Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman call ‘Foxcatcher’ an anti-sports movie

“Foxcatcher” was a pretty arduous ordeal, according to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. It was something that only existed in the head of director Bennett Miller, who saw potent drama in the story of John du Pont and the wrestling brothers Schultz, Dave and Mark, but couldn't quite intimate what that was. Frye started chiseling away first, and latter Futterman came on to do more work. The result is a film that resonates on every level, the hard work clearly having paid off.

The two never worked on the script at the same time, but have come to be quite friendly over the course of the film's PR circuit. Now they're in the mix for Best Original Screenplay recognition as “Foxcatcher” tries to find its stride on the circuit. I talked to Frye and Futterman earlier this week about cracking what didn't at first glance appear to be a movie, viewing the tale as an anti-sports drama (where legacies are disassembled rather than built up) and working with a director as exacting as Miller. Check out the back and forth below.

“Foxcatcher” is now playing in theaters.


HitFix: I love the movie. I saw it at Telluride for the first time and it just sucked me in. I could not take my eyes off the screen. So congratulations first of all.

E. Max Frye: Thank you very much. Appreciate that.

Dan Futterman: Thanks.

Max, I believe you took the first stab at tackling a draft here. What was the central thematic construct that you were sort of keeping your eye on in those early days?

E. Max Frye: Well, I think when I came in there was a mountain of material that had been collected and interviews and documents and articles, etc., etc. So I think the first task was to really figure out what the story was, because it couldn't be about a rich guy who kills a wrestler. We started to really shake it up and try to figure out what are the elements in it that are going to move this story in the way that it went in real life in a way that we can make a movie out of it, one of which I remember clearly being power and what does that do to people and how do people use it and manipulate other people with it. It was an interesting dynamic. Mark was a very world class athlete, which du Pont had lured with his name and money. And yet Dave in a way held the most power because of his personality and also his athletic ability. But just the sheer dynamics of his personality, he became the alpha in that threesome. So I think one of the first themes that we looked at was power and that came about just because we were trying to see where the “story” was in the story.

Dan, when you saw what Max had done and how he made his way into the material, did any sort of light bulbs go off for you? I guess it's not the kind of thing that would immediately stand out as movie material, as Max says.

Dan Futterman: No, it's true. I mean I don't know exactly what it was that intrigued Bennett to begin with but in his communicating to me initially he sort of told me about these things that had happened, but it didn't click for me and it was clearly a dynamic between du Pont and Mark and then the other guy got killed. And it seemed odd, in a strange world, but there didn't seem to be a story that I could latch onto. Reading Max's draft was completely revelatory and Max really cracked the code of the movie. And to me the important element was how much he brought Dave in as an active player on both these guys, to drive the narrative towards the tragedy that happens. It's not obvious from the real life material that that's how you would tell this story. So Max's contribution was enormous and extremely important. I don't think the movie would exist as it is now without Max having worked on it.

At the end of the day the film is so very much about American exceptionalism, I feel. I think between “Foxcatcher,” “A Most Violent Year” and even “Whiplash,” it's like a trilogy about a sort of perceived America. I mean this is a film that ends with an emphatic “USA! USA!” chant that's more haunting than rousing. So anyway, talk a little bit about that.

Dan Futterman: Well, you know, Max I'm going to quote you on this. Max said an interesting thing about “Whiplash,” which I just saw, which is that in a way that movie plays like – not to take anything away, but it's a triumph of the spirit almost the way you expect a sports movie to play. A guy with a tough coach who breaks through at the end and shows how exceptional he is. This movie – and Max I'm going to pass it off to you in one second – this movie plays in the exact opposite of that and sort of confounds the expectations of a sports movie. And Max, I mean this is something that excited you about the story to begin with.

E. Max Frye: Yeah, I mean, I'm an ex-jock, you know, sports guy and I love a good sports movie as much as the next guy. But I think one of the things that was intriguing here was the fact that this was the anti. You started with two gold medals and you take everything away and deconstruct the climb to the top of the mountain as it were. So you end up destroying three lives instead of two people standing on a podium with their arms raised. But part of what you were asking was about the USA and the patriotism that's in there. All of that stuff was du Pont and all of the platitudes and the clichés that he used about America and being champions, that was all du Pont. And that's all documented in the various things that we had for reference. He'd actually written, or had ghost written, a couple of books and he had the documentary that he had done. And so it wasn't like we had to put in any American exceptionalism or USA chants or anything else. That was built in there.

I first worked on it in '07 and then Dan worked on it in '08. Had the movie been made in '08, I don't think that anybody would say, “Whoa, you're making a comment about America or capitalism” or whatever. I think that for better or for worse the country, the times have moved on. It's 2014, it comes out now and people can look at that and say, “Oh, well you guys, you're just making a comment about capitalism or the country” or something. But that really was something that we didn't intend in a concrete way to try to make a comment about. We just tried to reflect John du Pont and what he was about, which was very much that very thing. And we didn't construct a story to make him look bad or to make him a bad guy or to disparage capitalism or anything else. We just told the story as it really was, and then we took plenty of license, but we didn't try to conform it to any political agenda. I think that has been taken away by some people, which I find interesting.

Yeah, I mean I think at the end of the day art is viewed through the prism of the times, and whether willful or not it's something that's inherent in the material that kind of resonates, particularly now. And I think frankly that just makes it more of a masterpiece, in my opinion!

E. Max Frye: Sometimes you get lucky. I mean, because the country and the world – and it could have gone the other way, you know? After '08 and it might look completely irrelevant now and work against the movie.

That's true. And that's kind of a macro construct on the whole, but I'm curious what works better for you guys in terms of cracking a story. A broad thematic idea like that or something more on the ground and micro, something about relationships, etc.

E. Max Frye: Well I'll say this. Just one word and then I'm going to let Dan take it from there. For me it's all about character. It's all about finding who those people are and then letting them go. So just above and beyond anything for me is who are the people. Who are the characters? The story then becomes subordinate to the characters.

Dan Futterman: And I think that's why this is such a really seamless collaboration between Max and me. Not that we sat together and wrote it but that we were of a very similar mind about how to pursue the story. Certainly my eyes were opened and once I saw what Max had done and saw the path that he had set us on – and I feel like I continued on that path – it was very much about how to make it clear that here are these two men. And to me, I really began to feel about Mark and du Pont, as different as they are, that they have a lot in common, and what they have in common is I saw them as sort of fatherless men who need somebody to father them, to love them, to respect them. They both, as Max said, had been given something extraordinary. One, incredible athletic, world class ability. The other half a billion dollars. And yet neither of them had respect from anybody in a particular. And the object of that respect, the person who they wanted that from, became the theme person. It was Dave. And they fought over that. That's what drove the story to the end. It's like two dogs with a bone. And then you can see the path ahead of you, but to me, starting from above in order to make a comment about whatever, political, class, the divisions between the haves and have nots – I don't get excited by that. I only get excited by character dynamics, by, you know, the thing within a character that's going to be their undoing. And in this movie you have that in spades.

Yeah, to say the least. What is Bennett like to work with in the writing process? He's such an exacting director that I have to imagine it's not always easy.

E. Max Frye: Party time! Constantly! No, you know, I look back on it and think, “Wow, that was really grueling and hard.” But it was a pretty incredible journey and a journey of discovery. I think Bennett, in his mind, you know, came to me and he had this story and I like to use the analogy of a block of marble. He could see what the sculpture was, what the figure was, what the story was within that block of marble. But he needed somebody to be able to put that on paper, and it wasn't entirely clear to me what that was, what that figure was. And so it was a really painstaking process of chipping away and chipping away and chipping away and finally, “Oh, that's OK. I see. Yeah, I see.” I don't even know that he saw exactly, what it was. And I think that was why it was so hard. He's a very articulate guy and if he could have just articulated, you know, in a log line, “Here's what this is” – but it took us quite a while to even figure out how to be able to articulate it. And Dan did even more than I did, but it was a really long and painstaking process of trial and error and chipping away and finally this story kind of came out of the stone and we went from there. It was hard but incredibly gratifying when we saw, “Oh, that's what this is.”

Dan Futterman: You know I worked with Bennett twice on movies. And for “Capote,” that was something I spent some years on my own, discussing it with only my wife, Anya Epstein, who I now write with sometimes. But I had finished that script and then approached Bennett and we approached Phil [Hoffman] to see if he'd be in it. And after we got it going there was some discussion of the morphing of the script, but that was something that I had kind of done on my own. So this was a new experience for the two of us, where he had also worked with Max, obviously, to begin with. But I think my feeling about it was that he had gotten excited by the characters, by the strangeness of the situation, but how to construct the scenes so that they would lead from one to another and lead in a particular direction with momentum and with a sense of inexorability. That was not clear and he needed some help with that. And then we talked endlessly through every draft. I mean we put up every scene from Max's draft on the wall with an index card and talked every single scene through: Should it stay? Should it go? Should it change? I'd do a draft and come back and we'd do it again. We did that five full times but scores of times for individual acts or individual scenes. So there was a lot of talking and then a lot of going away and writing. I know Max did the same thing. A lot of the time I think it wasn't always clear to Bennett, what exactly he wanted, but he certainly knew what he didn't want and so you'd present stuff, talk about it, reject it, go back, write, present it again. So that was painstaking. It was grueling. But it always felt like we were making progress and starting to clear the woods and find the path through the woods.

Everything in the film is so precise and exquisite, whether thematically or visually or just in terms storytelling. What scene would you say went through the rewrite grinder the most? (LIGHT SPOILERS IN THIS ANSWER)

Dan Futterman: God there were a lot of them. I think there are two fundamental ones to me where there were a lot of strands that were kind of playing out. One of them is that part where Mark walks into the gym and Dave is in his office meeting then with the U.S. Olympic committee guys and he brings them in and says, “Mark, remember these guys?” And Mark kind of ignores them. They take off uncomfortably and then they start to get into warming up and wrestling and then it gets kind of brutal and bloody. To me that distilled – that scene brought in a lot of threads that we were all working on. It was this U.S. Olympic scene. It was the fact that Dave was the alpha coach. There was the fact that Mark was jealous of that, was being ignored. It was the fact that Mark had never beat Dave, although he was a weight class lighter than him. It was the fact that Dave, when you cross him, will punish you for it. And that all comes out, as well as the tenderness between the brothers. That was a lot of discussion, a lot of rewriting and a lot of effort, to get each of those strands present in that scene.

And then they all come to fruition, to my mind, in the scene where Dave negotiates with du Pont's right hand man, but the four of them are in the room: the right hand man [Beck], du Pont, Dave and Mark. Mark and Beck are the only ones talking, and they negotiate for Mark to be taken care of, by Foxcatcher, and they agree to let du Pont be in Mark's corner during the Olympics. And that scene, to me, is the end of all the things that got set up at the beginning, where du Pont finally realizes, “I get it. Dave actually doesn't respect me.” Mark realizes, “I get it. My brother's going to sell me out in trying to save me. He's actually going to sell me out, because I can't wrestle if he's [du Pont's] part of my corner.” And it sends us towards the end from that point on. So those two scenes, because there were so many different strands running through them – there's a lot going on and that came out of a lot of years talking and trying and throwing out and saving particular things and melding them with other things.

E. Max Frye: I would agree with that. For me, I remember part of that first scene that Danny described was Mark being cut loose from whatever program they were wrestling with at the time. That got changed in the movie, right Dan?

Dan Futterman: Yeah. I mean I think actually that section got cut in the editing room, so you don't exactly know what – it seems like he's coming in from having given that talk in front of the kids, which is depressing in and of itself. But I think you're right. Actually I look at the script and I believe that got shot, but there was no room for it in the movie.

E. Max Frye: OK. Anyway, I remember that being a big element of Mark, you know, with the assistant coach under Dave. Which again, you know, set up the idea that Mark is subordinate to Dave, which played out through the entire movie. I think one of the most complex scenes is that negotiation scene, as Dan called it. But it is so complex because it had so many elements to build into to get to that point to make it all work.

Dan Futterman: And there were so many strands that were being either thrown out or preserved. The absolute truth of this is I actually don't remember in each of those scenes what I wrote and what Max wrote, and at a certain point it stopped mattering to me. Max had done incredibly important work. There was a lot of it that got preserved. There was a lot of work that I think got thrown out. It didn't matter at a certain point. It was what's working, what's not working, and clearly we both contributed to what it ended up being. And the important thing was “let's get this right.”

It's nice for a pair of writers who worked on something separately to not be embroiled in any kind of passive aggressive situation behind the scenes or what have you. Have you guys thought at all about collaborating on something together after this?

E. Max Frye: He already has a writing partner!

Dan Futterman: I write with Anya. I've never actually written with anyone but Anya, but we actually don't even write together in the same room. We outline together and then she'll do a chunk of scenes, I'll do a chunk of scenes, and then we'll trade and rewrite and fight and try to agree on something and then move on. I think Max is like me, a fairly solitary writer, right? Have you ever collaborated, actually sat and written with somebody in a room?

E. Max Frye: No, no. I was one of the writers on “Band of Brothers” and we did a writer's room as we talked about it, but no, I've never actually sat with anybody all these years.

It's lonely work.

E. Max Frye: Yeah, well, I'm sure it's lonely for you too.

It can be, yeah. Well like I said, I'm a huge fan of the movie. It was great to talk to you both about it.

Dan Futterman: Listen, thank you for the support of the movie. I know there's a lot of movies out there. Thank you for taking the time to write about this one.

You got it. You guys have a good week.

Dan Futterman: All right. Thank you. You too.

E. Max Frye: So long.