Bennett Miller is a fidgety guy. I spoke with the Oscar-nominated director last week to ask him about Foxcatcher, a character drama based on the bizarre murder of an Olympic wrestler. Like Miller's other narrative films Capote and Moneyball, Foxcatcher is inspired by real events: The wrestler, Dave Schultz, was shot and killed in 1996 by John du Pont, the unhinged heir to an enormous family fortune. When the film debuted at the Cannes last May, Miller walked away with the festival's best director award. Backed by celebrated performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, he's practically a shoo-in to be nominated for the Oscars early next year.
Miller spoke in a careful way when we met, pausing at length to organize his thoughts. He punctuated those gaps by fiddling with a pen, or by tapping his fingers against a table. He didn't seem distracted as much as he seemed exhausted. (I certainly can't blame him. Press tours are notoriously dull.) For several minutes, he doodled in a notebook; it wasn't until much later that I realized what he had been sketching. It was a leaping fox, inscribed within a circle. It was the logo of Team Foxcatcher, the wrestling facility bankrolled by du Pont.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
When did you start thinking about Foxcatcher? What attracted you to the story of John du Pont?
Well, I didn't know anything about the story until eight years ago. A complete stranger approached me at an event and handed me an envelope that contained newspaper clippings about it. And when I got around to looking at them a month later, I was hooked immediately. You'd think I'd have some kind of pat answer at this point, for when I'm asked, "What was it? Why did you fall in love? Why this?" But it more hit me in the gut. I just immediately had a vision of John du Pont, this enormously wealthy heir to the du Pont fortune, in a wrestling room that he had built on his family's estate. I just had a vision of him watching these wrestlers practice on his property. Everybody was out of place. You know? He doesn't really belong in a wrestling room and these guys don't belong on his estate. The chemistry of that alone was so compelling to me. It had elements of comedy. It just seemed funny to me. I wanted to laugh at that.
There's an absurdist bent to it.
Absolutely, absolutely. Except it ends tragically.
Who was this stranger who led you to the story? Did you track him down later?
Oh yeah. He approached me because he claimed to have some rights to the story—which it turns out he didn't, but we involved him anyway. He's got some kind of a credit.
As I understand it, you started to make Foxcatcher several years ago, but then it stalled when the economy turned. How close were you to making the movie back then?
I was ready to move forward, start casting it, and begin that long process. Once those wheels get going, though, there's still a ton of work left to do. You never realize how unready you are until you're knee-deep in it—I should say neck-deep in it. It's hard to know.
So, do you regret not being able to make it at that point?
Not at all.
When it came time to finally begin production, did you feel like you were in a better place to make the movie you wanted?
Yeah, yeah. It's really healthy to have that time to allow a story to gestate and to think about it. A lot of the elements that vibrated initially—all the shiny elements of the story—they began to lose their luster and give way to more substantive stuff. It is a very sensational story. It's a story that lends itself to sensationalism. Maybe an earlier iteration would have gone for that low-hanging fruit. I far prefer this kind of film. It's much more satisfying for me.
The leading performances are all very good. I read that Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo went through an awful lot to find their characters. As a director, what do you do to encourage that struggle? How do you prevent an actor from becoming too comfortable in a role?
I think it's just about bringing a lot of awareness into the process.
Meaning, I think I'm sensitive to behavior. I think when an actor feels like they're being watched with great sensitivity and a subtle eye and a nose for truthfulness, that has some effect. It's important for an actor to feel like they're really being watched and to receive feedback and encouragement about the aspects of what they're doing that feels truthful—and also to raise awareness when they might be resorting to habits and tricks, which every actor has. There's also an understanding that it's okay to experiment and try things. It's natural to be lost for a while. The priority is on getting all of the behavior right and finding the character.
There's a quote that jumped out to me in an interview you did back in 2011. You described your work as "portraits that do not feature conventional antagonists." Now, John du Pont is about as far from conventional as it gets—this guy is in outer space compared to everyone else. But there's something distinctly antagonizing about him. Do you see him as a villain?
I don't. I really don't like to think along those lines. I mean, the film makes the best case for every character. It is portrait-driven. It is behavior-driven. This is not a plot-based, information-based, biographical film. My interest is that something tragic happened and I could examine it in a way that doesn't conclude who was a good guy and who was a bad guy. If you were to be fair about it, if you were really to examine what led to this tragedy, you'd have to admit that there was some kind of co-authorship between these characters. Decisions were made along the way by everybody that contributed to the outcome.
But John certainly acts in villainous ways.
Yeah, that's not to say that John du Pont was not villainous. You just can't conclude that one guy is evil, one guy is good, and now we can stop thinking about it. There are more issues there than that.
In that interview I mentioned, you also talked about filmmaking as an act of self-investigation. You said, "Every film, I believe, teaches you how to make that film." What did Foxcatcher teach you? What did the wait to make Foxcatcher teach you?
Well, those are two totally different questions! One is about making the movie, which is the process of learning "Oh, I can rely on this person. Oh, this is going to work. Oh, this is not going to work."
The ways you interact on set?
Yeah, and also the process. Every film requires a different process. You learn about these particular actors and the particular chemistry between these actors. Recognizing when you don't need to shoot a scene because it's going to be cut anyway. Recognizing that the script is never gonna get there. You know? That kind of stuff. That's probably what I meant back then.
And the wait to make the movie? What did you learn from that?
It brought into even greater relief the truth that a film is a filmmaker's relationship to the story. Necessarily over time, that relationship changes. And so, as a person, some amount of maturing occurred in the period when I had to wait. I think my interest became more focused on the deeper currents of the story. I became less interested in the entertainment of it.
The shiny parts.
Yeah. That's not to condemn entertainment or anything. To me, [the film] is entertaining. But not in a pop kind of way.