ARCHIVES: Scranton filmmaker tells actor Jason ‘Miller’s Tale’ in upcoming documentary
Rebecca Ferris, like many people in Scranton, knew actor/playwright Jason Miller years before his untimely death in 2001. What puzzled her, though, was why the actor surrendered his virtually overnight national success for regional theatre and the quiet life of his hometown. It’s a question that many have asked over the years, so Ferris decided to find out using the very medium he became known all over the world for – film.
As a child, Ferris remembered the buzz around Scranton when Miller first returned to the area, and she recalled people pointing him out to her excitedly. In high school, her drama teacher knew Miller and he often came to her classes to coach the students. In college, she worked with the “larger-than-life” actor on a student film called “Birthday.”
“I was so intimidated and scared. It was the first time I was behind the camera as a director, and here’s this Oscar-nominated actor, who has this incredible talent, and I’m directing him,” Ferris said.
“I really thought that he was going to be directing me in how to make this film, but that wasn’t the case at all. He was just so gracious.”
After he passed away, Ferris wanted to make a short film about a bronze bust that fellow actor and friend of Miller, Paul Sorvino, was commissioned to sculpt by the city of Scranton for display on Courthouse Square. Once she started filming, however, she realized that there was more to Miller’s story than a short could convey.
The film eventually became “Miller’s Tale,” a documentary that took over six years to produce. The movie, produced by Ferris’ production company, Cottage Films, covers Miller’s triumphs – his Pulitzer Prize win for his Broadway play, “That Championship Season,” and his iconic role as Father Damian Karras in the Oscar-winning film “The Exorcist” – as well as his private descent into alcoholism.
His genuine humbleness, talent, and kindness, however, shines through most of his tale, told through years of interviews with stars like Martin Sheen and Stacy Keach, and local citizens, many of them actors who were touched by his honest sincerity.
“He had this ability to really dig into people’s hearts and souls and just understand them. Walk into Farley’s [Eatery & Pub in Scranton] and you’ll find that one of the greatest nights of their lives was sitting at the bar, having a conversation with Jason Miller,” Ferris said.
“It wasn’t because he was a celebrity – it was because he really had this intensity about him and just drew people in and made them discover things about themselves that they didn’t even know they had.”
While the movie is very much Miller’s story, it’s Ferris’ as well. The film is narrated and told from her perspective and, during the course of its production, she fell in love with and married Jason Ferris, the cinematographer and one of the executive producers of “Miller’s Tale.”
The couple, now living in New Orleans, recently returned to Scranton for three weeks to finish the film that they’ve been working on for their entire relationship. Funded by many local grants and the Independent Television Service, it is now in post-production, and they are working with WVIA-TV to have the film aired on PBS in the near future. They would also like to have screenings in Scranton as well, appropriate to remember a man so dedicated to local theatre.
Despite her own diehard dedication to the project, Ferris said that she’s still not sure if she found all the answers she was seeking when she first started shooting, but she was able to get a bigger picture of what kind of man he was.
“He has this incredible talent, and I don’t know if he didn’t know what to do with it or if he didn’t enjoy the spotlight or what. I think that he tried to make other people shine in a way that maybe he was afraid to himself,” Ferris explained.
“I also think, when he came back, he saw an opportunity to do something very constructive here. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with regional theatre, and he was very effective and passionate in doing that,” Jason Ferris added.
His short but significant legacy still clearly lives on today. Movie star Liev Schreiber announced in June his intention to return to Broadway for a revival of “That Championship Season,” and Fathom Events will be broadcasting via satellite an extended director’s cut of “The Exorcist” for one night only on Thursday, Sept. 30 to select theaters, including Cinemark in Moosic at 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.