Bennett Miller has had one of those stealthy, sidewinding careers that seem to gain force as they go along. He directed Philip Seymour Hoffman to his Oscar in Capote—earning a nomination of his own for his first feature film—and was Brad Pitt’s choice to make an unlikely success of Moneyball after Steven Soderbergh backed out. His latest film, Foxcatcher, gathers up everything that has gone before, joins the dots and confirms a new arrival in the pantheon of Great American Directors. A strong, elliptical exploration of wealth, power, and ambition, it tells the true story of John du Pont (Steve Carell), the delusional heir of the du Pont chemical dynasty, who in the late ’80s built a state-of-the-art training facility on his family estate for elite wrestlers, particularly two with whom he had become obsessed, brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). Within a few years, one of them would be killed.
Much of the critical excitement for the film has so far focused on its performances, especially Carell’s prosthetically enhanced turn as du Pont. Holed up at Foxcatcher Farm—his Philadelphia-area Xanadu—and indulging childish, Rosebud dreams of wrestling glory, Carell’s du Pont is as darkly, awfully funny as Peter Sellers at his most megalomaniacal. But it is Miller’s deceptively minimalist direction, which picked up the Best Director award at Cannes this year, that provides a Kubrickian echo chamber in which every twitch can register. It’s a film of austere compositions, empty rooms and audible silences that seem to hum, like unearthed power cables. The whole thing works as silently and devastatingly as a riptide; you leave it thinking you have seen a great American tragedy—a modern-day Sunset Boulevard.
“The silence of a room when someone enters with a gun is very different from the sound that room makes when empty,” points out Miller, indisputably, over lunch at Balthazar in downtown Manhattan. He turns out to be a soft-spoken, handsome 47-year-old whose conversation, like his films, is filled with long pauses that seem to connect like roots to something lodged deep within him, requiring a patient mining effort.
“I’m uncomfortable doing anything that resembles a profile,” he says, without rudeness. Even his name seems to beg anonymity. But with Foxcatcher dominating Oscar talk, Miller has been thrown headlong into the limelight, even becoming the unlikeliest of tabloid fixtures as Ashley Olsen’s boyfriend.
Not that he’s fully made his peace with fame. “It wasn’t always that we knew what a filmmaker looked like. Or sounded like. I am nostalgic for those man-behind-the- curtain days when someone could get away with impersonating Kubrick because nobody had any idea what Kubrick looked like. The filmmakers that I respond to most strongly all seem to have the same unnamed character in their films. You’re inside somebody’s mind—you’re not being told a story, you’re observing it. You watch The Birds and you are trapped inside [Hitchcock’s] mind. Not the story.”
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He insists “there’s nothing too interesting or extraordinary” about his own upbringing that might shed light on his idiosyncratic directing style. He grew up in Westchester, New York, and went to public school in Mamaroneck: “The one thing I’ll say is I was a quiet kid. Much more of an observer than a performer.” He met his counterpoint in that respect, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a high school theater program at age 16 and they became lifelong friends, both deciding to study at New York University. “It was very easy to be friends with Phil, and to love him,” says Miller. “We discovered at the same time that we are both very unforgiving of ourselves. He had a standard for himself that is unreasonable to expect of other actors.” Working with him on Capote “was painful and I loved it, because I didn’t have to apologize for pushing. You don’t have to make an excuse for caring that much.”
He cares about Foxcatcher a lot: It took eight years to make. Miller was doing a DVD signing of The Cruise, his 1998 documentary about Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a motor-mouthed double-decker-bus tour guide, when a complete stranger came up to him and told him he had a story, a true story, that he knew Miller would want to make a film about. “I thought almost nothing of it,” he says, “and months later, as I was going through stuff, I opened the envelope, and the first thing I read was a little article about this extremely wealthy man who had brought a wrestling team onto his property to live and train and it had ended in murder. Just the bare facts of the story were so captivating so quickly. It was one of those stories that are really small and really big at the same time. I thought, this seems really funny, but it’s not funny at all. It tickled me in a really uncomfortable way.”
He had a version set up to make in 2009, but Channing Tatum wasn’t enough of a star back then to insure against rickety financing and the project collapsed. Miller went off and made Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s baseball bestseller. When Foxcatcher picked up steam again, he and Tatum talked about how the delay actually ended up working to their advantage. “When you live with something, the stuff that you begin to peel away is the easy stuff, the cheap stuff,” says Miller, who is always on the hunt for “more dimensional moments that communicate in mysterious ways and are hard to articulate and plan for.” By the time they went to Pittsburgh to shoot at a nearby 1900 estate named Wilpen Hall, whichstands in for Foxcatcher Farm, Miller had a large binder filled with various versions of the script, from which he would pull ideas around which the actors could improvise.
“I realized that things were going to be very, very fluid,” he says. “I wouldn’t know on any given day what was going to fly. But I like working like that. I know what we need to get from the scene, but I don’t know what is going to get us there.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of Miller is that a filmmaker patient enough to go digging for eight years, plumbing ever deeper into his story, could also have the detachment to edit his initial four-and-a-half-hour cut—it was “very watchable,” he says. “I’d never felt so good about the first assembly of a film”—down to a more manageable 134 minutes. The man’s mixture of patience and precision is evident in his answer to a question about the six-minute ovation he got at Cannes.
“It really comes down to those few moments of acknowledgement,” he says. “That’s a pretty huge climb for such a short slide. It’s a fun slide, but if you’re not into the day-to-day grind then forget about it. As a filmmaker, you’re looking to reveal something. When other people relate to it, it makes an otherwise lonely world a little less lonely.”