Were there no “Moneyball” at its middle, Bennett Miller’s narrative-film résumé might look unbearably bleak.
Miller rose to prominence with 2005’s visually stark and wintry “Capote,” for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won a lead-actor Oscar. Fittingly for Miller, a former documentary filmmaker now making narratives based on true stories, “Capote” charted author Truman Capote’s trip to Kansas to research “In Cold Blood,” the original “nonfiction novel.”
Miller followed with 2011’s “Moneyball,” a partially fictionalized account (based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction best-seller) of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane built his 2002 team with help from a stats-analyzing computer program.
“Moneyball” offered sunshine, comic moments and an older man/younger man bond (between Brad Pitt, as Beane, and Jonah Hill, as his numbers cruncher) not nearly as fraught as the one in “Capote” between the author and a convicted killer (Clifton Collins Jr.).
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With the grim, tension-packed “Foxcatcher,” out Friday, Miller retreats from the light, back into true crime, intense male friendships and gray-sky visuals. The film stars a barely recognizable Steve Carell (he’s heavier, and sports a fake nose and age spots) as John du Pont, the real-life, chemical-company heir who in the 1980s and ’90s gathered world-class U.S. wrestlers to train, on his dime, at his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farm.
Miller shot the film in late 2012 in Pennsylvania at locations approximating the real du Pont mansion, which was torn down a few months later to make way for a new housing development.
Brothers and 1984 Olympic gold medalists Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in the film) once trained and lived at Foxcatcher Farm. “Foxcatcher” shows Mark’s attachment to du Pont, who is odd and erratic but highly attentive toward Mark, a lonely young man overshadowed by his elder brother, the more successful athlete and a devoted husband and father.
Du Pont shot and killed Dave Schultz in 1996 (and died in prison in 2010), leaving no doubt as to the movie’s climax. But Miller stokes such consistent dread that even viewers unaware of the real-life crime will know something is coming.
Like “Capote” and “Moneyball” (which drew Oscar nods for Pitt and Hill) before it, “Foxcatcher” is grabbing awards attention. Carell and Ruffalo last week drew Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations and appear headed for Oscar nods.
A New York City native and resident, Miller made his first splash with the documentary “The Cruise,” about a colorful New York City bus tour guide. Miller spoke to The Bee by phone recently while visiting Los Angeles.
Miller is friendly but speaks slowly and seems to choose his words carefully – a considered approach in keeping with a director who has made only four feature-length films in the past 16 years, and who began researching “Foxcatcher” in 2006.
What about the real-life story behind “Foxcatcher” spoke to you?
I think I was just drawn in by the differences of these guys. Of this extremely wealthy heir, and these Middle American athletes who didn’t come from much, who convinced themselves they were part of something together. It seemed like the kind of setup that could work for a comedy – people who don’t understand each other. Even an absurdist kind of comedy. … My first gut feeling was that it was something that felt comic but ended tragically.
You said in the film’s production notes that when you talked to various people close to the real-life figures, you felt they did not reveal the whole truth. But you suggest that you come upon your own truth while making fact-based films. How is that?
The truth I am after is not the same as that of an investigator, or an investigative journalist or a prosecutor. I’m not looking to create a detailed history of this event so much as to communicate, in a way film can communicate, something of the underlying truth of how something like this comes to be. … (The film) is more to do with who these people were, and who they were to each other. And a dynamic, which as peculiar as it was on the farm, is not altogether foreign to us. I think everybody (has) the experience of pursuing what we feel we need to pursue but at the cost of some sort of compromise.
(But) even hearing myself say that, I really have an aversion to reducing it to something as simplistic as that. Because it is an experience, and whatever you might glean from it, I think is valid.
What about Steve Carell made you think he could play this role?
Part of it is wanting to put an actor in there who you do not expect to do the things he does. Because nobody expected du Pont to murder anybody. So I think it made some amount of sense to have an actor who you do not expect is going to murder anybody.
I respect him as an actor and met, and we talked, and the sensitivity and seriousness that he brought to the conversation. At one point he said to me that he had only played characters with mushy centers, and du Pont seems to have a mushy center, but he does not. He’s a dangerous guy.
He has a prosthetic nose in the movie, whereas Philip Seymour played Truman Capote without prostethics. How much do you have to do with the tools actors use to become real-life people on screen?
A lot. We hired a great makeup artist in this case, (Bill Corso), and I think we all understood, Bill, Steve, myself, that asking an audience to accept Steve Carell in this part is a big “ask.” And we shared the belief that we had about three seconds to convince people. I think that is about how much time it takes for a person to judge whether or or not they believe somebody. And if you don’t accomplish it in three seconds, then you have just created a ton of work for yourself to get it back. And part of that is on the makeup. Most of it is on Steve. But part of it is on the makeup.
Bill Corso worked on the character the same way Steve worked on the character. We had discussions about who he was, and who he was to people. And discussed things like the repellent effect that his physical self had on others, and obviously there’s quite a lot of reference (photos and videos of du Pont) that Bill was able to use to approximate his look. But creating something that looked like an aristocratic genetic misfire, is all a design.
There are a lot more scenes on the mat in “Foxcatcher” than there were on on the field in “Moneyball.” Was it more important to show the actual sport here?
It was. And in the beginning, to establish what these brothers are to each other. When they wrestle with each other (in a practice scene), and it begins with sort of affection and warmth toward each other, and ends sort of violently, you see who these guys are to each other, and their relationship to the sport. And a scene like that enabled me to chop off about 20 minutes of other scenes from the first act that were designed to do the same thing.
There is ambiguity in how the film depicts du Pont’s interest in Mark. Was there a sexual component to it?
It’s depicted in the film in the way that, to the best of my ability, approximates what I gleaned, in that it’s not anything that ever bubbled over and became explicit. But his behavior, as described to me, just seemed to be loaded at times. Even if those around him would say to me later, “No, no, no, no, that’s wrestling. It’s normal that everybody showers together. He saw himself as one of the guys, and wanted to wrestle.”
It didn’t feel like it had the same purity. I don’t think it is a big stretch to say that he was enjoying this venture in other ways. But I couldn’t tell you if he ever even admitted to himself his own sexuality. And what interested me was the possibility that this was just one more component of himself that he could not admit and was inconsistent with the role that he cast for himself.
Are you athletic at all?
Not particularly. I wasn’t the last one picked. I was sort of in the middle. I was probably five out of nine picked for kickball.
Is it safe to assume you did not choose to make “Moneyball” or “Foxcatcher” based in any way on your love of sports?
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.