All About My Father: Rebecca Miller's intimate portrait of a great American artist (2023)

All About My Father: Rebecca Miller's intimate portrait of a great American artist (1)

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

Fueled by an "impulse to document her father in a way no one else could," Miller embarked on a 20-year culminating journeyArthur Miller: Writer, which airs March 19 on HBO. Set against the backdrop of America's political and economic landscape, the film walks a fine line between artist portraiture and family memoirs, and focuses on relationships - itself a central theme in Miller's literary work. In her film, she weaves a beautiful tapestry of family and archive images and interviews with family members and friends. It offers a candid reflection on how we understand our realities, from our most personal connections to others and our creative endeavors, to our understanding and response to the broader and often mystifying societal and political forces that define a nation.

Documentary filmI spoke to Mueller on the phone.

Your work crosses several artistic disciplines: you have directed many feature films, worked as a painter and published several novels. How have these disciplines influenced your documentary practice?

Documenting was about finding my way in the dark, even though I had done a lot of feature films. Somehow I felt like I was starting all over again. My writing experience was most helpful because many of the challenges with this documentary had to do with the structure and the drip feed of information—how much information to give and how much to withhold, and how to isolate and carve out your chapters. With up to 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 a technique or what allowed me to go from this big block of marble to something with a coherent form , I think it was my many years of writing experience that helped me the most.

Your film presents such a beautiful patchwork of visual imagery. It captures your father's unique personality as well as his better known work of using art as a powerful mirror to reflect a nation's psyche. How did you mine the vast volume of imagery at your disposal, including your own footage, photos and news footage?

I had to find a way to divide the material into chapters of a lifetime. It was clear that women played such an important role in Arthur's life. Parallel to this and just as important was the role of the nation and what was happening in the country - the drama that unfolded 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 60's and so on. Each of Arthur's primary relationships - his parents and three wives, and to a lesser extent his children - presided over an era, and with that in mind I might begin to divide the material into four major movements.

I had a strong sense of the big strokes and my editor David Bartner was instrumental in isolating the scenes. I knew what I wanted to articulate and David helped me mold and shape it all. It was a huge collaboration between us. When editing a film, just like writing a screenplay, you're always thinking about how to move the story forward, even if it's a character's inner story. What are we learning? What does that tell us about Arthur? There was a lot of gray stuff that just didn't get us anywhere and it all had to go.

It's been a long and ongoing process and I still feel like this isn't a film that encompasses everything in his life. I could have gone into much more detail about the social awareness work he was involved in, such as with PEN. He helped many 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 just spent the weekend with them and still know more than one would ever know in a weekend - the feeling of really knowing someone.

Your father's love letters are incredibly tender and beautiful. Since you started the project before his death, when were his love letters made available? At what point did you start delving into things like personal correspondence?

That came much later. I cut the film after he died. During the nearly two-year editing process, I knew I wanted to use text. They've already articulated the idea that the film feels very handcrafted. It feels like a patchwork or quilt where you can still see the stitches. You can see it was made with many different film formats - it's less polished than an artifact. And I think the letters became one of those artifacts and another angle to see through him. Nothing can describe the tenderness and vulnerability of this man like these letters can.

All About My Father: Rebecca Miller's intimate portrait of a great American artist (2)

What were your most notable discoveries? Do you have insights to share with documentary filmmakers creating personal documentaries?

A long working time. Not everyone needs this, but I felt that the depth of knowledge and material and the coziness of the project were key. Personal documentation is very difficult. You suddenly have tremendous power in a situation where you didn't, especially when the film is about a parent. And that's something that's hard to count on. You can only tell the truth as you know it and let the story lead you to what it wants to be.

One of the most enriching elements was the Super 8 footage that he or my mother or his first wife shot. It was wonderful to be able to see through different lenses and at the same time get a real sense of the [historical] time through the footage. And even though we use interviews in the film, I don't like it when a bunch of famous people talk about someone. I've definitely tried to get as far away from it as possible. If I could find information from his voice, or from his autobiography, or from a picture, I would use that instead of just watching someone talk.

I also wanted to find a way to do a personal essay in which I was definitely a supporting character. Sometimes I've tried to detach myself from it completely and it just seemed wrong. Everyone said, "Where are you? You're hiding!” I had to get 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 someone's child and the reason you're in a privileged position is because you know them so well, so you can't pretend you're not there, that you're not siblings, because that is important point of view. At the same time, your own drama should not come to the fore in the story. Every day I would ask the editor, "Am I in too much? Can we take me out?” Finding the right balance was one of the things that took the longest.

Her father is a literary icon, and yet much of the film focuses on the difficulties he encountered when his later work was unsuccessful. When did you start pursuing the idea of ​​artistic struggle or even failure as the central theme of the film?

It was a given that I would address this conflict because my earliest memories are from this period, while my older siblings remember itsalespersonand that part of his life - in a way a very different person. So I always knew it was inevitable, because I think it's important for people to understand that for writers, artists, or anyone trying to do something that involves risking themselves, there's a is long-distance running. You have to be brave and just keep going. For me, one of the most moving parts of the film when I watch it is the way he just takes it on his chin and just keeps going, trying again and again. In fact, most of his work was not immediately accepted. He is in a place that we now consider accepted. I find that very touching.

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

Apparently it's a Latin quote he couldn't remember the Latin for! Yes, you hope that your work arrives now. It would be great, so much nicer. But you can't just work for it. You have to work to create things that are absolutely fine, that go beyond this moment. It wasn't that he absolutely felt he could survive as a writer. I don't think he felt it at all. I think he really had no idea that his plays would be relevant 20, 30 or 40 years after his death. That would be the hope. The film's ending, about what makes a play a great play, touches on something that is beyond human nature and everyday life, something that is indescribable.

Given the film's attention to the connections between our most intimate relationships and our creativity, I wonder how these two paths of growth - artistic on the one hand and personal on the other - have deepened and enriched your process in relation to the project?

It's hard to measure things like that sometimes, but I'm pretty sure over time I've been able to see him more through a parent's eyes. I could relate to some of his conflicts, like the perennial conflict of the artist trying to keep that little flame from blowing out while also being a responsible parent. Obviously, in some ways most of the parenting responsibilities lay with the women in his life, but for a man of this generation, he was a very present father. You can see in this documentary that he's concerned about how he's been doing. From the point of view of the man-to-be who is now looking at his own life and relationships, I could not have imagined this at the beginning of the process. I think I've become more forgiving of people and their weaknesses over time because I've had so many of my own!

Is there anything else you would like to add regarding the process of researching this private individual - Arthur Miller - as the basis for his iconic work as an artist?

The fight I think. There were things that my family found very difficult to talk about. What was interesting to me was that I ended up just being honest about what I didn't know and never would know and how much I could know. But when I opened up the scenes, you kind of saw my own struggle as a filmmaker to make sense of something that was happening. I come from a family like him from a family where things aren't talked about much. It's kind of interesting trying to be clear and honest about life. That was the fight. I decided to allow the viewer to see where I'm fighting.

Arthur Miller: WriterPremiered March 19 on HBO and streaming online on HBO Now through March.

Sandra Ignagni is a documentary filmmaker with a PhD in Feminist Political Economy and works at IDA.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Madonna Wisozk

Last Updated: 03/10/2023

Views: 6090

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (48 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Madonna Wisozk

Birthday: 2001-02-23

Address: 656 Gerhold Summit, Sidneyberg, FL 78179-2512

Phone: +6742282696652

Job: Customer Banking Liaison

Hobby: Flower arranging, Yo-yoing, Tai chi, Rowing, Macrame, Urban exploration, Knife making

Introduction: My name is Madonna Wisozk, I am a attractive, healthy, thoughtful, faithful, open, vivacious, zany person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.