Rebecca Miller: Ballad of a daughter

Her name didn't protect her from box-office strife. Now she's back. Stephen Applebaum meets the auteur
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The Independent Culture

Having a famous name is no guarantee of an easy ride in the world of film. It is the bottom line that counts almost every time, as Rebecca Miller, the daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller, discovered. When the critical acclaim for her 1995 feature debut, Angela, failed to translate into box-office returns, she found it practically impossible to fund other projects. It also helped little that the films she was interested in making were, by her own admission, "risky", and "didn't look like big money-making schemes, to say the least". This all explains why her latest film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring her husband Daniel Day-Lewis, has arrived on our screens around 10 years after she first hawked the screenplay around.

"The problem I have is that the people who love my screenplays have no power, always," she says, sitting, dressed entirely in black, opposite me in a hotel suite. "So I sort of gave up on film-making. I had written all these screenplays [including The Ballad of Jack and Rose] and I finally said, 'What am I doing? If nobody will let me make films, I'll write stories.'"

Like her husband, Miller displays a steely sense of artistic integrity. She began as a painter, in a medium where creative freedom is less of a luxury, and moved towards directing via acting, in films such as Alan Pakula's Consenting Adults and Alan Rudolph's Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. Miller no longer appears in front of the camera.

"I wouldn't hire me," she says, laughing. "I'm not even good enough for myself. I lacked a kind of transparency as an actor, which I think made me more of a director. Maybe I'd be right for certain very small parts. But if you really needed emotional profundity, then I would go to someone else."

Her directing career having stalled, she wrote her first book, Personal Velocity, a sharply observed collection of vignettes about 21st-century American femininity. When she unexpectedly received a commission to write and direct a low-budget digital feature, she adapted Personal Velocity, and started the film-making ball rolling again.

"All the doors opened," she smiles. "That's really why I got to make The Ballad of Jack and Rose, because of that film. Sometimes, if you have a success, you suddenly have a little credit, and because I figured that I might not have this credit again for quite a long time, I used it to make this film."

Set in the mid-1980s, the film stars Day-Lewis as Jack Slavin, a terminally ill father who has raised his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) alone on an abandoned island commune that is now threatened by developers. As he prepares to die, Jack invites his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her two sons to live with them. Feeling threatened by the intruders, Rose's feelings towards Jack grow increasingly more jealous, dangerous, and incestuous.

Unsurprisingly, critics have pored, somewhat seedily, over the film for clues about the film-maker's relationship with her late father. But while there are autobiographical elements in it, Miller insists that they are looking in the wrong place. She kept returning to the screenplay, which she completed in 1995, before rewriting it numerous times, because "there are certain themes that always remain young in a person, even if it takes you 10 or 20 years to do it. Sometimes you wait too long and it's gone, it just blows away like a dustball, but in this case the well-spring kept bubbling up inside of me and I was always able to go back into it and find myself emotionally connected to the story."

The themes of "anticipated loss: the sense that you're afraid, in advance, of losing someone that you love" and nostalgia for a time that "one has not even necessarily experienced, but yet one wishes and yearns for" were what kept bringing her back. Miller is nostalgic for the Sixties, a time that she was too young to experience fully when she was growing up in Roxbury, Connecticut, but which she experienced by proxy through her older half-brother.

"He lived in a commune and was a hippie," says Miller, dreamily. "He lived that life and it was so beautiful to me. Although I was sort of left out because I was a little girl, I had a real craving for it." It wasn't so much the "freaky part" she found attractive, as it was "the sense of a kind of goodness that I think I perceived at that time, a kind of innocence, a wish to redefine ourselves - or themselves; a sense that one had control over one's own destiny."

She created the clean-cut, scientific Jack Slavin in such a way as to embody these same ideals while also dispelling some of the commoner clichés about hippies. Miller believes that the character and the film now chime with the times in a way that they might not have done even five years ago.

"I feel that the Sixties were knocked unconscious in our country, and I think globally, in the Eighties, and in a weird way we're the heirs of the Sixties and the Eighties. We're struggling now with those two parents and trying to make sense of them," she suggests. "One of the questions that Rose asks in the film about the developers is, 'Who made them the future?'. But what the film is saying at the end is that the period still exists, that it's not over, and that we should not forget that it's not over. I really believe that. And, in a funny way, it's good that the film didn't come out earlier because this is a period when people are getting a little desperate."

Day-Lewis later tells me that he also responded to Ballad's nostalgia for the Sixties, a period he was also too young to fully engage with first-hand. "It was tremendously frustrating to me that I couldn't be a part of this thing that was taking place," he recalls. "The Isle of Wight Festival I remember taking place. 'Why can't I get to the Isle of Wight?' I was like seven years old. 'Can I hitch-hike? No, I guess not.' My sister was four years older than me, so vicariously through her I got a little more direct contact to it. I kind of lived, even if at a kind of remove, with that whole experience and felt bitterly the loss of it. And then, of course, punk came along and then I thought: 'Give me a dog collar.'"

Miller describes her childhood in Roxbury, with her father, and her mother, the Magnum photographer Inge Morath, as "isolated and pretty much cut off from everything". She was an only child, in the sense that her older siblings had moved out, and says, "I actually could have probably used a little bit more exposure to the world." But where do you draw the line? It is a question that Ballad raises, and one with which Miller says she and Day-Lewis are grappling with with their own sons, Ronin and Cashel (Day-Lewis also has a son, Gabriel-Kane Adjani, from his relationship with the French actress Isabelle Adjani). "We both want our kids to have a sense of what other people's lives are like. Our oldest son, Ronin, is in public school and it's really important to me that he's part of a community. But at the same time I do feel a little bit protective against some of the more violent aspects of our culture."

Miller and Day-Lewis divide their time between homes in Ireland - Day-Lewis's father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, was Anglo-Irish - New York and Roxbury. They live privately, but both reject the "recluse" tag that has been pinned on Day-Lewis. He laughs wearily when I bring up the subject.

"That's an impression that people tend to have of me and I've just never gone to any great lengths to disillusion them about that. Reclusiveness tends to imply a hiding away from something, and I don't ever feel like I'm hiding away from anything. I just feel like I'm elsewhere. I'm just not in front of a camera, but is that being reclusive? I don't imagine that I am a recluse, but maybe I'm just kidding myself."

One thing that is true, though, is the story about the actor becoming an apprentice cobbler in Italy during the family's extended sojourn there. While it is a subject the actor is loath to talk about, Miller confirms the stories. But why was he interested in shoemaking, I ask? "I don't know," she says, slightly bemused. "He's always loved to work with his hands and he met a particular individual that he wanted to work with. I think it just interested him. I think everyone's looking for a different reason why he must have been doing it but I think that's the wrong direction to go in."

Of course, Day-Lewis is also notorious for immersing himself deep within his roles, sometimes, allegedly, to his own detriment. Miller admits that he takes a lot out of himself, but she says she no longer worries. "I have seen him go through it enough times to know that he knows to keep some part of himself there, even though it's not obvious at the time which part it is. I don't know exactly how it works but, as generous as he is, he knows enough to maintain some part of himself for himself, and gradually he gets over it."

Thank God, I say. What a nightmare it would have been living with Bill the Butcher, his moustachioed, meat-stabbing gangster from Gangs of New York. Miller laughs. "Once we had kids he wasn't in character after he came home..." a pause, "...so much. That was good. I'd always thought it would be confusing. But I think, yes, some part of the character always remains a little bit. Bill the Butcher was very funny, though. I really liked him."

'The Ballad of Jack and Rose' opens today

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