Rebecca Miller Knows Her Arthur Miller Film Isn't Neutral — and That's OK
By Ashley Morton
The filmmaker opens up about the challenges of interviewing a parent, and discovering her own limits making a documentary so close to her heart.
HBO: You’ve been working on this project for almost 25 years. Why did you finally decide to finish and release it?
Rebecca Miller: I think it was the combination of having distance, and the desire to move on to the next phase of life. It felt like such a big threshold to get over. I was living in Ireland with my family around 2010 when all the footage I had accumulated really started to feel like such a burden. And I felt ready emotionally, because my father had been gone for a number of years. Before that it would have been just too sad.
HBO: Was it difficult to organize all of the footage?
Rebecca Miller: Damon Cardasis, who started as my assistant on The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and really became my producing partner during the making of this film, had to really find some of the footage. It had been put in boxes in different storage facilities and different people’s attics because we had so many shoots, with so many different producers — meaning my friends who were sort of organizing and making sandwiches. So it was all very loose.
The good news about that is you feel the homemade, looseness in the film. Everybody on the crew was my friend or knew my father to a degree, so it was relaxed, instead of, “Here comes the film crew, you’d better change your personality.” The downside of that was there wasn’t the kind of organization you might have with a normal production. We ended up digitizing all 200 hours of film, as well as creating this enormous document with everything transcribed so we could start to figure out how to break it down.
The thing I most tried to keep in and couldn’t were some of the stories: A film needs to keep moving, and they were long. But in a way they work very nicely on their own, so we’ve included a few of them as extras you can watch.
HBO: The viewer is very aware you are Arthur’s daughter. Was your presence in the film ever up for debate?
Rebecca Miller: That was one of the most difficult things, actually. I did one draft where I was virtually not there at all, because I didn’t want to make the film about my relationship with him. I’m just one of the siblings. But when I took myself out too much, people who saw it would ask, “Well, where are you?” So I had to find a way of becoming present enough, as a kind of touchstone and grounding mechanism, but without saying more than I knew. My rule was I didn’t talk about anything I wasn’t there for.
HBO: Do you think the topic most affected by it was not getting an interview about your brother Daniel?
Rebecca Miller: I would say so. One of the most liberating moments in making the film was admitting what I was not able to do. That’s something you don’t often get to do in narrative filmmaking, to step in and say, “The truth is I have limitations and this is how far I could go.”
For me though, the diary entry we use in that moment is probably so much more revealing than any interview he could have done. He talks about his emotion and love and trying to almost control it, and I thought that was very touching and tragic.
HBO: Was this the first time you had spoken to your father about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe?
Rebecca Miller: I had one other experience when I directed After the Fall years ago, and we discussed a little bit of their relationship because it was reflected in the play. It was odd, I have to be honest, to be talking about something like that with your parent. But at the same time, I was touched by how vulnerable and open he was.
I think some of my favorite moments in the film are where he isn’t actually saying anything; he’s just remembering her and the horror of her death. I had to get quite close there because I had to give a sense of how burnt out he was after that relationship, and how the relationship with Inge [Morath], my mother, was kind of a Hail Mary situation. They kind of saved each other, I think.
HBO: Why did you decide to structure the film through his relationships?
Rebecca Miller: It was one of the things I knew I wanted to do early on. He was a man so deeply affected by the relationships he was in, in terms of his style of living, and his way of being in the world. The women in his life, his mother, his wives, were really central to defining their era, and that interested me the most as a filmmaker.
But the story became bigger by the fact that this man and his century were completely interlinked. I had to tell the story of the ‘20s and the crash, and then the ‘40s the war, the ‘50s and the Un-American Activities Committee, and even the ‘60s and the anti-war effort, so even though the way I chose to partition the film was through the major relationships, within that structure also had to be the decades he lived, because the personal, political and historical were all speaking to each other.
HBO: What was the hardest part of making a film about a subject you’re so close to?
Rebecca Miller: My father was 46 when I was born, so a huge amount of his life had already been lived, and people change over time. So there was this whole other person I had to penetrate. No one can ever get to the absolute bottom of anybody, but I think especially with your parents there are blind-spots — things you can’t ever really see past.
For example, I can’t pretend I don’t love this person. I see his imperfections and the things that are challenging about his personality, but that doesn’t make me not love him. There’s room for a much more neutral film to be made. What I had to give were these windows into this man’s most private-self.