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fall preview 2014

Obsession With an Obsession: The Making of Foxcatcher

From top, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Styling by Alicia Lombardini; Grooming by Assumpta Clohessy at the Wall Group (Tatum, Carell) and Kumi Craig for La Mer at The Wall Group (Ruffalo). On Tatum, hoodie by James Perse. On Ruffalo, hoodie by Robert Geller. On Carell, hoodie by Jack Henry, T-shirt by ATM.

Bennett Miller was down in the dirt on the wrong side of an iron fence, looking through without being quite sure what he was hoping to find. It was 2007, and he, his producer, and his screenwriter had traveled on a research trip to Foxcatcher Farm, a 416-acre compound outside of Philadelphia, in search of the kind of insight that only proximity can provide. Until a few years earlier, Foxcatcher had been home to the du Pont family, multi­millionaire corporate titans who started building their fortune as gunpowder manufacturers in 1802, and who had seen their name disgraced in 1996 when John ­Eleuthère du Pont, a damaged and ­delusional heir to the family dynasty, had shot a man to death in the driveway of one of his guesthouses.

Miller crawled around the property’s perimeter in the gray drizzle, trying to see through a chain-link barrier overgrown with ivy and weeds. There was nothing to see. Du Pont was serving a 13-to-30-year sentence, but from prison he had ordered that the shell and even the windows of the dilapidated guesthouse be painted black. The scene of the crime was now a defiant void. “It was,” Miller says, “very freaky.”

Nearly a decade later, Miller has wrenched an austere and challenging movie out of that bizarre tragedy. Foxcatcher is an exploration of two worlds—extreme wealth and Olympic-level wrestling—and of the dissociation that total immersion in either can bring about. The movie—which stars Steve Carell as the stiff, disconnected, vain du Pont, and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, the wrestlers with whom he became obsessed—entered the Cannes Film Festival in May unseen. Ten days later, it emerged as what Variety’s film critic Justin Chang called “perhaps the [festival’s] sole credible awards season heavyweight,” winning acclaim on the order of Miller’s other two features, Capote and Moneyball, and a six-minute ovation.

Advance attention has focused on the performances—Carell’s startling physical and vocal transformation, Tatum’s deep dive into a character more complex and troubled than any he’s played, and Ruffalo’s continuation, in the wake of HBO’s The Normal Heart, of what he happily calls “the kind of year that most years aren’t.” But at Cannes, most of the attention paid was to Miller, who became the first American filmmaker in seven years to win the festival’s Best Director award. “This is Bennett’s movie,” says Carell. “He’s lived with it for so long. I remember discussing specific scenes with him, and years and years later, I saw the movie and they were exactly as he had described them. He never took his eye off what he wanted it to be.”

The spotlight is an unusual place for Miller, a deliberative and beyond-low-key 47-year-old who shuns attention and says he is both physically and constitutionally incapable of raising his voice. Until now, he has offered film buffs almost no public persona—he has been, in chronological order, the guy who came out of nowhere to make The Cruise, the guy who came back out of nowhere to make Capote, and the guy who replaced Steven Soderbergh on Moneyball without dumbing down the movie or making everyone hate him. But Foxcatcher makes apparent a throughline—rigor, lack of sentiment, and emotional precision applied to a series of coolheaded portraits of fragilely self-invented men—and nails down his status as a major American director. 

Miller grew up in Westchester, went to public school in Mamaroneck, and had his first that’s-what-I-want-to-do moment not at the movies but at a community-theater production of The Miracle Worker that “left a huge, huge impression. The mother screaming into the crib realizing that her child was blind and deaf. I remember walking onto the stage afterwards through the fake door of the house and it completely captivated me.” Another seminal moment: a grade-school classroom screening of Nicolas Roeg’s hushed 1971 film Walkabout. “The language of the film, its silences and the undercurrents of those silences, really struck me,” he says.

After studying theater and film at NYU, he left a few credits shy of a degree. (“I wasn’t precocious enough to drop out more quickly,” he jokes.) He broke through in 1998 with The Cruise, a portrait in near-monologue form of Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a loud, polymathic, and drolly self-dramatizing double-decker-bus tour guide. The film seemed to anticipate an era in which seemingly everyone would imagine themselves as the stars of their own reality shows. In retrospect, though, it’s notable not just for Levitch’s motormouth but for Miller’s complete command of silences—the way he trains a steady gaze on his subject at the moment when his words run dry—and for his revelation of character not just through what is said but through the cadence of the voice that’s saying it. Levitch’s honking slam-poetry rhythms; the flamboyant, drawling whinny that Philip Seymour Hoffman found for Capote; and the halting, spookily hollow delivery Carell deploys in Foxcatcher collectively constitute a Miller signature. “I’m fascinated by people who have real voices,” he says.

The Cruise won Miller steady work directing commercials and “made a lot of doors open. My agent had some big clients, and for some years, he would send me scripts, but they were just nothing I wanted to do.”

Then came Capote. Screenwriter Dan Futterman brought him the idea, and Miller took it to his NYU classmate Hoffman, whom he’d known since they were both 16 and attended theater camp together. Miller, who had been struggling to pull together a second documentary, was cautious about jumping into feature directing, and Hoffman, he recalls, “had doubts about himself. Hoffman weighed 240 pounds at the time and had that deep, booming voice. It’s hard to appreciate what an extraordinary decision it was for him to put that much faith in me.” On the Capote set, Miller says, “the two of us were sort of a perfect storm of self-brutalizing, impossible standards—unforgiving, with the ability to suspend all other concerns and to assign huge stakes to what we were doing. It was miserable and ecstatic at the same time”—a combination that, a decade later, looks as emblematic of Miller’s M.O. as of the actor’s. The result won Hoffman the Academy Award, and Miller a nomination for Best Director.

He first heard about the Foxcatcher story soon after the 2006 Oscars when an attendee at a Cruise DVD signing handed him an envelope full of clippings. The figures fascinated him—du Pont, an eccentric 57-year-old dilettante who lived on his mother’s vast estate on Philadelphia’s Main Line; Mark Schultz, a competitive wrestler who had won Olympic gold in Los Angeles 12 years earlier and was struggling to come back; and his older brother Dave, also a 1984 gold medalist wrestler turned coach. The accounts were intriguing both for what they revealed—with no expertise in wrestling, du Pont had decided to become patron to a squad of Olympic hopefuls, luring them by building a state-of-the-art training facility for what he preeningly called “Team Foxcatcher”—and for what they omitted: What, exactly, was the tangle of money, pride, rage, and madness among the three men that left one dead and one in prison?

“The coin dropped,” he says. “I said to myself, I’m making this film next.

That was eight years ago.

Miller (in white jacket) and his actors on the set.

Miller saw the closed-off universe of wrestling, repressed homoeroticism, dynastic wealth, and drug abuse as, among other things, a “narrative of a cult. You’ve got all the essential ingredients—a disaffected community in these wrestlers who are unrecognized and unrewarded. A charismatic leader who belongs to another sect that speaks to them. A utopian vision. A geographical separation from the outer world, literally, by a gate in which their own order is permitted to be honored. And an underbelly of violence, because the natural course of a cult narrative is to end in flames.”

He knew that finding that narrative would require a long and exploratory journey. “Movies, unlike books or even plays, are really handicapped creatures,” he says. “You can’t just tell a story. If you’re not successful at exploiting the full dimension of moments, it ends up being less than it should be.” The director Spike Jonze sees that in him, too, calling Miller “a micro-macro director. At a dinner party, he’s never going to be the one who does all the talking or dominates the room. But when he has something to say, it’s always interesting.”

For a few months in 2007, Miller worked on an early script outline with the novelist Dave Eggers. Then screenwriter E. Max Frye, best known for Something Wild, signed on. “Max and I spent a lot of time with index cards and pushpin boards and had long conversations in which we kept rearranging these cards like old IBM programmers trying to see if they’d gotten the program right,” says Miller. He had already started traveling around the country talking to everyone he could find who knew du Pont or the Schultzes, amassing what Frye says were “reams of material—a mountain of research,” and allowing his obsession to take hold. Miller had also started thinking about casting—particularly about who might play Mark Schultz, the taciturn, neurotic, aggressive young wrestler who became du Pont’s wary protégé and fell under the sway of his grandiosity, money, and promises of glory. Early on, Miller thought of Ryan Gosling and Bill Nighy for the leads, and he also talked to Heath Ledger. But he almost immediately settled on a virtual unknown whose performance in the little-seen 2006 film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints he had admired. “I remember Bennett saying, ‘This is the guy! He even has a mixed-martial-arts background! His name is Channing Tatum,’ ” says Frye. “And I said, ‘Who?’ ”

“I didn’t know what to think,” Tatum says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know how to read scripts, I didn’t know anything about acting, and the way Bennett talked about this wildly dark character weirded me out a little bit, to be honest with you. I was super-young and I just didn’t get it. In a way, I think, thank God it didn’t come to fruition then, because I don’t know what it would have turned out to be.”

Miller had hoped to begin production that July, but, Frye says, “it became clear that we weren’t gonna make that deadline, or fall either. We were in the middle of an interesting, painstakingly detailed process to create what almost felt like a doomed love triangle among these three people. Bennett didn’t always know exactly what he wanted, but he usually knew what he didn’t want, and that’s a big thing.”

With a writers’ strike looming, Frye raced to finish what he calls a first draft, but after the three-month walkout was settled, Frye had to turn to other scripts, and Futterman stepped in; he’d work with Miller to crack Foxcatcher on and off for the next four years. Spike Jonze, who was in Los Angeles editing Where the Wild Things Are, lent them an office “that was just wall-to-wall pushpin boards, which is basically my dream come true,” says Miller. “I brought out all of the original index cards, each now with many holes in them because they’d been pinned up and taken down so many times.”

By 2009, Miller felt the script was ready to take to MRC, the financing company (Babel, Ted, Netflix’s House of Cards) that had agreed to back the writing and research of the movie. Independent film capital had all but dried up after the 2008 crash, and the cast Miller proposed—including Tatum—didn’t, at the time, offer much star power. What followed was a somewhat ugly wrangle—“difficult and disillusioning,” Miller says—that eventually ended with his switching ­lawyers and agents, repaying MRC the development costs of the film, and ­realizing he might not be able to get his passion project made.

Miller is not easily thwarted. But it had now been four years since the release of Capote, a lacuna that threatened to edge him into Malick-Kubrick territory. “You should really find something that you can make, that you can feel passionate about now,” his new agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, told him after giving him a blunt assessment of the odds stacking up against Foxcatcher. “How do you feel about baseball?”

In late 2009, Miller signed on to make Moneyball, his first studio film and the first project he hadn’t developed from scratch. Foxcatcher “kind of got put in a drawer,” says Futterman. “There was no financing. Bennett would say, ‘I can’t pay you,’ and I’d say, ‘Let’s just do it—I’ll get paid if it gets made.’ ”

Around the time Moneyball was in postproduction, Miller ran into Tatum on the Sony lot. “He seemed like a completely different person,” Tatum says. “Lighter, so much more focused and clear and confident. And I’d probably gone through a lot of growing in those years as well. We got to talking about Foxcatcher again, and this time, I felt ready to go down this dark road.”

By 2011, the jigsaw pieces had all begun to line up. Tatum was now a movie star. Miller had just directed what would turn out to be his second straight Best Picture nominee. And Megan Ellison, the director-friendly producer-financer who has, in the past four years, backed offbeat projects by Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Kathryn Bigelow, and Spike Jonze that would otherwise have struggled to find studio support, was ready to add Miller to her list; after meeting him, she agreed to back the film without reading a script.

Tatum and Ruffalo followed their 12-hour shooting days with wrestling practice.

Carell also came aboard after a lunch with Miller. “As Steve put it to me, he usually plays characters with a mushy center,” says the director. “Du Pont doesn’t really have that, and neither does Steve—he’s a comic, which to me always means that there’s a dark side. And, as opposed to the actors who we’re used to seeing go crazy, he’s safely in the category of somebody you can’t believe would do that.” At lunch, Carell made it clear he wanted to incarnate du Pont’s awkward, unhinged remoteness in a way that would require months of prep work. “He had a lot of questions about how Phil had done what he did in Capote,” says Miller. “After that meeting, I felt that he would be the greatest risk, and also the best choice.”

While Carell started working to find du Pont’s voice, character, and what he calls “a very specific physicality that I thought was informed by what was going on inside him,” Ruffalo, who signed to play Dave Schultz, went into a different kind of training. Unlike his co-stars, Ruffalo knew about wrestling firsthand; he had started competing in junior high, and by the 11th grade was “pretty decent … I probably could have gone to college on some kind of scholarship for wrestling. I felt I understood the mentality of wrestlers—the discipline and loneliness. But I had to unlearn everything,” because Ruffalo led with his right hand and Schultz was a lefty. Besides, “I’m 47 years old, and I’m playing a 33-year-old man at the height of his athletic prowess,” he says. “The training was just shattering to me physically.”

Foxcatcher went into production outside Pittsburgh in September 2012—a full five years after Miller had once hoped cameras would roll—and filming continued well into the bleak and punishing winter. Miller arrived with a fourth writer, Kristin Gore, and three massive notebooks that he’d filled with every writer’s iteration of every sequence. Although the style of Foxcatcher is precise and restrained, he was eager to reshape scenes on the spot, often leading the cast through improvisatory exercises before the cameras rolled. “I guess it’s closer to what Mike Leigh does than to Aaron Sorkin,” he says of his approach. “I like going into a scene knowing that the script isn’t quite finished, that there’s something that isn’t really going to reveal itself until something spontaneously occurs.”

Miller’s signal quality as a director may be that odd intersection of control and looseness—an unbending commitment to getting each moment right combined with a freewheeling definition of “by any means necessary.” At one point, he had Carell stay in character and give Tatum acting advice; on another day, he took Carell through countless variations of a scene in which du Pont makes an excruciatingly discomfiting victory speech to the team. “Anything was fair game,” says Carell. “There was no shame in trying something, as crazy or subtle or minuscule as it might be.” And, when necessary, Miller could play rough; before another scene, he approached Carell and said, “Write the worst thing about yourself—the thing you wouldn’t tell anyone, not even your wife—on a piece of paper and put it in the pocket of your sweatpants. Just have it right there, and know that it’s in a place where, if I was a dick, I could just grab it.” The scene that resulted, says Miller, “might be my favorite thing I’ve ever put on film.”

“He’d say, ‘This shouldn’t be easy,’ ” says Tatum. “ ‘I don’t want you to fall into a place in week three or four where you feel you’ve found the character. Let’s keep ­digging.’ ” Adds Ruffalo, “Bennett has a particularly good barometer for when you’re falling into your comfort zone, which was always not the right place to be. As soon as he sees you dip down into familiar territory and say, ‘That one felt good,’ he’d say, ‘That’s not what I want—I don’t want you to feel good.’ He is not confrontational as a person, but what he’s asking from you or trying to expose within you is confrontational at times. He wanted an immediacy that is rare. So every day was a challenge.”

The cast was up for it. “For some reason,” says Tatum, “on this movie, it was as if we just all signed an invisible contract with each other to never say when. The shoot really was like wrestling—there’s no resting, there’s no avoiding, you can’t win just by defending yourself. You just keep going and going and going, ad nauseam, until it’s over.”

“I have a tremendous amount of patience and tolerance when working with people,” says Miller, “but if I ever feel the impulse to inhibit myself from doing one more take, or feel a need to apologize to someone for pushing, I know that that relationship isn’t gonna last. I’m conscious of the clock, but this is our one chance, and I would really like to feel like I got the song out.”

On the set—where the Schultz family was an occasional presence, grounding everyone in the real-life story—“it was quiet,” says Carell. “There was definitely a tone on the set, and everyone could feel it. Discussions had mostly to do with what we had done, what we were going to do, or how it connected to something earlier or later in the movie. There wasn’t a lot of idle small talk, and that can be daunting for some people.” Carell found Miller “very communicative and a great partner” but was stunned to realize how isolated he felt as an actor. “Once I was in full makeup and trying to sort of emulate du Pont’s vocal patterns, people were more reserved around me, on and off the set. I don’t want to sound precious or pretentious about being in character all the time. But I hadn’t anticipated how much it would draw me away physically and emotionally from everyone else. Frankly, I’m glad we filmed out of town. The transition from that to being with my family would be … well, I don’t like to bring stuff like that home.”

“It wasn’t one of those movies where you go back to your trailer at the end of the day and say, ‘I think today went pretty good!’ ” says Tatum, who says he “might never again” want to play a part as “filled with rage and pain and fear. I would go home more insecure than when I got there, thinking, ‘Am I doing enough? Is my work good enough to hold up to these other actors?’ You know that saying, that when you look around and you can’t find the weakest link, that means you’re it? I was constantly in my fear.”

Tatum and Ruffalo would often follow 12-hour shooting days with two hours of weight training and wrestling practice. Freestyle wrestling is “so claustrophobic—a grind of pain and exhaustion to a degree that I can’t even describe,” says Tatum. “Mark Ruffalo and I held each other and wept like children after the last wrestling scene was over. That’s how ready I was to be done with it.”

It takes a long time to gestate something like this, but that’s its nature,” Miller says back in New York. “I imagine that maybe I’m doomed”—he cracks a smile—“to this kind of laborious thing where there’s a lot of exploration and trial until you get there. You can write ten versions of a scene and then, on the day, discover that something in the original scene worked. It’s hard on writers. Hard on actors, hard on editors, hard on me, hard on the producers, who require patience and confidence. But I can’t get to the end without going through this process.” Foxcatcher will screen at this year’s New York Film Festival before opening on November 14. Miller doesn’t know what, or when, his next movie will be.

“I am a tumbleweed,” he says, shrugging slightly. “I don’t have a company. I don’t have a staff. I don’t own anything—I’ve never owned a car or an apartment. My entire life can fit into a knapsack. And the thing that I want to do in movies can’t be done every year, or every two years. Maybe I’m wasting a lot of time, but I’m also learning. I feel like what I’m after is not easy for me to find, and to want it to be easy … it would be absurd for me to have that ambition.”  

*This article appeared in the August 25, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Brigitte Lacombe; Brigitte Lacombe; Scott Garfield/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic