March 14, 2018

All About My Father: Rebecca Miller's Intimate Portrait of a Great American Artist

Arthur Miller. Credit: Inge Morath © The Inge MorathFoundation / Magnum Photos / Courtesy of HBO.

Rebecca Miller was 21 years old when she realized that she wanted to be a filmmaker. Noticing that her father—distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Arthur Miller—was a different person in his countless public interviews than the man she grew up with, she picked up a Super 8 camera and began documenting everyday life around the Miller home. Years later, in 1995, when her first feature film, Angela, won a Gotham Award, Miller was awarded a prize of 16mm film. She and cinematographer Ellen Kuras, as well as their close friends, made regular weekend trips to her family home in Connecticut, where they used this film to capture intimate vérité moments of her father, along with candid father-daughter conversations about relationships, including his brief marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe, radical politics and the struggles inherent in the artistic process.

Driven by an "impulse to document her father in a way that no one else could," Miller embarked on a 20-year journey that culminated in Arthur Miller: Writer, which airs March 19 on HBO. Set against the backdrop of the American political and economic landscape, the film traverses a fine line between artist portrait and family memoir, placing relationships at its core—itself a central theme in Miller’s literary work. In her film, she weaves together a gorgeous tapestry of family and archival images, and interviews with family members and friends. It offers an honest reflection on how we make sense of our realities, from our most personal attachments to others and our creative endeavors, through to how we understand and respond to the broader and often mystifying societal and political forces that define a nation.

Documentary spoke to Miller by phone.

Your work traverses several artistic disciplines: You've made many fictional films, worked as a painter, and published several works of fiction. How did these disciplines inform your documentary practice?

The documentary involved feeling my way in the dark, even though I had made many feature films. I felt like I was starting all over again, in a way. My experience with writing was the most helpful because many of the challenges with this documentary were about structure and the drip-feed of information—how much information to give, and how much to hold back, and how to isolate and carve out its chapters. When you have as much as 200 hours of film, that's a lot of decisions. I was driven by a desire to tell the truth as I saw it, so there was an emotional component as well, but if I look at it as technique, or what enabled me to go from this big block of marble to something with coherent form, I think it was my experience of writing for so many years that helped me most.

Your film presents such a gorgeous patchwork of visual imagery. It captures your father's unique personality, as well as his more well-known work of using art as a powerful mirror to reflect the psyche of a nation. How did you mine the enormous volume of visual material available to you, including your own footage, photographs and news footage?

I needed to find some way of dividing the material into chapters of a life. It was clear that the women in Arthur's life played such an important role. Parallel to that, and equally important, was the role of the nation and what was happening in the country—the drama that was unfolding in the United States, from the 1920s, and the Stock Market Crash, to the Depression and later the war, and then the Communist hysteria, and then the '60s, and so on. Each of Arthur's primary relationships—his parents and three wives, and to a lesser degree his children—presided over an era, and with that in mind, I could start to break the material down into four major movements.

I had a strong sense of the broad strokes, and my editor, David Bartner, was instrumental in helping me isolate the scenes. I knew what I wanted to articulate, and David helped me shape and sculpt it all. This was a huge collaboration between us. In cutting a film, just like you work when you're writing a screenplay, you are always thinking about how to further the plot, even if it's the interior plot of a character. What are we learning? What does this tell us about Arthur? There was a lot of grey material that just didn't get us anywhere and all of that had to go.

It was a long and ongoing process, and I still feel that this is not a movie that encompasses everything in his life. I could have gone into much more detail about the social consciousness work that he was involved with, such as with PEN. He helped a lot of people get out of the Soviet Union when it was very difficult to be a writer there. But I wanted to keep the film personal and intimate. I wanted the viewer to feel like they had just spent the weekend with him, and yet know more than you would ever know in a weekend—the sense of really knowing someone.

Your father's love letters are incredibly tender and beautiful. Given that you began the project before his death, when were his love letters made available? At what point did you begin to dive into things like personal correspondences?

That came much later. I cut the film after he died. During the cutting process, which took almost two years, I realized that I wanted to use text. You've already articulated the idea that the film feels very handmade. It feels like a patchwork or a quilt, where you can still see the stitches. You can see that it has been made with many different film formats—it's not polished as much as it is an artifact. And I think the letters became one of these artifacts and another angle to see him through. Nothing can describe the tenderness and vulnerability of that man the way that those letters can.

Rebecca Miller, Arthur Miller. Credit: Inge Morath © The Inge Morath Foundation / Magnum Photos / Courtesy of HBO.

What were your most notable discoveries? Do you have any insights to share with documentarians undertaking personal documentaries?

A long period of time to work. Not everybody needs that, but I felt that the depth of knowledge and material, and the unhurriedness of the project, was key. Personal documentaries are very difficult. You have an enormous amount of power suddenly, in a situation where you didn't, especially if the film is about a parent. And that's something that’s difficult to reckon with. You can only tell the truth as you know it, and let the story guide you toward what it wants to be.

One of most enriching elements was the Super 8 footage that he, or that my mother or his first wife, had shot. It was wonderful being able to see from different lenses while also getting a real sense of the [historical] period through the footage. And although we do use interviews in the movie, I tend to not like seeing a bunch of famous people talk about someone. I definitely tried to move away from that as much as I could. If I could find information from his voice or from his autobiography, or from an image, I'd use that, rather than just watching somebody talk.

I also wanted to find a way to make a personal essay in which I was determinedly a minor character. At times, I tried to take myself out of it completely, and that just seemed false. Everybody was like, "Where are you? You're hiding!" I had to bring my voice back into the film and admit that I was there, but at the same time not make all of the film's observations. You're the child of somebody and the reason that you have a privileged position is because you know them so well, so you can't pretend that you aren't there, that you're not one of the siblings because that's an important point of view. At the same time, you do not to want your own drama to become the foreground of the story. Every single day I asked the editor, "Am I in this too much? Can we take me out?" Getting that balance right that was one of the things that took the longest.

Your father is a literary icon, and yet, much of the film focuses on the difficulties he encountered when his later work did not meet with success. At what point did you begin to pursue the idea of artistic struggle, or even failure, as a central theme in the film?

It was a given that I was going to address that conflict because my earliest memories are of that period, whereas my older siblings remember Salesman and that part of his life—a very different person in a way. So I always knew that it was inevitable because I think it's important for people to understand that for writers, or artists, or anybody who's trying to do anything where they risk themselves—that it's a long distance run. You have to be courageous and just keep going. For me, it is one of the most moving parts of the film when I watch it—the way that he just takes it on the chin and just keeps going, keeps trying. Actually, most of his work was not accepted right away. He's in a place that we now think of as accepted. I find that quite touching.

He shares a quote: "Life is short and art is long."

Apparently it is a Latin quote that he couldn't remember the Latin for! Yeah, you hope your work is going to hit now. It would be great, so much nicer. But you can't only be working for that. You've got to be working to make things that are okay in an absolute way, that go beyond just this moment. It's not that he felt absolutely that he was going to be able to survive as a writer. I don't think he felt that at all. I think he really had no idea that his plays were going to be relevant 20, 30 or 40 years after he died. That would be the hope. The film's ending about what makes a play a great play gets at something that's beyond human nature and daily life, something that's ineffable.

Given the film's attention to the interconnections between our most intimate relationships and our creativity, I'm wondering how these two paths of growth—artistic on the one hand and personal on the other—deepened and enriched your process with respect to the project?

Sometimes it is hard to measure those kinds of things, but I am quite sure that over time I was able to see him more through the eyes of a parent. I was able to understand some of his conflicts, like the eternal conflict of the artist who is trying to keep this little flame from being blown out by the wind while, at the same time, being a responsible parent. Obviously it is true that the bulk of responsibility of parenting, in some ways, rested with the women in his life, but for a man of that generation, he was a very present father. You can see in this documentary that he is concerned about how he did. At the beginning of the process, I wouldn't have been able to imagine things from the point of the view of the man who had become a parent, who is now looking at his own life and his own relationships. I think I developed a more forgiving outlook as time went on, about people and their foibles, because I had so many myself!

Is there anything else that you would like to add in terms of the process of exploring this private person—Arthur Miller—as the foundation for his iconic work as an artist?

The struggle, I think. There were things that my family found very difficult to talk about. What was interesting to me is that I just ended up just being honest about what I didn't know, and would never know, and how much I could know. But, as I opened up the scenes, you sort of see my own struggle as a filmmaker, to make sense of something that happened. I came from a family, as he came from a family, where people don't talk about things very much. It's sort of an interesting thing to have to try to be clear and honest about life. That was the struggle. I decided to allow the viewer to see where I'm struggling.

Arthur Miller: Writer premieres March 19 on HBO, and will stream online on HBO Now through March.

Sandra Ignagni is a documentary filmmaker, holds a PhD in feminist political economy and works at IDA.

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