Toronto Spotlight: ‘Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller On Wrestling with Psychosis And Dislocated People In His Non-Fiction Films

toronto badgeMany saw Foxcatcher when Bennett Miller and Sony Pictures Classics premiered it at Cannes. I saw it yesterday at Toronto, and the tale about two Olympic Gold Medalist brother wrestlers who get entwined with the bizarre Du Pont family scion John is just as soul crushing when it veers from a quirky character study to tragedy. The human need that gets twisted and corroded in the relationship between Mark and Dave Schultz with Du Pont is every bit as powerful as the strange bond between In Cold Blood killer Perry Smith and Truman Capote in Miller’s first narrative film. Capote got five Oscar noms and won Philip Seymour Hoffman his Best Actor Oscar, and Miller’s follow-up, Moneyball, got six Oscar noms including Best Picture. Foxcatcher’s had Oscar buzz on it since Cannes, where Miller was named Best Director and the film was a Palm d’Or nominee with praise for Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Miller has talked his head off about Du Pont and the Schultzes, and it’s clear this is not his favorite thing to do. But he was of generous spirit Monday; he has loved the Toronto fest since being welcomed so graciously on his film debut docu The Cruise. And my, did Miller save some serious and deep introspection for Deadline about his short, brilliant film making career so far.

DEADLINE: You once said Capote took everything out of you and Philip Seymour Hoffman. What price did you pay, and how does it contrast with Foxcatcher? Both are incredibly sad tragic stories with complex characters who don’t easily wear white or black hats.
BENNETT MILLER: The toll has less to do with the movie itself, and the characters for me and more to do with the price paid in allowing them to be important. That’s what is so hard, allowing yourself to be so affected, which you need to be in order to push as far as you can.

foxguysDEADLINE: When I read about the Du Pont shooting, it seemed like a tragedy and not much more. How did you find such a rich character study in there?
MILLER: A complete stranger approached me with an envelope in a store and said, “I’ve got a story here that you’re going to want to make into a film.” A month later, I was throwing shit out when I came across it and said, what’s this? It began with reading that first article, such a peculiar, weird story. And yet it felt familiar. When a story captivates you, and when you can’t let go of a true story, for me it means that the story is bigger than just those elements, that it has the quality of metaphor.

DEADLINE: There are three richly complex characters here in Carell’s Du Pont, Tatum’s Mark and Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz. When you read that first piece, which made you say, I’ve got to break this guy down and see how something like this could happen?
MILLER: It wasn’t a character, it was the relationship. John Du Pont, this enormously wealthy dude, who knew nothing about wrestling. Mark and Dave Schultz, these Olympians who move down to that farm and allow things to get so out of hand. What could have possibly happened? The absurdity of this guy, this dilettante, with these wrestlers just intrigued me. It also felt a little bit familiar, about living in our country, not always knowing how to deal with each other.

capoteDEADLINE: The psychosis and the twisted need to form human relationships seems a close parallel to Capote. You’ve tapped into this twice. Are you a psych major? Where did you develop your antennae for this?
MILLER: Maybe I should go into therapy to answer that question. It’s true I’m naturally drawn to it. Jon Kilik asked me a few months ago what’s next and I told him four ideas I’m contemplating. He said, oh, exactly like all your other movies. What are you talking about? He said, ‘You’ve got people in worlds where they don’t belong.’ It’s true. Capote in Kansas. Billy Beane in baseball, not where he was supposed to be. Even my documentary about this romantic, poet soul in 20th Century cynicism. There’s this children’s story I remember from when I was very young. A bird falls out of its nest and went in search of its mother. He’s asking a steam shovel and other things, are you my mother? Just being dislodged, dislocated and confused by the world, not knowing your place but trying to find where you belong and what you’re meant to be doing and who you’re supposed to be with. The way so many of us live is not natural and it’s just so not right. The amount of evidence required to wake us up, to slap us out of this hypnosis. It sometimes requires an overwhelming evidence to realize, this is not what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s like a Wizard of Oz story. Someone has been displaced from where they’re supposed to be and you have to go on some impossible journey to get back home. That’s Moneyball, right there.

DEADLINE: When you started your research, how much sympathy did you feel for Du Pont?
MILLER: A lot, very quickly. It might even be a flaw. I naturally sympathize with people, especially when someone is that far gone. He is a tragic figure. When I did Capote, my feeling was, I was taking a tip from the way Capote wrote the book, that Perry Smith was a tragic figure. Yes, it was tragic and horrific that this family was murdered. But this guy was tragic too. That’s not always an easy or popular stance to express, but I have a unique gift of feeling bad for everybody. I want to know how you got to that place.

cDEADLINE: We see Du Pont’s complicated relationship with his stodgy mother, and her disappointment in him for never measuring up to being a scion of this storied American family. What exactly was he looking for in Mark Schultz when to Camp Foxcatcher this wrestler who had his own baggage and abandonment issues?
MILLER: They both were looking to validate each other, by association. Mark is this champion and Du Pont thinks he can become Mark’s mentor. I’m leading men, he says, I’m training them for the Olympics, giving them hope and opportunity in America. Du Pont revered and resented these athletes. He was the ugly girl who hangs out with the pretty girls, the one who finds some way to be part of that crowd but will never really be part of that crowd. He had visions of himself at the Olympics, coming home and being congratulated by congressmen and senators, slapping him on the back and saying, ‘Good job, John, you really did service for our country, how’d you do it?

DEADLINE: How worried were you that Steve Carell was too imprinted as a comic actor to be convincing as a twisted man who turns scary? When you watch this movie you’re required to recognize the potential for danger and tragedy. What made you feel he could pull this off?
MILLER: I got to know him and we talked about it a lot. His grasp on the character and the seriousness and commitment with which he was willing to approach this was there. He decided he would permit himself to exhibit some of these horrible qualities that are not funny at all and outside the comfort zone of anything he’s done as an actor so far, maybe by choice or lack of opportunity. That benign feeling that people have about him and the characters he has played, as he puts it, he’s only played characters with a mushy center, never played a character that could even contemplate such a thing as this murder. That’s how people felt about Du Pont, too. But Steve is also a comic, which means he has a dark side he conceals from people. It’s not uncommon for a comic talent to have another side they never reveal. We find out eventually the kind of darkness that can be in there. When I met with him, he really made it perfectly clear he got what this was going to take. He looked me in the eye and said, I’m willing to try, to give you everything I have.

DEADLINE: I’ve interviewed Steve and a lot of other comics. I had always pegged him and Will Ferrell as the only two guys who didn’t really have a dark side. Perhaps it is inherent in the breed.
MILLER: I think Will Ferrell is probably completely evil, the darkest of them all. He is known among comics as the dark knight. An evil, evil man and a dangerous soul.

DEADLINE: Sounds like you are courting him right now for your next film.
MILLER: Actually, I’ve spoken with him before about things and I would love to work with him. I know, in my gut, that he’s got something to share that’s mind blowing. I know it. I also think he’s a super talent.

DEADLINE: Channing Tatum is an enigma. I saw him in that Ditto Montiel movie he did early, and thought he was this big slab of a guy and I didn’t see much there. But the more you watch him, there is a lot going on under that granite visage that he has. His Mark Schultz was this quiet, tightly coiled bundle of rage. Why, aside from looking like an Olympic wrestler, was Channing right?
MILLER: You kind of just said it. That movie by Ditto, The Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was all the evidence I needed, watching that and meeting him. I just assumed that he was this lug, this slab of dude from Queens who was this tough fucking dangerous dude. When I met him I realized, he’s not from Queens, he’s from the South, from Alabama. That Queens accent is something he learned. He’s also the sweetest person you’ve ever met in your life. Obsessed with Peter Pan, wants to make the Peter Pan prequel. That’s who he is, not the dude in Ditto’s movie. And yet he is able to uncork that thing. It was the first thing I saw him in and I offered him the role right after, like 7 or 8 years ago.

DEADLINE: That long ago? Even though he wasn’t really seasoned.
MILLER: Correct. He said yes, and then he kind of faded away, to the point he wasn’t really attached anymore. I wasn’t able to get the movie made, and nobody knew who he was back then.

DEADLINE: Why couldn’t you get it made?
MILLER: The money wasn’t there. I made Capote and thought, I made Capote. We were just nominated. I can do anything. I really believed that.

DEADLINE: And your Capote star won the Oscar.
MILLER: Yeah. It was one of these painful stings of acknowledgment. Nope. You might be offered this movie or that movie, but if you want to do your own thing, that’s not going to happen. I tried and tried, spent years researching it, getting it written, finding the cast, and then looking for the money and just not being able to find it.

moneybDEADLINE: So instead you took Moneyball, which was sitting rudderless after Sony pulled the plug on Steven Soderbergh the weekend before he was to start shooting. You crafted your other movies from the ground up. What was the appeal of Moneyball?
MILLER: The story, and the fact that it was such a tangled up mess. I got a phone call that Brad Pitt was very interested in meeting about it. I read the book and the various versions that had been written and thought about it a few days and I just sat with that character and realized it was up my alley. Someone in a world he doesn’t belong in. I came up with my version and flew to LA and pitched it to Brad and he said, ‘Great. Let’s do that.’

DEADLINE: Simple as that, because he was the guy who held that movie together.
MILLER: He was the big brother, defender, protector, producer extraordinaire. He exemplifies what a producer should be. Not only was he the lead in the thing. After a very long first meeting, he said, let’s do this. I asked him; they pulled the plug on a version because they thought it was not commercial. Mine was not a very conventional approach, either. The things that I wanted to do were really not grabbing the low hanging fruit. He said it would be fine and that if I ever encountered any push back I couldn’t deal with, just let him know. The few times that happened, he stepped in and with a phone call…

DEADLINE: Is there a specific sticking point you hit where it was helpful for Brad to back you?
MILLER: There was; I can’t talk about it. Nobody wants to get that call from Brad Pitt, to say please step back.

DEADLINE: Was the most appealing thing about Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane the fact he’d been a mishandled phenom who washed out and redeemed himself as a smart baseball man?
MILLER: He wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

DEADLINE: You mean, he should have gone to college and gotten seasoning and been Mark McGwire?
MILLER: No, no. They were wrong about him. He never was a baseball player. He was a good high school baseball player who was misidentified as being more than that. He was taken in the first round and the truth is, he shouldn’t have been drafted, at all. He should have been either a football player, he was offered a scholarship to play at Stanford, or he should have been a student. He is a voracious reader, with immense curiosity about life. This was a search for wisdom and myth. It’s the Wizard of Oz, someone who’s misplaced, who took a wrong turn and ends up stuck in a realm he has no business being in and didn’t really like. All of these are search for wisdom stories, like the Wizard of Oz. You say, I’m lost, and you encounter somebody who says, the way to transcendence is to do this impossible thing, get the witch’s broomstick. Find the Holy Grail. Bring me the spirit of destiny, bring me the head of John The Baptist on a platter. Whatever. Do this impossible thing and present it to the wise old man at the end of the road and he’ll empower you. The hero always gets to the end of the road, finds the wise man, and says, I’ve done the impossible, now what’s the answer? And the answer is, you already know it’s been in you the whole time, you already are home. That was Moneyball.

channniDEADLINE: There is this fascinating physical bond between Channing and Mark Ruffalo as the Schultz brothers that came out the first time you see them together, warming up on the mat. There’s this physical expression, a language of brotherly love and intimacy that plays out subtly and tells you everything about these brothers, what they meant to each other, and their uneasy relationship. How did you find that?
MILLER: They spent seven months working out, learning how to wrestle, changing their bodies. When it came time to shoot that scene, it felt more like shooting a documentary. It really did. They’d rehearsed what would happen, the broken nose. I said, let’s just shoot the whole thing. How would it go? It’s just the two of you on the mat, how would it go? I told the choreographer, just let them go. They warmed each other up and I let it run. When it got to the edit, I realized I had 25 minutes of scripted scenes designed to communicate who these guys were to each other. But when I watched that footage and put a version of this scene together, I realized; I can cut those 25 minutes out. Because you see it all, how they deal with each other, right there in that small scene.

DEADLINE: That depiction of intimacy between loving brothers made the clinches between Mark and Du Pont feel all the more corrupt and wrong. Was Du Pont’s aim toward Mark sexual, or was he just a freaky spoiled guy who didn’t know how to be intimate or didn’t have that guy code that Dave and Mark lived by? What was the dynamic as you worked out the clumsiness in those scenes?
MILLER: Again, the way you described it makes me think maybe I should be interviewing you. That’s exactly what it was. When I interviewed everybody about those undertones, trying to find what was it, I gleaned that the atmosphere was charged with some kind of complicated sexuality that wasn’t really being admitted by anybody, including Du Pont, and never became explicit. But underneath it all was this feeling of, what is this? Well, he’s paying us money, I’m not going to think about it.

DEADLINE: Not unlike the murderer Perry Smith and Truman Capote.
MILLER: Very similar.

benmillDEADLINE: I’m watching Foxcatcher and thinking of his work this year in The Normal Heart and Begin Again, and feeling that of all the actors working today, Mark Ruffalo leads the league in empathy. How did you know he’d be so effective playing Dave Schultz, the big brother you only wished you had?
MILLER: Mark Ruffalo has the biggest heart of anyone I know. He cares about everybody, and is open and a loving guy. He and Channing became like brothers on this movie. It’s hard to imagine making this film without him. Dave Schultz’s widow and his children came to visit us on a number of occasions. I met them previously and Mark Ruffalo came on and they met. A testament to Nancy and her kids that they are so open, and they’ve got such big hearts, is how they embraced Ruffalo. To the point where Nancy gave Mark Dave’s actual glasses. It makes me emotional thinking about it because Ruffalo came to me and said, Nancy gave me these, they were Dave’s. He was hesitant to put them on, but he wears Dave’s glasses in the film. This woman’s husband had been murdered and we are filmmakers from another dimension, just another part of the world she doesn’t know but came to trust. For her to say, here, these are the glasses worn by my husband and I want you to have them, It is such a personal emblem of support that came from her, the kids, and so many people from the community who came out to participate in the film. Dave was the guy who had 1000 best friends. He was the best friend of so many people. They showed up, drove themselves and flew themselves to the set. I put some of them in the movie. The guy who made those self-congratulatory documentaries for Du Pont, who did the interviews and put them together, was named David Doc Bennett.

DEADLINE: He was the one getting Mark and Dave to fabricate how important Du Pont was as their mentor, which was ridiculous because he was a rich guy who couldn’t wrestle and had no athletic ability or smarts to share.
MILLER: The guy who is asking Mark Ruffalo those awkward questions, was the real guy. He still had the handwritten questions he asked Dave Schultz, and he gave us the raw footage which informed that scene, and he’s the guy in it. All that is a testament to the sincerity and the earnestness with which we approached things, but a big part of that was Ruffalo himself.

DEADLINE: You’ve made four films, all non-fiction. I meant to ask you why you haven’t gone the fiction route, but based on what you’ve shared here, I understand.
MILLER: I imagine I likely will and one of these things I’m contemplating is fiction. I think the line is so blurry between fiction and non-fiction that when you really examine and peel back the layers on fictional works, you discover they are drawn from real experiences. Similarly, Foxcatcher is an interpretation of a true story, using fictional narrative techniques to get to the truth behind the thing. It’s not by design, but non-fiction offers something process-wise that is grounded and keeps you honest.

DEADLINE: I recall long ago reading a story about the Coen brothers, obsessed with a news story they’d read about how a man who fed his wife through a wood chipper, into a stream behind his house. He was caught right before the big rainstorm that would have flooded her remains away and made it the perfect crime. Sure enough, that wood chipper found its way into Fargo years later. Are you the guy who reads thousands of non-fiction stories and newspapers looking for movie moments?
MILLER: No. I’m actually not a big reader. I just wait to get hit by something.

capoteeDEADLINE: I’m sure every interviewer asks you about Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom you grew up in the business. I’m not going to dredge that up, but can you give me a cherished memory that conveyed who he was to you, or even something he did that made him such an exceptional talent?
MILLER: When you said treasured memory, the first thing that popped into mind was when I invited him to screen the first cut of Capote. I hadn’t shown it to anybody but I wanted to show him a cut. Making that movie was a very, very, very hard thing for many reasons. It was beyond hardship; it was a harsh experience in many ways for us. The brutality with which he pursued the realization of that role was, if I wasn’t similar, I could never bear watching the way he made himself so vulnerable and bruised through that process. I hit play on the Avid and left the room and waited for him in the kitchenette down the hallway. It was after hours, nobody’s around. The cut ends, I hear the door open, he’s walking towards me. He takes out a cigarette, lights it. He’s clearly affected. ‘That was hard, that was hard,’ he said. ‘Good for us. We did good.’

DEADLINE: So a first time director wondering if his movie was good had the answer right there?
MILLER: The film still had problems at that point, there was a lot to figure out still, but he just…watching that moment where he felt, that was worth it, we did good.

DEADLINE: This, after you watched him tear himself apart.
capMILLER: Now that I think of it, I have an even better story. By the time we got to the Berlin Film Festival, he was really numb from all the interviews. People began taking his picture, wanting his autograph and he was worn out by the redundancy of questions being asked. It’s numbing. The night before our screening, he wanted to hang out and he said, I just really feel like I don’t want to do this anymore. The film had premiered September 2 and this was February and the Oscars were in a few weeks. We’re in Berlin and the next night was a big dinner for the film, with 50 people. We were going onstage after. There were a few dozen people from this dinner, looming over him. He came to me and said, ‘I just can’t deal with this anymore. I’m going to slip out and watch the last half hour of the movie.’ So he just disappeared into the theater. I was backstage, I heard the end music. He appears and sits down. His face is completely wet, he’d been crying his eyes out. He said, ‘Poor fucker. Poor fucker. It’s a beautiful film.’ He meant Capote, he was the poor fucker, but it was like Phil had nothing to do with it.

What happens with too many questions and too many interviews with people who don’t care enough, you get so far separated from what the initial intention of the film was, and the reason you did it, and what the film is, that it becomes this other thing. You just become encrusted with this other thing. He watched the movie, came back and it was like he had this tiny little hammer and he just went, ding, and that crust came off in an avalanche, leaving the rawness and the purity. It just brought me back to what the thing was. The illusion of the glamor went away and it took me right back to where we were and I found it an incredibly valuable reminder of what was important. I hope what I said here comes across. He had this ability to cut through it, and get at what was really real.

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