CANNES, France — Outside the luxurious Carlton Hotel, a pair of genuine Soviet-made tanks with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford inside are idling in the driveway as part of a publicity stunt for the forthcoming “The Expendables 3.” Inside the hotel, amused at the fuss, Bennett Miller is talking about a very different kind of filmmaking.
“I hardly read fiction, I mostly read nonfiction, I like to examine material things,” the 47-year-old director of “Capote” and “Moneyball” says, looking comfortable in jeans and a gray hoodie. “My nature is to try and look past apparent truths, to pull back layers and understand the psychological motives behind phenomena. A nonfiction subject challenges you, it keeps you honest.”
Miller’s latest film, “Foxcatcher,” which debuted Monday to excellent notices at the Festival de Cannes with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in starring roles, is in many ways his most ambitious and most successful work.
In a sense, “Foxcatcher” is a particularly American horror story, the real-life tale of super-rich John Eleuthere du Pont (Carell) and how his quixotic financial sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in general, and of gold medalist brothers Dave (Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Tatum) in particular, draws everyone involved into a maelstrom of seduction, rejection, betrayal and murder. It was a story the thoughtful and articulate Miller had never heard of but was drawn to immediately.
“A stranger (eventual producer Tom Heller) came up to me at a DVD signing at Tower Video in New York and gave me an envelope of newspaper clippings,” Miller says, remembering back to 2006. “Months later, I was throwing stuff out, I opened the envelope and the first paragraph just grabbed me.
“The first thing was the absurdity of it: One of the wealthiest guys in America had decided to build a training facility for wrestlers and become their head coach with no knowledge of the sport whatsoever. It just seemed comical.”
But “Foxcatcher,” named after the training facility, turned out to be “the kind of story that’s funny until it’s not funny, and then it’s not funny at all. I’m attracted to stories of people who don’t belong together, who embark on something and find themselves in places they don’t belong.
“In some ways, it’s a small story, but yet it really felt familiar and it had resonance. For me, the more micro you look at it, the bigger it becomes. Within it are themes of wealth, power, class, decline and entitlement. To me, as a story it’s really fascinating and expansive and the kind of thing that could intrigue me throughout the process of making it.”
That process took longer than anyone anticipated, some eight years, a familiar story when films this smart, complex and adult try to get financed. “Everyone agreed this seemed like a great film but nobody could feel confident there would be a market for it,” Miller says. “It took someone like Megan Ellison.”
The films that Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures has financed include “American Hustle,” “Her” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” and, Miller says, “to me, there’s nobody out there like her making decisions the way she’s making decisions.
“She’s a genuine and sincere film lover; she starts from there. Her decisions at her core are based on her feelings about a project. She had to suspend the disbelief of others to greenlight this film. I had a similar experience with ‘Capote’ and ‘Moneyball.’ Each required an individual to step forward and defy conventional thinking.”
Staying with the project for all those years was co-star Tatum, who was “the first actor cast, before I had a script or anything.”
Miller had seen Tatum in 2006’s small independent “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and was captivated. “He was amazing, dangerous, animal and electric, an unhinged character and scary,” he says. “I thought the filmmakers had plucked someone out of Queens and typecast him.
“Then I found out that he was from the South, the sweetest guy in the world with something of Mark Schultz’s quality. As the landscape of his career completely changed, I looked the other way and held on to what I’d seen and knew about him.”
Cast next, in an unflinchingly dramatic role, was Carell. “Everyone’s description of Du Pont, and I spoke to more than a dozen people who knew him, was that he was benign; nobody could believe he would do what he ended up doing,” Miller says.
“When you’re casting a murderer, I have no interest in putting a guy in there who on first glimpse you know is going to kill somebody. You want someone where you don’t believe it until it happens, where the shock of it coming from this character is what is meaningful.”
The role of Dave Schultz, “a truly benevolent soul, a complex guy with many layers who had a thousand best friends,” was, the director says, tricky to cast.
Miller had wanted to work with Ruffalo before and it had not worked out, but this time the actor took the initiative, “he knew about the project and wanted to meet. He’d done his homework and within 48 hours I offered him the part.”
Alone among the three actors, Ruffalo had had experience with wrestling — he and his father each had been accomplished in the sport in high school — and the fidelity with which it’s depicted is one of the strengths of “Foxcatcher.” In fact, the practice session between the brothers that starts the film is so impeccably done that Miller was able to cut an entire dialogue scene because the physical action conveyed the same information.
This openness to new situations is a hallmark of Miller’s directing style, which is in part inspired by the “phenomenal performances” British director Mike Leigh’s quasi-improvisational techniques elicit from his actors.
“I work on set from a big book which has an outline and various versions of scenes (the script here is by E. Max Frye and Oscar nominated “Capote” screenwriter Dan Futterman) that have been written,” Miller says. “More often than not, I go into a scene without a definitive text, during rehearsals things come up, there is a lot of improv. The process really is an exploration, one of discovery, a way to keep the acting fresh and intimate and present. I like working like that.”
Miller’s ultimate goal as a filmmaker, he says, “is not to be a storyteller but an observer. My films are inquiries. I’ve chopped down all the signposts, I really resist taking moral positions.
“There’s a natural human tendency to judge things before we understand them. That simplifies things but deprives us of insights that could be taken from looking more carefully, being unflinching, taking a hard look at something we have an aversion to looking at.
“This film really wants to stare at the ambiguity of what happens. The discomfort of ambiguity is an essential aspect of the story. It pulls back the bow for a long time. It’s not meant to crystallize until the end.”