Rebecca Miller is used to carrying the burden and expectation that comes with having famous family connections.
A family business
Rebecca Miller is used to carrying the burden and expectation that comes with having famous family connections. Even though her father is the legendary playwright Arthur Miller, she decided to become an author. As if that were not a big enough concern, the 46-year-old born in Connecticut married the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and then started working as a movie director. These things, however, do not weigh on Miller's mind. She explains: "I honestly don't know what it would have been like without having those things in my life. It's always mentioned and of course it's part of who I am. But I've just made my fourth film and people know me for them, so I don't really think about my relations."
The recent Berlin Film Festival hosted the premiere of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which like Miller's first film, Personal Velocity, is adapted from one of her own novels. Pippa Lee is the story of one woman's life and her frustrations. We first meet Lee in her fifties, played by Robin Wright Penn. Revelations about her past and her difficult upbringing are made in flashback. The teenage Pippa is played by the Gossip Girl star Blake Lively. The pivotal relationships are those that Pippa has with her 80-year-old husband Herb (Alan Arkin) and a quirky younger neighbour Chris (Keanu Reeves).
Pippa is described in the story as being the "perfect artist's wife". Miller says: "I think that the role of the artist's wife, in a way, is an art in itself. I think it's something to be admired. When I grew up, I knew women like that but now they are hard to come by." Miller, whose mother was the acclaimed photographer Inge Mörath, could not be more at odds with Pippa when it comes to making a career. Indeed judging by her curriculum vitae, she wants to try her hand at everything. In the movie business she started off as an actress, with notable films including Regarding Henry with Harrison Ford, Alan J Pakula's Consenting Adults and Alan Rudolph's Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle.
Her acting career came to a halt when she moved behind the camera in 1995 to write and direct the macabre childhood fantasy tale Angela, starring Vincent Gallo. She then turned her hand to books, writing the three-part novel Personal Velocity in 2001, which she turned into a movie starring Parker Posey and Kyra Sedgwick a year later. She then directed her husband in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a movie that had its poignant world premiere in Berlin in 2005, a few days after Miller's father died. Miller opted to stand offstage as her husband presented the film. She fought back tears as Day-Lewis said: "It took us a couple of days to decide whether to come, but as soon as we did, we knew that we had made the right decision. It is a shame that Arthur Miller could not be here in person. He was immensely proud of his daughter and would sing her praises to anyone who would give him an ear."
She also adapted the screenplay of John Auburn's play Proof, which was turned into a movie directed by John Madden and starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In person, Miller has the air of a schoolteacher, but judging by her prodigious output she must work the hours of a high-flying lawyer. When she speaks of her attraction to the fictional housewife Pippa Lee, she says: "I think it's the ways that I'm not like her that are the more striking. What I love about Pippa is that she doesn't have to create a life outside herself: her life is her art. In that sense we definitely differ. She's someone with an enormous sense of empathy and I think I have an ability to measure myself in other people's skin. I admire her a great deal. I'd like to be her friend."
Miller has two children with Day-Lewis and the family spends its time between New York and Ireland. She paints and sculpts as well. This is a woman who juggles many roles and it was this idea of not knowing all the different sides of a person that seemed to drive her to write her latest work. "One of the things that I liked about The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and why it wasn't just called The Lives of Pippa Lee was the idea of circles, which are almost like the rings of a tree. It's one inside the other, inside the other," she says.
Miller seems to be a believer in the idea that a person is shaped by their experiences and it's impossible to forget your past. It's always there in some way, ready to bite you when it's least expected. The book and the film came so close together that it is hard to believe that Miller, who has always directed her own work, didn't have one eye on a movie while she was writing the prose. However she insists that this was not the case.
"At the time I was writing the novel, I thought I was only writing a novel. It's a really exhausting process to think, 'I'm going to write a screenplay'. When I finished the novel it was almost as if I was still thirsty and wanted to go into that next dimension with the story. I began to wonder about how actors would interpret the story and whether I'd be surprised by their performances." "Books and films just have different needs and requirements. A book can be as long as you want; it can be 200 pages or 600 pages, so you have more room to explain the intricacies of relationships. A movie has to last a certain amount of time. This is why I had to change the whole balance and structure between the past and present."
In her book which, at just over 200 pages, is a sprightly read. A single section concentrates on the young Pippa Lee, whereas in the movie flashbacks are interspersed throughout the narrative. Miller also views writing as a more pleasant experience than directing. "They both have different pains," she explains. "A movie is more stressful because it's more like a war - the enemies being time and mediocrity."
Despite the war analogy, Miller claims that she is not a tyrant on set. "When I work as a director it's like being a magnet if everyone had metal filings in them. You have to move them and it's sort of an invisible job," she says. "I'm not sure how I seem to those looking in from the outside, but from the inside I think I'm decisive. I feel like an actor really needs to be free and open and trust the person directing them. If they feel they they're constrained I don't think their work will be good. They must feel open and safe. That is really part of my job."
As if to illustrate the point she describes how Alan Arkin rewrote some of his lines, which were then incorporated into the script because they added a better sense of rhythm than the original versions. She also avoided doing too many rehearsals through fear that the actors would lose some spontaneity and emotion from their work. For the same reason Miller would only do four or five takes before moving to the next scene. In her description of her working method she gives the sense of being someone who knows exactly what they want and how they're going to get it.
The conversation comes to an end with a more delicate question. Would she ever consider directing a film adapted from one of her father's works? This time the answer is a little more cryptic: "I might do it if I felt I was the right person for the job."