Movie Review/Interview: Bennett Miller On ‘FOXCATCHER’ – A Harrowing & Disturbing Character Study

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Preston Barta // Editor


FOXCATCHER | 134 min. | Rated R | Director: Bennett Miller | Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall and Vanessa Redgrave

Winner of this year’s Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Bennett Miller is one of those rare talents behind the camera. After his prior non-fiction films CAPOTE and MONEYBALL, Miller has made what may be his most intense and raw film yet with FOXCATCHER.

The films tells the true story of multimillionaire and industrial scion John du Pont (a creepy Steve Carell) and his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (a riveting Mark Ruffalo) back in the 80s and 90s.

This true story of wrestling and murder may not be the easiest of films to digest, but it’s a harrowing and deeply disturbing character study. It provides many chills, but also gives a rich examination of the promises in the American dream and how that dream can often lead to a nightmare.

We spoke with Miller recently about changing gears in the way he makes films, how no one really knows the real story, chasing this American dream, and Carell completely enveloping the chilling du Pont.

Honestly, before the film was getting made, I really knew nothing about the true story itself. It slipped underneath the radar. Why do you think the story of the Schultz brothers and du Pont remained relatively obscure in an age that seems to prize such true-crime tales?

Bennett Miller, director of FOXCATCHER.

Bennett Miller, director of FOXCATCHER.

Miller: “Let me ask you a question. Are you a journalist?”

Yes.

Miller: “I think it’s a fantastic question to explore. But I do not have the answer. I’ve asked myself that question before. Part of my intrigue about it is that the coverage seemed so disproportionate to the sensational value of it. It came and went awfully quick. I wouldn’t say it’s obscure, but it did go away rather quickly. And I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t know anything about this story. [Du Pont] is the wealthiest American ever to be convicted of murder, and almost nobody knows about the story.”

And that blows my mind.

Miller: “And you said you never heard of it?”

Nope. I just knew you were trying to get it made a couple years back – that’s when I looked into it.

Miller: “Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago – 1996.”

Yeah, for sure. And this is your third non-fiction story to tell on screen. Is there a particular reason for that? Does fiction not move you as a storyteller?

Miller: “Fiction does. But I guess I like having something material that I can really examine. I’m drawn to the aspects of these true stories that feel like fiction, meaning the allegorical component to them. So they’re true stories, and yet they feel that they have certain the power that fiction has to get to deeper truths, truths that are larger than just the stories themselves. But I like being able to examine something and question it.

And back to your point about the coverage of it. Whatever coverage had been done of this story, what interested me were the parts that had been absolutely overlooked. You know, the human components to it. I mean, it’s very easy to take a sensational story like this, send a news truck down, send the writers down and whip up very satisfying, frothy stories that work for a couple of days, that people can consume like junk food and then move on to the next thing. I was very interested to revisit this thing that had always been covered in such a way and to try to unearth the dimension, the humanity of it and what happened— not as an investigator or a journalist or anything like that, because I’m neither of those things. I’m a filmmaker, and I was drawn as a filmmaker to a story that seemed to have allegorical power.”

Steve Carell's John du Pont (right) coaching Channing Tatum's Mark Schultz in FOXCATCHER.

Steve Carell’s John du Pont (right) coaching Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz in FOXCATCHER.

You talked about looking for deeper truths. Do you feel that you have a better understanding of du Pont now? Because personally, I came away from this movie with the same amount of questions that I did when I went in.

Miller: “Yeah. When I say truths, I think that making this film taught me a great deal, that personally I’m drawn in, and I feel that this story has something to do with me, and I want to pursue it. The question of ‘Why did he do it?’— it’s sort of against my nature to give a simplified answer. And I really like to resist— and the film resists— concluding anything, because the moment you conclude something, by definition you end thinking about it. And I think that the themes of this film are very alive in the world today, in our culture and our society. And to smack a label on something, to give a diagnosis, to give a conclusion, about any of this feels political. And this is not meant to be that. So for me the truth has more to do with the character and drive of these forces that govern different interests. Within the story are characters who are obedient to the impulses of wealth and class and power and patriotism and exceptionalism and family— and especially the questions of our perceived differences. This is a tiny little weird, obscure story that nonetheless, I think, embodies in a very simple haiku way, larger themes.”

One of the things that I took notice of right away when watching this film, especially after watching MONEYBALL recently, is how organic and raw this film feels. There’s not a whole lot of music to sway your emotions, there’s no a whole lot of camera movement– besides the wrestling scenes. Did this story just call for that kind of approach? Was a more, dare I say, commercial approach ever on the table?

Miller: “It did call for it, because so much of what happens is unspoken. So you need to be sensitive to the subtleties of what’s happening in the scene. You know, people express themselves in all sorts of intentional ways in what they say, but people also express themselves inadvertently, and for me, an austere style like this really scrutinizes behavior and puts these actors under a microscope. It was needed to sensitize you to the signals coming off of these people. So you might find yourself getting anxious and tense and feel the constrictor begin to squeeze, but you might not always know why. But when you smooth the waters you can see to the bottom. To me, it’s a dynamic style of filmmaking, and the film is very dynamic, because it gives power to things that ordinarily are meaningless in a frenetic film. It just feels like a bow being pulled back to the point where it’s about to break.”

Yeah, very well put.

Vanessa Redgrave receiving some direction from Bennett Miller on set of FOXCATCHER.

Vanessa Redgrave receiving some direction from Bennett Miller on set of FOXCATCHER.

Miller: “When you say commercial– a more commercial approach. I don’t know if that’s the best word, but I know what you mean.”

More conventional, not as organic– however you want to put it.

Miller: “Yeah, yeah.”

And lastly, people are no doubt going to be surprised by Steve Carell’s performance. I know this is a very general question, but how did he come on board for this? How did you guys shape his character?

Miller: “Well, his name was offered by his agent, and when I came to his name on one of the lists, I paused, because it made an intuitive kind of sense to me, because it was such an oddball thing— nobody expected du Pont to murder anybody, and [I liked] the idea of casting somebody who would surprise us in that way, too, because this is not the sort of behavior you’d expect from Steve Carell.

When I first met Steve to talk about the role and the film, he said that he’d only ever played characters with mushy centers, and that du Pont seemed to have a mushy center but he didn’t. And also from the seriousness with which Carell discussed the role and the film, it was clear that Steve himself does not have a mushy center. Seldom do people with his measure of success have mushy centers. And being a comic, he, by necessity I think, has to have an aspect of himself that he keeps guarded from public view. And we all know how dark comics can get— I’m not saying that he’s darker than most or anything like that, but he does have private side that is not at all goofy, not at all mushy. He’s very smart and also, in my estimation, a pretty intense person, and beyond his talent as an actor – which I think is considerable – and beyond his peculiar sense of humor – which is not inappropriate for this role – that kind of out-of-place awkwardness, the fact is he expressed a commitment and a determination to participate in a process that would be genuine and would explore to the best of our ability who he was and what happened. And that willingness, that eagerness and commitment, goes a long way when deciding who your collaborators are. And very quickly I thought I couldn’t imagine anybody that I’d rather have do it, if he could pull it off.”

FOXCATCHER opens tomorrow in select theaters.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.