Rebecca Miller: Intimate relations

She's the daughter of America's most famous playwright and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, but Rebecca Miller is determined to carve out her own artistic identity. Rebecca Traister talks to the acclaimed film director about life, love and loss
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The Independent Online

" I warn you, I really don't want to talk about my father," says Rebecca Miller, sitting down across from me at a Manhattan restaurant. It's a rickety start to our conversation. The interview before ours has apparently put Miller, the writer and director of the new film The Ballad of Jack and Rose, in an uncomfortable Vulcan mind-meld on the subject of her dad, the playwright Arthur Miller, who died in February.

" I warn you, I really don't want to talk about my father," says Rebecca Miller, sitting down across from me at a Manhattan restaurant. It's a rickety start to our conversation. The interview before ours has apparently put Miller, the writer and director of the new film The Ballad of Jack and Rose, in an uncomfortable Vulcan mind-meld on the subject of her dad, the playwright Arthur Miller, who died in February.

A brunette, and beautiful in a thin, pre-Raphaelite way, Miller appears slightly menacing. Her eyes focus on mine like a suspicious housecat who would rather scratch a proffered hand than sniff it. I assure her that we don't need to talk about her father, yet.

But she isn't done. "It's just that, a) that's really not why anyone would go to see a movie," she says with exasperation, "and b) I resent it when someone hasn't thought about a thing enough that they can talk to someone about the thing they're supposed to talk about." Miller gives a pointed "so don't fuck with me or I'll tell the next reporter how unprepared you were" laugh and manages to un-puff herself enough to order a tomato juice.

Miller, 42, is one of those almost comically hyphenated professionals, though the painter-actor-screenwriter-novelist-director usually wears only two of her hats at one time - or three if you count the occasion she adapted and directed her second film, the 2002 Sundance Grand Jury winner Personal Velocity, from her own novel. At least her varied vocations somewhat obscure her status as a celebrity relation: the daughter of Arthur Miller and his wife of 40 years, the late photographer Inge Morath, and the wife of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

Day-Lewis stars in The Ballad of Jack and Rose as Jack Slavin, a terminally ill father who's raised his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) alone in an abandoned commune on an isolated island. As he prepares to die, Jack invites his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) and her sons to move into his and Rose's utopia, and Rose's jealous devotion to her father becomes fierce, dangerous and, yes, downright incestuous.

Miller was born in 1962, the year her father's second wife, Marilyn Monroe, died. Her parents had met on the set of Monroe's last film, the Arthur Miller-penned The Misfits, when Morath was a still photographer and his marriage was in its final throes. The family lived in Roxbury, Connecticut, in what Miller says was then "real country" - although it was home to artists such as her parents and the sculptor Alexander Calder. "I remember the bulldozers as they made their ineluctable advance across the landscape. I would weep, really cry, when I saw a house go up."

Some of that grief is reborn on screen in Jack Slavin, a rigid conservationist, though Miller says her interest in commune life came from memories of her half-brother, 16 years her senior, who "experienced the 1960s in a very total way". When she was a child, Miller visited her brother on the commune where he lived, and "idealised that way of life". She says that while she pulled her inspiration for Jack from Sixties leftist radicalism, she's not sure that she hasn't created a very conservative hero. "You have people who are radical Christians, all the way on the other side, who [like Jack] don't want their children to have contact with the outside world," she says.

Miller's ever-evolving career began with a voracious childhood appetite for the written word. She then studied painting at Yale and exhibited her work after graduation. "Painting was a wonderful job for me," she says. "It was very physical and quiet and contemplative." But, she says, "the part of me that's a storyteller wasn't satisfied." So after a stint as an actor, with parts in Regarding Henry and Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, she started making films.

Miller likes to surprise viewers, to "get under people's skins". I tell her that I found the relationship between Jack and Rose repellent in part because the chemistry between 46-year-old Day-Lewis and 16-year-old Camilla Belle was so strong that it was easy to root for the father and daughter characters to get it on. "That's exactly what [the film] is supposed to do," Miller says. "You're invited to lose your balance."

Despite the disconcerting effects of her film, Miller has been far more tethered to reality since becoming a mother almost seven years ago. "Dreams and art, that was my life," she says. Giving birth, she says, catapulted her back to this planet. "I think I became more earthy, less ethereal. Because it was all about blood and flesh and reality." Plus, "the expectation of being needed is ultimately extremely satisfying."

The Ballad of Jack and Rose is the first time Miller has worked with her husband, though she sent him an early draft of the script 10 years ago, before they had met. "I sent him the script thinking that he was the right man to play Jack," says Miller, who has gone through 33 drafts of Jack and Rose. "I thought he was the best actor, and Daniel has something that makes people side with him."

In 1995, he turned her down. "He wrote me this very sweet note explaining that at that moment he was not ready to experience everything he would need to experience to play Jack." Terminal illness, a violent streak and possibly incestuous feelings for his offspring are a lot to sign up for.

Day-Lewis went on to star in the 1996 film version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, during which he met the playwright's daughter. Miller describes her pre-Day-Lewis romantic life as "pretty checkered" and claims that she had suffered from a marriage phobia. "If I put a ring on my ring finger, my finger would hurt," she says. But when she met Day-Lewis, in her early thirties, she had "lived a lot" and felt more comfortable committing. They married within a few months. Now, eight years later, they are raising their sons Ronin, six, and Cashel, three, in Ireland and New York.

When Miller returned to working on Jack and Rose, she told her husband that he was still her first choice for the lead. Miller says Day-Lewis considered it for a long time before agreeing: "Daniel's not really capable of doing anything simply as a favour."

She bristles when I ask her about the power dynamics of directing her husband. "I think Daniel would accept the fact that I'm figuring out how to shoot a scene," she says shortly. She doesn't coach performances, she adds: "I expect people to be the people when they arrive, not to create the performances on set. And Daniel arrives on set so filled up. I never got a sense of resistance."

"Look," she continues, still a little riled, "directors have a certain job and actors have a certain job. It's very hard to define what a director does, because it involves stuff like what colour the pillows are, and the shot list. On the other hand, the director is creating an atmosphere where an actor can do his best work.

"It's this contract of trust; I think it would be very weird to feel a power imbalance. I try to stay away from the concept of power. That doesn't mean I'm a pushover. But there has to be a gentleness, because you want to make everyone want to do their best work, not just the actors but the sound engineer... It's not that I'm always pleasant," Miller says. "But I try not to be unjust or randomly petulant."

As a woman known as the daughter of a famous man and the wife of a famous man, was it not provocative to make a film about an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter and cast her husband as the father? "It's not an incestuous relationship; there are overtones of incest." She pauses and nods: "Yes, it is probably provocative." She gives a little laugh and continues, "Daniel and I had conversations about it before we did it. At one point he said, 'Are you out of your mind? Why would we put ourselves through something like this?'"

But Miller likes the thrill of the creative gamble. "It seemed a big risk, and something about that seemed right. It's a tiny accent on the film that makes it even more true." Does that "tiny accent" mean that she meant the inevitable "my husband, my father" stuff to weave itself into the film?

"Not really, no," Miller says, acknowledging that Rose "has parts of me: the ruthlessness and purity a lot of girls that age have. She's a little bit scary and beautiful as she comes into consciousness about the power she has as a young woman." As for her relationship to her own parents, Miller says only: "I was very close to both of them."

Her next project is a screen adaptation of her father's 1944 play The Man Who Had All the Luck. It closed after four days. Is she trying to redeem his work in some way? She looks uncomfortable, and sad: it is, after all, only two months since his death. "First of all, I'm adapting it, not directing it," she says. "And I did it so I could spend some time with him and have some conversations with him. Now I'll finish it because I said I would."

Miller says she thinks the Hollywood ending for The Ballad of Jack and Rose would have had the young heroine driving off into the sunset, the implication being that getting away from the scene of one's youth is enough. To Miller, that scenario doesn't ring true. "Whether we like it or not, we are connected to our parents, to their parents before them. We are part of a chain of human beings: we don't create ourselves. The idea that we can make a total break is an illusion. I think we all find that on some level we're continuing their work."

And does she mind that her identity will always be inextricably linked to the identities of those who came before her, and to whom she is married? "I don't ever think about that," Miller says. "I'm only aware of it because other people bring it up. It's just my life," she smiles. "I love who I love and I'm related to who I'm related to."

This article first appeared on Reprinted with permission