Foxcatcher: The ‘uneasy Relationship Between Money And Creativity’

Foxcatcher begins with victory: two brothers, two gold medals for wrestling at the 1984 Olympics. This fleeting glory, though, is the beginning of the end. Over the next two hours, Bennett Miller’s film dismantles the American dream, dragging Mark and Dave Schultz into a pit of disillusionment, exploitation and, ultimately, murder.

It begins in 1984, when John du Pont (played by Steve Carell), a patriotic wrestling fan and 45-year-old heir to an obscene family fortune, invites Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to his Pennsylvania estate. There he outlines a grand plan: he will bankroll Schultz, who in turn will form and coach a team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Despite his Olympic triumph, Schultz is out of work and needs funding, so off he goes to Pennsylvania, where things slowly unravel as Du Pont’s twisted ego spirals into mental illness. Later, Mark’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is also invited to coach the team, but Du Pont’s reverence for him turns to resentment. The whole toxic mess ends, in 1996, with Du Pont killing Dave Schultz.

This is all perfect material for Miller, who thrives on psychological exploration. His first film, 1998 documentary The Cruise, affectionately scrutinised kooky New York tour guide Timothy Levitch; he followed it with 2005’s Capote, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman a stack of awards. Drawn to the Foxcatcher story as soon as he found it in 2006, Miller began work, but false starts led him to postpone it and make Moneyball instead. He never stopped working on Foxcatcher, though, undergoing a multitude of interviews and constantly developing the script with co-writers in an attempt to try to understand what the hell went on with Du Pont and the wrestling brothers.

Foxcatcher is an eerie experience, its constant gloom speaking volumes about its main players’ states of mind. Miller spent much time with Mark Schultz, uncovering layers over the years. “Mark was eager to get his story out [on film] and was writing his autobiography,” says Miller of their initial meetings. “But what he had written was very adolescent and bitter. It was one long axe-grinding rant, clearly distorted to serve his agenda.”

Revenge? “Yeah, just vengeful and revisionist. He’s a very personable guy now, and can be charming. But I began to challenge some of his assertions and he never fought too much about it. He would have tantrums every so often. I raised the issue of cocaine being used, and he denied it at first, so I said, ‘Mark, literally everybody told me that there was a bunch of coke down there and that you and John did a lot of coke together.’ And he was like, ‘It’s true, it’s true, but… You can’t say that!’ I said, ‘Mark, I’m gonna either make a film that’s obedient to nothing other than my instincts about what the film should be or I’m not gonna make the film.’ And, to be fair, he responds well to that kind of forthcoming openness, and he signed off. It was then six years before we started shooting, and that turned out to be some benefit, because it was a long process of opening his hand and getting him to share.”

Miller is a meticulous, investigative film-maker. On the Foxcatcher set he came armed with various screenplay drafts, and would also constantly rework ideas with the actors. At times, he would go out of his way to make them uncomfortable, pitting them against one another to create tension and raw performances; in return, they pushed themselves even further. In the flesh, Miller makes for easy company, brimming with confidence and a justified authority. We speak at length about his views on Du Pont and paranoid schizophrenia, and when our time is up, he laments the fact that we can’t keep discussing it. Du Pont always denied killing Dave Schultz, despite having done so in view of Dave’s wife, Nancy. The jury found him guilty but mentally ill, and he was jailed for the murder. He died in prison in 2010.

Some have blamed those around Du Pont for not doing enough as his mental state deteriorated, especially those who were on the payroll. Some of the wrestlers agree, blaming themselves for turning a blind eye to his behaviour. The corruptive power of money is the dark heart of the film, and it has universal ripples. Financial subservience is, of course, rampant in Hollywood but Miller has enjoyed creative control throughout his career, never selling out for the studio dime. Still, he’s acutely aware of how easy it can be to fall into those traps and works hard to avoid them. Did that further draw him to the story?

Bennett Miller Bennett Miller Photograph: Cindy Ord/Getty

“Yeah, for the personal reasons you’ve just illuminated. And even if I feel satisfied with the measure of control that I’ve been able to sustain, it hasn’t been without a struggle. There is a very uneasy relationship between money and creativity, between money and almost everything. Its tendency to control and corrupt – whether it’s in arts or education or politics, hardly anything is untouched by it. Journalism certainly is up there. Everything is susceptible to it. It’s not like I’ve managed to live a totally carefree, immunised existence. So [my interest is] from a personal level, yeah, but also just as a person living in a world that feels ever more challenged by the compromising effects of the competing interests. And it’s a necessary relationship. It’s a very fascinating transaction between Du Pont and these wrestlers. It is a transaction. What are they each getting, what do they want?”

Recently, Miller and Schultz’s own transaction in making the film has been thrown under the microscope. When we spoke, Miller insisted that Schultz was satisfied with his portrayal by Tatum, flaws and vulnerabilities included. “Now it’s done, he’s more than at peace with what the film is. He gets extremely emotional watching it.” Yet after Christmas, Schultz dramatically U-turned. In response to critical interpretations of the film’s ambiguous hint of sexual undertones between himself and Du Pont, he let rip on Twitter, saying that the cinematic portrayal of him was grossly inaccurate, and that he hated the film and Miller. “I HATE EVERYTHING THAT SCUM TOUCHES. EVERYTHING!!!”, he concluded.

On 3 January, though, Schultz was back on message, apologising on Facebook for his “hasty, emotionally charged reaction,” explaining that he has “been learning to understand the artistic and creative process which is [Miller’s] expertise”. Foxcatcher is, necessarily, just an interpretation – albeit an assiduously researched and considered one. All Bennett Miller is asking you to be aware of is the transactions: between patron and performer, between subject and writer and ultimately, between film-maker and viewer.

Foxcatcher is in cinemas now

  
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