Oscar Nominees E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman on Writing Foxcatcher

Writing any screenplay based on an actual incident is a daunting task, what with staying true to your real characters and settings without compromising your narrative. And when your story is as stirring, disturbing and shocking as the one depicted in Foxcatcher—which explores the aberrant and ultimately deadly relationship between millionaire John du Pont and wrestlers and brothers Mark and Dave Schultz—the job to tell the tale in just 134 minutes is especially formidable.

But writers E. Max Frye (Something Wild, Where the Money Is, Band of Brothers) and Dan Futterman (Capote, In Treatment, Gracepoint) have succeeded, having earned both Oscar and Writers Guild nominations for Best Original Screenplay for Foxcatcher. It’s a film nearly eight years in the making, with Frye signing on with director Bennett Miller in 2007 and then departing for previous commitments about six months later after that year’s writers’ strike. Futterman, who worked with Miller on Capote, stepped in to continue shaping the script on and off over the next four years. While Frye and Futterman never worked side-by-side on Foxcatcher, they consider themselves co-writers nonetheless, a fact underscored by their mutual admiration.

The Credits spoke with the pair in the lead up to this Sunday's Academy Awards.

The Credits: Congratulations on your Oscar and Writers Guild nominations. Dan, this is your second Oscar nod [receiving the first for Capote]. Does it feel different?

Dan Futterman: I’m calling it my one-and-a-half Oscar nod. Does it feel different? It feels incredible… Capote was kind of the first thing I had written in a serious way. Having written for a while now, both on television and film, I feel much more like a writer, not like somebody who was trying to write. And so getting this WGA nomination and then the Oscar nomination, and feeling like the people who I’ve worked with, both as an actor and then as a television writer and now as a screenwriter, saying ‘We really value what you did, and think the work that you and Max did [was great],' it’s incredibly gratifying.

How did Miller come to you, Max, and what shape was the script in at that time? How much fleshing out of plot and character did you have to do?

Frye: Well, honestly, I never saw Dave Eggers’ script [the first version]. And so I sat down with Bennett and he detailed out what he was looking for and what he saw this story to be. And he told me about this other script, but he said it ultimately didn’t get to where he needed it to go and he wanted me to start with an unbiased look at the story to see what I would come up with.

So you started from scratch basically?

Frye: Well, I started with a mountain of material that Bennett had collected. There were lots of interviews with wrestlers, etc., etc. So I would say that was my fundamental job, to find the story within the story. And that’s really what took up kind of the bulk of my time on the project.

Was it almost too much material? How did you go about extracting what you needed?

Frye: Well, you know, I use the metaphor of a block of marble, because I once read Michelangelo would order a block of marble and would say, ‘The sculpture is in there, I just have to get to it.’ And I think that’s kinda the way I looked at it, with Bennett presenting this big block of marble and saying, ‘Hey there’s a sculpture in there, so how do you get to it?’ Well, you’ve got to start chipping away. Things work or they don’t work, and we just kept going at it. And I would go off and write, and then come back so Bennett and I could go over it. Finally, the thing started to take shape, but it was really challenging, because it’s not a biopic, and we tried to not make it the story of, a crazy rich guy who shoots a wrestler.

Steve Carrell is John du Pont in 'Foxcatcher.' Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Futterman: What Max has said about his beginning the process over is important. Max was doing an original script and from a great deal of material. And then my work was working off the incredibly important work that Max had done. There was both a mound of material [and] there was also more than a decade of events that Max, through discussion with Bennett and also on his own, crafted into a story that took place in two years. And that was hugely important. A great deal of this was, as Max said, chipping away, excavating, getting down to the core story that could be told in a two-hour period of a film. Max’s work was enormously important and it was always the template that I was working from over the next four years that I worked on the script.

How did your drafts take shape?

Futterman: Usually, you know everything at every point, and this goes for drafts that I did as well. When it’s time to do another draft, Bennett and I would put up all the cards for every scene up on the wall. It’s what we did with Max’s draft, but it’s what Max did when he was starting as well. Get the index cards up on the wall, try to hear the movie in your head as you look at the sequence of events. Is the narrative driving forward, is it not? Where are we stalling out? What are we missing? What can we take away? That happened with every draft.

How different of an experience was writing Foxcatcher vs. Capote?

Futterman: It was a totally different process. I mean with Capote, as I said, I hadn’t ever really written anything like that before, and so I worked on that for a number of years by myself and the only person who saw anything was Anya [Epstein, his wife and writing partner] and she was incredibly helpful and encouraging. And when it was done, I gave it to Bennett and said, ‘Hey would this interest you to direct, and, if so, should we talk to Phil [Seymour Hoffman] about maybe being in it?’ Foxcatcher was totally different because it was something that he got excited about first…and again, Max helped him figure out how to tell it. And then he felt like he wanted to work on it further and asked me if I would be interested. Max’s script was really illuminating and exciting to me in the way that he found the voice for Mark, he found the voice for du Pont, and he found a way to make Dave an integral part of the story. At first glance, and on first hearing it, Dave can sound like he’s the casualty of a relationship that he wasn’t a part of. But Max figured out how to work him into the story in a really important way and I got excited by the work that he had done and was excited to continue it.

L-r: Channing Tatum is Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo is his brother Dave. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

When you’re writing a script, if you know which actors will be portraying the characters, do you consider that in any way, in terms of what their particular strengths may be?

Frye: You know, it’s been my experience that it’s rare that I know an actor before the script is completed. I think for me the most important thing is if you’re writing about real people, how do you distill the essence of them and make a movie character out of that person, and give the character dialogue that might have been spoken by the real person? I almost never think of an actor in my head when I’m writing a script. So to me it’s finding the essence of the character and making that work on paper and trying to write it in a way that’s playable for an actor. Writing dialogue that an actor could say no matter who the actor is, and if you get actors like what we got in Foxcatcher, that’s even better.

Futterman: I feel similarly with this movie. It wasn’t clear for a very long time that any actors would ever play any of these parts. There were an original financing company that ended up backing out. There were no actors attached. And Channing Tatum had been talked about…but it was nothing definite. It was only in the last year before it was going into production that Mark [Ruffalo] became truly set and Steve Carell was really set to do it. So it was really trying to find these characters.

What is most challenging about scripting a true story? Do you typically have to take liberties for the sake of the story?

Frye: Absolutely, I mean unless you’re doing a documentary I suppose, which I’ve never done, but there are real people and then there are real movie people, and there is the way that people speak in real life and then there is the way that people speak in movies. They're just different things. I think that’s a hard thing for aspiring screenwriters to understand…is that you have to take the essence, if you’re working from real life, you take the essence of that person and synthesize it in a way that works for a movie. You can’t just take the person and make it a direct translation. It just doesn’t work.

Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) prepares Mark (Channing Tatum) for a match while "coach" John du Pont (Steve Carrell) looks on. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

What did each of you take away from the experience of writing the script for this film?

Frye: I really got into what it was like to be a wrestler and what a unique sport it is. I grew up playing team sports, basketball particularly, and that was fun for me to really get in there and understand what it takes to be a wrestler, that kind of dedication and that willingness to take punishment and inflict that kind of thing on your body. And even though it’s an individual sport, the community is so tight-knit.

Futterman: This script feels like a real collaboration between Max and myself with Bennett’s guidance. Max and I never sat in a room together, but there’s a huge amount of him in it and there’s a lot of me in it, and our names were always on it. I never took Max’s name off because I knew what an important contribution he had made to it. And I think there’s often a case where writers try to kind of obliterate the writer before them, put their own stamp on it. I was very, very happy to follow the path of Max and start to kind of hack through the trees.

That’s pretty rare.

Futterman: I mean look, it wasn’t something I thought ‘Oh I’m gonna behave like this.’ It came from the admiration of the work that he had done. The other thing I would say is that there is something that became clear to me that just has to do with this particular movie. Max was talking about wrestling, it's intimate, it’s tactile and it’s also brutal. And every scene felt like, as I was writing it, felt like it was another expression of sort of a wrestling match between people: who’s being dominant, who’s being submissive, who’s looking for an opening, who’s trying to manipulate the other person. And that's just sort of a generally good lesson for writing, to be looking for those ways that people are trying to act on the other person.

Frye: You know you have movies that get made and they’re not what you hoped and you have scripts that never get made and that’s disappointing. And then sometimes, you catch lightening in a bottle.