It was really, really important to start plowing the road the right way in the first place. [Max] set us off in the right direction—he was invaluable...Often writers don’t appreciate the work that’s come before them enough.
Three is the magic number for the creepily fascinating, true-life drama Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carell as deranged industrialist heir and national Olympic wrestling benefactor John du Pont. The story rests on a triumvirate of men—du Pont and the Olympic wrestling Schultz brothers, David (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark (Channing Tatum). The film’s narrative heart lies in the quietly desperate conflict between Du Pont and younger brother Mark to win the love and approval of the more respected David, and to ultimately possess the natural social ease he had and they both lacked.
Unlocking this central dynamic was another trio of creatives: director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), veteran screenwriter E. Max Frye (Something Wild), and Dan Futterman, an actor and writer who scripted Capote. Initially, Frye took on the challenge of making cinematic sense of the real-life story—how John du Pont, for no understandable reason, shot Mark Schultz dead in a driveway on his estate and later convicted of third-degree murder and imprisoned until his death in 2010. Frye hammered out a hard-won draft, but when the Writers Guild strike and other work took him away, Futterman stepped in and chiseled away at the rough statue Frye had created, honing it to the final script.
It was an all-too-rare amicable writing tag team. Both Frye and Futterman spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about their shared but separate experience with the material, getting lost in the narrative woods, and how writing a great scene doesn’t necessarily make a movie better.
I know you two did not write together, but can you each tell me about your first exposure to the material.
Dan Futterman: When I first discussed the material with Bennett, he was focused on just du Pont and Mark Schultz and the oddness of that relationship. But what I remember thinking is, I’m not sure if I get this. [Then] Max and Bennett hooked up… After Max wrote his draft, I thought, Oh, I completely get it. What to me was really, really important was the bringing in—in a very full way—of Dave as a third part of this triangle. That was work that we then continued to discuss, Bennett and I, and I would go off and write and hand it to him. Bennett was very, very involved in all of this. But Max can talk about the beginning now.
This is exceedingly unique, subtle, complicated, true-life material. What for you was the linchpin to breaking this story? I read that, indeed, it was the incorporation of Dave and this kind of triumvirate of three characters?
Max Frye: Yeah, that was it. When I sat down with Bennett and started talking about the movie, he started with the life rights to Mark Schultz, and he had this vast trove of public domain material—hundreds of hours of interviews of wrestlers that had been at Foxcatcher and had knew Dave and Mark, knew du Pont. Du Pont had written a couple of books, or ghostwritten a couple of books talking about coaching [and other things]. So the big question was, where’s the real story here? What is it that compelled these people and ultimately ended up in this tragedy?
[Initially] Bennett and I approached it as kind of a Mark and du Pont story, and it just didn’t feel right, it just didn’t work. The tension was there between them, but there was something missing. For me, it was the realization that this was almost a love triangle and that these three people had a profound influence on one another. Not only were they vying for the affection and respect of each other in a way—especially du Pont and Mark for Dave’s respect and affection—but that it was a power struggle going on [over] who would be dominant in what particular areas. Dave was dominant in wrestling, even more so than Mark, and du Pont was dominant because he was rich and a du Pont. But Dave wasn’t just dominant in wrestling, he was dominant personality-wise. Mark wanted a gold medal, but even more he wanted Dave’s love and respect.
So by bringing Dave into a more prominent position in the story, you create this alpha battle in a way between du Pont and Dave?
Max Frye: Yeah. Ultimately Dave was the alpha of those three. Even though du Pont had money and power, Dave represents something that he didn’t have. He didn’t have respect as an athlete or really as a man outside of the name and the money.
Dan, you had been exposed to the material prior to Max and then seeing what Max did with it, what for you at the end of the day was the story about thematically?
Dan Futterman: To me, I kept thinking about John du Pont and Mark Schultz as these two fatherless children battling for the love and respect of Dave. They couldn’t both have it, and ultimately that’s what they ended up fighting over. Somebody had to pay the price for that. When you boil it down to its essence, it was both a power struggle and a really emotional struggle, and it was about respect and admiration as a man, as a leader, as a coach, as an athlete. Despite wealth on one side and incredible athletic prowess and power on the other, they both lacked something very essential—a way for them to have the respect of others. And Dave just seemed to do that so easily. They both wanted to be like him and to get his approval.
With material like this, did either of you get lost in the woods?
Max Frye: Well, we started in the woods. My biggest contribution to this was sitting with Bennett and figuring out what the story was. It wasn’t about a crazy guy who shoots a wrestler. It was, but you can’t make a movie out of [that]. So what was compelling about this? Who were these people and what made them do the things that they did? We had this basic true story to work with, but the real stuff was unseen. Bennett had an idea of what he was after, so there was a lot of writing scenes and writing a first act, and then going back and saying, “Oh, this is good, that is not good. This doesn’t get us anywhere. Oh, that’s interesting.” There was a ton of that. I know that Dan did a lot of that too.
Dan Futterman: I was going to ask you if you had the experience—I’m sure you did—but the experience of, This is a great scene! You’d think, That’s great, that’s gold! And you realize there’s nowhere for it, it doesn’t help the movie, it doesn’t get you anywhere. So much of it was cutting away, what felt like gold at the time but really actually didn’t add any weight to the story.
Coming from Capote with Bennett—you can’t compare these two stories, but again you’re dealing with really complicated true-life material—can you even compare in terms of the logistical challenge, the narrative challenge of corralling this material?
Dan Futterman: I would say a little bit. Capote had very clear sign posts in terms of turning events in the story… But for this one I have to give it up to Max. In discussion with Bennett and on his own, Max did most of the heavy lifting. For me, it was a lot of paring away at a certain point.
And Max I’m curious, now obviously with the film complete, what do you feel Dan brought to the story?
Max Frye: If you were to make a metaphor, I felt like I had created this body, and I don’t know it had life. It had the potential for life. When I look back at everything—Dan went in and rearranged things, and grafted this onto that. But he did a lot of paring away, cutting and just making things much clearer. I feel like that was really what made everything come alive as a story. But really as he said, just taking away, taking away ‘til you get to the bare, to the real essence of what it is. That was a lot of his work. That really gave life and made it real.
Dan Futterman: If I could just jump in for one second. I think Max is selling himself short a little bit here. There’s a whole lot more life in his script than he's giving himself credit for. Max and I have both done some rewriting and been rewritten and they are what they are. This really felt like a different animal to me. It felt like I was continuing on a path that Max had started on. The Writers Guild strike happened, and Max had put off other work that he had to jump onto. A lot of this stuff was a road that Max started plowing and would have continued to plow. It was really, really important to start plowing the road the right way in the first place. He set us off in the right direction—he was invaluable. That work was invaluable. Often writers don’t appreciate the work that’s come before them enough. In this case it was perfectly obvious to me how valuable he was.
Well, you guys are definitely setting an example of magnanimity among writers.
Max Frye: Which will not be followed by anybody.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West