When Oscar-nominated American filmmaker Bennett Miller sat down to give his masterclass during this year's Qumra in Doha, he immediately apologized for his voice. "It doesn't hurt, it just sounds bad," he admitted, about the husky sound that appeared to be a really bad case of laryngitis. Maybe they could stop a bit early, said his moderator, who instead then proceeded to go overtime with the talk.
Living on the edge, this idea that the masterclass could be cut short by Miller's loss of voice altogether actually added an extra layer of urgency to everything that the talented, kind, thoughtful and wonderfully candid filmmaker had to say. While the moderator was a bit intrusive, interrupting Miller and at times asking unrelated questions instead of helping him to continue in his clearly intimate train of thought, the director responsible for 'Capote', 'Foxcatcher' and 'Moneyball' was very patient and managed to stay on track with the wisdom he meant to impart on his audience.
Miller began his career with a film titled 'The Cruise' about NYC personality and tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch. The finished product, "I submitted to every festival and it got rejected from every festival," admitted Miller, until a publicist friend got the film into the LA Indie Film Festival, as part of a bartering agreement for her payment. The press screening of the film was a big success, audiences lined up around the block to watch it and the rest, as they say, is history -- the film even went on to win an Emmy.
And by the way, it was then asked to be in the lineup of all the festival which had rejected it at first.
Early on in his career Miller also decided to quit, and it was "maybe within a minute of retiring from film that I felt so much better," he said. As someone who thinks of retiring almost every single day of my professional life, I have to say, I giggled at his words. I mean, which one of us hasn't felt that way at least once? And the moment you give yourself the permission to quit, it's the same exact instance when the fun comes back to infuse what you do.
When describing the unusual way he achieved success with his first film, Miller offered words of wisdom to the filmmakers in the audience by saying "do not wait for approval, it won’t happen. Follow your vision of what you want to do, and don’t give up on what you are doing.”
Miller's next project, 'Capote' starring his boyhood friend, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, brought both men Oscar nominations and won Hoffman an Academy Award for his performance as Truman Capote. "They looked completely different... Phil was a jock, tall and robust" while Capote, as everyone knows, was a slight boned, small man. But Miller used tricks like binding the actor's shoulders within his jackets to make his head appear bigger and made his costars stand on boxes. In the end, he received the approval of Capote's friend and novelist Harper Lee who wrote Miller a note saying that almost everything in the film did not play out how it happened in real life, but “this is the triumph of fiction, to get to the truth.”
The filmmaker, who believes that "casting is everything!" also admitted that during 'Moneyball' Brad Pitt was his protector, the actor assuring the filmmaker that he would allow him to fulfill his artistic vision. "I'm bored by too much action," said Miller, who cited the films of Hitchcock and Kubrick as his favorites. "Another favorite filmmaker of mine, Mike Nichols would say that there are only three types of scenes in cinema: Negotiation, a fight and seduction."
The one thing that Miller said which resonated most with me -- mind you, among his sea of wisdoms which included phrases like "I'm attracted to the story for my own personal reasons" (in reference to 'Foxcatcher') and making the kind of cinema which allows for a slowing down of your "mental metabolism" -- was what he uttered at almost the very end of the masterclass.
"You want to cultivate an environment where magic can happen." And through his wondrous vision, Bennett Miller has done just that, created cinematic magic.