The story of paranoid-schizophrenic John du Pont is so bizarre that it might be humorous if it wasn’t so tragic, said “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) at the TheWrap Screening Series presentation at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles on Thursday.
“My first impression was almost a humored curiosity, meaning there was something funny about it,” Miller said of the story that is, as of Thursday morning, a Golden Globe Best Motion Picture – Drama contender.
“One of the wealthiest men in America, and he’s got wrestlers living on his estate. It just seemed like it’s a setup for a comedy. And my first impression of it was, ‘Is this some kind of a ‘Boogie Nights’ meets ‘Silence of the Lambs’ kind of thing?'”
Then it became less funny, he said: “The more I steeped in it and began to develop the script, the more grounded it got, and all the sensational aspects of it began to wane in interest.”
Combine the best picture nomination with Carell and costar Mark Ruffalo‘s nominations in the best actor and best supporting actor categories, the two actors’ SAG Award nominations — not to mention a best director award won by Miller at Cannes Film Festival, as well as other award and festival-circuit recognition — and Team “Foxcatcher” has a bona fide winning streak on its hands.
That said, it’s not for everyone, which even Miller admits: “It’s an odd movie. Purposefully, it’s the kind of film, as you’re watching it, you might ask yourself, ‘What is this? Where is it going?’ … To actually stick with the approach of the film, which is to look and keep looking at something that may be difficult for a number of reasons and to be unflinching about it, to observe the things that the characters are not really seeing and admitting, and then to see the banality.”
Millionaire du Pont lured Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum) into his life with the promise of financial and emotional support that Schultz desperately needed in his quest to become world champion and to pursue another gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As an heir to the famous industrialist family fortune, du Pont was able to invest his money in building a wrestling facility on his Pennsylvania estate. The eccentric invited both Mark and his brother Dave to live, work and train at Foxcatcher Farm. The consequences proved disastrous.
And the full story is even stranger, Miller said; in fact, he noted, the movie “dials it back” in scenes that showcased du Pont in full freak mode, firing guns on his estate and otherwise behaving erratically.
As Carell told the screening audience, “I thought it was an intriguing character because he’s a very sad person. I think he had a very complicated life, and it would be easy to depict him as a villain, and I didn’t see him that way … I think in many ways his wealth isolated him. He obviously did some terrible things, but I think at the same time, you can have empathy for someone like that.”
Moderating the event, TheWrap’s film reporter Jeff Sneider then asked about the involvement of Megan Ellison, film producer and founder of Annapurna Pictures, whose credits include Oscar-nominated films “American Hustle,” “Her” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“She read it and very quickly said, ‘I want to do that,'” Miller revealed. “She’s very wealthy. Her father [billionaire Oracle Corporation Chairman Larry Ellison] is very wealthy. She’s like, ‘This thing makes me very uneasy — you know, like, am I John du Pont? … This really unnerves me, this whole story, this whole thing, what it unearths. If I don’t make this film, I’m full of shit.'”
Sneider also asked about the artistry behind Carell’s dramatic transformation into his characterization of du Pont, to which Carell jokingly replied, “There was no hair and makeup.”
“The weirdest thing about it was not necessarily watching it happen and then looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Ooooh, I’m a different guy,’ but it was how other people reacted to me once I was in all of that stuff,” Carell said, recounting how his driver was disturbed by him in the du Pont makeup. “He would tell me on the drive back to the hotel, ‘Man, I just don’t like being around that other guy.’
“Du Pont had a very specific manner about him and a very specific physicality, and those things, I think, conspired to push other people away from him. He was off-putting, and it had the same effect with me naturally on set — I generally ate lunch by myself — but I think it ultimately was a good thing to have that kind of separation from the other actors.”
Sony Pictures Classics’ “Foxcatcher” saw limited release on Nov. 14 and will expand through January 2015.