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Bennett Miller On Making The True-Life Crime Film 'Foxcatcher'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new film "Foxcatcher" stars Steve Carell as John du Pont, the eccentric air to the du Pont chemical fortune who, in 1997, became one of the wealthiest men in America ever convicted of murder. He thought of himself as an expert on many things, including guns and wrestling. In the 1980s and '90s, he invited Olympic wrestlers to live and train on his estate. He considered himself their wrestling coach. He eventually shot and killed one of those wrestlers, Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz. The film focuses on du Pont's relationship with Dave Schultz, who's played by Mark Ruffalo, and his younger brother Mark, whom du Pont first invited to come and train at his estate, called Foxcatcher Farm. Our guest today is the film's director, Bennett Miller. He also directed "Capote" and "Money Ball." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. They began with this early scene from "Foxcatcher." Mark Schultz, who's already won a gold medal and is struggling to train for the next Olympics with little support, has been invited to visit du Pont at his lavish estate. Mark Schultz is played by Channing Tatum. Du Pont, played by Steve Carell, speaks first.


STEVE CARELL: (As John du Pont) Do you have any idea why I asked you to come here today?

CHANNING TATUM: (As Mark Schultz) No.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) No? Well, Mark, do you have - do you have any idea who I am?

TATUM: (As Mark Schultz) No.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) Some rich guy calls you on the phone. I want Mark Schultz to come visit me. Well, I'm a - I'm a wrestling coach. And I have a deep love for the sport of wrestling. And I wanted to speak with you about your future, about what you hope to achieve. What do you hope to achieve, Mark?

TATUM: (As Mark Schultz) I want to be the best in the world. I want to go to World's and win gold. I want to go to the '88 Olympics in Seoul and win gold.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) Good. I'm proud of you.


Well, Bennett Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us about casting Steve Carell in this role. I mean, a lot of people see this as really surprising.

BENNETT MILLER: Nobody expected John du Pont to murder anybody. And it just made a certain amount of sense to put somebody in that role who we do not expect as capable of doing what this character does. When I first started discussing this venture with Steve Carell, he said to me that he'd only ever played characters with mushy centers and that John du Pont seems to have a mushy center but doesn't. He's dangerous. And I liked how Steve put it. And as we spoke, it became clear. What I think we all already know anyway is that public personas, and maybe even more so with comedic actors, have a side to them that they don't share with the world. You know, there's a public self, and then there's a private reality. And it didn't take a lot of imagination for me to see how that - something like that could work with Steve. But I'd also like to say, I just think he's - he's a really strong actor. And as is often the case with comedic actors, he's just awfully sensitive. He's very aware and listens. I just find him to be a very specific, very interesting and very gifted, sensitive actor.

DAVIES: The wrestling scenes themselves are really compelling. And you just feel the force and the impact of these guys throwing each other around. And this was actually Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. They weren't stand-ins, right? They had to learn how to do this, right?

MILLER: Yeah. It's not a sport that you can fake on film. You know, you can fake throwing a punch on film. This is just not a sport that you can do that. And you also can't go half way with it. You really need to feel bodies crashing against each other. And so they spent about seven months training, getting ready for this.

DAVIES: You had the cooperation of the Schultz family, I mean, who had suffered this terrible trauma so many years ago. And I'm wondering, I would think they would be wary of someone, you know, making a movie out of something which was a fascinating story but also a really sensational crime story. Were they?

MILLER: They were obviously very interested and wanted to know what was happening. And we were very transparent about everything and met with them numerous times. And they ended up just being trusting and generous. And Nancy Schultz, at one point, gave Mark Ruffalo, who plays Dave Schultz, her husband who was murdered by John du Pont - she gave Mark Ruffalo Dave's glasses to wear during the movie. It might seem like a small gesture. But, you know, the moment where she hands those over and says, you know, Mark, I'd like to give you these for the part, there's a certain power to that, you know, just what the gesture meant, the measure of trust that that expresses. And when I see Ruffalo wearing those in the film, it's just - I just think it has some kind of an effect.

DAVIES: Well, let's listen to another scene from the film. This takes place at the wrestling facility at Foxcatcher, the state owned by du Pont. And the team's working out. And John du Pont, who sees himself as the coach of all these champion wrestlers, is having a documentary made. So there's a film and camera crew going as he's shooting the scene. The Olympics are coming up. And in this scene, John du Pont, who's of course played by Steve Carell, is approached by Dave Schultz, played by Mark Ruffalo. Du Pont's mother has just died. But part of what they're talking about is that they want to get Dave's brother, Mark Schultz, ready for the Olympics.


MARK RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) Hey, John. I'm really sorry about your mother.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) Oh, no, no, no, no. It's fine.

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) Really? Are you OK?

CARELL: (As John du Pont) It's fine. Yes.

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) Are you sure?

CARELL: (As John du Pont) David, we have a lot of work to do in the next couple of months. And you're an integral part of that. You understand?

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) I understand.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) I'm going to need you. And I will be relying on you to a great extent. I want more than anything to win a gold medal. And we have someone who could do that.

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) And we're going to win a gold medal, John.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) How - how are you feeling about it?

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) I feel very good about it.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) I'm a little concerned that there are some psychological issues that we need to take care of.

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) I think he's going to be in real good shape.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) Well, I think you're doing a great job.

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz) Thank you.

CARELL: (As John du Pont) And I think that with you and I working in tandem, if we can't get him there, no one can. All right, (patting Mark Ruffalo) get back.

RUFFALO: (As Dave Schultz, patting Steve Carell) OK.

DAVIES: And that's Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo from the film "Foxcatcher," directed by our guest, Bennett Miller. You know, one of the things we hear in that clip, apart from this really strange dialogue, is a lot of pats. These guys are sort of awkwardly expressing limited physical affection, patting each other on the shoulder and the back. And, you know, wrestling is interesting because there is so much kind of intense, physical grappling. And you've got, you know, du Pont, who is a very lonely man, starved for affection. I wonder to what extent you saw physical attraction as part of these relationships and how you approached that.

MILLER: You know, there really is a fraternity amongst these wrestlers. And I think du Pont was drawn into that. And I personally was struck the first time I visited the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and watched how physical these guys were with each other, meaning when they're not wrestling, that there's just real physical affection that's not sexual. But du Pont, I suspect, you know, had other drives. And whatever he admitted to himself, I couldn't say for sure. But, I mean, I don't think anything ever became explicit between him and any of the wrestlers. I really don't believe that anything like that ever happened. But I also believe that it's probably part of what drew him into the sport.

DAVIES: Bennett Miller's new film is "Foxcatcher," starring Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, our guest is film director Bennett Miller. His new film is "Foxcatcher" starring Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum.

I want to talk about "Capote," the 2005 film you directed and of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman I think is just terrific in this role. I mean, I'm old enough to remember Truman Capote and I just completely believed him in it. I mean he is physically a much larger guy and has a very deep voice. That is to say, Philip Seymour Hoffman does, whereas Capote didn't. What gave you the confidence he could do this? What made you choose him?

MILLER: The physical aspect aside, that Phil would really understand who this guy was, where he was in his life and the demons that he was battling with. Also, he had such a - it's such a colorful, flagrant and flamboyant character that it could, in the hands of the wrong actor, quickly become a caricature and I think Phil was incapable of working in a superficial way. He's like an inside-out actor. It really begins with the core and the emotional connection and an understanding of what's at the root of this behavior.

DAVIES: Let's listen to a clip from "Capote." It's of course the story of Truman Capote, who's looking into the murder of an entire family in Kansas and he's writing the book which came to be "In Cold Blood" and in this scene, it's one of many prison interviews he has with Perry Smith, one of two men arrested for the murders. They're years into this complicated relationship already where they confide in one another and manipulate each other. And as it happens, Truman Capote has just come from New York where he had a public reading of a portion of the book in process, and Perry is very angry.

So let's listen to this. This is Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote. The role of Perry Smith, the accused murderer, is played by Clifton Collins, Jr.


CLIFTON COLLINS, JR.: (As Perry Smith) What's the name of your book? What's the name of your book?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I don't know what you're talking about.

COLLINS, JR.: (As Perry Smith) Truman Capote read last night before a packed audience from his nonfiction book, "In Cold Blood." The true crime novel tells of killers Richard Hickok and Perry Smith, who brutally murdered a Kansas family three years ago.

HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Who sent that to you?

COLLINS, JR.: (As Perry Smith) It's not your goddamn business.

HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) It is my business because it's not true. The organizers of the reading needed a title. They picked one - a sensational one, I admit - to attract a crowd.

COLLINS, JR.: (As Perry Smith) They picked it?

HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Yes.

COLLINS, JR.: (As Perry Smith) It's not your title?

HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Perry, I haven't chosen one yet.

DAVIES: And that is Philip Seymour Hoffman and Clifton Collins, Jr. in the film "Capote," directed by our guest Bennett Miller. So much going on in that scene - I mean, Capote just lying to him, trying to get what he wants for his book. You know, and I wondered you know, all four of your feature films are based on true events and I wonder if in some way, you kind of identify with the situation that Capote was in, where you want the truth from your subjects but you also know that you can't ever tell the whole story in the film and what emerges might disappoint your subjects. I'm assuming that you don't blatantly lie to them the way Capote's doing to Perry Smith there, but is it, I don't know, the awkwardness of making art out of reality?

MILLER: It's touchy business because there's every chance that there's going to be a conflict of interest. Even though these stories are all true - and often sensational stories - the interest for them is not simply sensational or that they're good stories. There's always something larger. There there's always something allegorical, for me, at least and if that's what I'm reaching for then hopefully it's not going to violate anybody who's lived the story's sense of truthfulness. That's the negotiation.

DAVIES: You got a note from Harper Lee, who was Truman Capote's companion in doing the research for "In Cold Blood." What'd she tell you?

MILLER: Yeah, she sent a handwritten note after the film had come out and I'd had no contact with her. None of us had had any contact with her.

DAVIES: And she's played by Catherine Keener in the film. There's a partner. She does a terrific job.

MILLER: Correct. So Harper Lee sends a note saying essentially that you know, you must know that quite a bit of how the story is represented did not go down exactly like that, that there's quite a bit of imagination that was brought into the story. But in her view, it was some kind of a triumph of fiction towards the truth.

She said to me, if you would like a quote from me that you can use, you can say, quote, "the film told the truth about Truman," end-quote. Her description of it ended up being the kind of standard that we reach for.

DAVIES: Right, that's as good as you can do. You told the truth about your subject.


DAVIES: Before we go, we should play a clip from "Moneyball," the 2011 film you directed. This is based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis about the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane and how he used kind of a new mathematically-oriented system to evaluate and hire affordable players, and this is a scene fairly early in the film when Billy Beane's sitting down with his band of experienced scouts, trying to figure out what they're going to do because they've lost three of their best players to free agency and Beane of course, is played by Brad Pitt. Let's listen.


KEN MEDLOCK: (As Grady Fuson) We all understand what the problem is, we have to replace...

BRAD PITT: (As Billy Beane) OK, good - what's the problem?

MEDLOCK: (As Grady Fuson) The problem is, we have to replace three key players in our lineup.

PITT: (As Billy Beane) Nope. What's the problem?

JACK MCGEE: (As John Poloni) Same as it's ever been, we've gotta replace these guys with what we have existing...

PITT: (As Billy Beane) Nope. What's the problem, Barry?

BARRY MOSS: (As Scout Barry) We need 38 home runs, 120 RBI's and...

PITT: (As Billy Beane, making game show buzzing noise to indicate incorrect answer) The problem we're trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us. It's an unfair game and now we've been gutted like organ donors for the rich. Boston's taken our kidneys. Yankees's taken our heart and you guys are sitting around talking the same old good body nonsense like we're selling jeans, like we're looking for Fabio.

We've got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.

MEDLOCK: (As Grady Fuson) Billy, that's a very touching story and everything, but I think we're all very much aware of what we're facing here. You have a lot of experience and wisdom in this room. Now, you need to have a little bit of faith and let us and let us do the job of replacing Giambi.

PITT: (As Billy Beane) Is there another first baseman like Giambi?

MCGEE: (As John Poloni) No, not really.

PITT: (As Billy Beane) And if there was, could we afford him?

MEDLOCK: (As Grady Fuson) No.

PITT: (As Billy Beane) Then what the [bleep] are you talking about, man? If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.

MEDLOCK: (As Grady Fuson) Boy, that sounds like fortune cookie wisdom to me, Billy.

PITT: (As Billy Beane) No, that's just logic.

BOB BISHOP: (As Scout Bob) Who's Fabio?

MCGEE: (As John Poloni) He's a shortstop. He's a shortstop from Seattle.

DAVIES: (Laughter) A bunch of crusty scouts speaking with Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane in the film "Moneyball," directed by our guest Bennett Miller.

You want to just tell us a little bit about putting that scene together? Are these actors or scouts, or some of both?

MILLER: Most of those guys are just scouts and there's a couple of actors in there. You know, we were just researching it and trying to get a sense of what these meetings are like and invited a whole bunch of scouts to just talk to us about how they approach things and you know, what these kinds of meetings are. And we brought, I don't know, probably 20 guys together when we were prepping the film and just to have a roundtable discussion and to reenact something and we just stirred it up and watched it go, and you know, sitting with Brad and we'd just look at each other and wonder, why are we trying to cast actors? Let's just invite these guys back and let's just say - we'll just tell them to study that season and say, you're working for the A's and how would you go about it? And you know, that sort of in a hybrid with the script, written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, just sort of brought it to life.

DAVIES: Well, Bennett Miller, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

MILLER: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: Bennett Miller directed the new film "Foxcatcher." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album of forgotten Bob Dylan lyrics from "The Basement Tapes" era, set to music by various contemporary songwriters who also perform the songs.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.