Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller’s American Tragedy, Starring Ruffalo and Tatum






Bennett Miller’s films, including his first, the documentary The Cruise, are centered on real people with vivid personalities in unusual circumstances. And despite the large evidence that was collected during the years of preparation for Foxcatcher, in the end, those stark facts become the seeds for drama. Many of the facts, as the actors  indicated, were distilled and transformed through the process.

“It’s fact to fiction as a vehicle back to truth,” says Miller. “Some months after Capote, I received a letter from Harper Lee. She said the film was a demonstration of fiction as a means towards truth. There was a great deal in the film that we had invented, but ‘The film told the truth about Truman.’ That’s what I have tried to do with Foxcatcher.”

foxcatcher_6_carell_tatumMiller first heard about the story of eccentric multi-millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) and a pair of world champion wrestler brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) when executive producers Michael Coleman and Tom Heller showed him a newspaper article about the story. “The circumstances seemed comical and absurd, but the outcome was horrible and real,” says Miller. “The deeply strange things that happened down there were unlike anything I had personally experienced and yet they felt immediately familiar. There was something about the story, or perhaps something beneath the story, that I sensed wasn’t strange at all. In fact the opposite.” While his initial impulse to take on the project was immediate, the subsequent time and energy Miller ended up pouring into it was expansive. As he had previously done with CAPOTE and MONEYBALL, Miller embarked on a research journey that would last several years. “I wanted to learn what hadn’t been known about the story and that takes time. It takes years and it takes interest and care,” he says. “This is a story with some uncomfortable truths, everyone I spoke with seemed to be guarding some aspect of what happened.”

Miller traveled all over the country—to Iowa, California, Colorado, Missouri, and Pennsylvania—to find materials and to interview dozens of people including Mark Schultz, Dave’s widow Nancy, their friends and fellow wrestlers, people who had worked for du Pont, police, and anyone who had lived any part of the story. In addition to all the first-person accounts, he assembled a trove of video of both du Pont and the Schultz brothers.

foxcatcher_5_tatum_ruffaloWhile Dave was only a little older than Mark, they didn’t have a typical brother relationship. Their parents split up early, and Dave took on a parental role for Mark as they moved between their parents’ homes, fending for themselves. Mark had an incredible love, reverence, and need for his brother—he relied upon him for emotional support, a partner to wrestle with, and as a coach—but at the same time he was very jealous of Dave’s success, and his inner turbulence escalated as the years went by. “Mark was always that little brother that just couldn’t break out, couldn’t figure out how to do it on his own,” says Tatum. “He always had to rely on Dave, and this kept him from having his own life, his own career, and the thing he wanted most—his own respect from people.” Mark’s confused vulnerability makes him turn his pent-up anger on himself as much as on his wrestling opponents—at times he literally hits himself in the face. Says Tatum: “I don’t think anybody could punish Mark more than he could himself and I think he hardens himself against the world by punishing himself.”

The intricate dynamic between the brothers is vividly illustrated through the scene in which they practice wrestling with each other: It begins like a dance, with Dave effortlessly ushering Mark through some moves, lightly correcting and instructing. “There is real tenderness between them and so much unspoken communication,” says Ruffalo. “It’s as intimate as two men can be without being lovers.” Gradually Mark’s complicated feelings about Dave spill out and compel him to amp up the aggression and do real damage. Says Ruffalo: “Mark is so much bigger and more aggressive and stronger, but Dave still has the psychological edge on him. But you can also see that Mark is exceptionally gifted.” Says Miller: “You see Dave’s steadfastness, his fairness, and his love, but you simultaneously see his status—he’s the Alpha. Not an uncaring, unsympathetic, unloving Alpha, but an Alpha.”

foxcatcher_2_tatum_ruffaloThe brothers’ complicated relationship comes to a boil with Mark’s realization that Dave was beginning to move on with his life, to pursue his own family and career. Says Ruffalo: “There’s a deep, deep connection between them and what some people might call a codependency which became unhealthy as they moved into the world. As Dave started transitioning, embarking on his adult life, Mark saw it as a betrayal, and honestly, it was a betrayal. It was just an impossible situation, as Dave had to get on with his life even though he knew that Mark didn’t have anything at all in his life aside from wrestling and their relationship.”

It’s at this time, when Mark is at his lowest ebb, that du Pont invites Mark for a life-changing meeting at Foxcatcher. There he showers him with the words of praise and respect that Mark had always wanted to hear, albeit in an aloof and peculiar manner. “I think Mark had a lot of trepidations,” says Tatum. “I don’t think he really trusts anyone. But finally he is hearing somebody see him and Dave the way he thinks they deserve. Du Pont is saying that the brothers are heroes. They literally fight for their country and no one supports them, no one cares about them like he does. I don’t think Mark knew completely but I think he slowly started to see that this was the best opportunity he had ever been given. This is the opportunity for him to finally get the attention, respect and accolades that he’s always wanted, and to separate himself from Dave.”

foxcatcher_4_carellIn telling Mark that he wasn’t getting the appreciation he deserved, du Pont could just as well have been speaking about himself. He was burdened by a family legacy that was nearly impossible to uphold because it went back so many generations. “While the expectations were high, the celebration of the successes seemed almost nonexistent,” says Carell. “His mother, from all reports, was a rather cold woman. He was close to her but really didn’t experience much affection from her at all—she reserved that for her prized horses. I think that wrestling became very important to him because it was a vocation of his own choosing. It didn’t apply to any other part of his upbringing. His mother was not a fan of wrestling, thought it was barbaric, so he stepped out from her shadow in that way.”

foxcatcher_3_carellAfter all the research the actors did, they came to know their roles so well that incarnating them on the set was second nature. “After a while the actor actually knows the character better than the director,” says Ruffalo. “They even know their character better than the writer.” Having this foundation of knowledge allowed the actors to confidently depart from E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script and maintain the truth of who these people were. “It was our job to prepare, and to research as best we could,” says Carell, “but it inevitably became something else when we were filming. There were scenes that had been rehearsed and discussed that changed completely while we were doing them.” Says Tatum: “Bennett would have me in the set of Mark’s apartment and he’d just say, ‘Do whatever you think Mark does.’ It was fun but at the same time it was hard work and you don’t know what’s going to be in the movie, so you have to stay in it, and stay extremely focused.”

Anthony Michael Hall, who plays the role of du Pont’s assistant, Jack, says: “The way I would describe what Bennett was doing is that he was molding the performances of the actors: he was pushing them and at the same time freeing them up. They had done their homework, and now, in a very deliberate and understated way, he was getting them to bring these real people to life.”

Miller was able to work in such a free approach because he had the full backing of his producer, Megan Ellison and Annapurna Pictures. While Annapurna Pictures has since become known for such acclaimed films as THE MASTER, ZERO DARK THIRTY, HER, and AMERICAN HUSTLE, FOXCATCHER was in fact one of the first projects they took on. Says Miller: “Making a film like this, which is not a predetermined, connect-the-dots, color-within-the-lines kind of thing, requires a leap of faith on the part of the producers and the actors. It’s almost like going into a documentary, where you don’t know exactly what form it will take when it’s finished, but the only way for the film to become what it needs to become is to go into it with a question mark.”

Throughout the filming and later on in the editing, Miller tried to distill the meanings of scenes down to their essence—using visuals whenever necessary. In fact, a large portion of FOXCATCHER plays out wordlessly. “Bennett believes that character and story are enough to carry us through long periods of silence,” says Ruffalo. “He isn’t afraid to let a movie breathe like that.” Says Tatum: “He sees the little things. He’s obsessed by the moments in between. What most people will see when you wrestle is the big moves, the big huge slams, the activity, but he really focuses on those moments when it dies—where the person goes in their head when they are not doing the big things.”

Says Ruffalo: “Bennett used the metaphor of a rock garden. You see a rock sticking out but it’s only a small percentage of what’s buried and out of sight. The meditative glimpse of the story you get in this film is so profound, but at the same time you still have this sense of a much deeper, denser story underneath. He doesn’t tie it all up neatly for us. He leaves us very much in the same place that most of the people who experienced this kind of tragedy have been left. Which is wondering how this happened, and why it came to pass?”