Cannes: Director Bennett Miller on Partnering With Channing Tatum for 'Foxcatcher' (Q&A)

Bennett Miller
Joe Pugliese

Director, "Moneyball."

A Cannes virgin, the "Foxcatcher" director reveals how he cast Steve Carell (a shared love for Jerry Lewis helped) and what was in the letter he received from Harper Lee.

Bennett Miller, 47, a Cannes newbie, is entering the competition for the first time with Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carell as eccentric American millionaire John du Pont, whose obsession with sponsoring Olympic wrestling hopefuls led to murder. Following his first two features — 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball — Miller once again is telling a fact-based story. The film, which screens May 19, takes its title from the Philadelphia estate where du Pont set up a training camp that attracted wrestlers such as Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, and his brother David, played by Mark Ruffalo. The director had just three hours of mixing left on the movie, which will be released stateside Nov.?14 by Sony Pictures Classics, when he spoke with THR about his pending appointment at the?Palais.

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Why did you see a movie in the story of John du Pont?

[Executive producer] Tom Heller brought me some articles. Within the first paragraph of the first article, I immediately envisioned a moment in the story and something about it hooked me.

What was that moment?

John du Pont walking into the gym he had built on his property for these wrestlers to train. I just imagined the camera sitting on du Pont as he is looking at these guys practice. The whole situation seems crazy, the whole arrangement. This guy who was extremely wealthy and had no real occupation for himself hatches this idea that he is going to be the coach of the best wrestlers in America and lead them to the Olympics and get glory from it. Because this guy’s wealthy and because he comes from a family with a dynastic history, everybody agrees. He knows nothing about the sport of wrestling, but he makes himself the head coach. I immediately became fascinated with what it was he imagined he was doing and what these guys’ understanding was and the kind of contortion that one has to make to enter that pact. And how did this dream get to a tragic place, how does it end up in murder?

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Your three narrative films have all been fact-based. Is that more than a coincidence?

It’s not a conscious choice. My first film [The Cruise] actually was a documentary. The films are drawn from true events, and they are definitely out to discover some angle, some truth, about what happened, but by using narrative filmmaking techniques. So they are not biographies per se, so much as they are portraits.

By making movies based on real events, you raise the level of difficulty for yourself since factcheckers can then come along and challenge your artistic decisions.

I haven’t found that frustrating at all. There’s no pretense to these things being reenactments. This is an interpretation of events and explorations of character and decisions. After I made Capote, I got a a three-page letter from [author] Harper Lee, who said,  “You’ve got to know a lot of what’s depicted in the film did not occur the way it’s depicted.” But she said the film is a demonstration of how fiction is, and I’m paraphrasing, its own means towards the truth. She said, “If you want a publishable quote from me, you can say, ‘The film told the truth about Truman.’ ” It shook me. As a filmmaker, you want people to understand and get what you do, and it’s a lot to ask for.

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Was there any particular past performance of Steve Carell’s that led you to cast him as du Pont?

There was no particular performance, just a general feeling of him as a person. His presence and his place in people’s minds as a character was really intriguing to me because there is something benign about the way we perceive him and yet he’s a comic, which is to say that beneath all that is something very different than what we see. I didn’t want to hire an actor who you might presuppose was capable of murder because one thing that was repeated among many, many people who were there was that nobody believed du Pont was capable of doing what he did.

Was he a hard sell to the financiers since he’s so associated with comedy?

No, I made the film with [producer] Megan Ellison, and it wasn’t a hard sell at all. The first time I spoke with Steve Carell about the part, he and I both cited as one of our favorite films The King of Comedy and Jerry Lewis’ performance. I had prepared a little speech for Steve about the role having comic absurdist moments in it, but it was not a comedy role. Before I had the words out, he pretty much gave me that exact same speech.

How did you come to cast Channing Tatum? He’s so in demand at the moment — was there any difficulty fitting this into his schedule?

When I first set out to make this about eight years ago, I saw him in the film called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. And he was the first person that I ever approached for the film. He’d not done that much and he’d certainly not done anything relevant to this, but I thought he was really fantastic so we met and I pitched the story. I didn’t have a script at that point, but he was down for it and really committed to it. We did adjust the schedule to make room for something else he was doing, but I was able to shoot it in the time frame that I needed.

Do you have expectations about your Cannes debut?

No, in general, I think it’s dangerous to have expectations.