of Mark Schultz after watching A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and seeing in Channing Tatum the brawn, raw edges and simmering intensity needed to convey why an Olympic wrestler’s insecurity and anger would make him vulnerable to being drawn in by a troubled billionaire, leading his older brother to come to the rescue and completing a fatal triangle.
So, what went wrong? For the next several years, everything. To screenwriters Frye and Dan Futterman, who bookended the project, there were many obstacles but a few major ones, all of which turned out to be blessings that informed this absorbing character study about the haves and have nots in America.
Says Frye: “Let’s see. The writers strike, the financial crisis, a studio backing out and the funding vanishing; Bennett being forced to go make Moneyball and return at a time when Megan Ellison had established herself as a financier.”
Adds Futterman, the Capote scribe Miller brought in when he resurrected Foxcatcher post-writers strike: “I’m sure it was painful for Bennett and producer Jon Kilik to have the funding fall out, but time proved such an ally to this film. You could see then that Channing had the seeds for this performance. But when Bennett first met him in 2007, he wasn’t ready. By the time he was ready, he was a guy who got movies financed. We got lucky in so many ways on this film. Even the delays and setbacks were lucky.”
Perhaps the best thing about Foxcatcher’s timing is that it allowed for a natural maturation from Tatum. Steve Carell’s John DuPont and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz are outsized performances to be sure, but the film pivots on Tatum bringing to life the insecurities that made Mark Schultz seek a father figure in DuPont in the first place.
Tatum is the first to admit than when initially approached, he didn’t grasp this dynamic at all.
“It came down to me needing to better understand the story, what I was doing and why I was doing it,” Tatum says. “I sat with Bennett that first time and felt he was probably way ahead of me in experience and intellect, and I could see he believed in this. I read that script, and, if I’m being really honest, I didn’t get the movie. I didn’t see what my character learned through this journey. I had a notion that I’m supposed to come out of it with some larger lesson. And then I didn’t have to worry because the movie just fell apart.”
By the second approach, both Tatum and Miller were more seasoned. Miller had rebounded from the demoralizing loss of Foxcatcher funding. “I’d made Capote, we were just nominated (for an Oscar) and I thought, ‘I can do anything,’ ” he says. “It was a painful sting of acknowledgement that I might be offered this movie or that movie, but if I want to do my own thing, that’s not going to happen.” He resurrected another scrapped project, Moneyball, into a financial hit and earned his second best picture Oscar nomination in two tries. Tatum had begun developing scripts as a producer and had learned more about storytelling and acting, sometimes through lessons from costars.
“Chazz Palminteri had become a mentor,” Tatum says. “I remember I was nervous about a scene and told him I was worried about people liking my character. He was like, ‘Wait, what?’ He said: ‘No, that’s not your job. Your job is to make people understand your character and why he is making the decisions he is.’ It was like a lightning strike, realizing that as long as I make (audiences) understand who I am, I’ve won.”
Palminteri’s advice helped Tatum understand Foxcatcher and Mark’s place in it. If he was a lovable lug, the movie would fail. “When (Bennett and I) met again, it was probably a combination of us both going through seven years of experience, of life, but when I reread the script, it made sense,” Tatum says. “The style of the movie is to paint a portrait of these people, who they were and who they wanted to be, leading them to this tragic event. I’d learned that life events are beautifully and horribly complicated. It could be a masterfully painted portrait, and it would be OK that everyone looking at it has a different perspective drawn from their own life experience.”
The affable and swarthy Ruffalo, whom Channing calls “my big brother for the rest of my life,” was a natural to play Dave Schultz. “I was a wrestler myself and knew that world. I never felt a film had captured that culture in the way I knew it,” Ruffalo says. He believes his character got in the way of the fantasy DuPont created when he collected Mark and other broke amateur wrestlers— like his mother collected show ponies—and masqueraded as a wrestling Svengali. When Dave arrived in Pennsylvania to run DuPont’s Foxcatcher Farms facility, the heir’s failings became crystal clear, and his fantasy shattered.
“Dave was the kind of man who was so authentic that when you were around him, if you didn’t have that kind of authenticity, you became painfully aware of (it),” Ruffalo says. “Every time John was around Dave, it held a mirror up to DuPont and what reflected back was repulsive. John already had a reputation as a master co-opter who commandeered other people’s accomplishments, and when he swoops in with the big check to create this utopia for American amateur wrestling, he thought it gave him ownership of these guys who had nothing. When John became delusional about his talent as a coach, that’s where Dave drew the line and told him: ‘I’ll play this game with you, but do not come inside this wrestling circle. You don’t belong here. We’ll call you coach but don’t come in here and fuck with my brother.’ DuPont paid people to respect him, to call him coach, to film a documentary. Dave indulged this to the necessary degree, but he was the one guy who would not play the game and was a constant reminder of how far off DuPont was from what he fantasized. To continue this fantasy, he had to kill the one thing in his way, which was Dave.”
Miller found his John DuPont—black sheep of a storied American family—in Steve Carell, who was helped by being a most unlikely choice to play a cold-blooded murderer.
“Steve decided he would permit himself to exhibit some of these horrible qualities that are not funny and outside the comfort zone of anything he’d done, maybe by choice or lack of opportunity,” Miller says. “As he put it, he’d only played characters with a mushy center, never a character that could even contemplate such a thing as murder. That’s how people felt about DuPont, too. Steve is also a comic, which means he has a dark side he conceals from people.”
Carell didn’t see himself unleashing his own deep-seated demons, but he certainly recognized a career-changing opportunity for a comic actor looking to broaden. “I saw John as a sad and incredibly tragic figure from the beginning,” Carell says. “He wanted respect and adoration, and he created this world for himself where he exerted power to get what he wanted. Surrounding oneself with people who were essentially employees who said yes, that is a terrible way to go through life because when you’re in trouble there is no one to catch you. He wanted to be the man Dave Schultz was naturally: a leader, a great athlete and someone others admired. DuPont didn’t draw people to him like Dave, he had the opposite effect on people.”
Curiously, many of the questions asked by the film’s participants still don’t have clear answers. They all love the scene in which the Schultz brothers warm up in the wrestling ring. The wordless communication between Tatum and Ruffalo was so surprisingly profound that Miller cut 25 pages out of the script because everything about their dynamic was there.
But what were DuPont’s motives in mentoring Mark, on the mat—a sight made creepy after you see the brothers go at it? Fantasy? Sexual? Both?
“Clearly DuPont was a very lonely person, and, as you see from his relationship with his mother, human touch was not something he had a great deal of,” Futterman says. “Wrestling requires you to be intimate with another human being. It’s a sport of sensitivity, where you need to feel the other person and how they’re moving and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I think that we all want to leave it at that.”
Everyone stopped short of seeing DuPont as a monster, with the exception of Ruffalo, who got so close to the Schultz family that the wrestler’s widow gave him Dave’s glasses to wear in the film. To Ruffalo, DuPont is the corrosive downside of capitalism, entitlement and the corruption of the American dream.
“John’s whole relationship with life was based on nothing more than what things were worth monetarily,” Ruffalo says. “When your every value is measured by that, a perverted dehumanization becomes the norm. I have no sympathy for what John did. You would never murder someone like that if you hadn’t dehumanized him first.”
Top photograph of Carell, Miller, Ruffalo and Tatum by Mark Mann