Bennett Miller: On Capote

GreenCineStaff's picture

By Craig Phillips

"You want the thing to be embraced." 

With Bennett Miller, one gets the hopeful sense that he is just at the beginning of what could, and should, prove to be a long career - and, as with his idols, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, one that may not prove to be as prolific as it is artistically fruitful. At least as evidenced by his remarkably assured first feature, Capote. (Another he respects: "Jim Jarmusch, because he makes his movies. He knows what he wants to do and he does it. Those are three good ones right there.")

Capote could also end up fruitful come Oscar time - at least for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Capote to mesmerizing affect, humanizing the oft-mimicked writer. Miller's long-time friend, actor Dan Futterman, also deserves an Oscar nod for his incredibly astute, sharply observed screenplay. One hopes Miller won't be overlooked either (my review of the film can be found here). The resulting work, one of measured perceptiveness and compassion, focuses on the writing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Cold Blood. Truman Capote's famous book on the brutal Clutter murders that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, remains his most famous work, but as people will see when they watch the film, the end result may not have been worth it given the psychological toll it took on the author's subsequent life.

With the film's success comes a bit of happy news - that Miller's critically acclaimed feature-length documentary The Cruise will finally be seeing a DVD release later this year (or by January).

I spoke with the filmmaker while he made a brief press tour stop in San Francisco on the heels of Capote's national theatrical release.

What were you up to in the period between The Cruise and Capote?

I was looking for a film to do. That's the main thing. After The Cruise new opportunities arose, and I got an agent who began sending scripts. I read a lot of scripts but the other opportunity that came up was directing TV commercials. So in January of '99 I began directing commercials, a substantial amount of them, dozens upon dozens, actually, while reading and looking for a film. I found another documentary to shoot, which took four-plus months to shoot, and is sitting on my shelves right now, logged and digitized. But really, it was looking for that next film while honing my craft shooting commercials.

What was the subject of the documentary?

I don't want to talk about it too much, but [it's] like The Cruise, and like Capote, actually, in that it's another portrait.

Do you see a connection between The Cruise's subject, Timothy "Speed" Levitch (seen at left), and Truman Capote? As real-life eccentrics, with some similar characteristics...

Yeah there's a lot, in their mannerisms, and in being outsider characters. And also the story of a writer and a subject is similar to the story of a documentarian and subject, with some of the same issues coming up.

I spoke to the makers of American Splendor awhile back, who had also made the so-called "leap" to narrative features. And wondered this for you as well as them - do a lot of people express surprise that someone can come from a documentary background and make a narrative feature, as if they're two alien species?

Yeah, people are surprised. I don't deal with questions about it too well, but it is weird. The honest answer is that the creative process, whether you do it in documentary or feature, or drawings or art or whatever else, when you're in your zone it all feels kind of similar. That's the truth. And I didn't aspire to be a Documentary Filmmaker. I was always focused on doing features, and it just so happened that I came across the idea to do The Cruise. But it didn't feel like a big leap to me [to do Capote]. Well, it was a big leap in that it was a whole new level, but I felt like I was preparing my whole life to do it. I waited until I thought I was ready.

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