Rebecca Miller needs to recharge. Well, her phone at least.
Plugged into an ancient socket behind me and perched on a café table supporting a plate of hummus and a soy-milk coffee, the little bugger buzzes in its charger twice, prompting Miller to twice interrupt an already brief conversation with whispered instructions to her husband—concerning AOL icons and DVD rewritable disks in desk drawers—that she smiles off with throaty and playful exasperation.
“My husband doesn’t use computers,” she says. “He types in longhand.”
You won’t read an article about writer-director Rebecca Miller that doesn’t mention her husband of eight years, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, the famously intense, reclusive, enigmatic and elusive prize of world-renown starlets and with whom Miller shares two children and homes in Ireland and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—not far from where we are chatting.
Or, no matter how wily or exhaustive the search, you certainly won’t find an article that omits mention of her father, Arthur Miller, America’s greatest living playwright—a distinction no less exalted because of his 89 years and declining health.
And then, so these articles invariably go, they’ll be a bit about how Rebecca Miller was born in 1962, a month after the death of her father’s second wife, Marilyn Monroe. How she lived the first four years of her life at New York’s Chelsea Hotel—with sometime neighbors like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Norman Mailer—and spent her more formative years on a 350-acre farm in tony Roxbury, Connecticut, where French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson might read to her beside a pond. (Rebecca’s mother, who died in 2002, was Magnum photographer Inge Morath, who met Arthur on the set of The Misfits, a film he wrote for Monroe and which would be her last.)
All this celebrity-worshiping gossip amounts to nothing. It’s tawdry, superficial, and completely irrelevant, for the most part. It’s also endlessly fascinating (admit it). And you’d really be trudging over dusty, pockmarked terrain if you were to further peruse these indulgent, pop-psychoanalyzing stories of which I speak, and point out certain curiosities in the burgeoning oeuvre of Rebecca Miller.
Like: how her new film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose (out this month) portrays the relationship between a loving, but overly idealistic, obsessive father and his attractive, sheltered pubescent daughter; how her second film’s second act showcases the relationship between an ambitious young woman’s struggle to live up to the judgments of her famous and imperious father; how she recently adapted for film Proof, a play about a daughter struggling with her father, a brilliant math professor losing his grip on reality; and how her first film (Angela, 1995) depicts a platinum blonde, breathy, one-time starlet struggling with bipolar disorder and sporting—during one memorable breakdown—a very Marilyn, white, plunging halter top.
But then this isn’t original. Or truly beguiling. And it doesn’t take more than a quick meeting with Rebecca Miller to determine that she is both.
Miller’s protective air of mystery, though perhaps just endearing social awkwardness and a natural defense against journalistic vultures, might be her greatest asset. Concerning Proof, David Auburn’s award-winning play set for a 2005 release directed by John Madden and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, Miller speaks of the challenge of not creating character but trying to adapt a form and get in the head of another writer. “I felt I understood the relationship,” she says of the father-daughter pair the film depicts, “as someone who has a close relationship with my father—who has a powerful figure as a dad.” But, as though conditioned not to stray too close to an invisible, electrified fence that her publicity people erect with most journalists, she warns of this and all other amateur head-shrinking. “It’s important to be careful someone doesn’t become a shoddy detective and make assumptions,” she says.
Miller is dressed in a loose, gray, fuzzy shirt that must feel like hugging a 12-year-old Scottish terrier. Adornments include a purple cowboy neckerchief, small loop earrings, and a large, silver man’s watch on her left wrist that she buries in a shirt sleeve when I glance at it. Her vibrant blue eyes invite nothing but assumptions.
A striking unadorned beauty, Miller has acted opposite Harrison Ford (Regarding Henry, 1991) and Kevin Spacey (Consenting Adults, 1992) as a way to snoop around sets run by Hollywood legends (Alan J. Pakula, Carroll Ballard, Mike Nichols) and educate herself about filmmaking. She appears in a production feature on the DVD of her Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film Personal Velocity (2002) as a natural-faced frump with wavy, grizzled, almost charcoal gray hair and baggy clothes, directing her cast and crew with earthy charm—like a woman who doesn’t give a damn how she looks.
In a way, this subservience to her work helps explain her curious allure while hinting at even greater curiosities. She’s actually completely forthcoming about personal and somewhat embarrassing admissions so long as they relate to her creative life—really the only life she’s ever known.
Asked if it was inevitable that a child of artistic parents would develop an artistic career, Miller says: “I couldn’t do anything else. I really couldn’t do anything else. Like athletes get trained really early, I think I was training from a really early age.”
As a child, Miller has admitted, she engaged in magical thinking, ascribing meaning to everyday events and finding signs of good and evil everywhere she looked. In her bedroom in Roxbury, which was outfitted with a golden shag carpet, a white furry bedspread with a netted back to it, flowered drapes, and pink walls, an 8-year-old Rebecca wrote a series of stories about a squirrel named Flemming and feared that Satan was living in her basement. She wouldn’t dare venture down there until she was 10, and soon after, though her Jewish father and Protestant mother weren’t religious, she petitioned them to let her be baptized as a Christian.
If any of this sounds familiar, you likely have seen Angela, Miller’s first feature film, for which she won the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance in 1995. The film’s titular protagonist (Miranda Stuart Rhyne) at first tries to scare her younger sister (Charlotte Eve Blythe) with stories of Lucifer in the basement but then develops a series of increasingly bizarre rituals to form an elaborate belief system of guilt and punishment that she hopes will cure her mother’s disaffection and sadness. It doesn’t end well.
But Miller’s life takes a less tragic trajectory, attending church regularly with Catholic neighbors and arriving at Yale University in 1980 to study painting. At school, she has said, she was still prone to some compulsive behavior, forcing herself to answer the phone before anyone else in the dorm suite for fear of dying before she reached 36, occasionally bolting from the shower to do so.
While such obsessive-compulsive behavior might hold some people back, Miller survived and channeled her experience artistically, coaxing preternatural performances from the young actors in Angela. As she explains on the film’s DVD commentary track, she rehearsed Miranda and Charlotte partly by walking around the film’s upstate New York town, observing people, pointing out good angels and bad angels, looking for signs, making sure the children knew they were only playing a game. This led to a pair of eerie, convincing performances, the seductive power of which is typified by the commentary track revelation that prior to shooting a scene in which the sisters have reached an emotional crisis and form a circle of their toys beyond which they cannot step until The Virgin Mary appears, the young actors got so worked up and expectant, that they asked Miller what they should do if she did arrive.
Not surprisingly, Miller’s paintings were inspired by dreams. But at an artist colony in Germany in 1985, she realized that she wanted them to do more. “I realized that I wanted to make films,” she says. “It was kind of heartbreaking because I didn’t know how to make films. But I was painting from dreams, and I realized I wanted my dreams to move.”
She also recognized the inconvenient snag of her epiphany. “I was totally impractical about it,” she says. “If I had known how difficult it was to get financing, I probably would have just gone to bed and forgotten about it.”
But she went to New York instead, where her father’s agent, Sam Cohn, helped line up acting auditions so she could best learn her craft. In 1985, she took a summer film class at The New School of Social Research where she became “a pet” of then 92-year-old professor Arnold Eagle, who let Miller use his editing equipment to make short experimental films. “He recognized something in me,” she says. “He called me ‘an inventor’ because he couldn’t think of a better way to describe these little films I was making.”
In baby steps toward feature film, she had already been experimenting with painted sculptures that incorporated video. She made one that John Malkovich bought which had a video loop of a woman dancing in slow motion half-naked on a beach with her head wrapped in cheese cloth and a gauze tutu. That woman was her friend Barbara Browning, now a professor of performing arts at New York University, who explains: “I am a very docile friend. I’ll do anything.”
Another dream inspired a short film featuring Browning and another Yale friend, writer Naomi Wolf, in which the two women sat naked and holding swaddled babies on two seats dangling from an elaborate crane that dipped them into buckets of milk.
“She wasn’t telling stories yet,” Browning says. “I think moving to first film as a medium, and then narrative, had to be a slow process. She was dealing with a pretty heavy legacy on both sides. Her mother was a brilliant photographer, so to use film was already over-determined. And then there was her dad, so you can see what writing a script meant. But she kept moving in that direction, which I think was the right one. Her films are all still very painterly.”
After the limited attention Angela received, Miller wrote a collection of short stories called Personal Velocity published in 2001 from which she would select three to form the basis of the film by the same name. Her spare, observant writing, ear for dialogue and ingratiating wit resemble Nora Ephron’s biting, neo-feminist Esquire and New York magazine essays without the belly laughs.
The film features intense, discrete, idiosyncratic performances that resonate with wondrous attention to detail. Kyra Sedgwick plays an abused mother whose wonderfully large mouth flattens into a pancake of scorn while she masturbates a callow young man in an act of assertive defiance. Parker Posey melts unfortunate hearts (like mine) with her adorably ambitious daddy’s girl who has serious daddy issues. Too smart for her own good, occasionally confident and cruel, though insecure at heart, she tells her whole story with a single gesture as she impulsively clutches her sweet, gumption-deficient husband’s shoulder, and with a grimace and a pregnant stare, averts her eyes to hide a quickly dawning realization that she will leave him. And Fairuza Balk does that thing that Fairuza Balk does to make her manic confusion and dangerous naiveté seem like a free spirit chained down by circumstances.
And now comes The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Quirky and tragic—maybe not as bouncy or snide as “The Ballad of John and Yoko”—but filled with riveting, warm, and often volatile
performances by Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener, and relative newcomer Camilla Belle.
Miller wrote the film in 33 drafts over 10 years, filming in sequence with her longtime cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Summer of Sam) during the summer of 2003 on Prince Edward Island off the coast of Canada.
The story centers on Jack (Day-Lewis), a flawed utopian raising his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Belle) alone on a failed island commune. Faced with his own deteriorating health, he struggles to prepare his innocent daughter for a life without him, and she begins a forced coming-of-age that she had hoped would never come.
Belle and Day-Lewis built the dining room table of their characters’ grass-covered Scottish Iron-Age home, which Day-Lewis also had a hand in constructing, as part of a dedicated hands-on preparation that is his wont when immersing himself in a role.
“I was thankful he wasn’t Bill the Butcher and I was his enemy,” Belle says with a chuckle. “He was playing my father and we had a great relationship. He was the character and I became Rose as well.”
Miller actually pitched Day-Lewis the role through his agent before they eventually met at a screening of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1996), the film adaptation he starred in and that spurred him to remark at the time: “There’s something about Arthur that makes you wish he was your father. I’d like to turn up on his doorstep with adoption papers.”
The couple’s own, actual children, Ronan, 6, and Cashel, 2, were on the set, joining the cast and crew for lunch and dinner and shifting Miller into what Belle calls “mommy mode.”
“She is charmingly frazzled,” Browning says of the balance Miller achieves between mother and film director. “She can seem extremely flaky and disorganized, but when she’s working on a film she becomes shockingly authoritative and has no trouble laying down the law. She’s actually very lovable with her crew, from what I can see. They all get very close, but she’s definitely in charge.”
It’s mommy mode that drains most of Miller’s energy these days. Spent from the children, the holiday shopping, an ailing father, and catering to the intrusive curiosity of an intrigued but unsatisfied magazine writer (with another one waiting for her outside in the downtown December New York cold), it’s no wonder she can smile at all. But she often does.
“At this moment, I’m completely filled up with what I’m doing,” she says.
And the rest, like a scarfed-down celebrity tabloid meal, leaves indigestion and almost immediate pangs for more—an empty guess.