Posted on Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 by Peter Sciretta
Over the weekend I got the chance to sit down and talk with Captain America: The First Avenger screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus and talk about the process of collaborating with Marvel, adapting Captain America to the big screen, the importance of the period story, the absence of Hitler, having Joss Whedon come in and polish their screenplay, working on Captain America 2 and if plot threads will be continued/concluded in The Avengers or the sequel, working with Michael Bay on Pain & Gain which they call “Michael Bay’s Fargo“, and much more. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Question: I loved the film by the way
Stephen McFeely: Thanks.
Christopher Markus: Thank you.
Stephen McFeely: If you didn’t though, how would you have opened this? (Laughs)
Question: I wouldn’t have said anything.
Stephen McFeely:You would’ve said, “Thanks for sitting down with me…”
Question: Exactly and let me say I came into the film very hesitant.
Christopher Markus: Were you Cap guy or not really?
Question: Not really and the commercials and stuff seem very… The tone in the commercials and the clips make it seem very jokey and corny, but in the movie it completely fits. It works. Were you guys big Cap fans? Did you grow up with the comics?
Stephen McFeely: Chris was a comic book guy.
Christopher Markus: I was a comic book guy, not so much a Cap guy, when I was a kid and then I kind of fell of entirely. I think because he’s not as kid accessible in a way in that he’s like a grown up, but now I’m like “I can’t stop.” I’m still researching the movie even though it’s out in the movie theaters.
Question: How did you guys become involved?
Stephen McFeely:We chased it down. It was May of 2008 that we got word that Marvel was likely going to do a period CAPTAIN AMERICA and we just froze. We went “Oh my God!”
Question: So that is what appealed to you? The period?
Stephen McFeely: The period is huge for us. I mean we had sort of in vacuum, not that anybody approached us, said “Wouldn’t it be great to do a superhero movie in period?” It would solve so many villain problems for one you know, you don’t have to go very far in the 1940’s to find a guy who wants to take over the world. You don’t have to make up a whole crazy background about a billionaire.
Christopher Markus: And it also solves hero problems. Because it’s been so good and has been so successful, the darkness of the BATMAN movies… There’s a tendency where you want to make everybody corrupted and if you are going to do the old fashioned superhero, it just comes off corny if it’s now for some reason. It’s just sort of like…
Stephen McFeely:Well he’s a product of WWII, so why would you hide from how he was created? It makes a lot more sense for a guy to step out in a slightly American flag outfit in 1942 than I does in 2011. You are making a different statement if you walk out of your garage in a Captain America outfit for the first time now than you would have during WWII.
Questions: So had there been a script done before you?
Stephen McFeely:We never read it.
Christopher Markus: We have been told there was a script, but we’ve never seen it.
Question: So you went into Marvel and you pitched your idea?
Stephen McFeely:Yeah, we said “Hey…” And we weren’t necessarily on their radar. For them and for a lot of people we were “The guys who wrote the NARNIA movies” and so that’s not necessarily the same ground.
Christopher Markus: And they certainly had elements that they knew they wanted. WWII, Red Skull…
Stephen McFeely: And that’s what everyone wanted. I mean if I tell you “You’ve got a Captain America movie and you’ve got one shot, it’s going to be an origin story.” You know your villain, because there’s one leader in the clubhouse, right? And you’ve got to get him to the end, you’ve got to freeze him, so you kind of know the beginning and you kind of know the end and there are ways to do all of that, but really the bulk is “What story are you going to tell in the middle that’s going to give you something about this character?”
Question: I was surprised that Hitler wasn’t really on screen.
Stephen McFeely:No, but think about that. You would really have to link Hitler and the Red Skull. I think we all want the Red Skull to be the villain; you don’t want him to be Hitler’s lackey.
Christopher Markus: And also if Cap fights Hitler…
Christopher Markus: …he’s either got to lose, because Cap didn’t actually defeat Hitler or he’s got to win and they have to rewrite the entire history of WWII… It sounds a little propaganda-y, but it’s true, we didn’t want to take anything away from the actual guys who won WWII. We didn’t want to say, “The allies won WWII, because secretly Captain America came and kicked a lot of people’s ass’.” Having Hydra there did kind of address that issue that Cap had his own battle to fight.
Question: When I first read the script for INGLORIOUS BASTERDS I thought that that was going to be the reaction to that, like people were going to really hate the rewriting of history.
Stephen McFeely: Well he gets a pass in a lot of ways. “Tarantino, it’s whatever you want man.”
Question: Tell me what it’s like working Marvel, because it seems like… I guess you guys come from a relationship of working with high end properties that have…”
Christopher Markus: Have a lot of worried people? (Laughs)
Question: Yeah, but Marvel it seems like it’s a big collaboration.
Stephen McFeely:I’ve read places where people think that’s oppressive. It was only good for us. I mean we never walked into a meeting and knew more about the character than the people across the table from us and that’s kind of rare. Usually you are the voice of authenticity let’s say, like “Here’s what Cap would do. Here’s what the mean character would do. We get him more than you do.” The people across the table from us really knew a great deal about Captain America you know?
Christopher Markus: They’ve read more comics and you know in a way with Marvel it very quickly stops being a case of drafts and more of this sort of evolving thing of “Let’s try this part and this part and we can leave that for later…” It is very much four or five people in a room sort of hashing it out.
Stephen McFeely: Yeah, you are signing on for a few years of your life Sheparding this project. Hopefully you’re not just in to offer a draft.
Question: So are you going into rooms and coming out with an outline and then you guys go away and actually write it? Is that how it works?
Stephen McFeely: Yeah, that’s sort of how it works. And we go back and write a bunch of outlines like “Let’s try this version” and we would all talk about that version and then eventually… Let’s see, that process was maybe six months and then we went away and wrote a script for a few months and then came back and everybody said “Yay” and that’s where we would do a second draft. By the time you get to the second or third draft they would say “Alright…” the next part of your deal starts and they go “You are just going to live here at Manhattan Beach for a while and you are going to work with the production designer and Joe can come in down the hall and go ‘you know, what if we change that to that?” We would go “We can do that.”
Questions: Given the history of the Howling Commandos was there ever a thought of having Nick Fury in the WWII period?
Christopher Markus: No, although I know there have been…
Stephen McFeely: And it’s fun, don’t get me wrong.
Christopher Markus: I think what we wanted to minimize and Marvel definitely wanted to minimize was the number of people who essentially don’t age or travel through time. So you’ve got a 100 year old Nick Fury and a 90 year old Cap and all of a sudden it gets very odd.
Stephen McFeely: One would wonder “Why don’t you just stay in the 40’s and tell more stories?” So that’s why we didn’t go there.
Christopher Markus: And plus we had Howard Stark and Tony Stark, it seemed weird that Cap would come to the Avengers and be fighting with the kids of everybody he knew before, (laughs) so as much as I love that Fury and the new Fury…
Question: So that was never the plan?
Stephen McFeely: No. I mean they may have had a conversation before we got on board, but not with us.
Question: It’s been publicized that Joss Whedon came on and did a polish of your draft. I want to know what you thought about that. What did Joss bring out in the film?
Christopher Markus: It was mainly a sort of continuity thing where Joss knew he was starting to write AVENGERS at that point when we were in preproduction on CAP in England. It was mainly that the two Caps are the same guy as opposed to sincere Cap and then suddenly he’s a snarky wise ass in 2011. So it was mainly a sort of universe smoothing operation.
Stephen McFeely: It was never structural or anything. It was mainly a couple of voice things. It all worked out pretty fine.
Question: I’ve always wondered how that must feel.
Stephen McFeely: It’s weird.
Christopher Markus: Yeah, it’s weird.
Stephen McFeely: Because you know then we came back and so we were on that movie the whole time.
Question: You guys are doing PAIN AND GAIN with Michael Bay?
Stephen McFeely: Yes, maybe… I mean we wrote the script and have written several drafts of it over the course of the years and every couple of years he says “Alright guys, I’m making this next. I’ve just got to go make one phone call…” Then we read in the trades that he’s signed up for TRANSFORMERS 2 and 3 and all of this… (Laughs)
Christopher Markus: Because he’s so successful, there’s so much pressure on him to continue to bring in a billion dollars every summer and PAIN AND GAIN will be great, but it’s not going to take July 4th by storm by its very design.
Stephen McFeely: We are optimistic and we actually… The reason why it might be a little bit more realistic now is because we did a, per Michael’s instructions and notes, we did another pass late last year, so it’s a little more realistic than it was in years past.
Question: He keeps playing up the fact that it’s kind of a lower budget thing. Does he give you notes like “No, I don’t want the action to be this busy…”
Stephen McFeely: But the story is so free of action. I mean it is much more… we call it “FARGO.” Behind Michael’s doors, we call it “Michael Bay’s FARGO.” It’s got maybe one car crash and it’s all true story too, so you can go to THE MIAMI TIMES and read the entire three piece article.
Christopher Markus: In a weird, kind of pleasing, way it sort of takes place in Michael’s world like in the Miami BAD BOYS, hunky guys, strippers, but it’s like a 90 degree turn from that to “Here are the people from BAD BOYS, at the next club down there are some really racy…” It’s a kind of interesting play on it in a way.
Question: That’s funny. I can’t wait for it. I’m actually a big fan of Michael Bay, too.
Stephen McFeely: Let’s lobby Michael to make sure it happens.
Questions: How is CAPTAIN 2 coming along?
Stephen McFeely: We are early days and again we don’t take anything for granted, so I’m knocking on this piece of furniture here that maybe somebody wants a CAP 2. Everything’s possible.
Christopher Markus: It’s a matter of there’s a maddening number of options at the moment. There are still a good handful of great villains. There are a few really great runs in the comics that we could tap off of, so it’s a matter of figuring out A seeing what actually evolves in THE AENGERS as to which Cap we are picking up.
Question: Is it definitely a current days or…
Stephen McFeely: We are also struggling with that. It’s very likely a modern day story, but we like and we think audiences are going to like some healthy dose of WWII, much like Rupert here does in his comics, where there’s either emotionally affects his current story or even there’s a villain that comes back or an object or some mission that comes back to haunt him.
Question: So there might be flashbacks?
Stephen McFeely: We kind of like that idea more than just one or two; that it’s woven in. That’s a lot of what we are talking about, how to do that keeping both stories relevant and interesting.
Question: One thing I’m wondering and I’m not sure if you have the answer to this is there are a couple of loose ends left by this movie and I’m wondering, is that something we will get closer on in AVENGERS or would that probably be in CAPTAIN 2?
Stephen McFeely: Depends on which loose end you are talking about.
Christopher Markus: They are to be picked up later. In a way we are not beholden to picking them up at any particular time and some of them might me more effective the longer you wait in a weird way. God knows I don’t know how many. It’s not like we are going to make 17 sequels, so we’ve got to do these things some time, but you want arrows in your quiver.
Stephen McFeely: Yeah and it’s very fun to do that. It’s fun to go “Alright, this guy… That will happen to him and if we like these other things will happen.” That’s really pretty fun.
Question: And one of the great things about this movie is that it felt… The last two Marvel movies felt kind of like they were almost advertisements for THE AVENGERS, this film is its own story even though it does have a lead in.
Stephen McFeely: Part of that is being chronologically first you know, so we get to dangle threads that are incumbent upon the other movies to have picked up and even though obviously THOR has already come out and IRON MAN 2 already came out, we are not… Other than to say as Guardian McGuffin…
Christopher Markus: And they are 70 years too early for Agent Coulson to drop by and visit Cap, so that frees you up a little bit there, but I also think we have the benefit of now coming so close to AVENGERS that you don’t need to drop hints anymore, it’s right there.
Question: Definitely. I have a background in screenwriting and I always found it interesting screenwriting teams and how they work. How do you guys work…
Stephen McFeely: They sit on opposite ends of the couch and don’t make eye contact with each other.
Christopher Markus: That’s right.
Christopher Markus: “This is neutral ground.”
Stephen McFeely: “How does it work?”
Question: What is your process? It’s always different, as you know.
Christopher Markus: Sure.
Stephen McFeely: Yeah, ours is sort of three pronged, so we outline the hell out of stuff, so that’s cards on the floor and everything is possible and that’s sort of the most laborious, least fun, part. Whether it’s a Peter Sellers biopic or its 70 years of Captain America comics, everything gets a card and so you look at it and go “All right, what’s repetitive?” Pick those out. “What do we need? We know we need the origin story. We know he needs to go in the arctic at the end.” You know it sort of whittles itself into this structure and then once we have done that first part, the second part is splitting it up. So I’ll take one through six of the outline and he will take seven through twelve and then we will go away and come back.
Christopher Markus: There are too many pointless arguments you can have at that stage of writing that you just need to have words on the page and you don’t need to argue about them.
Stephen McFeely: Right, because at the third part you are going to rewrite it any way. So once we have that big ugly Frankenstein draft that’s kind of repetitive and has some little nuggets of goodness, then we take that script and we rewrite that together in the same room and that’s getting in and out of the chair.
Christopher Markus: There’s a lot of reading it out loud and really noticing when it just sort of grinds to a halt and we go “That’s not right…”
Question: When you are in there with Marvel and they are like “We need this, this, and this,” is there anything that they pitched to you guys that just couldn’t fit into the movie?
Stephen McFeely: Good question.
Christopher Markus: I mean there are certainly things…
Question: Or even ideas in the comics that you guys wanted.
Christopher Markus: There are certainly things that we all loved that I mean either wouldn’t’ fit, because they are clearly from a present day Cap as opposed to a period Cap…
Stephen McFeely: Yeah and I mean there’s some stuff that they just don’t have the rights to the character for you know. “Wouldn’t it be great if that guy stopped by?” “That guy can’t stop by… That’s a different studio…”
Question: Did you ever write that and then they were…
Stephen McFeely: No, we knew who they had control of.
Christopher Markus: And also because we are dealing, for a large chunk of the movie, with a brand new Cap who is only just then learning his skills you know he can’t do a quadruple back flip and whip the shield and fling it off for a large part of the movie.
Stephen McFeely: He has to grow.
Christopher Markus: Yeah, you’re kind of jonesing for full on battle Cap who you can’t have until a little bit.
Question: In setting this one in the period, I think that sets a sequel up for… The thing I did like about THOR is a guy from another universe on Earth and dealing with that stuff and it seems like you are setting yourself up for “This guy from another time…”
Stephen McFeely: Ah, a similar kind of thing. Cap’s not the angstiest of characters, but he’s going to be… It’s that first few moments of AVENGERS and whatever we are left with after AVENGERS of this man out of time.
Christopher Markus: In a way, this movie is the Kirby Simon and you kind of want to travel into Stan Lee country in the next one where he’s a little more fucked up about having left that world behind.
Stephen McFeely: Right, “All of my friends are dead. My values may not be the values around me. Why do you guys do it this way? What am I looking at?” You know, that kind of stuff.
Question: I think that’s really interesting. And that comes to the end of my questions. I want to thank you guys.
Christopher Markus: Thank you.
Stephen McFeely: We appreciate it.
Question: I appreciate it.
Stephen McFeely: Thank you.