On Movies: John DuPont, wrestling, tragedy

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On Movies: John DuPont, wrestling, tragedy

Steve Carell stars in

Steve Carell stars in "Foxcatcher."


Steve Carell stars in "Foxcatcher."



Steve Carell stars in "Foxcatcher."

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By Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer


“Foxcatcher” is director Bennett Miller’s chilling evocation of the real-life story of John Eleuthère du Pont, the Newtown Square, Pa., multimillionaire who operated a wrestling training center at his Foxcatcher Farm in the 1990s and who, on a January day in 1996, shot and killed Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz.

Miller’s approach to “Foxcatcher” is similar to his “Capote” (2005), about Truman Capote’s struggle to write the true-crime classic “In Cold Blood,” and “Moneyball” (2011), about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his against-the-grain player-signing philosophy. All three combine a documentary-like precision with a quest for the truth that allows — perhaps requires — a degree of disentanglement from facts.

In “Foxcatcher,” the timing of key events has been telescoped, with the chronology of scenes between du Pont and his mother, played with regal disdain by Vanessa Redgrave, reconfigured to convey the chasm between them.

Interviewing Miller, you’re tempted to ask to see his artistic license. It’s got to be in his wallet. At the same time, he aims to get the bigger truths just right.

“I like being able to examine something and to be able to question it,” Miller said. “The product of that research and those examinations become the medium for cinematic form, which has to be artifice — as any medium is, including the news.”

Miller has wanted to bring the story of du Pont and his tortured relationship with wrestling champion brothers Dave and Mark Schultz to the screen since 2006, when the director was handed an envelope full of reports about their bizarre, doomed association. He met with Channing Tatum, whom he had seen in the coming-of-age drama “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” and told him about the project. Would Tatum play Mark Schultz, Dave’s younger brother?

'Foxcatcher' looks at an odd intersection of wealth, sports and crimes

But only after “Moneyball” was released, and drew six Oscar nominations, did the funding for “Foxcatcher” fall into place.

Mark Ruffalo, who had been a state champion wrestler in high school, was cast as Dave. And after meeting with Steve Carell, star of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and TV’s “The Office,” Miller cast the comedy star as du Pont. With a prosthetic nose, a timbreless voice, and a creepy, graceless gait, Carell gives a transformative performance. Oscar, here he comes.

In separate interviews during the Toronto Film Festival, where “Foxcatcher” had its North American premiere, Carell and Tatum talked about the challenges in making the picture. Miller, who won the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, was interviewed two weeks ago in Philadelphia.


Bennett Miller: The characters involved and the forces that seemed to govern them had this allegorical quality. You had a laboratory microcosm of society in this very weird, oddball story. You’ve got issues of class and wealth and entitlement, and patriotism . . . and obviously, this did not end well. . . .

When you have a sensational story like this, there is an impulse to turn these people into caricatures, to make conclusions and moralize and designate good and evil to them.

But the fact that it was a true story confronts you with an opportunity to look past those easy impulses. As much as we might want to dismiss and condemn John du Pont . . . there is more to him, and you’re interested in making the best case for him, as you are for every character.

Channing Tatum: When I first met with Bennett, I was wildly intrigued. I went and studied these guys — and Mark, obviously, specifically. And then I read the script, and, embarrassingly, I didn’t get it. . . . I had just started acting and I was like, “I don’t understand why you want to make this movie. There’s no big resolve or anything.” And the reality is that there’s not supposed to be. . . .

Seven years later, I ran into Bennett on the Sony lot. He had just finished “Moneyball,” and we started talking about it again and I read it again . . . with new eyes and a lot more experience. . . . The reality of these athletes going to this billionaire’s estate — this man that didn’t know anything about athletics — and congregating around him, it was so strange.

Steve Carell stars in "Foxcatcher."

Steve Carell stars in “Foxcatcher.”


Miller: The oddity of the notion of Steve Carell in this part actually serves it well. Nobody really suspected that du Pont was capable of doing what he did, and it was important to have an actor that surprised us — who we did not think of in this way, but turns out to be dangerous.

Steve Carell: I don’t want to be cavalier about saying that I understand John du Pont. You just try to do your best interpretation of who he might have been. . . .

Obviously, I read about him, and listened to and watched how he moved and spoke. . . . There’s so much conjecture about him and who he was and what demons he had inside of him, and so much of it obviously can’t be put in the movie. And by choice, Bennett chose not to put it in the movie, because some of it almost seems too salacious, and I don’t think any of us wanted the movie to be about that, or to be about delusional episodes. At a certain point, you can depict behavior so bizarre that it takes you out of the movie and you stop believing that any of this would even be possible.


Carell: A character in a comedy doesn’t know they’re in a comedy. And likewise for a character in a drama. The way I approach it is to find the honesty. . . .

Because I think comedies are essentially funnier if there is a thread of truth to them, when you don’t feel a character winking at the camera as they’re doing it. . . . Peter Sellers could play the broadest characters, but you believed that that was the person going through those things. Obviously, the same holds true for a drama.

You need to feel that character is invested in whatever’s going on in their lives. They’re not in a movie. They’re living.

Channing Tatum stars in "Foxcatcher."

Channing Tatum stars in “Foxcatcher.”


Carell: I think all three want to be loved. For different reasons, and some for similar reasons. But the dynamic between the three of them — and this is something that Bennett and I talked a lot about when we first met — that triangle shifts and changes and morphs. . . .

But when we were doing it, I didn’t really think about what du Pont’s character was thinking, necessarily. To be honest, I remember very little about actually doing it. I remember that we studied, we prepared, we got there, and then stuff just started to happen. And we were in this strange place together. Physically and mentally, we were all in this very strange environment. . . .

I’m reticent to say stuff like that because it sounds so pretentious. It sounds so actor-y. . . . But it wasn’t like that. There was no one brooding at craft service and demanding a cup of coffee in the voice of their character.


Tatum: It’s hard to talk about. I don’t have a lot of recollection of the scene, to be completely honest.

It was one take. . . . I didn’t have a plan of what was going to happen. And you know that the scene is coming up, on the schedule, and you watch it getting closer to the day — like waiting to get punched in the face in a way, literally. And you say, “Oh, it’s coming.” . . .

Have you ever been in a fight? I can only liken it to that — you don’t remember very much of it. You remember flashes. “I kind of remember hitting that person, I’m pretty sure I remember getting hit, I think I won. Wait, did I lose? I think I might have lost. No, I won.”

A scene from "Foxcatcher."

A scene from “Foxcatcher.”


Carell: If you’re not familiar with the story, you don’t necessarily expect what happens to happen, but then when it does, you’re not surprised because it all adds up. Which is an unsettling thing. From the very beginning, there’s a weight that hangs over these characters.

I hadn’t seen it with an audience until we went to Cannes. And even people who are familiar with the story seemed to still be shocked, which is interesting. Because it’s very spare. The way Bennett has constructed it, it’s very quiet. It’s almost like when somebody is whispering in order to make you lean in to try to listen harder. He tends to do that in his filmmaking. . . .

When I first met with Bennett, we agreed there were moments that were absurdly funny — as he described it, “It’s funny until it’s not funny anymore.”

And if this story didn’t end the way it does, it almost could be a comedy. . . . But it is a tragedy. All of these stories are tragic all the way through, and end in a colossal tragedy.


©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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