Foxcatcher is an arresting, thought-provoking, absurdist drama of timely import. Once again, director Bennett Miller reimagines a true-life story as a basis to explore the complex and perverse psychology of its central players. Moreover, Foxcatcher shines a bright light to expose dark truths in regards to the corruption of the American dream.
Much has already been written about the formidable, head-turning physical-vocal-psychological transformations by actor Steve Carell, who has utterly and astonishingly morphed into John du Pont, wealthy heir to the family fortune. Du Pont reinvented himself as an “Olympic wrestling coach” and host to world champions Mark and Dave Schultz and the “Foxcatcher Team” in preparation for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. As depressed and vulnerable wrestler Mark Schultz, Channing Tatum offers perhaps the most raw performance of his career to date. Mark Ruffalo is at the top of his game in his very tender and nuanced portrayal of Mark’s older brother, wrestling coach and mentor, Gold Medal winner Dave Schultz. Vanessa Redgrave is chilling in her disdain for her son and his exploits as the du Pont family matriarch.
With a credit sequence of black and white fox-hunting footage that director Bennett Miller culled from the family video archives of the film’s subjects, we have a sense of foreboding that this game is rigged. It is the perfect set-up for a film that takes on as its subject the unnerving ramifications of income inequality. Director Miller walked away with the coveted Best Director prize at Cannes, and Foxcatcher is likely to receive a slew of Academy Award nominations back home. The film will leave you stunned and talking, long after the end credits role.
Foxcatcher is Miller’s fourth picture. To date, he is perhaps best known for Capote (2005), which previously garnered an Academy Award for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and the critically-acclaimed Moneyball (2011).
At the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, I sat down in a dimly lit room to speak with the extremely talented feature director, Bennett Miller, whose speech is as haltingly deliberate, as his films are striking.
Sophia Stein: You have observed that “The deeply strange things that happened on the DuPont estate were unlike anything I had personally experienced, and yet they felt familiar.” Familiar, in what ways?
Bennett Miller: There are big themes as pertain to wealth, class, and entitlement within this little story that are familiar to all of us. The theme of modernity – of not being able to pursue that which you feel you are meant to pursue to fulfillment, without making compromises, felt familiar. Being out of place in a world where one does not belong, felt familiar. Being in a situation where you succumb to the pressure to look the other way and not acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with the transaction at hand, felt familiar. The part that was weird, strange, peculiar was the collision of those two worlds – the world of exceptional wealth and the world of wrestling.
Sophia: As John du Pont says to Mark Schultz in the scene where he is recruiting him, “We, as a nation, fail to honor you, and that’s a problem. Not just for you, for our society.” The film takes on this sense of deference to wealth. Where there is such income inequity, we see how easy it is for John du Pont to manipulate Mark Schultz.
Bennett: Who among us doesn’t want to hear something like what du Pont says to Schultz?
Sophia: With the opening montage, the black and white fox-hunting footage, we have the sense from the outset that the game is rigged. It is unsettling and foreboding. Did you always know that the film would start that way?
Bennett: Those are actual home movies from Foxcatcher Farms. This film had a process that involved a lot of exploration and discovery right up until the very end. That footage came into my awareness just a few weeks before we began shooting, and it really didn’t occur to me until the edit that it might be the way in.
Sophia: The casting choices are brilliant, and not obvious. You have admitted that casting Steve Carell was the greatest risk, and the best choice. When Carell initially met with you to discuss the role, he questioned you on how, in your previous film, Philip Seymour Hoffman had achieved his Academy-Award winning performance as Truman Capote. What did you tell Carell?
Bennett: He was really speaking specifically about the physical aspects of changing his voice, if I recall correctly. How did Hoffman learn that voice and that speech? I said that everybody has their own process. That there are dialect coaches that some actors really like to work with, I had offered that to Phil. Phil had met with a dialogue coach and quickly rejected that notion. He opted instead to just lock himself in a room with his Walkman, listening to Capote’s voice over and over again, just figuring it out for himself. He didn’t want to be made to feel self-conscious in the way that an instructor might make you feel. And Steve said, “I’ll do the same.”
Sophia: Carell’s work in the film feels analogous to me to Robin William’s eerie transformation in One Hour Photo. How did you come to consider a comedian for this dramatic role?
Bennett: It was Steve’s agent who came up with the idea, put his name on a list. I thought Steve was a really interesting choice. Of course, there is a history of comedic actors doing dramatic roles; I had worked with Jonah Hill on my last film, Moneyball. Nobody expected John du Pont to murder anybody, so it made sense that we would cast somebody who you do not expect to commit such an act of violence. Also, comic actors tend to have an aspect of themselves that they keep private, out of view. You mentioned Robin Williams — it’s not uncommon to discover that someone who we think of as light and colorful is guarding other aspects of themselves. So, for these reasons, I was further intrigued by the prospect of casting Steve Carell. When we met, Steve expressed a real sensitivity to playing this role and a seriousness about to how he would approach it. He said that John du Pont seemed to have “a mushy center” — “mushy,” as in “spineless,” a character who can easily be pushed around. “I’ve only ever played characters with ‘mushy centers,’” he explained, “but John du Pont, in fact, does not have a ‘mushy center.’ He seems to, but he doesn’t.” My personal belief is that Steve Carell does not have a “mushy center” at all.
Sophia: During filming, at one point, you asked Carell to write down on a slip of paper the worst thing that he had ever concealed about himself — something that he would never even tell his wife – and to put this piece of paper into the pocket of his sweatpants. You then threatened that you might grab it and reveal his secret during filming —
Bennett: It’s one of my favorite moments that I’ve ever shot. It’s just a shot. It’s when John du Pont is getting his hair cut by Mark Schultz, and it is just this close-up of du Pont’s face.
Sophia: Like Mike Leigh, you integrate a lot of improvisation in your work. How did you develop your approach to directing actors?
Bennett: Just by necessity. I am not sure that I am particularly efficient at getting performances out, or particularly crafty at getting them. Directing, for me, is more about having a sense of what’s truthful and appropriate, of what we are going for, having a standard for those things and being able to express it to some degree. At times, I am incapable of expressing any advice as to how to achieve that, other than, “Let’s keep trying.” For me, directing is more about having sensibilities and a vision for what a performance can be, should be, and laboring through it – hopefully, with actors who are not only gifted, but patient and tolerant enough to go through a process that will, at times, be laborious in its exploration.
Sophia: I would imagine that the actors are grateful for that time — particularly, in Hollywood, where everyone and everything tends to be so rushed.
Bennett: All actors are different. Steve Carell has the temperament of a long-distance runner. He is the kind of fighter who could go fifteen rounds. He seemed to never fatigue. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum both tended to work best when they were fresh, during the first handful of takes. …That’s not to say that they couldn’t stay in it and still discover stuff in the later takes, they could.
Sophia: There is that wonderful wrestling scene at the beginning of the film between Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum which erupts in violence and a nose bleed. All of a sudden, I immediately sat up and thought, “Are they acting?” It was that fresh and visceral. Was it scripted like that?
Bennett: It’s based on a Sports Illustrated article written about the brothers and stories that Mark Schultz had told me and other wrestlers about their relationship, about how they trained with each other and how competitive they got. It was really [easy] to shoot because those guys were so well prepared. They had trained for seven months. They warmed each other up every day. They really owned it completely. If not scripted, it was choreographed.
Sophia: It is the rawest performance that I have seen to date from Channing Tatum. I also absolutely love Mark Ruffalo’s physicality. Ruffalo really transformed himself for the role.
Bennett: Mark is a phenomenal actor. He is just a phenomenal actor. He could just sustain seemingly contradictory qualities that happen to be appropriate for this character. He is incredibly warm and giving and caring — and brutally tough.
Sophia: Another of my favorite scenes is the helicopter scene, which is a classic. That’s a scene that people are going to be watching and talking about for years to come. Was that improvised?
Bennett: The essentials of what happen in the scene — they’re on a helicopter and du Pont offers Mark Schultz cocaine – that was pretty much there. The rest just came out of Carell’s brain. It is just one of those surprising moments.
Sophia: Another scene that is so memorable is the scene between du Pont and his mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave), when Mrs. du Pont asks her son, “What are we going to do about your train set?” Can you describe what was on the page in the script versus what you filmed?
Bennett: Because I worked with a few different writers over a long period of time — and also, I learned a lot in rehearsal — there was a script. When you say ‘the script,’ I had a binder that had all the different versions of the scenes. The essence of the scene remained the same. The train set thing is something I think I added at the last moment, the night before. It was based on my learning that John had this incredible train set that took up a whole room in the house.
Sophia: “The story harbors some uncomfortable truths,” you observe. “Everyone I spoke with seemed to be guarding some aspect of what happened,” you note. What hidden truths did you unearth?
Bennett: I think it’s a very uncomfortable truth that everybody involved was complicit to some degree with the outcome. Not in an evil way; nobody is a bad person — that’s not to say that du Pont himself was not villainous, that there wasn’t some evil there. But when you’re on the outside and looking in, it’s puzzling why people stayed. When you question people who were on the inside, who chose to stay, it can get a little bit uncomfortable because on the one hand, they want to argue, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. It was fine. He was like this, like that …” But, of course, it wasn’t fine. And he wasn’t really like that. John du Pont was a threat. He was dangerous. And it really was some kind of a collective collaboration to agree that there was not a problem mounting.
Sophia: Nancy (widow of wrestler Dave Schultz) and Mark Schultz were both involved with the filming. Where are they at today, in relation to this tragedy in their lives?
Bennett: Nancy is one of the more amazing people I’ve ever met. She is, I think, at peace. She is engaged to be married. As she has said to me, many people never find love once, and I found it twice in my life. So she is happy. Her kids are amazing. Working on this film and now being able to show it to people – she has been hosting screenings – has been a catharsis. I think that it has been a catharsis for many people. I would say something similar for Mark Schultz … though if I was to be truthful about it, I think he still holds onto a lot of pain. I think he wishes he could go back in time and manage things differently.
Sophia: Ruffalo describes wrestling as the most intimate act two men can engage in without being lovers. In the film, it is ambiguous as to whether Mark Schultz may have had a sexual relationship with du Pont?
Bennett: I think that the film portrays their relationship the way it was. I really don’t think that if du Pont had sexual urges that they ever erupted into anything explicit. But I really do believe that those drives were within him — and possibly never fully admitted, either by him or by the wrestlers. So if he derived pleasure by drunkenly rolling around the matt with these guys, I think he probably did so in some form of denial. It’s one more tension of a guy who is living a lie. Du Pont cast himself in a role that he couldn’t live up to. John du Pont was, I think, incapable of admitting who he was.
Sophia: You received this famous letter from Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) regarding your previous film, Capote, in which she said, “The film was a demonstration of fiction as a means towards truth.” She acknowledged that even while there was a great deal that had been invented in your bio-pic of Truman Capote, ‘‘The film told the truth about Truman.” Did that letter just arrive in your mailbox out of the blue one day?
Bennett: It came through Gregory Peck’s daughter, Cecilia. Her husband contacted me and Catherine Keener and said that Harper Lee had seen the film twice, that she had written a note, they had the note, and that Harper Lee wanted them to read the note to us. So we were invited over to their house, and I believe it was Gregory Peck’s daughter who read it. Or maybe it was his wife, Veronique? — the three of them were there. So they read it to Catherine and myself. It was a very moving thing.
Sophia: You and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman go way back —
Bennett: We met at a summer theatre program, after our junior year of high school.
Sophia: What is your earliest memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Bennett: I remember noticing him on the very first day. I think there were something like thirty-two kids in this program. And you know, when you’re in high school, and everyone is like sixteen years old and insecure, and sussing each other out. I remember being impressed that there was something reserved about him. Back then, he was built like a jock. He actually had been a wrestler, and he only went into theatre because he had injured himself wrestling. Phil was a little bit different in that way. He was this hearty, upstate kid, athletic stock, with bright orange hair — and he didn’t look like a theatre kid at all, to me. The first thing that caught my eye was that there was something about him that was reserved. Not shy. Not introverted. But watching. Instead of putting himself out there, it was as if he was making a deliberate choice to take more in.
Sophia: Do you remember the last conversation you had with him?
Bennett: Oh, yeah, I do. He came to see a fine cut of Foxcatcher. My last conversation with him was about the film — specifically about his relationship with his older brother, Gordy, and how taken he was with Mark Ruffalo’s performance. That was the very last time I saw him …
Bennett Miller was awarded the Best Director Prize for “Foxcatcher” at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It is anticipated that the film will score Academy Award Nominations in several categories during the upcoming year.
Top Image: Steve Carell (John du Pont) and Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), “Foxcatcher.” Photo by Scott Garfield, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.