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When Bennett Miller was just 12, he decided that one day he would turn his hobby of filmmaking into a full-time career.
years later, Miller — the red-hot director of fact-based Hollywood dramas like Capote, Moneyball and the upcoming Foxcatcher, about John du Pont‘s fatal obsession with Olympic wrestler Mark Schulz — found himself living a miserable existence, scraping by making corporate videos and failing to find a way to get his foot in the film industry.
“I realized I was waking up every morning and following the orders of [my 12-year-old self] without reflecting on it too much,” Miller, now 47, told a sold-out audience at a New York Film Festival screening of his first feature, a 1998 documentary called The Cruise. That film, about an eccentric New York tour guide, screened as part of the festival’s Opening Acts series.
That led to a decision in 1994 to give up on a film career and instead devote his life to helping the homeless. “[It] was such a relief,” Miller explained. “To say, ‘I don’t have to do this, I don’t have to keep failing at this.’ It was such a relief to [remove] the weight of ambition and the distortions of your perception of reality that happens when you have a fever for an ambition.”
“I felt so good immediately,” he continued, “that within five or six breaths I was in a whole new mood. I thought, ‘You know what I feel like doing? I feel like making a movie.’”
At the time, Miller had been reading about the new generation of affordable digital cameras, and he was able to track down a prototype of the game-changing Sony VX1000 before it hit the market. He then found a couple in Canada that had developed a dual XLR adapter, which would allow him to plug professional microphones directly into the small, inexpensive camera.
“I wouldn’t need a sound person, I wouldn’t need a [production assistant] and everything I needed to shoot the film fit into a knapsack,” said Miller.
In essence, Miller was four years ahead of the digital revolution that was about to completely change indie and documentary filmmaking. He then wisely zeroed in on a subject he could effectively shoot as a one-man crew. Timothy “Speed” Levitch was a high school classmate of Miller’s younger brother who gave unforgettable bus tours of New York City, veering far off script to offer bewildered tourists a running monologue on the pain and ecstasy of life.
“He felt like someone who was constitutionally incapable of adapting to conventional living, and I loved that,” recalled Miller. “He was like a 19th Century poet [crossed with] Grover from Sesame Street.”
Looking back, Miller sees how Levitch fits the mold of his future protagonists — all outsiders thrust into worlds where they don’t belong, but who simply refuse to conform.
“That’s Speed, that’s [Truman] Capote in Kansas (Capote), that’s Billy Beane in baseball (Moneyball) — which is like the quintessential story of somebody living a life you don’t belong in — and that’s Foxcatcher.”
Miller followed Levitch around for one summer and shot 77 hours of footage. But in the editing room, he found he had failed to capture the essence of Speed. So Miller waited until the following summer and completely re-shot the film.
“There was a certain amount of self-consciousness on Speed’s part in that first summer,” Miller told The Hollywood Reporter. “Once we were [more] relaxed [the following summer], I was able to capture the little cracks and moments where he lets himself out and you see different levels of Speed.”
Feeling “incredibly nostalgic” after the screening, Miller said he probably would not be a filmmaker today if new digital alternatives hadn’t emerged when they did. “To be perfectly honest, I probably would have let go [of my filmmaking aspirations] because I didn’t see a way,” he said. “There was no route I could find and I had been at it for some years.”
“Somebody asked me if I missed working in this simple, unobstructed way — and I do,” reflected Miller. “I guess I believe that the time is going to come when I return to working really simply. For the moment, I’m in a place where I’m fortunate enough to work in narrative films.”
The New York Film Festival runs from Sept 26 through Oct 12, where Foxcatcher will receive its New York City premiere on Oct 10.
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