There are so many unseen elements and unanswered questions around this almost too incredible to be true story of eccentric millionaire John T du Pont and the Olympic wrestlers caught up in his mad world, it took director Bennett Miller, alongside screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, years – and years - to research. “I wanted to learn what hadn’t been known about the story and that takes time,” says Miller. “This is a story with some uncomfortable truths, everyone I spoke with seemed to be guarding some aspect of what happened.”
The resulting film delivers on pretty much every level – a gripping, character-led period tale that transports you to another time and place; deals with big Oscar-friendly themes like brotherhood and what it is to be American; and is brilliantly played by an unexpected cast, some of them wearing prosthetics.
Where the film stands above the rest is in the script’s devotion to detail and finding the best story that it can, a style which in Capote and Moneyball, Miller has come to describe as “fact to fiction as a vehicle back to truth”. He might never do it better than here.
It’s an amazing, true story that seems hard to believe and yet it isn’t well-known over here at all. How aware of this tale are people in the States?
Not very. And those who do know about it mostly only vaguely know about it. They don’t know any details, just that “Oh yeah, du Pont killed a wrestler”. Not much more than that.
The film's focal point is the murder of Dave Schultz. What’s your own view on the motive? What can we conclude about why John du Pont did what he did?
The film very deliberately resists conclusions because it makes things just a bit too neat and simple. To conclude literally means to stop, to end thinking about it. It’s not a bad thing to , it’s normal that a film will offer that satisfaction and that clarity, but this film I think is unusual in that it doesn’t do that. It’s a haunting story and it should stick with you and if it’s simple as ‘oh he did this because of that’ then I think you just consume it like junk food and just forget about it.
Was Dave Schultz really as nice as he is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo?
Yes. He was the guy with a thousand best friends and he was truly a rare individual. There were quite a few photographs and quite a bit of vide on him and with one exception, he was smiling and laughing through all of it and he just had a real interest and care about so many people and so many things lived life with generous curiosity.The only time I saw him not smiling wasin the raw footage of the interview that was conducted for one of the documentaries that du Pont made about himself.
Why do you think Dave Schultz hung around with du Pont despite the warning signs?
I think that he knew who du Pont was and that he was at best a dilettante when it came to wrestling, but he was hanging around because it was a great situation. This is the one person in the US who was financing his sport and giving him and others the opportunity to do what they loved doing and to live in a near utopian environment that they would be in together and pursue their passion. It was really everything that they wanted and the one caveat was that they had to tolerate him and I think there were plenty of warning signs that were not properly regarded.
How has Dave’s wife Nancy moved on with her life since Dave’s murder?
It’s been 19 years. She’s done quite well, I mean she’s raised her kids and they’re beautiful and amazing and just clear, smart individuals and she herself has found love again and is marrying this year. She's kind of an amazing woman.
Before the full tragedy unfurls, there are a lot of comedic moments in the film. Did having Steve Carrell involved help these moments surface?
I don’t think it hurts. The situation is funny in an absurdist way. I find it deeply funny and I do think Steve has a special genius for teasing out the humour in these moments but he’s not reaching for it. He’s not trying to be funny. He did not feel it was funny while doing any of that. I on the other had, while maintaining a pretty sombre and sobre environment to shoot this thing, was smiling inwardly quite a bit.
The film took a long time to research and complete. Looking at it now do you see the benefit of having that extra time to tell this story?
For sure, for sure. It probably would have been a different film had I made it sooner and I think part of that was living with the story. Some of the low hanging fruit begins to wane in interest. I also got to make another film in the middle of it. I had developed this thing and got the script to the place it needed to be. I couldn't find money and had to put it down and come back to it. Having that perspective was healthy I think.
After Moneyball and Capote, it’s another adaptation of a real story. Do you think this type of story allows you as a director to be more creative than with a blank piece of paper because you can use those reference points and delve into areas you might not with a fiction film?
Yeah I think that’s interesting. I'm interested in telling stories that add up to more than the entertainment of the story. That’s what does it for me. And when you are bound by the facts of the story in the end you are still looking for means to accomplish the metaphors. Those restrictions require you to summon some creativity to find the means because you cant just change things around for your own purposes.