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.