TELLURIDE – In August of 2005, the Palm Theater in Telluride was inaugurated with the world premiere of Bennett Miller's Oscar-winning biopic “Capote.” Nine years later Miller was back for the North American bow of his latest film, “Foxcatcher,” which screened to a packed audience eager to get a look at this dark and mysterious story.
The film, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, recounts the bizarre true tale of John du Pont, heir to a fortune, but clearly, by the text of the film, unfulfilled with himself and desperate for adulation perhaps denied him by his forthright mother. A self-proclaimed patriot, du Pont wanted to put together a wrestling team and win Olympic Gold at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He reached out to Mark Schultz, the brother of famed Olympian Dave Schultz, and so began a twisted, psychological torment that ended with Dave dead at the hands of an eccentric multimillionaire.
Miller was first approached with the material nearly a decade ago by producer Tom Heller. “Immediately there was something about it that seemed very funny to me, but I knew that the outcome of it was terrible,” the director explained in the post-screening Q&A. “The notion that this person with this incredible wealth and this incredible ancestry would pursue this venture and bring these wrestlers onto the estate so he could be their coach, something he knew nothing about, is absurd. It's a set-up for an absurdist comedy.”
And that sense of things is evident in the film. For all its tragedy, “Foxcatcher” is a, dare it be said, hilarious film. Mostly one sits in awe at the gall of du Pont (played expertly by comedian Steve Carell) throughout, repression and bruised ego oozing from every pore of his creepy frame. The film is very much an observer of this and other behavior, meticulous in both its construction and in how it is performed; the film's three principals, Carell, Channing Tatum (as Mark Schultz) and Mark Ruffalo (as ill-fated Dave) bring a physicality to the fore that is unmistakable, from Carell's hunched demeanor to Tatum's hulking movements to the resting position of Ruffalo's hands, seemingly affected by so many years spent on the mat ready to pounce. All of that feeds into how the characters relate, above and below the surface.
“These people were incapable of understanding each other or being honest with each other about what they wanted from each other,” Miller said. “The more I looked at it, the themes and the sub-themes within it just seemed a very haiku, elegant, eloquent depiction of the microcosm of so much that is at work in the world today. That's how it felt to me.”
As far back as Miller's first encounter with the material, he was interested in a young Channing Tatum for the role of Mark. The actor was just starting his career and admitted he did not understand the script, or the thematic structure that was at play in the material.
“I didn't know what I was doing as an actor,” Tatum said. “I had just sort of started. I couldn't get past all the pain and the darkness of it, but thank God I didn't get it then, because I don't think I would have learned to understand it in the way I have now.”
Miller came back to him after finishing 2011's “Moneyball” and the fuse was finally lit. “It felt like a different journey to me [then],” Tatum said. “I think I just needed to learn a lot as an actor.”
Unbeknownst to Carell, his agent had actually thrown his name into the hat for consideration. That gave Miller some pause but he took the chance, and ultimately, Carell completely surprises with his work. His du Pont haunts the film, unpredictable, magnetic. His cadence and his breathing seem almost sinister, his compliments even coming across as ominous.
“I thought it was an incredible story, and so sad, but so complex and detailed,” Carell said. “That first meeting, Bennett laid out a number of the scenes as he imagined them, and when I saw the movie years later, that's exactly what they were. That's never happened to me. I never had something described to me and had it play out exactly the same, and tonally. I was just grateful.”
Still, even with Miller's focused attention to such detail, there were moments that called for improvisation. In particular that was a result of filming at locations where many who were on the periphery of this unusual yarn were either around or, in some cases, cast in the film as themselves. “When you're surrounded by those people, it's hard to settle for what your concept was seven years ago when a scene was written,” Miller said.
But when asked to dig too far under the skin of the character, Carell seemed cautious during the Q&A, and even admitted to being reticent to put du Pont on the couch. He researched as much as he could, taking a lot in particular from a du Pont-commissioned documentary that featured both the persona the man wanted to present to the public and raw footage between takes of him instructing the crew. But “psycho-sexually,” as moderator Todd McCarthy put it (as the film certainly builds an atmosphere that leaves motivation as a persistent question never fully answered), he wasn't willing to go there.
“This is incredibly difficult for me to talk about it,” Carell said. “Any two people watching it will come away with different interpretations as to what du Pont's relationships might have meant. And I hope I'm not evading the question. It is very complex and I think we all approached it with a gentle touch. There are so many theories about who du Pont was and what drove him, and we had to make our choices about what that was, but I'd rather not say my personal choices.”
Added Miller, “the filmmaker in me, interested in the metaphor, really doesn't like labels. There's enough representative in the film, I think, to characterize how it felt, how the experience of this behavior was, and we chose to leave it at that and not make any conclusions or points about it.”
Tatum, though, was willing to speak up a bit more specifically. “Because it's so uncomfortable to be wrapped in another man that closely, I guess the homoerotic jokes that have to take place is a whole part of the culture,” he said. “But du Pont, as far as that goes, I don't know. I just settled on he's asexual. I never really looked at this as a sexual thing, personally. I looked at it way more in the emotional rather than the physical.”
And speaking of the physical, freestyle wrestling was something completely foreign to Tatum. “I had no idea how hard it was,” he said. “I've done martial arts my entire life, but this is one of the only disciplines where there is no resting. Most of the other sports – like Jiu-Jitsu, you can pull guard, boxing, you can sort of get away from the person. But you're deducted points if you start to run in wrestling. It's just a claustrophobic, relentless, painful sport and I don't ever really want to do it again! But I have a wild amount of respect for it at the same time.”
The film is an incredible, layered piece of work that puts Miller, if he wasn't already there, on the top tier of working filmmaking talent today. Across three films he has told complex stories with the language of cinema, everything thematically rich and tuned to precision. And “Foxcatcher” may well be his best work to date, a portrait of id and ego, repression and angst and the elusiveness of fulfillment that easily ranks as one of the year's best films. Along the way, he drew out complete and textured performances from Carell and Tatum (not at all to give short shrift to Ruffalo, who is fantastic as well), and we'll surely be talking about them for the rest of the year.
But did the movie light a new spark in a comedian like Carell, who continues to steadily move into dramatic territory? “I'm going to be more pretentious now,” he joked.
“Foxcatcher” opens in theaters Nov. 14.