When you mention all the early award season buzz — including the magical “Oscar” word — to the low-key Bennett Miller, the “Foxcatcher” director gets physically uncomfortable and shifts nervously in his chair. In Chicago recently to promote the movie (opening Friday), Miller quickly dismisses such talk with, “That’s very nice, but that’s for others to talk about.”
Of course, it’s not like the filmmaker is any stranger to the world of awards. He won the best director prize already for “Foxcatcher” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and his earlier “Capote” won the late Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar. Miller’s “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt was nominated for six Academy Awards.
Yet, you don’t need to spend all that much time with Miller before you discover he’s not about the awards — or even topping his previous successes. “It all comes down to something very simple: the desire to tell a good story,” said Miller, settling down on a coach in a Chicago hotel suite.
“With all the films I’ve done, and intend to do in the future, I want to tell a story that will reach out and resonate with the audience. Of course, it first has to resonate with me, or else I won’t make it,” he added with a slight smile.
Once again delving into the world of nonfiction storytelling, as he did with “Capote” and “Moneyball,” Miller explained he knew nothing of the case of the fabulously rich and eccentric John E. du Pont, the heir to one of America’s greatest fortunes.
“I was at an event, and someone anonymously shoved an envelope into my hands and told me he thought it might be something I’d be interested in,” said Miller. A number of weeks later, while cleaning out files and throwing out a bunch of papers, the director came across the envelope, opened it and discovered a bunch of press clippings about du Pont and the shocking aftermath of his plan to host the U.S. Olympic wrestling team at his Foxcatcher estate near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Central in this were the Olympic gold medal-winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), who du Pont brought to Foxcatcher to spearhead his dream of winning them more Olympic and World Championship gold.
Of course, the casting of Steve Carell as du Pont was a huge surprise to many people, given his well-known reputation for comedy.
“Sure, the challenge of doing something this dark and totally different was intriguing to Steve,” said Miller, “But it went beyond that. Like me, he was amazed and captured by this incredibly bizarre and ultimately tragic story. It was a rich opportunity for him to show an entirely different side of his talent. … This wasn’t a fun shoot, but we certainly found it to be extremely rewarding.”
Miller long had been watching Carell’s earlier work and found him “a great actor and someone I’ve always found extremely intriguing. He also has this weird kind of physical awkwardness — the way he moves can seem a bit stilted at times — and that, I thought, could work well in a portrayal of John du Pont, much as it has for Steve in his comedic roles.”
An important element for Miller was also telling a tale about two different worlds. Du Pont grew up in an incredibly privileged world of enormous wealth, where “the word ‘no’ obviously had rarely been said to him,” said Miller. “Conversely, the Schultz brothers came from a simple Midwestern background, and frankly Mark was living on the verge of poverty when du Pont came into his life. … I liked the class conflict the story represents and how wrestling seemed so alien to the world that du Pont grew up in — and yet he was obsessed by it.”