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FOXCATCHER - A STUDY OF DEFT FILMMAKING

This film was one of the best directed films I've seen in a long time. Winner of a well deserved Cannes Best Director award, pure artistry is on display in full force. Based on the true story of John Du Pont and the events surrounding the Foxcatcher wrestling club, everyone in this film brought their A-game.  Foxcatcher is worth studying on so many artistic levels. For this entry I'll break it down in the three top sections:

1. Exposition and Character Development (Script/Direction)

2. Visuals

3. Performances.

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo portray the real life brothers.

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo portray the real life brothers.

1. EXPOSITION

As a filmmaker, this is the hardest thing for me. How on earth do you communicate all that wonderful backstory to get the audience on board in order to care... and not be confused? This film finds the core of every situation and displays it so simply and completely. In one scene in particular, Mark asks for his $20 paycheck to be made out in his name instead of his older brother's. The clerk is a little disappointed that the younger brother came instead. There is so much said in one simple scene that reveals a complicated family dynamic, economic status,, etc. Mark later goes home and eats ramen noodles with hot sauce. He punches himself after losing a practice match. There is little-to-no dialogue. Most of this is done in a single shot, maybe two if it REALLY needs it. So simple yet so loaded with information.

There are moments when the filmmaker does use traditional techniques for exposition: A job interview for the more technical back story revealed, a speech to a group of kids to let us know why he's important compared to your average guy, a speech at a black tie event to tell the audience what he wants. And yes John Du Pont does ask the protagonist flat out "what do you want' and he responds directly. But even the use of more traditional ways to reveal motivation and backstory to the audience, it is so expertly done (in both direction and performance) that my filmmaking brain geeked out!

Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) speaks with the film great Vanessa Redgrave.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) speaks with the film great Vanessa Redgrave.

The script also does a wonderful job of using moments and lines to explain a character completely, however I'm not sure how much was in the original script and which parts were a result of the filmmaking process. During a recent Q&A I attended, the director Bennett Miller admitted that there were sometimes pages and pages of dialogue for a scene that served as a jumping off point. But having come from a documentary background, Bennett would instead ask the actors to do an action or improv to get into the written scene naturally. Often times during those improvised sessions there would be a simple look  between the actors that would sum up all the pages of dialogue. At which point in the editing room he'd just use that one look instead of the original scene in the final edit. And he was right. The film works without those pages of dialogue. This technique is something for me to adopt, as much of my writing background comes from plays which is all about what the actors "say." 

Steve Carrell as John Du Pont. Fantastic perfomance!

Steve Carrell as John Du Pont. Fantastic perfomance!

2. Visuals

The film was shot on 35mm and it shows! The aspect ratio was the more traditional 1.85 which was a happy surprise for me after watching so many films that are 2.39 lately. The cinematographer Greig Fraser often switches back and forth from film to digital so his use of film was definitely a conscious style choice. Shooting on film was the right move for this period piece that is close enough in history for most of us to remember the feel of the 80's and 90's. The film switches it up each scene from long lenses, wide angle, handheld, tilt shift, tripod, steadycam to dolly. But it does so as it fits within the entire story as its core motivating factor. The result is that nothing ever feels "wrong" as the shooting styles change. Even the tones of the film are muted enough to give an emotion but not enough for an untrained eye to notice (unlike the great films like "Saving Private Ryan" where the choice is very clear to even your average viewer). 

Being too disjointed with my shooting style from scene to scene was a mistake I made in my earlier films. I would think of the scenes individually and shooting them that way as we went. This was especially true when I was working on one of those "every other weekend shooting schedule" movies, with each shoot being influenced by the latest film/tv show I was watching the week of the shoot. I would later get into the editing room and realize "my goodness! I've directed 8 different movies with this one script!" 

3. Performances

I've been a fan of all of these guys for quite a while now. I believe Channing Tatum is the mainstream leading man everyone has been waiting for. He has the box office heart throb appeal that can also deliver in complex performances. Mark Ruffalo is also at ease with his role in this film. I believe every moment and this is because of his history with the sport of wrestling himself in high school. Steve Carrell has gotten a role that can truly showcase how great of an actor he is on both sides of cinema (comedy/drama). I hope he is recognized greatly this awards season and the general public sees him as a completely versatile actor. Vanessa Redgrave and Sienna Miller unfortunately are not showcased in ways I'd hoped, which is often true in the male driven films like these. But when they are on screen, my GOD are they the best at what they do.

In Closing

The film tells a story of events that really happened and does it with a "here it is...talk amongst yourselves" attitude. It's a complex and unflinching view portrayal of this bizarre and haunting true story. I for one like these sort of films on certain days and not on others. I still ask myself when watching movies "what was this story about? Why did the filmmaker feel the need to make THIS story? What am I supposed to take away from this and apply to my own life... or glean a new understanding of how the world works?" This film doesn't do that and it shouldn't have to. But I do feel like it may not get the awards and accolades from the general public that it truly deserves because these questions are left unanswered. Or if the questions are answered, it is very indirectly or addressed with a level of ambiguity. At the end of the day, an American audience wants to know a moral to the story. Often times that audience wants to be told these things outright and directly. 

And sometimes I want that, too.