Hap Erstein is Palm Beach Post Film Writer
If you're looking for evidence that talent might be genetic, consider novelist-director-screenwriter Rebecca Miller. She is the daughter of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller and famed photographer Inge Morath.
As her father did, she writes complex characters often at crossroads of crisis. But Miller, 42, has chosen to express them more like her mother — in the visual world of movies, rather than the stage
"I think it's because I really think so visually and in terms of moving images," she says by telephone. "It's hard for me to stay in one room. I suddenly want to jump off into the clouds."
This Friday, her latest leap, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, opens in local theaters. It is her third directorial effort and is getting her the most attention, perhaps because it stars Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. He also happens to be Miller's husband of nine years, perhaps more evidence that talent also seeks out other talent.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose is the story of Jack Slavin (Day-Lewis), an aging, dying hippie raising a teenage daughter in protective isolation from contemporary life. He is the last remnant of an idealistic commune, who resides on the group's island haven, where he home-schools 16-year-old Rose (Camilla Belle). He has little contact with the outside world, until his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her kids arrive to live with them, sparking a jealous reaction in Rose. Adding to the end-of-the '60s feel is a bulldozing residential developer (Beau Bridges) who disrupts Jack's peace.
Those who see in the film an outline of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the tale of fatherly magician Prospero and his sheltered daughter, will not get an argument from Miller.
"Oh, definitely, there's a bit of The Tempest in there," she says. "I didn't start thinking about The Tempest, but once I realized that I was on an island, I read The Tempest again, definitely."
Writing The Ballad of Jack and Rose has taken Miller 10 years. But, she quickly points out, "part of that was because I couldn't get the film made. I kept having it put together (financially) and then it fell apart, which is sort of the story of filmmaking today."
Still, Miller insists that the movie is better for the delay. "Most of the time I think when you wait that long, something dries up. Somehow this really stayed alive and vivid to me."
Alive. Vivid. Visual. Miller talks in images, like the painter she once studied to be at Yale. But she has taken time to find her role in the arts.
She worked briefly as an actor, with small roles in the Harrison Ford film Regarding Henry, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and even a TV production of her father's The American Clock. In 1995, she wrote and directed her first feature, Angela, which The New York Times described as a "hauntingly sad" story of a young girl watching her mother's mental health evaporate.
In 2002, she wrote a novel, Personal Velocity, a triptych of stories about modern women and turned it into a film that same year, which garnered critical success. And that led to IFC Films approving The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which she had revised umpteen times in the years in which she also married Day-Lewis and had two children, sons Cashel and Ronan.
Ironically, before she ever met him (reportedly at her father's home when he made the film version of The Crucible), she asked Day-Lewis to take the role of Jack Slavin. He was hesitant at the time, which is the usual state for her famously finicky husband.
"I actually offered it to him back in '95, just thinking he'd be perfect for this part," she explains. "He was very intrigued by it and he ended up writing me a very sweet note saying that he just couldn't see himself doing it at that moment in time."
When he did take it, IFC Films was naturally delighted. "Of course they were very, very happy," Miller says.
The screenplay changed over time in parallel with Miller's own life changes. "In part I think because I became a parent and I could see Jack's point of view a little bit more clearly," she says. "In a way, the growth of this screenplay is like the rings in a tree trunk. It sort of charts the development of my own life, since I started as a daughter and ended as a mother. So I think I understood that intense desire to protect your children, which can sometimes be overwhelming."
She hedges on the question of whether Day-Lewis is similar to the reclusive Jack. "Well, you know, every single time he plays a part, I think, 'Ah, yes, I see so much of Daniel in that person.' He can't be all those people, of course, and yet he is."
She balks at the term "recluse" for him. "He just doesn't love crowds and a lot of strangers. He feels more comfortable among people that he knows well. He doesn't tend to go out much, to public events or parties where people would see pictures of him and go, 'There he is.' So he seems to have dropped out of the world, but in fact he's seeing his friends."
Miller says their roles as husband and wife only helped their new relationship as actor and director. "It probably makes us have a kind of shorthand, because with your spouse you just know each other really well," she notes. "You never know how your own personal relationship is going to translate into work. I mean we knew it was a risk, but it's like we just got lucky."
Miller concedes that Day-Lewis has a mysterious process of getting into a character. He lived in the woods before making The Last of the Mohicans and The Crucible, learned to chop meat for his role as Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York. She was careful not to interfere with him.
"I stay out of his way in that, period," she says matter-of-factly. "That period is the time when the character is sort of quickening. It's not unlike the writing process, where you're casting about in your unconscious for things, using information and research. It's not like you don't want to tell anyone how you do it. Either you don't remember or know. It's not a recipe like a muffin mix."
Still, the two of them are convinced that this experiment in collaboration was a success and they look forward to making another film together. But for now, Miller is adapting her father's first Broadway play — a 1944 four-performance flop ironically called The Man Who Had All The Luck, about a guy with unusually good fortune who begins to question its source — for the screen.
"My dad was excited for me to do it," Miller says. "We discussed it while he was alive (he passed away seven weeks ago at age 89) and I thought it would be nice to be able to have conversations with him about it, which I did. That was really why I did it and also because I love that play."
Whatever anguish playwright Miller went through as he wrote his emotion-laden melodramas, he radiated a positive attitude which drew his daughter into the arts as well. "He loved his work," she says. "And I think my mother also loved her work and I think I inherited their work ethic."
The elder Miller delighted in his daughter's successes as a writer and a director.
"Of course, he's my dad," she says slipping into the present tense. "He was just so sweet to me. Very encouraging, but I could always trust his praise, because you knew you had to earn it. And that was good."
About Rebecca Miller
Born two years after her father divorced Marilyn Monroe, the multi-talented Rebecca Miller is the only child of renowned playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath. After an enviable childhood growing up in a family of artists, she studied painting at Yale before acting in theater productions on the East Coast. Following a small part in the NBC movie The Murder of Mary Phagan, she made her feature film debut with a sizable role in the West German film Georg Elser - Einer aus Deutschland. She started her filmmaking career in 1990, making the short film Florence and directing a production of her father's play After the Fall for the New York stage. She continued acting throughout the early '90s, playing Harrison Ford's mistress in Regarding Henry, Kevin Spacey's wife in Consenting Adults, and Cliff Robertson's daughter in Wind. She played a couple of other supporting film roles (including a portrayal of commercial artist Neysa McMein in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) before making the full-fledged turn to writing and directing. Her debut feature Angela was a lyrical drama that won a Gotham Award and got her a Filmmaker's Trophy at Sundance, but its originality proved to be unmarketable for distribution. The next year, she married actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whom she met during pre-production of Nicholas Hytner's film adaptation of her father's play The Crucible. She then had two children and published a collection of short stories called Personal Velocity on Grove Press. After being approached by the InDigEnt production company, she adapted her book for the screen by focusing on only three of the original stories. Shot in digital video on Sony cameras in the PAL format, Personal Velocity: Three Portraits won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and received a limited theatrical release. Her next directing project is the coming-of-age drama The Rose and the Snake.
Rebecca Miller has the best job in the world
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Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife Rebecca Miller