Bennett Miller and his Olympian grasp of details

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, a film based on real people and true events. Picture: Contributed
Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, a film based on real people and true events. Picture: Contributed
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BENNETT Miller makes films which, on one level, are complex character studies, and his latest, Foxcatcher, has three main men to lay bare, says Claire Black.

Steve Carell tells a funny story about director Bennett Miller. The two men had been doing a photoshoot together. Miller went first, then they were photographed together, then Miller left and it was Carell’s turn. “As he left,” Carell says, “the photographer just breathed this sigh and said ‘oh, he was scaring me so much. He’s so intimidating.’” Carell found this hilarious. After I’d interviewed him, I laughed too, or at least I got the joke. But sitting opposite Miller, director of Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher, I confess I was more with the intimidation than the laughs.

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Miller is not a man who worries about awkward silences, he’s not someone who’s very interested in putting people at ease and he certainly doesn’t rush. He’s also funny. The first thing he does on clocking my accent is do a terrible impersonation of John Gordon Sinclair in Gregory’s Girl. I don’t understand a word he says, but I approve of the gesture. Sports movies, I say, what is it with you and sports movies? He smiles. “That’s a pretty darn charming film,” he says, “and it’s got as much to do with sports as this movie does.”

Foxcatcher is ruminative, unsettling and compelling. Based on real people and events, it is the story of John du Pont, an eccentric multi-millionaire who became fixated on the sport of American Wrestling and on two of the sports’ finest exponents, brothers Mark and Dave Schulz. Du Pont bankrolled a state of the art training facility and embroiled the brothers in working for him to prepare a team for victory at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but the dysfunctional dynamic between the men, powered by emotional instability and the corrupting power of vast wealth, spiralled into tragic consequences.

Despite its tabloid-friendly ingredients – wealth, Olympic champions, violence – even in America the story of what happened between du Pont and the Schulzes isn’t very well known. “It’s a little mysterious that it wasn’t a bigger story,” says Miller, “but there was not a lot of deep coverage of it. It went away pretty quickly. I’d never heard of it until a stranger approached me in a store with an envelope full of newspaper clippings and said, ‘I think you’re going to want to make a film about this story’.” That was eight years ago and Miller committed to making the film immediately. “The bizarreness of it, the themes that seemed to be running underneath it, I’m attracted to these characters who are outsiders, who end up in worlds where they don’t really belong. The story was true but it had allegorical qualities.”

Miller has a reputation for making films which, at one level, are complex character studies. Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role: Moneyball with Brad Pitt as baseball manager Billy Beane. Foxcatcher is different, though, because although much of the buzz around the film has been focused on Steve Carell’s already Golden Globe-nominated performance, this is really a film about three men – du Pont, Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum) and his brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) – and each of their performances is amongst the best they’ve given.

When it came to casting du Pont, Carell seemed, for some, to be a leftfield choice. Better known for his comedic roles, the question was could the man who played The 40-Year-Old Virgin cut it as a mercurial multi-millionaire? But Miller’s decision to cast Carell was calculated. “Everything I learned about du Pont suggested that people underestimated what was inside of him. I think because of the opportunities that Steve has had as an actor opinions have formed about what to expect. I liked the idea that the casting would facilitate a similar feeling towards the character as people had towards du Pont, which was some kind of belief that the situation is benign; it’s awkward, weird, creepy but not dangerous.”

Carell may have created the buzz, but there is something about Channing Tatum’s performance that is revelatory. More known for romantic comedies or roles that require him to take his shirt off a lot, in Foxcatcher he is a brooding, silent, taciturn presence. His physicality is vital but in a very different way than we’re used to. He is lumpen and muscle-bound, he lopes rather than walks, he looks almost animalistic. It is far, far from the oiled-up hunkiness of Magic Mike. Mark is the damaged emotional core of the film, often captured alone, sitting in his grim and silent apartment, slurping soup from a bowl, doing exercises or training. It is a meagre, almost wordless, existence but it’s absolutely full of telling detail.

“I think mostly I’m just interested in that kind of behaviour and I make space for it,” Miller says. “That’s it. It’s about creating an atmosphere so that characters can just live in front of the cameras. And to be sensitive, and for the actor to know the sensitivity that they are being observed with. To know that how you sit in relation to your bowl of soup is going to be felt in this particular movie.”

Watching the performances on screen, the rewards of working in this detailed way are clear, but it also sounds seriously demanding of the actors involved. “It is,” he says straightforwardly. “And it’s a very unforgiving style because there’s nowhere to hide. You are underneath a spotlight, underneath the lens of the microscope and we’re not cutting away. Everything from the lens, to the movement of the camera, to the length of the shot, to the score, is sensitising you. It is facilitating scrutiny that will amplify any untruthfulness in the performance. If there is a false moment it will ring out like a siren. And it’s much harder to save a performance in the edit if it’s not there. There’s much less of a safety net working like this.”

There’s something gleeful about the way that he says this, although his tone of voice has not wavered. Maybe it’s the kind of half smile playing on his lips. There’s something inscrutable about Miller, but I understand why actors are willing to put themselves through what he asks of them. His commitment to the process of filmmaking and his pleasure in it is palpable, even if it’s not expressed in easy to digest soundbites.

Miller spent a couple of years researching the story of Foxcatcher, he met everyone that he could meet who had been involved at whatever level in what had happened and he developed a script. Then another two years were spent trying to get backing, but they ended in failure. It looked as though Foxcatcher would not be made and so Miller then turned his attention to Moneyball. After coaxing an Oscar nominated performance out of Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, he went back to du Pont and the Schulzes. He was captivated by it and although spending years researching a project before it’s even guaranteed to happen is a laborious process, it is, he says, as important to him as the time on set filming.

“From development right through to the sound mix at the end is an exploration, an adventure. It is an inquiry. At no point is it a pedantic exercise of men behind a curtain, it’s not like that at all. It’s as authentic a pursuit as I can manage to investigate and stir up the elements that will be co-ordinated into a film. It’s not a contrivance.”

The way he describes it, it sounds a little like a high wire act, “stirring things up” as he puts it until something – a story, characters, a narrative – emerges. His films, he says, have the quality of not working until they do. I’m starting to think Bennett Miller has nerves of steel. He smiles. “Or, just a blissful ignorance and naive confidence.”

Miller has found a way to work that seems completely at odds with how the Hollywood machine usually operates. It’s impressive. And intriguing. And a bit inexplicable, which is also true of how he might find the next project to work on.

“I don’t know and I wait. I wait. I’m not a surfer, I don’t want to mislead you or pretend I’m something I’m not, but I think the process is a little bit like surfing. I paddle out there and wait for a wave and I just hope to catch it.”

• Foxcatcher is in cinemas nationwide from 9 January

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