Mohammad Gorjestani (Refuge) Talks Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher

Who could be better to write about this Oscar contender than a filmmaker who used to be a wrestler? 

Over the first two weeks of January, Talkhouse Film is running the “What We Missed” series, comprising pieces on notable movies from 2014 which were not previously covered, (almost) all of which were released prior to the launch of this site. — N.D.

I was a wrestler before I ever made a film, and therefore I will always be a wrestler. So before I talk about Foxcatcher, I want to tell you a little bit about my relationship with a sport that entered my life early and kept me out of a lot of trouble as a young immigrant kid growing up in the subsidized, low-income neighborhood in San Jose known ironically as “The Gardens.” Wrestling and the coaches I had taught me more than I ever learned in any lecture or read in any book. Wrestling taught me the importance of preparation, accountability and relentless hard work. Being a wrestler is an attitude and a way of thinking that never leaves you. In high school, I recall attending month-long, intensive camps in the sweltering, muggy summers of Minnesota. Towards the end of camp, J Robinson (head coach of the University of Minnesota’s powerhouse wrestling program) would give us a speech about sacrifice and say that when we returned to civilian life we shouldn’t bother explaining what we’d gone through; that while you can try to use words to describe the grind of wrestling, you can’t know it unless you’ve lived it.

My senior year in high school, much was expected of both myself and the wrestling team I captained. After a great start to the season, things started to go uncontrollably downhill. Ultimately, I found myself sitting in the bleachers, watching an opponent I had beaten just a year before take home the section title. I stayed home from school for a week, not talking to anyone, and it took me four or five years to get over it fully. After a short stint wrestling in college, but without the same fire I’d once had, I hung it up for good and transitioned into filmmaking.

Fast-forward about 12 years, and on an appropriately stormy day in San Francisco, my girlfriend Rachael and I went to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas to watch the dark tale of Foxcatcher. Dave Schultz died when I was 11, and while I was familiar with his death, the manner in which the tragedy unfolded and whatever drove John E. du Pont to kill Dave Schultz weren’t discussed in the wrestling community. The general sentiment was that the sport had lost a great ambassador and the person who killed him was in prison — end of discussion. I’d seen the trailer for Foxcatcher, which made it evident Bennett Miller was going to explore the circumstances surrounding Schultz’s death head-on, and in a psychological way. I was skeptical about how the sport would be depicted, both in performance and in culture (because, as J. Robinson said, you can’t know it unless you’ve lived it), but overall I went into Foxcatcher with optimism. Bennett Miller’s work, at least those films I had seen (namely Capote and Moneyball), has always been clinical in its storytelling, with profound details often lurking in the shadows, requiring you to pay attention in order to capture every subtlety.

My initial skepticism was quieted by Foxcatcher’s a masterful opening. The film begins inside an unglamorous, windowless wrestling room, with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) tossing around a practice dummy by himself. Moments later, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) enters the room to start some practice drills with his brother. It’s a classic “master and pupil” scene. The pace picks up and the two begin to wrestle for position, hand fight, attack and counter each other. The camera leans in, becoming more intimate in its positioning. You can almost smell the stench of eroded kneepads, sweat and the wrestling mat in the room. The editing begins to harmonize with the pace of the wrestlers’ heartbeats. The methodical, graceful and almost zen Dave gains the upper hand over his more brutish brother, who loses his composure and hits Dave with a cheap shot, giving him a nosebleed. Dave doesn’t retaliate but tries to understand why his brother is so uneasy. They resume wrestling, Dave gaining the upper hand again. The scene ends with Dave trying to provide some technical pointers to Mark, who at this point is withdrawn and perturbed — a sign of things to come. Just from this scene, we know that Mark Schultz is a talented and passionate champion, but one who is vulnerable and volatile.

John du Pont (Steve Carrell) is introduced abruptly when Mark Schultz is broke and living in a dump of an apartment. Nothing matters more to him than being an Olympic champion, so when du Pont offers Mark everything he could ever ask for in resources, Mark goes all in. Du Pont is clearly mentally unstable, but this is tolerated and accepted because of his status, his wealth and his patriotic support of wrestling and its athletes. The viewer is left with the notion that perhaps, in this intense world of Olympic wrestling, borderline insanity is just part of the ecosystem.

Intensity is a cornerstone of wrestling, and the line between intense and insane easily becomes blurred. Miller excels in this insight into the nuances of the sport, and the obsessive and compulsive lifestyle of a wrestler is ably portrayed in the film. This normalized insanity is what allowed a tragedy to happen despite all the signs that John du Pont was a ticking time bomb and needed help. In fact, in real life there were even more warning signs than we see in the film. Not long before the tragedy, du Pont, in a delusional state, pointed an automatic weapon at a wrestler at the Foxcatcher facility, ordering him off his property because he believed he had attacked him, knocking him unconscious. (Du Pont had in fact fallen and hit his head.) His use of drugs and alcohol was known. He rid the estate of anything resembling the color black (including black athletes), and installed over-the-top security systems because he felt someone was out to kill him. Despite all this, wrestlers still showed up day in and day out to train at Foxcatcher Wrestling.

I didn’t mind that these real-life events were not shown in the film. Where Foxcatcher let me down, though, was in how it portrayed Mark Schultz as a person who idolized du Pont as a father-figure, and even hinted at some sexual overtones in their relationship. Since the film’s release, Mark Schultz (who is an associate producer on the film) has angrily criticized Miller for certain aspects of how he was depicted in Foxcatcher. While I believe in adapting a true story in ways that make it more compelling as a film, I also believe that, unless there is definite proof in the matter, to imply that Mark Schultz may have been romantic with the nutcase who ended up murdering his brother does cross an ethical line.

Foxcatcher asks you to observe obsession, betrayal and defeat, but in the end it leaves many questions unanswered. What actually caused du Pont to pull the trigger is as unclear in the film as it was in real life. To me, Dave Schultz embodied everything John du Pont was not and desperately wanted to be: a champion, a coach, a great family man, a friend to many and the ultimate American. Dave Schultz forced him to look at everything he wasn’t. Foxcatcher will stay with me as a dark portrait of a man who believed money could make him a champion, and when it did not, decided to take the life of one of the greatest champions of our era.

Mohammad Gorjestani is an Iranian-American filmmaker. In 2013, he was named as one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for his ITVS-commissioned film, Refuge. Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Refuge premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and went on to screen at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival. He is a recipient of the San Francisco Film Society’s Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant for his first feature film in development, and in 2015 was selected as a resident at the San Francisco Film Society’s FilmHouse.