December 10, 2019

‘Foxcatcher’: Why it took 7 years to complete

For Hollywood screenwriters, having your work rewritten is a fact of life, although it goes without saying that most writers hate it. So it's an odd pleasure to meet a pair like E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, a writer and a rewriter who not only don't hate each other, but actually get along swimmingly.

Sitting in THE Blvd Lounge on a recent afternoon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the biggest disagreements between Futterman and Frye, the Oscar-nominated writers of “Foxcatcher,” was over who'd answer the first question and who'd get to eat first. Fresh off a radio interview, their food had been waiting for nearly an hour, and they were ready to dig in.

“It's certainly not unusual to be rewritten in Hollywood … if you've been here for any length of time, you've been rewritten … this is probably the first experience I've had where I didn't hate the person who came in after me,” said Frye, a Hollywood veteran of 30 years.

Creating “Foxcatcher,” the true crime story of the relationship between the enormously wealthy John du Pont and the gold-medalist wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, was a long process. Frye started working on the project in 2007, after being approached by director Bennett Miller, who had been lured in by Executive Producer Tom Heller during a “Capote” DVD signing at the old Tower Records on Sunset, according to Futterman.  Frye produced a draft of the screenplay before the Writers Guild strike forced him to stop working.  Post-strike, after Frye had moved on to other work, Futterman was brought in to finish the script.

“The great achievement, among the many achievements that Max had, was figuring out how to condense 10 to 12 years of material into about two years, and finding voices, in particular for Mark (Schultz) and John du Pont,” Futterman said. “I was really moved by his script, and in particular that he figured out a way to bring Dave (Schultz) into the story.”

Both Futterman and Frye have experience bringing true stories to the screen. Futterman, who is Jewish, famously played reporter Daniel Pearl in “A Mighty Heart,” and also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Capote.” Frye, who is not a member of the tribe, was a writer for the acclaimed TV docu-drama “Band of Brothers” and also collaborated with Werner Herzog on the script of “Invincible,” which is loosely based on the life story of Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart.

“Foxcatcher” had its own particular challenges. The story revolves around the relationships between the Schultz brothers and Du Pont, a paranoid, eccentric multimillionaire. It's an eerie triangle that ultimately culminated in a shocking murder. 

“I think that the part of the equation that is the more complicated one is John du Pont,” Futterman said.  “He was somebody who declined to be spoken to. He didn't want to talk while he was alive in jail; he died a couple of years ago.”

“[The director and I] agreed that we didn't want to make a character that was a monster, or was crazy,” Frye said. “Du Pont in reality may have been both at various times in his life, but for the type of movie that Bennett wanted to make, and for the story that we wanted to tell, it had to be a more nuanced kind of character.

“A lot of what we showed, Du Pont actually did. Because there was no record of him stating 'This is why I did it'… that kind of gave us license to interpret it the way we wanted … and in a way that was a blessing for us.”

In the end, they said, the two writers’ work was a collaboration. “I don't remember what Max wrote; I don't remember what I rewrote,” Futterman claimed. “I sort of felt like I was in conversation with Max.”

“It takes a long time to get it right, and you have to be patient,” Futterman said. “The assembly of the movie was over four hours, so getting it down to even two hours and 10 minutes was a huge undertaking.”

As for whether they knew they had a hit on their hands while still working, Frye was quick to say that he always feels that way. “You know, I think that about every script that I write,” said Frye, drawing laughs from Futterman. “You wouldn't be able to get through it if you didn't … If I thought this was a throwaway, I couldn't get up and do it every day.”

Futterman was equally humble when asked whether he expected the film to be up for awards. “As both an actor and as a writer on TV shows, you come into contact with a lot of writers, and a lot of them are great … to have writers who know what the work is …  say that, of this year, this is a really great one, that was really gratifying,” Futterman said.

“The focus and concentration it takes to write one of these things is astounding, and there's so much luck involved,” Frye said. “You've gotta get lucky. You've gotta get lucky sometimes.”