‘Foxcatcher’ director Bennett Miller examines real life
In three intense dramas, Bennett Miller has examined real life with pinpoint accuracy. In 2005 he made “Capote,” examining the moral costs of Truman Capote’s bestselling factual novel “In Cold Blood” in ways darker than the original classic. The film presented the writer basing his journalism on ethically ambiguous interviews with two ex-cons who murdered a Kansas farm family, then wanting his sources to be executed to make a dramatic finish for his book. Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar, presenting Capote as a bright, manipulative liar.
Miller’s highly regarded “Moneyball” followed in 2011, adapting Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book about income and athleticism in pro baseball. Brad Pitt starred as Billy Beane, the former Minnesota Twin and general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane saved the money-strapped franchise — and changed the game permanently — by introducing sabermetrics, the statistical approach to major-league recruiting, finding value players the filthy-rich Yankees couldn’t see.
Miller’s latest, “Foxcatcher,” recounts another true story, combining harsh relationships between men, sports ambitions and murder. Steve Carell plays eccentric heir John du Pont, the patron of Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), whom he hired to join his Team Foxcatcher. Then their contributions began to disturb du Pont’s troubled psyche, with tragic consequences.
Miller won the best-director prize for “Foxcatcher” at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and he seems likely to get his third nomination for the award in the coming Academy Awards.
Q: You seem attracted to fact-based movies. Why does dramatizing true stories appeal to you?
A: I think part of it is coincidence, but I also like to examine things. I like to have something that I can challenge common-sense notions about, challenge the apparent truths, and really look past the many faces of a thing to see what’s behind it. To have that thing actually be material so that the discoveries are in fact real is all appealing to me.
I think when I meet a person in general it’s not my habit to conclude anything about people. Not completely. Even people you know well constantly remain open. And looking and wondering what is the public face and what is the private truth and what might be guarded in this moment. I think we all operate at all times with some kind of protection. And so taking a story that’s real affords you the opportunity to make discoveries that are beyond what we might make in ordinary life.
All of these stories also, although they’re true stories and interesting stories and they might make for good cinema, they also have the quality of great fiction in that they for me add up to more than just the story. They’re allegorical. So even though they’re true, it’s especially interesting when you can find a story that has truths that when unearthed yield new insight into something that becomes allegorical. If that doesn’t sound too pretentious, that’s what it is to me.
Q: Do the facts ever get in the way of a good story? Do fact-based stories have to veer more toward drama?
A: Sometimes the facts can get in the way of the telling of a good story. But they don’t get in the way of the truth. There are truths within the stories of any of these films. And the facts are the medium, the seeds from which you begin to assemble the story. They’re the bricks or the building blocks of it. And because none of these films are actually biographies — they’re more like portraits — I think it’s understood that there’s a perspective these films take. That the film takes interest in aspects of a person, aspects of a story. These films don’t feel burdened with the obligation of narrating the details of a person’s entire life. I have yet to encounter inconvenient facts that get in the way of what I want to say.
Q: This is your second film involving actual murder. What was it that draws you to that?
A: It wasn’t the murders that attracted me to either of those films. I am attracted to these outsider characters who just don’t belong anywhere, and who are operating in worlds they sort of don’t fit, coupled with huge ambitions. Ideological notions about success and achievement. It sounds academic but I don’t think of it in that term. I just think, very rich guy, unsupported wrestler. Add water, it makes its own sauce. I’m immediately interested. I want to know what it felt like to be in the room when they met. I want to know what are the landmark beats and moments. I want to know what they think they’re doing.
“Foxcatcher” tickled me immediately. When I read the first newspaper clipping about it I thought it was funny. Not that somebody was murdered but an extremely wealthy guy living with his mother had succeeded in coaxing down the best wrestlers in America onto his estate so that he could be their coach in a sport that he knew nothing about. It’s hilarious. The setup is so bizarre that it’s just funny. And you can see the film being a comedy. Except that it ends terribly.