New York Film Fest: How Director Bennett Miller Made 'Foxcatcher' Without Fully Fathoming It

Foxcatcher Still - H 2014
Courtesy of New York Film Festival

Foxcatcher Still - H 2014

On casting Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Capote': "It's amazing how much you will forgive if the behavior is truthful"

"I definitely have moments in my life where I discovered a film, and the language of the film itself spoke to me in a way, as if someone came up to you and started speaking a language you'd never heard but understood and was able to express things the language you knew could not," said Bennett Miller, the director of Capote, Moneyball and the upcoming Foxcatcher, during a New York Film Festival conversation on Tuesday evening, as part of the HBO Directors Dialogues series. The intimate audience at Lincoln Center's Frances Beale Theater included Capote actress Catherine Keener and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker.

The discussion kicked off with the observation that Miller's films always have more than meets the eye. "There's always something happening in pretty much every moment of every scene of everything I've ever worked on in longform that's not being expressed or acknowledged," said Miller, casually dressed in a gray polo, hooded zip-up and jeans. "Hopefully, if things are working, there's a dynamic that lets you clock both things at the same time: how we're intentionally expressing ourselves and the things that happen beneath the surface. Just personally, I find in personal relationships, public relationships like political campaigns and how we're communicated to, that what is actually said is often at profound odds with what is being communicated."

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He recalled making the decision to cast the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his 2005 feature debut, Capote. "He was really turned on by the story and the character, but he said, 'Right now, I weigh 240 pounds and I'm 5-foot-10,' " he told the audience, pausing often to close his eyes and remember. "It just seems impossibly ridiculous and reckless. I'm trying to think back to remember the difference between me now and then, because I would never make a decision like that now — like taking a shot from half court. The hoops that he had to jump through to make that work."

But the conversation on the balcony of the actor's West Village apartment eased his mind. "To be honest, how much he identified with him at that point in his career, … meaning, both these guys were appreciated as talents, but had yet to land 'the big one' — the more you get into that conversation, the more the physical obstacles become insignificant," Miller said of Hoffman. "It's amazing how much you will forgive if the behavior is truthful."

A similar adage can be applied to Steve Carell's unrecognizable turn in Foxcatcher as benefactor John du Pont, a character Miller said "needed to be [played by] somebody that defies our imagination of who this person can be." Carell jumped at the chance to transform as Hoffman did, to dip into the dark side that Miller believes every comedian has. "They go hand in hand; you don’t have to look far for many examples. In Carell's case, I don’t think he ever had an aversion to going there, but I don’t think there was ever an opportunity for him to demonstrate his latitude as an actor."

The pressure for Carell hit a high on set. "The solemnity of the story — that was really brought into stark relief by the presence of the family of the man he murdered on set, and the brother of the man he murdered, and dozens of people who were close to the story — I think only fortified his original commitment that this was not going to be a silly thing."

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He also repeated the anecdote about watching the well-researched Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo spar as Mark and Dave Schultz in a way that ended up littering the editing room. Though earlier drafts had many scenes establishing their unique sibling dynamic's "reverence and rivalry," their first wrestling moments "allowed me to eliminate 20 minutes of scenes from the first act, because you knew everything, you learned everything.… It's all in the gesture."

Miller, who entered the film world with the documentary The Cruise, noted that narrative and nonfiction "fundamentally feel the same to me … I'm looking for the moment of discovery, when something actually occurs for the first time and it will only ever occur the first time. We might rehearse, but I don't have to rehearse to the point where we find out. I like to rehearse to the point we're in the ballpark, and expect that we're only going to get one proper take, more or less."

Take Foxcatcher, during which Miller and his cast continued to ask themselves questions to help digest the realities of the unfathomable true story of drugs, guns and sports. "How did things get to the point where you were doing this, accepting that and looking the other way? … You're training for the Olympics and then you're flying around in a helicopter and this guy offers you cocaine, and without a hesitation, you say, 'Sure.' This is who you think you are, and yet, this is what you're doing, and how do you understand that? A lot of those things really aren’t understood until we're in the process, shooting around, and then Steve Carell does something that even surprises him, and it makes sense. You recognize it."

Miller was told that his three features each pursue stories that are simultaneously strange but familiar, yet in some way, American. "I guess I'm curious about examining stuff that doesn't get acknowledged," he reflected. "If there isn't something I'm getting at that I haven’t seen before that feels like a discovery to me, it's hard to get out of bed in the morning."

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He then continued, "I get this feeling people will look back at this point in history, the way we look back, and say, 'What were they thinking? How did you not get it together? How did this person get into power? Who backed that decision?' … [There's] such profound advancement in technology and science, as we're understanding the world better and better, but there's this simultaneous decline happening, and part of it is cultural. For me, the moment I live with a story long enough, I always end up looking away from the spectacular thing and over here at what's going on in the corner, because it has more to do with what's going to happen. Not as a strategy, but not wanting to get caught up in the polemics or taking sides or a conclusion.… Down to the human level of, what is contributing to the dynamic where madness happens, where tragedy can come from."

Despite the serious tone of the overall conversation, Miller also cited The Pawnbroker, Salesman, The Birds, Walkabout, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, and of the latter, he lightheartedly explained that his family recorded a home screening of the film with a video camera but left off the last four minutes. "I think I saw that film at least a hundred times in that crappy quality, and I never saw that ending until I moved to New York, at Cinema Village. And boy, that changes things!"

Foxcatcher makes its New York Film Festival premiere on Oct. 10 and opens Nov. 14.

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