/Film Interview: ‘Pain & Gain’ Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely Talk Adaptation and Michael Bay
Posted on Friday, April 26th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
Michael Bay might be the man getting all the ink when it comes to this week’s true crime film Pain & Gain, but really Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were initially responsible for its birth. It was the screenwriting pair, who wrote the three Chronicles of Narnia adaptations, Captain America: The First Avenger, and the upcoming Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that found the original Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins and shopped them around Hollywood. That was in 2000.
Granted, it was Bay’s attachment that actually got the film made, but Markus and McFeely were essential in the development of the film. Below, we spoke to the pair about that process, what Bay brought to the table, using voice over and what it means to adapt a true story.
/Film: Michael Bay has been talking about Pain and Gain for a long time, probably since before the Transformers movies. How long have you been involved and how involved was he in the development of the script?
Stephen McFeely: The articles came out in late ’99. We read them in early 2000. A producer named Wendy Japhet, who was working with Donald De Line at the time, brought them to us, and we said ‘Wow these are crazy.’ We took them around town, everyone said ‘Wow that IS crazy, no thank you.’ Then somehow it got to Michael, who is a part time Miami resident, who said ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I’m looking to do a small thing.’ Again this is 2000, so he attached himself, and suddenly Paramount went, Oh sure we’d love to.
Christopher Markus: ‘That thing we turned down before? I don’t know what we were thinking.’
McFeely: So for the last, twelve years…first year we did a couple drafts. He liked it, it was in good shape, and then between every big movie he said ‘I’m gonna come back and do that little movie.’ Then the powers of Hollywood sort of forced him to make the big movies. And then finally after Transformers 3, he said ‘No really, I’d like to make this one’ and Paramount said ‘Okay.’ And they made him a two for one deal.
I was reading the article (NOTE: Start reading here) and, obviously, you had to change a lot. You had to mesh some characters together, had to take the families out but you do use specific lines of dialogue and small details. What’s the line between making it a true story and something “based” on a true story?
Markus: Hm. In some ways, that is marketing, depending on how they want to sell it to the world. But our decisions are all mostly based on storytelling coherence. There were so many people doing so many bad things. Each one did a little bad thing. One shows up at the end and throws away bodies, another guy shows up ‘I can get you horse tranquilizer’ or whatever. We can’t tell that story in two hours, it’s incoherent. So we had to compress things, make three characters into one, just for storytelling sake. But you want to leave the message and the overall story as close to true as you can.
McFeely: Yeah. With any true story, or actually with anything we adapt, you’ve got two hours. And that could be 70 years of comics or a year long true story or somebody’s life. And you’re gonna have to make decisions. You want to make sure the decisions you make are done in the spirit of the story and the tone of the story.
So is that why you chose to employ a lot of voiceover at the beginning which, typically, people might say is a big no-no?
McFeely: Yeah, I do want to get out there that, from the very first draft, we wanted to use voice over. One of the biggest challenges is to figure out a way…we don’t particularly want to sympathize with these guys but I want to get into their head and the voice over where the guy is saying the opposite of what he’s doing, we find very effective. It’s a window into him. We’ve always used it.
Markus: Generally, voiceover is a big no-no for us because people misuse it and hammer home a point that you’ve completely gotten visually. But these guys are so delusional, that there’s another whole layer of crazy to get when you hear their thoughts. When you see them doing something horrible, and the hear them thinking that it’s not horrible, that’s when you get the full grasp of how demented they are.
Now you said you were attached to this before Michael was, did you meet [original reporter] Pete Collins and did you find you needed to do any additional research? His articles are insanely well-researched.
McFeely: That’s the thing, we felt the same way. Not only were they really well researched, with eight sources for everything, but tonally they’re the movie. It’s not just the events that were interesting to everybody, it was Pete’s interpretation of the events. The way he laid them out there. So we spoke to Pete many times but we never met him. Frankly we didn’t meet him until the premiere and it was really great to do so. We spent a lot of time with him.
Is it a relief doing movies like Pain and Gain vs. Marvel movies where the story is out there, you can talk about it, where with the Marvel movies you always have to dance around specifics?
McFeely: I have to start dancing now.
Markus: I mean, it is a relief. But the stories are out there for Marvel too. The comic books have been out for 70 years so even if you don’t know the specifics, you know what’s going on.
To read the rest of the interview, where we talk all about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World and The Avengers 2, visit this link.
Pain & Gain opens April 26.