Rebecca Miller: The Millers' Tale

She may have Arthur Miller for a dad and Daniel Day-Lewis for a husband, but film-maker Rebecca Miller doesn't think of her life as charmed. She talks to Charlotte O'Sullivan about fear, fathers and the demons that drive her work
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Last year, Rebecca Miller, daughter of the more famous Arthur, made a film called Personal Velocity, based on three of her own short stories from a collection of the same name. In one, a Jewish, jittery Manhattanite, Greta, has a party thrown for her by her celebrated lawyer father, Avram, after she pulls off a coup in the publishing world. She finds herself being greeted by his friends with desperate relief.

As the book's narrator so vividly explains: "Since she'd dropped out of law school, she'd been written off as one of those children not gifted or tough enough to survive so close to the brilliant light of their parents' world, one of those who had drifted down to live among the bottom feeders. But Greta's success had buoyed her back up from the depths. She had risen like some bubble belched out of the guts of a giant stingray, and here she was in the light again, with the sharks."

Art, as ever, proves to be one step ahead of life. After leaving Yale, Miller herself drifted, trying art school, and later acting, to muted applause. Then came Personal Velocity the movie (released here in March and now out on DVD), and she was back in the game. Of the three segments, only Greta's is entirely successful, but it's so good you don't mind. Parker Posey's heroine (a heavy smoker) likes to exhale one-liners. That said she's also very human, and zigzagging through her tragi-comic life brings tears to your eyes. Miller's first film, Angela, was only a modest success at the Sundance Film Festival; Personal Velocity, by contrast, won the Grand Jury Prize.

That Miller is married to Daniel Day-Lewis (whom she met through her father) makes the film especially interesting to the press. Day-Lewis' success (he won a Bafta earlier this year, and was Oscar-nominated, for Gangs of New York) gives her extra fizz. She and Day-Lewis have two young sons, Ronan and Cashel, and are now shooting a film together (him in front of the camera, her behind). How glamorous, how weighty; she's a chip off the old block, after all!

That she is swimming with sharks, however, seems very much on Miller's mind. Before meeting her to talk about Personal Velocity, I'm told by the PR not to ask about the director's father or husband. Presumably she fears that, once mentioned, their achievements - their powerful bodies - will set the pace.

A photographer is leaving just as I arrive. She shows him out of the rooftop room as if she were in her own house, then turns to me with a smile. She has an astonishing presence, with a flutey voice like Jean Arthur's, and scrunchy blonde hair that's pure Irene Dunne. As for her dark, striped suit, it might have been peeled off Marlene Dietrich. When you first look at her, you think of perfect old movies - movies in which highly-strung women handle life with aplomb. But the more she talks, the less poised she seems.

We sit down, and she describes showing Angela at the Sundance festival. "I was beyond nervous," she admits. "I thought I was going to be sick, I wanted to lie down somewhere. I really felt I'd been murdered by that first audience." Miller uses the word murdered a lot, but more of that later. The point is, she has no interest in trying to appear "strong". Some might view the children of the famous as terrifyingly tenacious (having met Goldie Hawn's daughter, Kate Hudson, I would tend to agree). Miller's vulnerability, though, has the ring of truth.

She thinks the famous are naturally more resilient than their children. "The kids get written off, or drift away. And sometimes it's because they have the integrity to say they just don't care, but it's also because the parents are just tougher than they are. It's always a sad sight, seeing people like that, because it's not like it's their choice."

Rebecca, of course, didn't have just one famous parent. Her mother was the greatly respected Austrian photographer, Inge Morath (who met Arthur while photographing his then wife, Marilyn Monroe, on the set of The Misfits). One presumes, therefore, that the pressure was doubly great. But she identifies another factor as still more important.

All three of the central characters in Personal Velocity are only children - and Miller says this is no accident. "I mean, there are other kids in my family," she adds quickly (Miller had two children from his first marriage), "but I grew up on my own."

She has a lot of theories about what it means to be an only child. "I think only children are overly formed by the relationship with the parent," she says, obviously choosing her words with care. "I think only children want to keep their parents happy. People always concentrate on how only children are spoilt, but that's not the issue. They feel they have to take care of their parents. I personally felt very responsible for," she blinks, "both my parents - to do well for them. Probably some of my desire, my need to work, has something to do with that."

Miller's refuge, as a child, was religion. Like the central character in Angela, a young girl who seeks to gain control over her unstable mother's mood swings by "purging" herself, Miller was a pint-sized zealot. A Catholic family lived down the road, and she regularly went to church with them. "I was baptised when I was 13," she notes proudly. "I was really serious about it."

She was also very superstitious ("which is kind of a religious instinct, in a primitive way"), constantly looking for signs and meaning in the most arbitrary events, which ironically, ended up making her feel less safe. "I wasn't as dark as Angela," she says, chewing her immaculately made-up bottom lip. "I didn't have as troubled a life, but I was acutely aware of the invisible world and the invisible world was very dangerous. I was very paranoid about things!" she says, almost choking on a laugh. "I thought I was going to be murdered or kidnapped! Or somebody would..." her blue eyes roam the room. "It's funny, I was a very cheerful child, at the same time, I had this other side." She jiggles her finger against her forehead to create the most amazing frown. "I was very terrified."

It's almost as if she's interviewing herself. "I still have a very dark, paranoid kind of imagination..."

I ask jokingly if it's still murder and kidnapping she fears, and she gives a little shriek - half-horrified, half-gleeful. "Well! I go for a walk in the woods and I think about people killing me all the time. I mean, I can't enjoy the stroll in the woods. I feel safer in the city. I feel safe in the city. It's strange."

I'm momentarily confused because I've heard so much about her and Day-Lewis's blissful "exile" abroad. Who doesn't know about the actor's back-to-nature kick? He embraced log-chopping in the countryside, whether Florence (which is where the couple moved after their marriage in 1996) or County Wicklow (which is where they spend most of their time now). He put down his axe to play butcher Bill Poole in Gangs of New York, but says city life is no longer for him. I find myself wondering if Miller has told her husband how she feels.

But she's a grown woman, and hardly a victim type - too vivacious, and self-aware for that. So I say instead that I'm assuming, given all her fears, that she grew up in the city. "No," she says, deadpan, "I grew up in the countryside!" She clutches at her hair, and for a split-second looks as stringy and harassed as Joan Rivers. Then - suddenly lovely again - she roars with laughter. "I was very fucked up!"

It suddenly occurs to me that I've probably seen her house, in a documentary about Arthur Miller. Grave, monk-like Arthur was shown at work, in his Connecticut home, surrounded by leafiness and quiet. All that green, all that space. My god, I say, she needed to relocate.

"Really!" she agrees jubilantly. "I would have been much happier in Manhattan!"

Then her shoulders slump, and she looks a little ashamed of herself. "Probably. I mean I was happy. I had a great time. I was very connected to nature. I just could have done without... I had a very dark imagination." She clears her throat, starts another sentence, and scrunches her poor hair. "Ach! Who knows?"

This is the only point at which she looks as if she'd rather be elsewhere. I ask if she ever talked to her mother about her fears and she immediately perks up. No, she says, she was very secretive. ("Our relationship was not sisterly - we didn't tell each other everything.") But surely her parents noticed the religious-mania? She snorts. "I think my dad was quite worried. But there was nothing he could do. You can't stamp it out of somebody."

Did he maybe see it as an act of rebellion, especially given the fact that he was Jewish? A look of surprise, as she goes on to explain that neither of her parents was religious. "I wasn't identified with being Jewish so much." Which reminds me. There's a passage in the book, in which Greta has an "anti-Semitic dream", that didn't make it into the film. "Oh," grins Miller, "I couldn't afford to shoot it, but even if I could have, it would be too strongly anti-Semitic to... I mean, dreams are so grotesque. To say it is one thing, to film it another."

"Anyway," she says, giggling, her father came to terms with her Catholic phase. "My mother, I think, talked him out of his tree. She told him it was what I wanted to do. And it was: I had to go to church."

Some people may want to see Miller as a fairy-tale character - a poor little famous girl, finally rescued from her demons by a handsome prince. Or (more titillating still) a celebrity royal who jumped from the frying pan into the fire. She herself is not nearly so melodramatic; she simply wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

"Because I remember keeping so much inside of myself, I always try to tell my children: 'You have to tell me if you're scared. You have to tell me!' "

It's good to talk and - through her work - Miller is determined to keep chatting. She'd like to adapt another of the stories from Personal Velocity for the screen (the one entitled "Louise" - about a young artist). She also has a collection of drawings out in November, called A Woman Who.

Meanwhile, she's rewritten the script for Proof, a father-daughter drama that starts filming this autumn, to be directed by John Madden, with Anthony Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow. And - the pièce de résistance - she's currently shooting her new film with Day-Lewis.

Like Proof, it centres on the father-daughter bond, and like the women in Personal Velocity, the daughter concerned is an only child. A widower (Day-Lewis) and his 16-year-old off-spring, Rose (Camilla Belle) exist side by side on a remote island (their wooden home, you may be interested to know, was built by Day-Lewis himself). Then the man discovers he has a terminal illness; at which point, he invites a mainland woman (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons to come and share their lives. Rose is about to make a voyage round someone other than her pa.

By accident, I refer to the film as The Rose and the Snake, making it sound like a dire heavy metal anthem. Miller points out, gracefully, that it's actually Rose and the Snake . "My real film," she says with a laugh, "it's from an original screenplay of mine. I want to try and fuse something. In Angela, I suppose I used a more poetic style, whereas Personal Velocity is basically some portraits of real people. I want those two strands in my work - the lyrical and the tangible - to merge."

I imagine producers reading these words with sinking hearts - making a box-office splash is clearly not uppermost in her mind. And yet, of course, she doesn't want to be "murdered" by audiences, either. I ask her if she reads reviews and she says that she does, though she hopes to get to the point where she doesn't. "But I don't think I ever will!" She laughs, in a tinkly sort of way. "I'll be sort of slinging them in the trash and reading them at the same time!"

See what I mean about lack of poise? Desperate to succeed, horrified by success, Miller's angle on life is a little tipsy. That's what makes Personal Velocity so fitfully brilliant. It's also what makes you want to fast forward to the future, so you can see what she does next.

'Personal Velocity' is now available to buy or rent on video and DVD