By Mary Milliken
BEVERLY HILLS Calif. (Reuters) - For eight years, film director Bennett Miller worked exhaustively on "Foxcatcher," researching the lives of a du Pont heir and the wrestling brothers he sponsored, and making sure his actors passed as expert sportsmen.
Despite locking down all the details to tell the real-life story of a well-known 1996 murder, Miller headed to the film set with a question.
"We entered into this thing with a very specific idea of what we are reaching for, but how it manifests is never going to be known until it happens," Miller told Reuters ahead of the opening of "Foxcatcher" in U.S. theaters on Friday.
"Part of making a film like this is creating an atmosphere where unexpected things can happen in the performances on the day."
That risk-taking has already paid off for the 47-year-old American filmmaker who made "Capote" and "Moneyball," most notably at May's Cannes film festival, where he won best director. Oscar buzz has since followed the film from Sony Pictures Classics.
"Foxcatcher" stars an unrecognizable Steve Carell as John du Pont, the lonely, patriotic scion of one of America's wealthiest families who lures Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz to his Foxcatcher Farm to form a team with Olympic aspirations.
The morose Mark, played by Channing Tatum, is anxious to emerge from the shadow of big brother Dave Schultz, also a gold medalist, a beloved coach and among the sport's biggest stars. He is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, with whom Tatum trained to earn wrestling bona fides.
Carell's du Pont is creepy and hard to read, but Mark thrives with his support, from a cutting-edge gym to private planes, before the relationship implodes and his career collapses. Dave comes in to support his brother and smooth matters over with du Pont, only to be killed by him in a rage.
'NOTHING EVER ASSUMED'
Known for his comic turns in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Anchorman," Carell was surprised that Miller would want to cast him for the dark role and that his meticulous planner of a director would leave so much to chance.
"We'd go through the scene, we might completely tear it apart, rewrite it, we might improvise it," said Carell.
"There was nothing ever assumed about who these people were and what would transpire during a scene," he added, "and you could feel the energy to that."
For Tatum, Miller's free-form approach made for challenging but ultimately rewarding moments.
"Bennett made something beautiful, and it really is Bennett's movie," said Tatum.
But Miller said it would not be possible without the backing of Megan Ellison, the deep-pocketed producer behind some of Hollywood's more experimental films.
Ellison is, Miller said, "maybe the only person I really know who is capable of giving this sort of support for a film like this, because ultimately she cares about the film being what the film wants to be."
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Ken Wills)