On November 23, 2015, filmmaker Bennett Miller paid a visit to Susan Sandler’s Preparing the Screenplay course, joined by Harry Winer’s Director’s Process class. Miller stayed for over two hours in an open forum for the students and professors to ask him whatever they wished. There was a casual air to the conversation. Miller, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, was very mellow and informal throughout. He was candid and forthcoming but very relaxed and measured in his responses, touching on all four of his films over the course of the class.
Miller attended Tisch in the late 80s but ended up dropping out. As a student he would often neglect his schoolwork; he largely spent his days doing his own thing, frequently playing chess in Washington Square Park. He looks back most fondly on the friendships of his college days as opposed to the academics. Among his classmates was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom Miller would of course go on to work with on Capote (for which Hoffman would win his first and only Oscar). Apparently, Hoffman and Miller were friends before college, and made a mutual decision to attend NYU.
Miller described his twenties as a struggle: living in New York, going from job to job, hoping against hope it would all pan out. In his late twenties, however, he had an epiphany: he realized that he didn’t have to go into film and that perhaps he shouldn’t. This moment was described as an immense relief, like a weight being lifted. The other potential vocation that occurred to him was helping the homeless, and in that moment he realized that he had to make a film about Tim “Speed” Levitch, the semi-homeless Manhattan tour guide who would become the subject of The Cruise. In letting go of his anxiety and inward-directed pressure, he had the moment of clarity necessary to conceive his first film.
He spent the summer hanging out with Levitch and shot 70 hours of footage, all of which was scrapped when it failed to match what he had envisioned. He spent the following summer with Levitch and shot him again. This is the footage he used to assemble The Cruise. The film was rejected by all of the festivals it was submitted to, until a certain PR person at TIFF watched the film and loved it. The film debuted at the festival in 1998, earning rave reviews. It was soon picked up by many of the festivals that had previously rejected it.
It would be seven years before Miller’s next film would be released. Capote, a studio film, was a substantial step-up in ambition for Miller. The film chronicles writer Truman Capote’s writing process for his definitive work "In Cold Blood." The film almost didn’t happen, as there was another Truman Capote film in pre-production at the time Capote was in development. Thankfully for Miller, his film beat the other to release. The competing film, Infamous, was greeted with weaker, though respectful, reviews and had a far lesser cultural impact than Capote.
Miller described Capote’s production as challenging. There was one particular day on set where they were shooting a very short scene (they had scheduled it for just a half an hour) that took take after take after take to get right, until Miller came up with the right direction to feed Hoffman. The film, of course, was a success. Miller describes his and Hoffman’s mutual relief when they watched the completed film and discovered that their labor had not been in vain.
Miller’s films have lengthy, years-long gaps between them. Miller has a noticeably short filmography considering how long he has been in the industry. He said that he exercised caution when he first found success and didn’t want to be too eager. Simply put, the sort of projects Hollywood offered him were of no interest. In 2011, Moneyball was released. The film told the true story of Oakland A’s manager Bill Beane. Another success, the film garnered a bevy of Academy Award nominations. Foxcatcher was released in 2014. The film concerns the, again, true story of John du Pont and the Foxcatcher farm where Mark and David Schultz trained. The film won the Best Director award at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars. When asked why he opted to cast Steve Carell playing way against type as John du Pont, Miller remarked that du Pont was always seen as something as an oaf, emphasizing the word “benign.” He also pointed out that most comedians have an internal darkness.
When asked what his various filmmaking experiences had in common, Miller pointed out that he’s never worked on a film that didn’t have a miserable first week, with the actors in distress. Working with the actors is actually the most crucial aspect of Miller’s process. He always tries for four weeks of rehearsal time, but has only ever gotten between two weeks and one day. Professor Harry Winer pointed out that his films tend to consistently be about men in a place they don’t belong. Miller concurred, elaborating that seeing characters drawn together in a way they don’t quite understand is also immensely compelling to him. He acknowledged that his films are seen by some as slow-paced, but said that he makes films the only way he knows how and that he could never make them any other way. All four of his films, he continued, have been more or less successful realizations of his ideas.
One thing that caught my attention was an early comment by Miller that he is not “that into movies.” When I asked for some clarification he said that “of course” he likes movies, just a comparatively small number of them. Some of his favorites include Walkabout, Gimme Shelter, and Barry Lyndon. He said he doesn’t really keep up with new movies and that he “couldn’t tell you what’s doing well at the box office.”
The most striking moment of the evening was when Miller was asked if after all his success and accomplishments he was happy. Miller took a while to answer the question. He said that when you arrive at your destination the goals you originally had have changed to new ones, and that living off of admiration will only net you misery. He quoted Alejandro González Iñárritu as saying that admiration is worth nothing. He told us he gets satisfaction from the work itself, working with talented people, and respect from his peers.
Miller’s candidness and general “normalcy” were quite reassuring. For a man who has made remarkable films, he seemed even-keeled, down-to-earth, and accessibly relatable. The stories of his early struggles were particularly endearing. In terms of advice for students, he made two specific points. First, he urged all students kicking around an unfinished film to “just finish it” and not let it cling to them into the future. He also urged writers trying to get their scripts seen to just write a great script. “You might as well throw it out a car window. If it’s a great script, someone will find it. I promise you.”
Anthony Calamunci is a student in the NYU/Tisch Undergraduate Film and TV Department from the class of 2016. He is a writer-director working primarily in comedy. Originally from Ohio.