Bennett Miller Talks FOXCATCHER, His 4 Hour and 15 Minute First Cut, Collaborating with Megan Ellison, Shooting on Film, His Editing Process, and More

     November 21, 2014

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Now playing in limited release is one of my favorite films of 2014: director Bennett Miller’s (Moneyball, Capote) Foxcatcher.  With career best performances and phenomenal direction, the film tells the true story of Olympic Wrestling Champion brothers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), and their troubled relationship with eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell).  The film also stars Sienna MillerVanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Michael Hall.  For more on Foxcatcher, watch the trailer, read Matt’s review, or click here for all our previous coverage.

At the recent Los Angeles press day I landed an exclusive interview with Bennett Miller.  He talked about the long editing process, how his first cut was over four hours, shooting on film, producer Megan Ellison (who deserves a huge thank you from all of us for supporting films like this) and the way she likes to collaborate, and a lot more.  Hit the jump to either read or listen to what he had to say.

Click here for the audio of this interview.

foxcatcher-steve-carell-1Collider:  How long was your first cut of this?

BENNETT MILLER:  4.5 hours.

Was it a first cut that was full assembly, every single thing, or was it a cut that you were like, “Wow.  I could show this”?

MILLER:  It was to my taste, very watchable.

At 4.5.

MILLER:  Actually, 4:15.

I don’t remember what the final running time is.

MILLER:  I think it’s about 2:10.

Is it the type of footage that one day, you’d be willing to show the extended cut and doing a one-week run somewhere? Or is it never seeing the light of day?

MILLER:  Well, it still would need so much work to get to a presentable place.  It’s very watchable for me because I can see how it can be whipped into shape.  I doubt I’ll ever let it go.  I think we’re going to release some cut scenes.

Do you envision the cut scenes ever being put back in an extended version or will they always be deleted scenes?

MILLER:  No.  It’s hard to pick something up once you’ve put it down.  I’ve never even watched one of my films since they’re completed.  The idea of going back to Vietnam – that’s the kind of comment that gets me in trouble.  That’s the perfect, Hollywood style comment where these filmmakers confuse real acts of heroism and valor with what they do in between lattes.

James Gunn said something interesting.  He said he used to always make fun of George Lucas for going back to Star Wars and tweaking it and tweaking it.  After Guardians, he said, “I want to totally go back and fix things up and make it better.  Now I understand what he kept on doing.”

MILLER:  I understand it too, but as a discipline I think it’s very healthy to move on and psychologically to know, as you’re working on your next thing, that this is your shot to get it right.  You do not get to go back.  Maybe I’ll feel differently in 20 years.

What was the editing process like?  I know you started filming in October 2012.  There was talk of Foxcatcher coming out in 2013.

foxcatcher-channing-tatum-mark-ruffaloMILLER:  It was my most challenging edit, but I wouldn’t say it’s crazy.  It’s a process and you can’t bake fast, you just can’t.  It takes time.  Part of the process was a good amount of exploration while shooting, very healthy amount of improvisation and exploration with the actors.  What that work produced had to be evaluated, and the structure that was originally conceived had to be reconsidered in the face of new information.  Some stuff worked in dimensional ways that rendered other stuff redundant, for example.  There’s a scene at the beginning where the two brothers wrestle and once that was assembled and we were able to look at it, it was clear that a number of other scenes that had been designed to communicate who these guys were and who they were with each other were rendered redundant, and we were able to lose them.

It really is a process of examining what we have and working with it, and challenging the notions of the structure that we went into the shoot with.  It’s been the same with all the films I’ve ever made.  Except for my documentary The Cruise, which was only that.  There was no actual outline going into shooting it.  It was 100% that.  How do these energies work with each other?  It takes time because you really have to listen to what the footage is doing.  You have to listen to the different frequencies. We’re not just telling a story.  It’s not really a plot-driven story.  It’s as much about what’s not being expressed with words.

There’s a lot silence in the film.  There’s a lot of quiet scenes.  Unfortunately, Hollywood usually doesn’t allow too much silence in movies.  Which leads me to say, I’m in love with and so appreciate Megan Ellison.  I can’t say enough good things about her, she’s so talented, she’s amazing.  What can we, as fans who understand what she’s bringing to the table, what’s the perfect gift for her?  What can we do to say thank you for putting the money forward to make this and all the other things she’s championed?

MILLER:  I think when she discovers that people feel the same way she feels about the films that she loves—even if she didn’t make them.  If you love The Big Lebowski, for example, or if you love Led Zeppelin, I think that’s a very rewarding thing to be able to connect with people.  Those are the things she loves but if you’re looking for an actual—I don’t think anything makes her happier than when something that she is willed into being and supervised, and creating – there’s nothing more rewarding than when people love it.  She really, genuinely likes to feel connected.

I saw Tom Hanks once receive an award at Lincoln Center a few years back, I can’t remember what it was exactly, but it was one of these lifetime achievement awards they give out at Lincoln Center.  I think it’s the Lincoln’s Film Society or something.  He said something that really struck me and I’m sure I’m going to misquote him, but he was talking about films and art and how at the end of the day when it’s genuine, it makes you feel less alone.  I think that movies were very important to her growing up, because I think they were her closest friends.  They’re meaningful to her on that level.  So, when she makes something that somebody regards as important to them as these things were to her, that’s a really big reward.

foxcatcher-megan-ellison-bennett-millerI was at the Toronto premiere at TIFF and you were on stage, and you were very even but when you started talking about Megan, you got much more emotional.  You hugged her and you were clearly very thankful, it showed through.  I’m very curious about what it was like working with her on this project.  Did you pitch her and say, “Hey this is what I’m thinking about doing.”  Can you talk about the collaboration?

MILLER:  First of all, I wouldn’t have known that I regarded her differently than other people.

I don’t mean to say you did, I’m just saying it felt that way to me.

MILLER:  I am genuinely grateful, not like award show bullshit, “I’m so grateful to so and so…”  I’m just genuinely on a cellular level grateful for her, not just because she’s got the gunpowder to get movies made but because she cares.  There was a moment where the film stood at a crossroads, where we were going to have to close up shop and ship it to the distributor, or at some expense to her and inconvenience to everybody, keep the edit open.  I don’t know if another producer would have acted out of the best interest of the film in that moment where there was a conflict of interest between one’s investment and the creative interest.  That’s an idea of what it means to collaborate with her.  She works from the gut.  She needs to care about the film she’s making or why bother.  It helps if there’s a personal connection to the filmmaker.  I think that’s important to her, that she can actually relate to her point.

She said in a Q&A last night at the PGA, what is it, she wants to know the filmmakers that she’s working with and she wants to know their values.  Because what you are gets expressed in the films, so that matters to her.  She’s not the kind of producer who likes to give notes.  She’s the kind of producer that wants to choose wisely and support.  I’m just thinking about the word “encouragement” and how it’s become such a mediocre word meant to describe any kind of supportive.  But to be actually encouraging, to give somebody heart, it’s just who she is and what she cares about.  She gives strength to everybody around.

This is something you’ve been working on for a very long time.  I’m very curious if there are any other ideas or passions that you have felt for other subject matter that’s been with you for as long as this.  Are you the type of person that’s constantly balancing three things and which one do I want to do?

MILLER:  Yeah.  I mean, there are three things.  There are literally three things that have been simmering for years and whether I’ll make one, all, or none of them, I could not tell you.  I do tend to live with the subject for a while.

foxcatcher-theatrical-posterYou used Panasonic XL.

MILLER:  No.

You didn’t?  It was on the notes.

MILLER:  First of all, I didn’t read the notes, and somebody else kind of asked me that question not long ago.  No, no.  We used Panavision and we shot 35mm, we also shot Arri.

We’re at that precipice where certain people get to use film but most people use digital.  Can you talk about where you’re at in terms of film vs. digital and what really matters to you?  What format or if you have a preference?

MILLER:  Well the films I’ve made so far, with the exception of my first, the documentary, which was shot in mini DV, I don’t think I could have gotten comfortable shooting any of them on digital.  That’s not to say that digital will not continue to evolve in ways that will make it more palatable.  I really tried to get comfortable with the notion of shooting digital on Foxcatcher and just couldn’t.  I shot many tests and experimented with all sorts of techniques to manipulate it into a place that worked for us, but it just didn’t happen.  I will feel awfully sad if [film] goes away and it’s no longer an option.

I think that as long as certain filmmakers continue to use it and use their position to make sure that it gets to be used, there’ll always be a place.  But it is going to get harder and harder when the labs are closing.

MILLER:  There is some sort of a plan being led by Christopher Nolan, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.  I genuinely hope it sticks around.

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