An accomplished narrative filmmaker—as evidenced by Maggie’s Plan, a Sony Pictures Classics release starring Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore, Personal Velocity which won the Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Independent Spirit’s coveted John Cassavetes Award, and her first feature Angela, recipient of Sundance’s Filmmakers Trophy—Rebecca Miller is now once again breaking new ground, making her documentary debut. It’s a personal, familial foray into non-fiction as the subject is none other than her father, Arthur Miller, the late, legendary playwright whose body of work includes the seminal Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and All My Sons.
Arthur Miller: Writer, which recently premiered on HBO, has material never seen before by the public, including interviews and home movie-style footage which captures him in a relaxed, reflective state, yielding impromptu moments and observations. The documentary provides insights into the author that are quite different from conventionally held perceptions.
Though Rebecca’s interviews with her father and priceless home footage—captured over the last 25 years of his life—had been around for awhile, she finally decided to construct a documentary using that material. “One of the reasons I decided to do the documentary was I wanted his humor and playfulness to come across. I think that’s been surprising to a lot of people,” observed Miller who added that her dad’s story is “as much about failure as it is success. The message for writers and artists is that you have to keep trying. You need perseverance. Otherwise you go silent. Artists cannot be silent.”
The timing was right to bring this documentary to fruition, Miller explained, because she had some time to reflect on her father’s life and legacy. “I needed some distance” which only time could bring, she shared.
And from a practical standpoint, Miller had a production partner emerge, producer Damon Cardasis, “whom I could trust to undertake this work” which entailed chasing down and gathering different bits of film and video scattered across different locations and storage facilities, having the material digitized, and so on. Cardasis provided a trusted level of caring and organization that allowed Miller “to finish this project that I had started long ago, kind of tidying up that part of my life.”
As for whether the experience of making Arthur Miller: Writer has whetted her appetite to take on more documentary work, she noted that it has, though she currently has other projects pending, including an undisclosed limited series for television, and a narrative feature she would like to make in the near future. Down the road, though, she can see herself again delving into the documentary discipline. “It’s so different from making a narrative feature. It [making a documentary] is like the writing process in the sense that you have an idea, raw material and you have to carve them into a form—that action is a little bit like writing in a way, finding a structure that will reveal the subject in the best way.”
Relative to the challenges posed by Arthur Miller: Writer, she related, “Making a movie about a parent that includes a part of their life that was before you knew the parent can be challenging. You’re looking, for example, at the relationship with his first wife—their love letters. And then it’s strange to piece together your parents’ lives before you were born, their romantic life, how people have changed over the years. It’s kind of a forensic exercise in a way, piecing together a mystery.”
And sometimes that mystery and mixed emotions get spelled out by the subject himself. In the documentary, for instance, Arthur Miller discusses fatherhood. “I enjoyed being a father. I also enjoyed escaping being a father. I was always in and out of my skin because I just couldn’t be a father 24 hours a day and still do what I was thinking I had to do.”
At one point, there’s also a sense of loss—on different levels—for an interview that didn’t come to pass. The documentary touches upon the institutionalization of Rebecca’s younger brother, Daniel, who was born in 1966 with Down syndrome. She notes in the movie that her father offered to do an interview about Daniel. However, Arthur Miller passed away in 2005, at the age of 89, before that interview was realized.
Arthur Miller: Writer sheds light on a singular life marked by literary work that continues to stir the collective social conscience, while still acknowledging personal human frailty, the truth of one’s life and one’s capacity to cope with adversity. The documentary is a portrait—and tribute to—one artist by another.
Asked about the highlights of her own career as an artist, Rebecca Miller doesn’t cite any of the aforementioned awards her films have garnered. Instead she shared, “Working with Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore was a real treat. So was the high I felt from the experience of making my first film, Angela. Being able to work with my husband [Daniel Day-Lewis] on The Ballad of Jack and Rose was great. The highs aren’t what you would think. It’s not the prizes. It has more to do with the moments where you are inside the process. That is far more fun than anything else. Going way deep inside the stories and characters where no one else has gone.”