Class of ’95 | The idea for Foxcatcher first came to Tom Heller C’95 in January 2004. It was his first day at Columbia Business School, where he was pursuing an MBA after eight years in the film industry.
“A classmate named Michael Coleman approached me with the idea,” recalls Heller, who soon became one of Foxcatcher’s executive producers. “At first I was skeptical, but quickly saw that this could be a special film. We decided to join forc es, acquire the rights to the story, and produce it together. I thought the story would make a great movie because it had so many unique and compelling elements—the Olympics, a brother story, a wealthy and famous family, complex characters, and, of course, the murder.”
The 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz had sent shockwaves through the Philadelphia region and beyond. Not just because Schultz was shot in cold blood for no apparent reason, but because the killer was John E. du Pont C’61, an unstable scion of the famously wealthy family. A wrestling patron who had built a world-class facility at Foxcatcher Farm (his family’s sprawling estate in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania), du Pont had brought Shultz and his brother Mark to live and train there. He was found guilty of third-degree murder, but also mentally ill, and he died in 2010 in Laurel Hig h lands State Correctional Institution.
The film, directed by Bennett Miller, has earned strong reviews and some Oscar buzz since its US release in N o vember, by which time Miller had already garnered Best Director honors at the Cannes Film Festival. Steve Carell plays du Pont, heading a remarkable cast that includes Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz, Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz (Dave’s brother), and Vanessa Redgrave as John du Pont’s mother, Jean.
Heller, an executive with Everest Entertainment whose previous films include Precious, 127 Hours, and Win Win [“Arts Blog”], recently spoke with Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes about the long process of making Foxcatcher.
Once you had the idea, how did you go about turning it into reality?
Michael and I spent a large part of our time in school researching the story, travelling to LA, meeting with writers and producers, and strategizing on how to get this movie made. We brought on several writers and, at one point, had an Oscar-winning actor interested in playing du Pont. However, when we pitched the project to the studios, they told us that the story was too dark for them to buy as a pitch. They asked us to re-approach them after we had a director on board.
I realized that we needed a new strategy and a director to put the film together. Bennett Miller, who had directed a documentary called The Cruise and the Academy Award-nominated Capote, came to mind. It seemed like he had an interest in true stories and complex, eccentric characters, so I thought he might be the right fit.
How did you meet him?
In March of 2006, I attended a DVD signing at Tower Video, where Bennett was signing DVDs of The Cruise. I introduced myself to him and told him that I was working on a story that he might be interested in. I asked if he’d be willing to take a look at some materials about the project—a PowerPoint presentation, photos, and several articles. Bennett’s film Capote had been nominated for five Academy Awards and he was being offered lots of projects by studios to direct, so I knew it was an extreme longshot that he’d want to direct Foxcatcher. But I had a strange gut feeling that he might find this story fascinating.
A month later, Bennett called me to get together. At our meeting, he said he wanted to make Foxcatcher as his next film. It was an amazing moment. After years of struggle, we had found a champion with the vision, talent, and track record to take this story to the next level.
What made you want to make a film about such a bleak event?
I’ve never been afraid of tackling “dark” material as a producer. I’ve been involved with some “bleak” movies before, like Precious and 127 Hours, which did very well at the box office. I genuinely believe that there is an audience for challenging stories if they are told well.
I tend to gravitate toward stories that interest me on a gut level, and I couldn’t get this story out of my head. Foxcatcher depicts a tragic event, but I felt that it was a rich, complex, and potentially commercial story. I was fascinated by how it involved characters from very different worlds—the blueblood du Pont and the blue-collar Schultz brothers—characters who wouldn’t normally interact on a meaningful level. A really interesting collision of personalities, motivations, and ambitions.
Many people didn’t seem to know many of the details about what happened before the murder, so the story felt fresh and familiar at the same time. I also believed that du Pont—with his outsized ambitions, obsession with wrestling, and mental illness—was a role that could attract a great actor.
What do you know about du Pont’s connections to Penn?
My dad [Steven Heller W’61 WG’77] was in du Pont’s class at Penn. They didn’t know each other, but he remembers reading a profile of du Pont in the late ’60s in the Gazette, in which he discusses his training for the Olympics.
From what I’ve gathered, John attended Penn only briefly for part of his freshman year. He pledged a fraternity and planned to major in zoology but dropped out in January. He supposedly told classmates when he left that he wanted to concentrate on improving his swimming skills, with the goal of making the Olympic swim team.
What was your reaction to the murder?
I was very surprised by the murder. There seems to have been a lot of shock and disbelief in the Philadelphia community. Without question, many people knew du Pont had mental issues, but I don’t think they anticipated that he’d commit such a violent act. He collected firearms and had a big shooting range, but I can’t imagine anyone expected him to murder someone on his own estate.
At the same time, there were definitely signs that things weren’t right. Prior to Dave’s murder, du Pont became increasingly paranoid and delusional. He claimed to be the Dalai Lama, Jesus, and a spy for the CIA. Because he was such a patron to wrestling and other sports, perhaps some people looked the other way at his behavior—and saw it as merely eccentric rather than dangerous. There are a lot of theories, but ultimately no one knows for sure why du Pont did what he did.
What role did you play as executive producer?
My primary role on this project was acquiring the rights to the story, bringing Bennett on board as a director, and helping connect Bennett and Dan Futterman, a screenwriter on the movie, to the wrestling community. I traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs twice—once with Bennett and once with Dan Futterman—to introduce them to wrestlers and absorb the world of Olympic training. Some of the wrestlers we met had known Mark and Dave Schultz and were incredibly helpful with their stories and information, and generous with their time. We also introduced Bennett and Dan to Dave Bennett at USA Wrestling, who had been hired by du Pont to film him on the estate before the murder. Dave Bennett had incredible footage of du Pont and Mark and Dave Schultz, which was immensely valuable in terms of capturing the look and feel of the estate and the characters in the film.
How did Nancy and Mark Schultz react to their portrayals on the screen?
Nancy and Mark have both been incredibly supportive of the film. It depicts a very traumatic part of their lives, so I can only imagine how difficult it may have been for them to watch certain scenes of the film. It’s my understanding that they feel that it is a great tribute to the character and memory of Dave Schultz.
Have you been following the progress of David , the upcoming documentary on Dave Schultz? A couple of Penn alums, Jeremy Bailer C’98 and Ben Hatta C’98, are the executive producers.
I’m very excited to see David. It will feature interviews with Dave’s friends, coaches, and former teammates. I think it will be a strong companion piece to Foxcatcher and tell a different side to the story.