Last night the BFI Southbank hosted Bennett Miller for a candid interview spanning his movie career as part of the London Film Festival 2014. Miller gave a thoughtful and reflective insight into how he approached each of his films from his early life and the making of his debut The Cruise (1998) right through to his latest Foxcatcher (2014.)
Miller started the evening by talking about his earliest memories of film and how he was mesmerized when an English teacher showed him Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) at an early age, and from then on he contemplated life as a filmmaker. It is these early influences that would go on to form part of Miller’s simplistic style. Miller spent his adolescent years in a private school, where his talents for filmmaking were nurtured thanks to the school having a state of the art editing suite where he sought refuge. It is at the same school that Miller formed some childhood friends that would later go on to shape his career as a filmmaker, in particular the enigmatic Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch and of course the late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman.
When it came to filming his debut feature film The Cruise, Miller had become disenchanted with the competitive nature of his New York film school and dropped out. Miller spent most of his days working crappy jobs. He spent a lot of time playing chess in Manhattan park until the sun came up. This is when he had the vision of making a film about a man on the verge of homelessness. Enter Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, who Miller had known from school and was now based in New York as a tour guide operator. Levitch was a born performer a ‘Victorian poet trapped in a modern-day cynicism.’ Who happened to be obsessively in love with the city. Miller went to him and asked about the project, but insisted that this was his portrait of Levitch and he would not be swayed in his portrayal of him. Levitch agreed, and the two made the film over the course of four years, this was a stage when Miller was developing the style he would later become famous for, the intimate shots where the camera is left lingering on its subject. Miller used Levitch as a muse to practice this on, as he thought he had to get under the veneer of the performer of Timothy Levitch and find his vulnerability.
Fast forward five years after the success of The Cruise, and Miller had been refining his craft, making commercials, when he was sent the script for Capote. Miller could immediately visualize the film he wanted to make and went for it. This would reunite him with Phillp Seymour-Hoffman. When questioned about Hoffman, Miller was initially tentative and clearly emotional about his passing. But he did talk of their working relationship on Capote stating that the two were so obsessive about it that it became a borderline OCD experience. He claimed when Hoffman was working he was incredibly self-critical to the point of self-punishment, he didn’t want love or admiration, but just wanted to give the best performance he could give. Miller felt that he should focus on his portrayal of Truman Capote and not get wrapped up in the mark he left on American literature, affirmation that this was the right move came after the film’s release when he received a three page letter from the novelist Harper Lee which stated that although some events did not happen exactly the way the film depicted, it was ‘True to Truman.’
After the Oscar win for Hoffman and the accolades Capote (2005) collected, Miller thought that he could finally make what he wanted to with relative ease, in this case Foxcatcher, the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler and his explosive relationship with coach John du Pont. But the doors were closed on Miller and he was forced to abandon the idea. At this point he received a phone call from Brad Pitt, who was determined to finally complete Moneyball, a film that had been passed from pillar to post but never completed. Miller said that thematically the film appealed to him, it was not only a criticism of baseball, but of the filmmaking industry. The way in which individuals are overlooked is a message deep at the heart of the film and it transcends it to the point where the audience almost forgets that the film is about baseball. On casting Jonah Hill, Miller stated that he didn’t find it an unusual choice as ‘the best answer isn’t always the most obvious answer’ and now he couldn’t imagine anyone else in that role.
Over the course of the seventy-five minutes Bennett Miller gave us a thought-provoking insight into his process. What came across most is that he is a determined filmmaker who’s unwavering belief, vision and passion he has for his films translates onto the screen.
Here’s the latest trailer for Foxcatcher which is in cinemas now.
Written by Will Harper.