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'Arthur Miller: Writer' — A daughter remembers her beloved complicated father

Rebecca Miller began shooting interviews with her father, playwright Arthur Miller, more than 20 years ago.
Rebecca Miller began shooting interviews with her father, playwright Arthur Miller, more than 20 years ago.
Inge Morath © The Inge Morath Foundation / Magnum Photos / Courtesy of HBO

"Arthur Miller: Writer" is the sixth movie from writer-director Rebecca Miller ("Maggie's Plan"), but in some ways it's also her first.

More than two decades ago, she began filming her famous father around his home in Connecticut and recording conversations with him in his woodworking shed. She had decided that the man she knew — who she called "Pop," who told jokes and spun her around the backyard as a little girl —  wasn't the same man she saw in public interviews.

Rebecca Miller was born in 1962, well after her dad had established himself as a great American playwright — impacting public discourse with plays such as “Death of a Salesman,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Crucible,” which used the Salem witch trials as a veiled commentary on McCarthyism.

Rebecca's mother was the photographer Inge Morath. As Arthur's third wife, she came along after his very public marriage to Marilyn Monroe, which itself has been preceded by a first marriage that had also ended in divorce. Rebecca Miller examines all of the personal and professional aspects to her father's life in the documentary.

She told The Frame that during the long process of making the film, she came to understand what motivated him and his work:

I think he was really primarily driven by a curiosity and love of people — human beings and how they worked, anomalies in their characters and how [someone] could be a good person and do bad things, or how people were morally ambivalent. He never taught people how to live. It's funny — he's thought of as such a moralist, but if you really unpack his work he's asking questions about what it is to live a moral life. But he's not really giving anyone advice. I think it's more like he's saying, Let's examine ourselves in some way.


In the film, Rebecca asks her father about fatherhood and he tells her that he "couldn't be a father 24 hours a day, I was in and out of my own skin." She explained his answer this way...

He had the challenge of anybody who's doing work that's very internal. To be present. And I was trying to imagine myself answering that question, saying, I couldn't be a mother 24 hours a day. I was in and out of my own skin.' To some degree everybody is in and out of their own skin, everyone is lost in thought, everybody's distracted. You're never constantly 100 percent present with your kids. But I think that some of that had to do with his being a father versus a mother. It had to do with being a completely committed artist. But he also was a different father, as could be expected over the course of his long life. And he had three marriages. And so the different children had slightly different experiences. 

Rebecca Miller made use of her father's love letters and journals in the film and it wasn't always comfortable:

There were times when I found it disturbing or embarrassing. Like I shouldn't be there. There were certainly times where I was [almost] re-creating love scenes. Or kind of early love scenes ... where I felt quite uncomfortable in a way. But it was my job that I'd taken on. And that's when you have to try and see it in a more dispassionate way as a storyteller. But at the same time, one of the things I've been struck by is how different he seemed as a very young man right after the whole hit of his huge success, especially after "[Death of a] Salesman," where he was awarded almost demigod status for a minute there. And then later where he has a much more equivocal and humble way of talking. It's really interesting sort of seeing in a way how his persona changes. 

Rebecca's parents had a son who was born with Down Syndrome. They decided to take the advice of having him raised in an institution. Rebecca discussed what her relationship with her brother, Daniel, has been over the years.

Over the last 20 years or so I've had a very fun relationship with him — a very easy one. When I was a little kid ... it wasn't easy for [my parents] to talk about.  And I think that it was a lot of probably ambivalence about a decision [to institutionalize someone] that was culturally pretty common, but still fraught. As I say in the documentary, weirdly I know much less about what was going on in their minds than I might because I didn't get to talk to them about it. 

When asked if this was the hardest subject to discuss with her father:

It was the hardest thing for me ... Because if you're trained not to bring something up for a really long time, then it's hard to bring up if that's what your culture is within a family.

"Arthur Miller: Writer" debuts March 19 on HBO. 

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