Hungry Man director Bennett Miller is about to realize a lifelong dream when his highly anticipated Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, competes in the New York Film Festival. The movie, driven by Hoffman's star turn, has major Oscar buzz; the word can be heard whispered by critics nationwide, a welcome sound to Miller after an exhausting schedule.
"The last year making this film was a constant 60-80 hours every week-no exception," explains Miller, whose previous film, The Cruise, a documentary about a manic New York tour guide, was released in 1998. "I took my time choosing the right film, because making a feature is 95 percent perspiration, 5 percent inspiration."
Capote is a provocative, stark and unblemished portrait revealing, in equal parts, Truman Capote's literary genius and tortured conscience as he writes In Cold Blood. Shot on location in Kansas, the site of the infamous Clutter murders, Hoffman is nothing short of astounding as Capote, a man completely destroyed by his questionable morals, stripped down to the marrow. Norman Mailer considered him the most perfect writer of his generation, an author who radically changed the way nonfiction was perceived.
"Capote kept the killers alive to write his book, then pulled out his support when he needed them to die to finish it," explains Miller. "Capote's interest as a writer and a person came into conflict. He felt profound pity for Perry Smith, the killer he befriended, but then had to go and watch him die. That destroyed him. He achieved the greatest heights of success and in doing so rigged himself for disaster. He never wrote another book again."
With the film wrapped and the experience of directing Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper under his belt, how does a feature compare to commercials? "There's almost no corollary between directing a feature and directing a commercial," he says. "You trick, manipulate and cajole what you need out of an actor in a 30-second spot, so casting is huge. But no deep knowledge is required for commercials. With a feature, it's different. You can't trick a performance out of Phil [Seymour Hoffman]. He had six months to prepare for his role as Truman Capote-the last three we worked with each other regularly. You get into it deep. It becomes a completely different language."
A longtime member of the Hungry Man stable, Miller has carved out an impressive oeuvre since joining the company some five years ago. The prospect of returning to the commercials world clearly excites him. "I look out there at advertising and I'm eager to turn everything I've done on its head-I'm eager to broaden my work. Concentration on such a finite span of time will be a welcome change, almost a relief. I'm returning with a fresh disposition."
One collaboration Miller is keen to continue is with Capote editor Christopher Tellefsen (The Village, Man on the Moon, Changing Lanes). A serious mind meld materialized in post: "We vibed intensely on the cut of the film and have a number of ideas for the commercials world," says Miller. With experience in commercials and now his second feature under his belt, Miller is conscious of his role as a director. "The words, 'Make sure everybody's working on the same film' stuck with me before I dropped out of film school," he quips. "I've had experiences in commercials where I wasn't making the same spot as the agency, or even the client. As a director, it's important to leave no ambiguity. I regard everyone who worked on Capote as a cult member. We're all wearing the Nike sneakers. I'm the leader and everyone gets indoctrinated-everyone has to understand what we're doing and where each craft falls into place. That's my job."
Miller is currently poring through a number of movie scripts while commercials boards spit out of the fax machine. "The next feature has to be special," he says. "There's a lot of passion and time involved in the process. From the moment I decided to do Capote to finishing it was almost three years of my life. It takes a lot of ass-kicking to get it together."