Producer Jon Kilik says his association with Foxcatcher began casually, in director Bennett Miller’s New York kitchen. The two friends started talking about the tragic real-life story of John DuPont, heir to the DuPont family fortune, who died in prison in 2010 for killing Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. Miller wanted the dark tale to be his next film—and he knew exactly how it would begin and end. Although it took another eight years from that first meeting to get finished, Foxcatcher premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has been enjoying awards talk ever since. Steve Carell (as DuPont) and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo (as Mark and Dave Schultz) star in the slow-burn tragedy. “The three of them, equally, are just flawless,” Kilik says. He spoke recently about the delays in production and the challenges inherent in telling the dark story.
Foxcatcher was in development for almost a decade. What was challenging in terms of the story?
It wasn’t really shopped; it was just an evolution. When it comes to making a film, there’s a lot of compressing time and choices to be made. The tough part of the story was finding both tone and pace. Each one of these characters could have been their own film. It’s choosing the point of view, the perspective and how to weight it all—and structurally, in terms of when you bring DuPont into the story. That first act, especially, was the biggest challenge.
This was first financed by MRC before Annapurna came onboard. Was there concern it wouldn’t get made when MRC pulled out?
The eight-year process was really twofold. One was just getting the script right: the casting, figuring out the movie, fleshing out Bennett’s vision for it. Then there’s also the challenge of just getting the money and finding the right producing partner. I’ve got to say, MRC was extremely supportive and generous and enthusiastic, but it’s a tough story. We needed more than money; we needed a creative partner who was going to tell us we weren’t crazy, to be another sounding board and take a risk to allow the film to be everything it could be. These days—and it’s nothing against MRC, it’s just the nature of the business—you have to fit into a box, a financial one and even one in terms of schedule. This movie just never did. Megan (Ellison), who is almost single-handedly helping the independent film movement, is an amazing partner, making big, bold decisions throughout, especially when it came to extending post-production last year. I don’t think anybody would have done that. It enabled Bennett to make the perfect film that we fought for and waited so long for. Sometimes when you accept the money, you then have to sell your soul. With Megan, we were able to get the financing and have somebody who was 100% committed.
How tough was that choice to delay the film until Cannes?
You do things out of need, but you also have to consider the consequences in terms of publicity. That’s what made the decision even more of a bold and brave one because you’re putting forth another financial commitment and then you have to deal with the public reaction to it. Listen, you only have one shot. You want to make the film the best it can be, and you are hoping that by doing so you lay all that to rest later.
Did you have to get any life rights for the film?
There was enough information out in the public that we didn’t have to. But for the sake of doing the right thing and also to have access, we worked with Mark Schultz and we got his life rights. Then also we had a lot of help and consultation from Dave Schultz’s widow Nancy and from many of his very close friends, some of whom lived on the Foxcatcher Farm. One guy in particular, John P. Giura, we bumped up to an executive producer credit he was so invaluable.
What was the mood on set like?
It was very highly charged. When you do something that’s that emotional and intense in front of the camera, you need the set to be very quiet and create an environment where these guys can do that work. There’s always time pressure when you have one character who requires a lot of time in the makeup chair. There are weather issues. When you’re out on location for the entire shoot, there are constant challenges. I wasn’t on the set all the time. I was flying back and forth from Atlanta. (Ed. note: Kilik also was producing Hunger Games.) When I was there, Bennett was setting a tone on set and behind camera that was not so different than what you see on the screen.
Of course, everyone is talking about Carell’s performance, but Tatum also transforms himself in a really interesting way.
I’m so glad when people pick up on that. Obviously, Steve is unbelievable. He doesn’t break that character for a frame. But Channing has every detail, every nuance, the way he eats, his eyes, his brow, even the way he trained for this. It’s hard for anybody to understand that because they haven’t been around Mark, but it’s just remarkable. I’ve made a lot of movies over many years, and I just love watching this one. It’s perfect execution by everybody.
John Kilik photographed by J.R. Mankoff