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Beyond the superficial

Bennett Miller: Fame of 'Capote,' love of 'Cruise'

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Bennett Miller was nominated for an Oscar for his direction of "Capote."

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(CNN) -- Bennett Miller doesn't mind talking about "Capote," the film that earned him an Academy Award nomination for best director earlier this year and won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for best actor.

But ask him about "The Cruise," a low-budget documentary that he made in the late '90s, and his voice fills with joy.

"I'm so happy they're both out at the same time," he says of the films, both recently released on DVD. "I see them as companions. They're fascinating to watch together."

"Companions" probably wouldn't be the first word that comes to mind regarding "Capote" and "The Cruise," despite both films' independent origins.

"Capote" is a work of fiction about a famous writer, his determination to write about the Clutter family killings and his crisis of conscience over various betrayals he engages in to write "In Cold Blood." The film, though shot on a low budget by Hollywood standards ($7 million), features a top-notch cast, high production values and the polish of capable professionals.

"The Cruise," on the other hand, is a documentary about a motormouthed, intellectual and offbeat New York tour guide, Timothy "Speed" Levitch. The film's budget was bare bones ($140,000) and looks it: handheld black-and-white camerawork, shots grabbed on the run, a sense of verite immediacy.

But, notes Miller in a phone interview from New York, the two are both portraits of distinct individuals, two eccentric outsiders who are, literally, full of themselves.

The films are also companions in contrast: Capote, never quite comfortable in his own skin; Levitch, accepting of himself and his world.

Indeed, the brilliance of Hoffman's performance, says Miller, is in capturing those conflicts within Truman Capote, the public literary darling versus the private man in torment.

"What made the role so hard to play is that it goes beyond the superficial, the public face," he says. "What makes Phil's performance so successful is that it's communicated from a core place."

Levitch, on the other hand, is anything but superficial. His core, his eccentricity, is always on display, and he doesn't fight it. He doesn't have a permanent address. He waxes rhapsodic about Manhattan skyscrapers. His patter is strewn with offhand comments about famous New Yorkers -- and random philosophical thoughts -- that often fly over his audience's heads. That's who he is.

"He can't put on a uniform and go to work. He cannot be conventional," says Miller. "But you can see in the movie -- he has a very positive and optimistic attitude, though there is evident frustration and anger."

To get at the essence of Truman Capote, Hoffman, too, went through frustration and anger. On the DVD, a commentary track alludes to a "complete meltdown" the actor had while filming.

"Phil struggled mightily with [the role]," says Miller, measuring his words. "Some days it kind of trapped him. But," he adds, "he never stopped shooting a scene until we were satisfied. ... Some days he would feel pummeled and beaten."

Hoffman was committed to getting it right -- as was Miller and the crew. Hoffman lost 20 pounds for the role and adopted "a bounciness Phil does not have," says Miller. To make the almost 5-foot-10 actor appear smaller, he was dressed in tight-shouldered suits, surrounded by larger actors and shot from certain angles -- all traditional, but well-used, film tricks.

Miller is currently sizing up his next project, reading scripts and talking with producers. He's "not committed to anything," he says, and he's going to take the time to pick well.

After all, he knows what it takes to get a film out there: "The Cruise," which came out in 1998, was filmed over two summers and then edited for another 8 1/2 months -- and though it received good reviews and made a little money, it was anything but a blockbuster. "Capote" was painstakingly assembled and could have easily been a quieter success if it weren't for the Oscar nominations.

So, even though he could probably have his pick of possible big-budget vehicles, Miller will take his time.

"I'm not going to take something based on budget, and do something just for the sake of it," he says. "I want to make good films."

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