NEW YORK (AP) — Over a plate of pasta, Bennett Miller is trying to explain how a movie goes from an idea to an actual thing.
"When you get hooked onto something like the notion of 'Foxcatcher,' for me, there is a very strong, specific feeling about the soul of this film, in the same way you might know a person or that you might know a film that exists, to have that sense of WHAT IT IS," says Miller. "But it's still not a material thing yet, and how to realize that thing, how that soul gets incarnated is the process."
"It's like, 'I had a glimpse of Big Foot, and now let's go track him.'"
For nearly seven years, Miller hunted his latest film, a modern Greek tragedy based on the true tale of two Olympic wrestlers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo), taken in by a wealthy benefactor, John DuPont (Steve Carell). The project died at least once. Miller was at one point sued by the original production company. And after "Foxcatcher" did finally come together, thanks to its own wealthy patron (producer Megan Ellison) Miller took a year to edit.
Speed, you might say, is not one of Miller's attributes.
But Miller, 47, is doggedly determined ("I never thought it wouldn't happen," he says of "Foxcatcher"), and when he picks up on the scent of a film, his pursuit is steady and deliberate. "Foxcatcher," for which Miller won best director at Cannes, is a sensational tabloid story that Miller first learned about from a newspaper clipping, but crafted with a solemn disaffection and heavy themes of America.
Carell, who was layered with makeup and a prosthetic nose for the role, recalls his first meeting with Miller:
"He painted a picture of the movie that was vivid, that was incredibly detailed even at that early stage," says the actor. "Years later when I saw it for the first time, it was exactly as he described it to me."
Filmmaking is by its nature an accumulation of details, a synthesis of a million decisions. But few directors combine such obsessive meticulousness with a desire to let a film grow organically.
"It's like he constructs this great Olympic-size pool with an incredible diving board," says Dan Futterman, a longtime friend of Miller's who wrote Miller's 2005 breakthrough, "Capote," and co-wrote "Foxcatcher." ''But then he wants to walk out there with the actors and jump off."
It's a way of working that has meant many nights of painstaking labor, subtly molding a film through sound design and observed moments. To get a fleeting shot from the perspective inside DuPont's mansion, for example, Miller digitally created the distorted effect of peering through old, warped glass, since capturing the real thing would have meant moving the camera.
But Miller relishes such refining, particularly during editing, where he feels a film is really made.
"I love that kind of pain," he says. "I really feel in my element in the edit. It can be excruciating, but it's the most rewarding. That's when it really comes alive. For better or for worse, it's my nature to be in that room, toiling."
But Miller's mix of tight and loose control has made him one of the most sure-handed directors of actors. When Carell is nominated for an Oscar for his remarkable transformation (as well as possibly Ruffalo and, in a longer shot, maybe Tatum), it will make Miller three-for-three in shepherding Academy Award-nominated performances to the big screen.
"Capote," a film that also took Miller years to get made, yielded an Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman (a friend of Miller's from high school) and a nomination for Catherine Keener. The 2011 baseball film "Moneyball" brought nods for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.
"He understands tonality so well," says Carell. "Just a very precise cut-away or lingering on a shot for another beat or two. He's very conscious of how that can affect things before and things after. He built this house of cards and it's very precise and it's very intricate. I think that's why he's so good."
Before Miller arrives for lunch at an Italian restaurant near his Manhattan apartment and which bears his picture on the celebrity-covered walls, owner Emilio Ballato promises: "He'll be here. He's always here on time." When Miller arrives three minutes late, he apologizes sincerely for his tardiness.
Miller speaks a little like his movies, shaping his answers, searching for them and pausing for silence. For a filmmaker who specializes in tales of dislocation — a New York poet working on a tour bus (Miller's documentary "The Cruise"), a statistician among athletes, a New York intellectual in Kansas, a wrestler at a lavish estate — he looks right where he's supposed to be.
Ballato says he's going to name Miller's usual seat "Bennett's Corner."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP