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Lonely and Lost: Bennett Miller on "Foxcatcher"

Even if you went into the highly acclaimed new drama "Foxcatcher" not knowing that it was based on a true story, there is an excellent chance that you would figure out that the events depicted on the screen actually did happen on the basis that they are so bizarre and unfathomable that no self-respecting screenwriter would dare try to insert them into a fictional context. The film stars Channing Tatum (in a performance that should finally win him the respect as an actor that he has long deserved) as Mark Schultz, an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler who, as the story begins, is living a life of quiet desperation in Wisconsin in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), an Olympic gold medalist himself and someone with a far more stable and successful professional and personal life. One day, Mark gets a call from out of the blue from John du Pont (Steve Carell in the performance of his career), one of the world's richest men and a wrestling enthusiast who asks Mark to come to his sprawling Foxcatcher Farm to help him put together a wrestling team that he hopes will serve as America's entry in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Seizing the opportunity to make a name for himself and emerge from his brother's shadow, Mark agrees and finds himself at Foxcatcher with many of America's top wrestlers training under du Pont's tutelage. It all seems great for a while--the facilities are top-notch and Mark and du Pont seem to make a good team--but as time goes on, it becomes clear that du Pont is far more erratic than originally thought and his bizarre desire to win the respect of his peers and his imperious mother through coaching a wrestling team (a sport that the latter abhors) is driving him further around the bend. A rift grows between du Pont and Mark that is exacerbated further when du Pont decides that Mark doesn't have what it takes to win and brings in Dave to replace him. Without giving anything away, let us just say that it does not end well for any of the key participants.

"Foxcatcher" is the third feature film from director Bennett Miller and the third to take its inspiration from real life. "Capote" (2005) recounted the story of Truman Capote and his relationship with the small-time killers whose misdeeds he would recount in his groundbreaking literary tour de force "In Cold Blood." He followed that by stepping in to replace the exiting Steven Soderbergh for "Moneyball" (2011), which told the story of how Oakland A's manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) reinvented how baseball teams are put together using statistical data instead of more traditional methods of scouting players. Both films were successes at the box office and each received multiple Oscar nominations (including a Best Actor win for Philip Seymour Hoffman for his performance as Capote) and "Foxcatcher" looks to be headed for the same fate. During a recent stopover in Chicago, Miller sat down to talk about bringing this strange and haunting story to the big screen.

The three feature films that you have done to date, not including the documentary "The Cruise," have all told stories about real people and real incidents. Is this merely coincidental or is it a storytelling approach that you happen to prefer to wholly invented narratives?

I like to think that it is a coincidence but I will have to see if it keeps happening. I like to be able to examine something material and I think all of these stories have an allegorical quality—I think they all add up to something larger than just these characters or just these stories. I am attracted to stories that have that quality that I can also really scrutinize in a real way and research and explore to get to the real truth behind them and honor that.

In regards to "Foxcatcher" and John du Pont, what was your particular entry point into the story?

I think it was similar to my other films. I am attracted to characters who are in worlds where they don't belong and who have great ambitions that they imagine will somehow reconcile themselves with the world and make things right. In this film, you've got two very eccentric worlds—the world of extreme and inherited wealth and the world of wrestling—and that one of the richest men in the world would have a team of wrestlers living on his estate just tickled me. It seemed so bizarre and comically absurd that I could have made a comedy out of this thing had it not ended tragically. When I learned a little bit about du Pont and a little bit about Mark Schultz, I was attracted to the notion that these incredibly different people found each other and seemed, for a moment, to be the answer that each was looking for. The idea that they had a common purpose seemed interesting to me—that people who had genuinely different interests could lead themselves to believe that they were part of something together.

One of the fascinating things about the story is that Schultz and du Pont are eerily similar in some ways. Schultz has an Olympic gold medal—arguably the apex of his chosen field—but it seems to have brought him no contentment. Meanwhile, du Pont is one of the richest men in the world and could have or do anything he wanted and yet he continually comes across like an unformed child—even when simply sitting in a room and talking to his mother, he seems like the smallest thing in the room.

You are right—they do have a lot in common. Even though we don't make it explicit, the truth of these two characters is that they both had fathers who split when they were two years old and grew up fundamentally without fathers. They were both obsessed with the Founding Fathers and with being patriots. They both kept great and idealistic ambitions that they pursued monomaniacally at the expense of the world going on around them and to who they really were. These were very lonely and very wounded people that looked for validation and each seemed to have what the other didn't and they seemed to be each other's answer.

How long did it take for you to figure out the proper tone with which to tell the story? You mention that it could have been done as a comedy, save for the ending, and in fact, there are some very funny scenes in it but it is of a very discomfiting type of humor. The film I kept thinking of while watching it was "The King of Comedy," another movie that is very funny but which is also so bleak and wounding in parts that you don't know whether to laugh or not while watching it.

I love that reference to "The King of Comedy." That is another example of a film with a comic actor, Jerry Lewis, doing something totally dramatic—not without humor but it was totally dramatic. The tone comes from the style of filmmaking, which is more concerned with observing a story instead of telling a story. It is a style that seeks to sensitize you to what is happening beneath the surface because so much goes unexpressed. The style tends to calm and smooth the waters so that you can see deeper. It is a turbulent story but the observing of it is ultra-focused. As far as tone in regards to being funny or serious or whatever else, it seemed to be an appropriate and natural manifestation of this extraordinarily awkward and ultimate tragic relationship.

Much has already written about Steve Carell's wholly dramatic performance as John du Pont and it is indeed an incredible transformation that should launch him into more serious roles. However, the performance by Channing Tatum is just as impressive and offers equally conclusive proof that he is capable of things as an actor that he has rarely gotten a chance to show onscreen up to this point. How did you come to decide on him for the role of Mark Schultz?

I offered him the role eight years ago after I saw "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," in which he absolutely convinced me that he was capable of doing it. At the time, I had never heard of Channing Tatum and had never seen him before. It just so happened that it took a long time to get this movie made—about six years from the time I offered him the role to the time we began shooting—and in that time, he took on all sorts of other roles that took him in a much different direction from where he had started and where I first learned about him. That conviction that I had about him that was borne from that first role was never altered and I didn't really pay attention to these lighter, fluffier roles that he did.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the way that you utilize the physicality of the actors and their surroundings to establish their characters in ways both great and small. There has been much talk about the prosthetic nose that Carell wears in the film but the reason that it works is because he is so good at establishing du Pont through the body language he establishes that he feels like a real person and not just Steve Carell with a fake nose. Likewise, Sienna Miller does such a good job of presenting herself as Dave Schultz's perfectly ordinary wife that I did not realize that it was her until I saw her name in the end credits, something that I never dreamed could have been possible in regards to someone who looks like Sienna Miller.

All of the actors were amazing—every one of them. They really did their work and thankfully, there were a lot of materials for them to study, including videotape of everybody. Dave Schultz had a lot of home movies, John du Pont made documentaries about himself that we had as well as all of the raw footage. Mark Schultz is still around and Channing was able to hang out with him and watch all of this video. We also had great costume designers and makeup artists. We also had a considerable amount of time to prepare. Mark Ruffalo and Channing began their training seven months before we began shooting—training and learning how to wrestle. Bill Corso's design of du Pont's makeup took many months and involved many tests—he worked on that character of du Pont in the same way that Carell worked on that character. Carell also stopped working out and allowed his body to become something else. The physicality that they discovered really became their own.

One of the most exceptional scenes in "Foxcatcher"—all the more remarkable because it is virtually free of dialogue—comes early on when we see the practice session between Mark and Dave. In theory, it is just them rassling for a few minutes but as they go about it during that time, you begin to get a real sense of who these two are and what their relationship is to each other without having to rely on the usual backstory deployment that would normally crop up along the way.

Again, the way that these films are made calls for a lot of experimentation and trial and exploration. The actors were just so good that when that scene was assembled, I realized that the other scenes that I had designed and shot to indicate and explain who these guys were to each other—the reverence and the rivalry between these guys—now seemed redundant because the actors were so amazing in that scene. I literally cut 20 minutes of scenes from the film because we got it all from what they did. I did not know going in that it would have accomplished so much but that is a testament to the actors.

You shot "Foxcatcher" in the glory of 35mm instead of on digital. Was there a particular approach to the look of the film that drove you to that particular choice?

It was just aesthetics—it just felt better to me. We did extensive, side-by-side tests and we did everything we could to try to find a way of being content with shooting digital but at the end of the day, the decision was made to shoot film and I couldn't be happier that we did.

Did you ever hear from the du Pont family at any point during the production of the film?

Not much. I had some tangential contact with them—very brief. I spoke to a few du Ponts who were very friendly and helpful but the contact was kept to a minimum.

"Foxcatcher" premiered earlier this year at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival where you won the prize for Best Director. After all the time spent on this project, what was it like for you to go there and have it pay off in such a significant way?

It is a funny thing to be so isolated for so long—we edited the film for the better part of a year in semi-profound seclusion—and to then come out and have the first public experience with the film to be at the Grand Palais. It was a joy—it is a little bit like a mecca because of the concentration of film lovers there. I don't know of a filmmaker who does not feel buoyed and lifted when their peers embrace the work. It was uplifitng and encouraging.

Having gone through the experience of bringing "Foxcatcher" to the screen, have you found that your perspective of John du Pont has shifted at all from what you first thought of him to your view of him today?

I do. I couldn't help, especially when I started watching the videos and hearing the stories, I couldn't help but be humored by the anecdotes. There was a fun to it, even though it was a fun that turned tragic. Over time, that subsided and my feeling about him now is of sorrow for a guy who had so much and was so lonely and lost. He died a few years ago and according to his will, he was buried wearing his Foxcatcher singlet in a coffin that would also contain the wrestling medals that he won in tournaments like the one we depict in the film—these things that had been staged. It is a terribly funny notion—making that decision to be buried in your singlet with these medals—but it is also terribly sad.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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