A Terrible, Beautiful Experience: Bennett Miller Exposes His Actors to Profound and Painful Depths For Foxcatcher

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Talk to the actors who made Foxcatcher—Steve Carell, who plays eccentric millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz—and they’ll tell you that making the movie with director Bennett Miller was one of the most profound experiences of their career. What they won’t tell you is that it was…

“…fun?” says Miller, anticipating correctly.

By all accounts, including Miller’s, making Foxcatcher was an unsettling experience, sometimes deliberately so, as he explains the day before the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I create these circumstances where essentially we know what’s going to happen, but specifically, we don’t.”

Bennett would just do things to keep us upside-down,” Tatum recalls. “Sometimes we would do what’s on the page, but one day he made us just sit and talk in character. We would do these weird strange games, and maybe it was never intended to be in the film, but just to get some sort of new energy in.”

For Carell, a veteran of comedic improvisation, the process was familiar, even if the end result was wildly unprecedented. But Miller kept him off-balance, at one point suggesting the actor write down a dark personal secret on a piece of paper and keep in his pocket while he shot a scene.

“He was like, ‘I just don’t want to see you guys get comfortable,'” Tatum says. “He has this very Machiavellian—but beautiful—way to keep you a little sideways.”

“And it wasn’t fun,” Ruffalo repeats. “It was brutal.”

“It was horribly beautiful,” Tatum says. “It was a terrible, beautiful experience.”

* * *

As Miller talks about Foxcatcher, it’s easy to lose track of whether he’s talking about his shooting method or the finished film itself, since he’s disinclined to explain either in too much detail. “Something the movie aspires to do is to create this experience of not really ever knowing what’s going on,” he says, “It doesn’t offer you geographical markings until the tragic event happens, and then it crystallizes backwards.”

Bennett Miller, cast and crew review a take on the set of Foxcatcher

That tragic event in question occurred on January 26, 1996, when John du Pont shot and killed Dave Schultz in a driveway on du Pont’s Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farms. Both Schultz brothers had lived on du Pont’s property, training in a custom-built facility along with several other Olympic wrestling hopefuls, but the precipitous decline of du Pont’s mental state had severely strained their relationships. Reports published after Schultz’s murder, and re-circulated after word of Foxcatcher got out, reveal a range of increasingly disturbing behavior: According to the Delaware News Journal, du Pont “held a loaded machine gun to the chest of another wrestler, removed treadmills and bicycles from his estate because he thought their clocks were sending him backward in time and shot a group of nesting geese because he believed they were casting spells on him.”

None of that is in Foxcatcher, which, true to the style Miller established with Capote and developed in Moneyball, favors the slow burn over the sensational outburst. That’s partly for practical reasons: Revealing the extent of du Pont’s madness might make his victims seem like dupes, hanging around a raging lunatic like horror-movie teens exploring a dark basement. “Even though it’s true,” Carell says. “it might have been too much for people to swallow.”

But it’s also because Miller is less interested in the particulars of du Pont’s mental illness (subsequently diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia) than the extent to which his wealth and social standing gave him immunity from the consequences of his actions. Where the local police might have investigated a less powerful man for any one of du Pont’s numerous infractions, they instead took their firearms practice at a shooting range on Foxcatcher’s grounds, with du Pont, an accomplished marksman, shooting right alongside them.

Part of what drew Miller to du Pont’s story, and what held his fascination during the seven years it took to get Foxcatcher made, was its metaphorical resonance—the same reason Miller, whose first movie was the documentary The Cruise, has been continually drawn to fact-based stories. “It wasn’t something that I decided,” he says, “but when there is an object of fascination for you—when there’s something that’s real, that you can grapple with and obsess over and examine and analyze—you get curious: What if I looked under here? Discovering the coincidence of facts that possess metaphorical power is exciting.”

But when it comes to elaborating those metaphors, Miller demurs. He’s wary of betraying the film’s delicate tone, and of collapsing a true-life story into a political tract. “These are real people, and there is some kind of responsibility to the truth,” Miller says. “Not that it has to mimic the details of what happened from moment to moment. But having people around who lived it [Mark Schultz, Dave’s widow Nancy, and others were on set], it kept us searching and trying to understand. It’s much harder to feel resolved about something when you’re constantly confronted with the complexity of the truth.”

* * *

Miller’s reluctance to describe Foxcatcher in easily digestible terms rubs productively against du Pont’s attempts to create his own myth: Much of his life is a pageant put on by people who are either too intimidated or too well-paid to ask questions. Du Pont sees himself as a symbol, and tries vainly, in both senses of word, to coax others to reciprocate. “My friends call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle,” he tells Mark Schultz the first time they meet, even though there’s no evidence anyone actually does. He later upgrades the epithet to “The Golden Eagle of America.”

Steve Carell, photographed in Toronto, plays John du Pont in Foxcatcher

Whereas du Pont has inherited his family’s public profile along with a portion of its substantial wealth, Mark Schultz is close to a forgotten man, a gold medalist who’s making ends meet between Olympiads by addressing listless grade-school assemblies at $20 a pop. He’s also overshadowed by his older brother, a ferocious and charismatic athlete whom many still regard as the greatest ambassador American wrestling has ever had. So when du Pont contacts him and offers to pay him to train full-time at Foxcatcher, Mark is quietly stunned, and quickly accepts.

The void in Mark’s life early in Foxcatcher is emphasized by the spareness of its visual and sound design. After the opening credits, there’s no music until du Pont takes Mark to visit Valley Forge, at which point a patriotic French horn theme by Mychael Danna floods onto the soundtrack. (That the du Pont fortune originated with the sale of arms, including half the gunpowder used during the Civil War, is a unspoken irony.) The setting and score, combined with du Pont’s evocation of Mark Schultz as a hero abandoned by his county, acts as a powerful allusion to the plight of forgotten military veterans.

As Mark falls further under du Pont’s sway, Miller and DP Greig Fraser shift lenses and film stock—yes, Foxcatcher was shot on 35mm—abandoning quasi-documentary realism for the constructed, hermetically sealed world of the Foxcatcher estate. As he did in Moneyball, Miller makes use of multiple composers to enhance the feeling of different worlds colliding: Rob Simonsen is credited with Foxcatcher‘s score, while Danna’s name appears in the end credits for the “Valley Forge Theme.”

“The film starts out in a very grounded, mundane reality,” Miller says. “Movies are like people; you either trust them or you don’t. I wanted to establish this person’s life in a very real, almost documentary-esque way, and then slowly, as this seduction and intoxication occur, elements change. Music is introduced and the sound design becomes a little more embellished. We change camera stocks and the way the camera moves and things are lit, and you slowly seep into this other world. Hopefully you don’t notice it too much, but you feel it.”

Bit by bit, du Pont builds his own world, populated by people he either employs or has bought outright. In a telling exchange with his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), we learn that he’s abandoned his collection of model trains to focus on training wrestlers; he’s got a new set of toys now. He coaxes Mark into reading a prepared speech at a testimonial dinner, which is recorded and later turns up in a commissioned documentary about du Pont’s life. He doesn’t take kindly to those who threaten his new reality.

Miller says, “In some ways it’s a conventional cult story, where you have a disaffected community of wrestlers, and a charismatic leader who comes from a different situation, who’s preaching some kind of utopian vision. He separates his flock from the outside world. From the moment they are in Foxcatcher, he’s the star of the show. You’re in a hermetically sealed dream.”

* * *

For viewers who come to the story through Foxcatcher, the focus on du Pont and Mark Schultz seems natural. Both feel eclipsed by more prominent relatives—Schultz by his brother, du Pont by his imperious mother—and each supplies what the other needs: du Pont gives Schultz recognition and support; Schultz gives du Pont legitimacy. (Du Pont had previously convinced Villanova University to make him their wrestling coach after he paid for the construction of a new athletic facility; the arrangement didn’t last long.)

It was hardly a foregone conclusion to make their relationship the focus of the script (credited to E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, though writers Dave Eggers and Kristin Gore also worked on it over the seven-year production). “When I started revealing how I was going to tell the story,” Miller says, “everybody who had been involved was surprised that Mark Schultz had anything to do with it.” (“Probably no one other than du Pont had ever looked at Mark first,” Ruffalo says.)

Mark’s style of wrestling was uncommonly brutal; when Tatum met the real Schultz, who has a cameo in the movie, Schultz showed off the scars he got from from head-butting his opponents. “I think that’s really indicative to Mark,” Tatum says. “He’s willing to destroy himself to destroy you. Mark told me that he wanted to know that no one could hurt him more than he could hurt them.”

Channing Tatum was tapped to play Mark Schultz in 2007, relatively early in his film career

Or, perhaps, as much as Schultz could hurt himself: In one grueling scene, Mark punishes himself for losing a match by hitting himself in the face and putting his head through a mirror. “Mark said, ‘I would want to put myself in so much pain that I would never want to lose again,'” Tatum recalls. “‘I would make losing the worst thing that could ever happen to me, so that any amount of pain you were going through in the match couldn’t equal what was going to happen after the match.'”

It doesn’t look like Tatum is pulling his punches, and he wasn’t; although the mirror was a prop, Tatum hit it so hard his head broke through the wall behind it, missing a stud by inches. “I don’t remember very much of it, to be honest,” he says. “It’s like actually being in a fight. You remember vague flashes of it.” He does recall a moment of panic when Miller announced they were moving on after a single take. Now, he says, “Thank God we only did one of those.”

Making Mark the central figure turns Foxcatcher into a contest of wills, a Platonic love triangle in which du Pont and Dave Schultz battle for influence. When Dave agrees to move his family to Foxcatcher Farms, he does so in part to keep a watchful eye on his brother, and act as a buffer between him and du Pont. For Ruffalo, their relationship is also about something simpler than a psychic bond: money. “A lot of the events were put into play because of these people’s need of money to survive, and to flourish,” he says. “What’s interesting is to have these really gifted people who have to sublimate themselves to someone who’s not gifted, just because that person happens to have been left with—not earned—a lot of money. A person who’s systematically bought people and used them and thrown them out throughout his whole life. That’s an interesting phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s something that has changed very much.”

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