Getting Direct With Directors...
Bennett Miller
No.37: Bennett Miller

Bennett Miller made his directorial bow with documentary The Cruise (1998) about a New York tour guide. It won a clutch of festival gongs and an Emmy, before he eventually turned his attention to making a dramatic character study. In collaboration with long-time pal and screenwriter Dan Futterman and actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Capote offers a portrait of the American writer Truman Capote which questions the moral obligation an artist holds to his subject. It has earned him both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Director.

Here, Miller explains why he wants to "crack open" Adam Sandler's head and why John Travolta sends him into "ecstasy"...

Why did you become a director?

Christ... I can't imagine being able to do anything else. I became very interested when I was five years old, in theatre. I saw a production of The Miracle Worker and from that moment on I was just fascinated with theatre. I was introduced to film shortly after and became fascinated with that. It was just always there as a given. When I was eleven-years-old I started playing around with a Super 8mm camera and then when I was 12 or 13 we had a video camera. It just seemed that I was never not doing it or thinking about it.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?

I'd probably want to do something that didn't require the kind of aggression and cooperation and collaboration that filmmaking does. It would be something I could perhaps do by myself like painting or writing.

Stanley Kubrick

What other director would you like to see at work?

I would have loved to have watched Stanley Kubrick.

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

I can't remember, because I've got the DGA card and I go to screenings with that. It's been a while since I paid to see a movie. I just can't remember what it was.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

What was the last movie I didn't walk out of is the question! It always sounds like snobbery and I don't mean it to be, but I only go to movies that I think I'm going to like and I probably walk out of a third of them.

Do you remember what the last one was?

No. But I wouldn't say anyway!

Do you believe in God?

There's no simple answer here. I don't believe in God in the way I often see described by religion.

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Bono just gave me his email and phone number. I haven't used it, but I met him and he gave it to me.

What's your favourite movie quote?

"The first one that comes to mind is Peter Finch from Network saying something to the effect of, "I think I would quite like to be a mad prophet declaiming hypocrisies of our time."

The Dardennes brothers' L'Enfant

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

That's a really hard question. Maybe the Dardennes brothers [Luc and Jean-Pierre]. Their latest is L'Enfant.

And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

I'm not going to go there.

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?


What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

The dumbest question I've ever been asked, and I'm asked all the time, is any question that begins with, "How does it make you feel?"

Do you believe in test screenings?

I believe in showing cuts of the film to audiences, not to hear the results of their surveys, but just to be in the same room and watch the film with fresh eyes. I don't even feel like I need to talk to the people afterwards, just the experience of watching it with fresh eyes is enough. In the case of Capote, there was one screening before we locked picture that Sony wanted us to have, but they said it was for me and I could do whatever I wanted - ask the questions that I wanted to ask. They weren't even going to ask for the results, it was just for me to do whatever I wanted to do. It was helpful, but I don't believe at all in test screenings that are administered by studios with the intention of changing the film based on the survey responses and percentage scores.

How seriously do you take reviews?

They are extremely important. For me, personally, the value of a film is not determined by a review, but the health of the film is. A film cannot make it into the culture without the support of critics.

What about films that are now considered classics, like Vertigo (1958), which were initially not very well received?

I stand corrected. Okay, that's true. But I think it was much different back then. Also, in the case of Vertigo you had a famous filmmaker and big actors and a film like that is going to be put out there in force by the studio so it stands every chance of working and making a success on it own merits. I'm probably speaking more about today when there are manifold more films that means the competition for screens is incomparable to what it was back then. The power that a studio has to keep a film on a screen is significantly reduced to what it was at the time of Vertigo. A film like Capote is, in scale, smaller than anything you'd see in the time of Vertigo making it into the culture. It does not have the marketing budget or the studio muscle to enforce it and get it to an audience. I'm not talking about big, fat studio supported films, or I'm not talking about 'movies' as much as I'm talking about 'films' - cinema. So, a film like Capote, had it not been seriously championed by serious critics and writers, there is no way I would be sitting here talking to you at this point.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

I never really had a mentor or anything like that, but you hear the same piece of advice administered in different ways and it's been coming down the pipe for two thousand years. It's just variations of, "Know thyself", which to me means don't attempt to fit in, whether that's fitting in with test screenings or anything else.

And the worst advice you've been given?

Try to fit in.

What's your biggest regret?

When I was like 16-years-old I was on 6th Avenue and 53rd Street [in New York] and this family approached me and the father said, "Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" And I just said, "Yes, it's right up the street," instead of making the classic joke. In America it goes, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" and the answer is, "Practice." It literally happened so quickly that I didn't think of it. So, for 23 or 24 years I've been thinking about that every day! I guess I could hang out there and wait for someone else to ask...

There are five minutes left till the end of the world. Aside from hanging out by Carnegie Hall, what do you do?

I think I would just observe what I was feeling.

Which performer would you love to work with?

I want to work with performers who really are ready to lose their minds, you know? People who are established and have talent, but who are ready to break new ground and really be cracked open in a new way. Somebody like Adam Sandler would fit into that category who, as successful and genius as he is, I really believe he's ready to kick into a whole new gear and do something that's really surprising.

What film makes you want to spit?

You know I always get irritated and walk out of films that are manipulative, that work like propaganda, that are trying to push buttons and provoke an emotional response and do it in a dishonest way. By that I mean films that push those buttons but have nothing to offer in the way of insight. But what film is not like that? It's far fewer films now that work in an artful way and don't do that.

Saturday Night Fever

What are your three favourite films and why?

I don't have three favourite films, but for the moment I'll say Network, A Space Odyssey and Saturday Night Fever. Network is just a perfect movie, it's funny, its substantive, it really shed light and revealed a condition that was in the process of becoming when it was made. If you watch that film now, you'll see that everything in it came to be. I say 2001 just for the quality of the filmmaking. I love the sober-minded, controlled, determined and deliberate consciousness of that film. And Saturday Night Fever is just ecstasy to watch. I love it! That character - I think John Travolta gives the performance of a generation.

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?


Capote is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24th February 2006.

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