Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Stephen McFeely and Chris Markus, co-writers of Pain and Gain, the Captain America series, and The Chronicles of Narnia series. Over the past decade, Steve and Chris went from being Master's students in Creative Writing at UC Davis to powerhouses in the screenwriting industry. They have worked with Michael Bay, Andrew Adamson, Michael Apted, and many more Hollywood big names over the years.
After two years of odd jobs, they started work on a script for Screenland in 1997 which soon morphed into their famous work, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (Kaufman). That work won them a 2005 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing, and the rest is history.
The duo are recognized as go-to writers for fantasy (Faye) that can handle the grit from Pain and Gain to the comic-driven Captain America scripts with creativity and wit. Being from Los Angeles, I was curious to learn more about their story and what's next for Hollywood.
Below is the interview I had with Stephen:
Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk. I'm excited to learn more about your story and what's in store for you and Chris!
No problem, I'll help in any way I can.
I've gained some experience with writing fiction and creative non-fiction as a medium, but am curious to learn about the screenwriting process in particular. How is it similar or different to writing a novel, a series of poems, or a short story?
Screenwriting as a whole tends to be more objective. In a novel,, you can have chapters of stream of consciousness writing that add depth to the plot and characters. Film doesn't allow for that by its nature, at least in the long form. For Chris and I, film is about portraying images and emotions that you can deduces from images. For example, if a character takes a rabbit's foot out of their pocket during a particular scene, you can deduce something about them and about that symbol.
So it's more about symbols?
Not necessarily. It really comes down to making the audience feel a certain way. That stars with showing the actor how to feel by the words on the page.
Great. Could you tell me about your reputation in Hollywood as screenwriters and how you view adaptations of real events, as in Pain and Gain?
Sure. Our reputation is as guys who adapt, and that emerged organically. First with Peter Sellers and now with Pain and Gain, Chris and I attempt to get at the spirit of the truth. Telling a story inherently has bias, because of perspective and the way the story is told. Once we accept that, we tell stories that we love ourselves. Even the best documentary has somebody's bias. Our goal is to be true-ish: in Sellers we took out some large elements to make the story flow better.
How about your writing approach? Can you tell me about that process.
We break it up into three parts. In part one, we outline like no other. Anything that is half-interesting we put into a three by five notecard. We try to find the spine of the story. That first step takes about two-three months usually, but that depends on how much input the director and producer gives us. Step two is to break up the story line. If there are twelve notecards that we have agreed upon, Chris will take one-six and I will take seven-12, for example. We will individually writer up those parts and come back to each other in six-seven weeks. Then we have a very ugly draft. Part three is attacked that script together, and that's where the money is made. It's a very collaborative process at the end.
Sounds well thought out. Was this process organically developed or did you both set out from the beginning with this three step process?
Great question. Yes it was very organic. Our basic ideology coming into screenwriting was to write first and revise slowly, and things just came into place after that.
Let's back up a bit now. Can you tell us about your beginnings?
Chris and I met at Davis while doing our Master's degree in Creative Writing. We both heard about screenwriting and decided to move to L.A. We gave ourselves four years and worked a bunch of side-jobs until that time. Things really started to pick up when we got an agent 2 years in. Every morning, we would work on our spec script and shine it up. The producer that I worked for gave the spec script to one of his interested friends and that started the slow process. Once we had an agent, we were in the game. We moved onto another agent since then, and a month after that we got the Sellers gig.
What a Hollywood story! What's the hardest part of the job? What's the most frustrating part of the job?
Those are really two questions. The most difficult part of the job is starting, the outlining. Chris and I look for anything that we call "yeasty"--some kind of ability for growth. That process of finding content or lines that are yeasty is tedious. We are looking for ideas and "what if's!" The most frustrating part of the job is the interpretation. When the script goes out of your hands and into the director's or actor's, you sometimes see this shining thing that actually is not the case on screen. But then again, that shining thing doesn't exist.
How do you handle the interface between actor, director, and screenwriter? Is it different on a case-by-case basis?
It totally varies. Right now, I am on set in Chicago for Captain America. Marvel likes to have us on set because they feel we can add something extra that the director sometimes cannot. For Pain and Gain, Michael didn't want us on set so we saw the first cut as a whole piece. Sometimes it can be weird to see that cut because you don't know anything about the decision made that impact the way we see the story unfold. For example, for Sellers we saw daily shots, scenes shot just from one angle, and got freaked out. Then we saw it come together during post-production.
Now with Captain America and Pain and Gain you are both deservedly getting a lot of press. Is it hard to handle the public's eye and the pressure when writing? How do you handle that?
We tend to take on projects with followings. Captain America has a devout following, and that's with a capital "D". Early on, we decided that we cannot succumb to any public pressure and just focus on making the script interesting to us. IT always has to be interesting to us, that's our rule. I am proud of every page that I have written. Whether it was successful or not, I have reasons for each that I have learned from.
So what's in line for you, a break after this string of work?
Well, this is our break, being on set. We just got back a script that we will start working on when we are back in L.A. I am thinking about directing a piece, we will see how that goes. Another idea I had was to create a TV show, but that's far off.
Finally, what's your favorite movie and why?
Well, I have to stay with the classics. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. They have great scripts and came at the right time for me. From a screenwriter's perspective, I'd have to say Chinatown. With a switch watch script, a perfect and bleak ending, and just the right amount of dialogue and narrative, this is a popular choice among screenwriters.
Thanks so much Steve, that's all I have.