Friends blend talents in `Capote'

Spotlight: Bennett Miller

October 28, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Radio essayist and author Sarah Vowell calls her good pal Bennett Miller, the gifted 38-year-old director of Capote, "One of the funniest people I know, with humor that can veer toward the morbid. For example, for my birthday he gave me a resin replica of an 1,800-year-old Peruvian woman's skull. When I told him I loved it, he replied, `You're really easy to shop for.'"

But if he's oddly uproarious as a friend and director, as a phone-interview subject, Miller's more intense than tickling.

On the line from New York, he confesses that he is "sensitive," then makes it sound like the toughest attribute in the human or animal kingdoms. Sensitivity, it turns out, compelled him to drop out of New York University and never return to college: "My system rejects certain things - I just rejected school in general."

Sensitivity also causes him to walk out or not walk into certain motion pictures: "My system rejects some actors. I just can't see movies if they happen to be in them."

Happily, Miller has turned Capote into a showcase for actors he admires, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, and Chris Cooper as lawman Alvin Dewey.

Actor-writer Dan Futterman's script centers on Truman Capote from 1959 to 1964, and his aesthetic crusade to write a "nonfiction novel." It became In Cold Blood - Capote's epochal best-seller about the murder of a comfortable Kansas farm family and its aftermath. In the view of Miller and Futterman, that quest meant spiritual self-immolation for Capote.

Miller has been Futterman's friend since junior high in Mamaronek, N.Y. They both have known Hoffman from age 16, when they all attended a New York state summer theater camp. But the director bristles when asked whether their friendship made it any easier for a trio of middle-class suburban buddies to tackle the alien extremes of Capote, from drifting killers and proper farmers in Holcomb, Kan., to cafe or salon types in high-society or high-lit Manhattan.

"The fact that somebody comes from here or there, or this or that kind of family, doesn't mean that much," cautions Miller. "What this story is all about is something we all can understand: a guy who goes after something and gets it, and in the getting destroys himself. The details and the mechanics of the period and of the different characters' cultures are things you can learn, like a foreign language, if you own the human tragedy." (Asked the same question later, Hoffman answers, with a comical growl, "I don't even know where that's coming from" - then adds that he came from Fairport, a town outside Rochester, N.Y., not Westchester, and was raised by a single mother.)

Miller may not have tasted all-out tragedy himself, but he did feel desperate after leaving school. With sardonic hyperbole he says, "I was teetering on the edge of homelessness." He hustled chess games in Washington Square Park. He interned for Jonathan Demme - a promising job that unfortunately led to "a painful firing."

Yet in retrospect, Miller feels "grateful" for "a real period of indirection, odd jobs, and soul-searching. I retreated from my ambitions and re-examined them. From an early age, 12 or 13, I hoped to become a painter or a filmmaker. I had given up on the notion of being a painter and, at 25, was wondering whether I could conceive of doing anything else other than filmmaking. And at that exact moment when I relieved myself of all ambition I also lost all the tension and anxiety that go along with a careerist mentality."

His first feature of any kind was the engaging 1998 documentary The Cruise, the story of "Speed" Levitch, a motor-mouthed New York City tour bus guide and home-grown philosopher who believes in the interconnectedness of matter. The movie developed a fervid cult; Richard Linklater even put Levitch into his masterly cartoon, Waking Life (2001). But there was another huge chunk of creative downtime for Miller before he cottoned onto Capote.

Luckily, Vowell can testify to his whereabouts in between. She and the rest of Ira Glass' radio show, This American Life, deemed The Cruise "a pretty much perfect documentary, really funny and beautiful but also so soulful and empathetic and wistful." Miller joined up with Glass and company seven years ago to create a television version of This American Life. "The TV show went south for various reasons," Vowell says, "but I got a best friend out of it." (This year, Glass has completed another TV pilot that may become a series for Showtime.)

Waiting for Miller to direct again was "a little frustrating" for Vowell because she "knew he had it in him. He reminded me of the illustration from my junior high physics textbook for potential energy - a boulder poised at the edge of a precipice just waiting for a push. Like, one little tremor and that rock could smash a station-wagon flat. Obviously, he was waiting until he had something to say, and could do a project he cared about with people he liked."

Even if it does take another seven years for Miller to come up with something else, it should be worth the wait.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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