The Auteurs: Bennett Miller
Though he has only made four feature films, Bennett Miller has quickly become one of the most intriguing filmmakers currently working in American cinema. He crafts fascinating character studies of real-life individuals who find themselves in unique and complicated situations. The characters in Miller’s films are figures whose environments play a crucial role in the challenges and situations they endure. Though he is still a newcomer of sorts, Miller has shown that he is not afraid to tell adult stories within an industry currently focused on blockbusters and adaptations of young adult novels.
Born on December 30, 1966, Miller, the son of a contractor and a painter, was introduced to the world of art at an early age. In his teens, while attending Mamaroneck High School, he met and became good friends with an aspiring actor/writer named Dan Futterman. Although they ended up going to different universities upon graduation, Futterman and Miller, remained close and formed a short-lived theater troupe with another young actor named Philip Seymour Hoffman. After finishing his studies at NYU, Miller spent time honing his craft as a filmmaker by working on various projects, including making a video for friend Steven Schub and his band the Fenwicks.
The Cruise (review)
If you lived in New York City in the 1990’s then you knew the name Timothy “Speed” Levitch. His rambling, and at times philosophical, commentaries regarding city landmarks made him one of the more popular tour guides in New York. Bennett Miller was one of many who frequently attended Levitch’s tours and decided to make a documentary about the colorful personality. Serving as his own cinematographer, and shot with a hand-held camera, Miller spent much of 1998 following Levitch on his day-to-day activities.
The way in which Miller captured an intimate portrait of Levitch’s love-hate relationship with New York is fascinating to watch. However, there are moments when the animated tour guides’ ramblings go on far too long and actually hinder the film somewhat. The Cruise made its premiere at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival and received a limited theatrical release a month later. The film received good reviews and even earned a few Best Documentary nominations from organizations such as the Online Film Critics Society and the Satellite Awards. Though largely unseen upon its release, the film gained notice when it finally hit DVD in 2006.
The success of The Cruise brought Miller a lot of attention from those within the film industry. Despite being offered several projects, Miller turned his focus to an adaptation of Gerald Clarke’s biography on Truman Capote. The script was adapted by Dan Futterman with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind for the lead role. Although it took several years to get funding for the project, Miller managed to gather a strong array of character actors – which included Catherine Keener, Bob Balaban, Clifton Collins Jr., Amy Ryan, Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, and Mark Pellegrino – to play key roles in the film.
Filmed in Manitoba, Canada in late 2004, Miller worked closely with cinematographer Adam Kimmel and editor Christopher Tellefsen to ensure that Capote evoked a naturally chilling feel. The film focused on Capote’s life during the time he researched the Kansas murder that became the basis for his greatest work In Cold Blood. A study of anguish, Miller’s film was not only fascinated with the way Capote befriended the killers to get information, but also the impact writing the book had on his life in New York. The film also provided insight into the impact that one murder had on a small town community.
Capote premiered at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival and was a major hit on the festival circuit. Buzz quickly formed around Hoffman’s performance with many critics declaring that he was the frontrunner for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Although Hoffman did indeed win the award, the film also received four additional Oscar nods for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener), Best Adapted Screenplay (Futterman), and a Best Director nomination for Bennett Miller. The success of the film was not only an incredible boost for Miller’s career, but it also gave the director the freedom to pick projects that he truly felt connected with.
After Capote, Bennett Miller took some time to work on smaller projects such as directing Scarlett Johansson in the video for Bob Dylan’s When the Deal Goes Down. While contemplating his next feature, Miller was approached by producer Michael De Luca to helm a film based on Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The book was about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and the 2002 season in which he used metrics to assemble a successful, but unconventional, baseball team. The project had been in development for years and had Steven Soderbergh attached to direct at one point. Soderbergh eventually left the film after he and Sony Pictures clashed days before filming was to start. Miller accepted the job and Aaron Sorkin was brought in to re-write Steve Zaillan’s script.
Retaining editor Christopher Tellefsen, as well as music composer Mychael Danna, Miller got renowned cinematographer Wally Pfister to shoot the film. Moneyball also received a boost when actor Brad Pitt, who was a producer on the project through its many incarnations, decided to stay on board to play the lead role of Billy Beane. While Zaillan’s original script had comedian Demetri Martin linked to the role of Beane’s assistant Peter Brand, Jonah Hill was ultimately cast in the role. To round out the principal players, Philip Seymour Hoffman agreed to take the supporting role of A’s manager Art Howe. Thanks to the work of the talented cast, Miller was able to effectively dramatize the obstacles that Beane endured trying to adapt Brand’s groundbreaking sabermetrics within a miniscule team budget.
Moneyball premiered at the 2012Toronto International Film Festival and gained a U.S. theatrical release weeks later. The film garnered praise from critics and proved to be a hit at the box office as it grossed $110 million against its $50 million budget. Landing on several critic’s top ten lists, Moneyball received six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing. Though the film walked away empty-handed, Miller showed that he could make his brand of filmmaking accessible to mainstream audiences.
While working on Moneyball, Miller acquired the rights to make a film about philanthropist John E. du Pont. The script by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye focused on du Pont’s desire to build and sponsor, with the aid of Olympian siblings Mark and Dave Schultz, a gold medal caliber American wrestling team. A tragic tale of obsession and terror, Foxcatcher explored both the strange bond between du Pont and Mark, and the dark turn their friendship took when Mark’s older brother Dave was hired to lead the team Mark helped to build. While Futterman and Frye took dramatic liberties with aspects of the story, most notably the portrayal du Pont’s mother, the film offered an intricate study of how du Pont let his desire for both acceptance and a legacy cloud his mind in a dark and volatile way.
With the exception of production designer Jess Gonchor, Miller assembled a new crew – which included cinematographer Greig Fraser, editors Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, and Conor O’Neill, and music composers Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson – for the production. Miller also made some daring choices in regards to his casting. The boldest move was selecting Steve Carell, who reveled the opportunity to shed his comedic persona, to play John E. du Pont. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, the latter of which used to wrestle in high school, were cast in the roles of brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. The rest of the cast included Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife Nancy, Anthony Michael Hall as Pont’s liaison, and Vanessa Redgrave in a stellar turn as du Pont‘s mother Jean.
After enduring delays in post-production, Foxcatcher premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and won the festival’s Best Director prize. Following a limited theatrical release in the U.S. – where the film not only received rave reviews but also did modestly well at the box office – Foxcatcher became one of the films that garnered a lot of buzz during award season. Continuing Bennett Miller’s Academy Award streak, Foxcatcher was nominated for five Oscars – including Best Actor (Steve Carell), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Original Screenplay, Best Makeup, and a second Best Director nod for Bennett Miller.
Quickly becoming a darling of the Academy, Bennett Miller has brought his own unique spin to American cinema. His stories of real-life people struggling with their own moralities and desires strike a chord with both mainstream and independent audiences alike. Whether it’s a tour guide, a writer, a major league baseball general manager, or a multi-millionaire, Bennett Miller always finds the extraordinary story lurking within seemingly ordinary individuals.
© thevoid99 2015