Oscar® nominated director and Qumra Master Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball, Foxcatcher) encouraged first- and second-time filmmakers attending his masterclass to equip themselves with resilience when making films and remain true to their vision.
At the industry event by the Doha Film Institute, Miller was at times clinically precise and more often channeling the emerging talents through his own experiences as a weather-beaten director-aspirant doing all sorts of “lowly work” before he accomplished his first project, The Cruise, a documentary on the personality of Timothy Levitch, an American actor, tour guide and author.
“I dropped out of school, worked for a filmmaker, got fired, was hurt, assisted on a music video, and then ended doing very lowly work for many years,” said Miller. “It reached a point where it occurred to me that I was incredibly unhappy doing this. I was following that 12-year-old kid [in himself] who had this fascination for the moving image. I made a decision to stop, and at that very minute feeling the relief of letting of my ambition and wanting to do film,” something clicked.
He experienced that familiar child-like feeling of wanting to do something, and he started filming Timothy, “a poetic soul living in a different era and very performative”. Miller was a one-man-crew, and shot for 77 hours but didn’t find it “interesting or soulful”. He started afresh, and shot another 100 hours of Timothy.
The final product, after four years of effort, was rejected by every festival until “a friend of a friend” formed an emotional reaction to it. She was then programming for a Los Angeles film festival and entered The Cruise as her fee. It was one of the press screenings and The Cruise received tremendous media acclaim.
Miller said he had never felt the same sense of gratification with any other film than when watching The Cruise projected on the big screen with an audience. “It was such a transcendental experience.” Lesson, then, for young filmmakers: “Do not wait for approvals; it won’t happen. Follow your vision of what you want to do, and don’t give up on what you are doing.”
Miller soon found that doors, previously inaccessible, were opening to him, and he did a lot of commercials wanting to have some security and not be dependent as well as to work with different people. He also associated with people with whom he would go on to work for years, underlining to the Qumra audience, that “relationships are everything”.
His next film was his true calling card to the big league with Capote on the life of Truman Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Miller earned his nomination.
Miller had known Hoffman when they did a theatre programme, and what Miller looked for in presenting Capote was not as much the physical features (Hoffman is a good taller and Miller resorted to camera angles and background actors who were taller than Hoffman) but his “interiors”. Miller said: “Philip doesn’t impersonate; he can’t do it all. He had this Walkman and was listening to the voice of Capote in his head until he found that connection; he is very much an inside-out actor.”
The finest tribute came from Capote’s lifelong friend and author of To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee. Almost everything in the film did not play out how it happened in real life, she wrote, but “this is the triumph of fiction, to get to the truth”.
As a director who has done all his three features based on real lives and incidents, including his next works, Moneyball (Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, based on Michael Lewis’s account of the Oakland Athletics baseball team) and Foxcatcher (Channing Tatum, Steve Miller, about US Olympic gold medalist wrestlers Mark Schultz and his brother David), Miller said his approach is to find “the truth you want to reach”.
“It is a coincidence that all three are true stories, and it is very touchy business,” said Miller. “You are talking about real people and many people who are alive are part of the story.” To him, the journey, is therefore more of a “journalistic enquiry” as he talks to several people in the quest for truth. Ultimately, it is about “respecting people, and making the best case for all”, Miller said.
Working on the three films, each with intense mindscapes defining the characters, Miller said “you don’t need explosions and car chases to experience drama. I am bored by too much action.”
His prescription then is to focus on the script – and to remember that there are only three kinds of scenes – negotiation, fight and seduction. “If you are having a problem with a scene, stop and figure out” if it relates to any three of these.
Miller said after every film he would be so exhausted he would never want to do another film again. “A director needs a strange combo of qualities,” he said, and the most important being the resolve to “make the kind of movies I want to make”.
He said it is important to “feel the consciousness” with the story, going beyond the sensitising of studio films. “If you make a studio film, you only tell stories, but something else must happen.” He experiences that when watching films by Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.
The fourth edition of Qumra brings together more than 150 acclaimed filmmakers, industry professionals and experts to nurture 34 films – the Qumra Projects – by first and second-time filmmakers that are in various stages of development. The six-day event is held through March 14, at Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art, and features Qumra Masterclasses, Qumra Talks and screenings in the Modern Masters and New Voices in Cinema segments.