Posted on Thursday, March 6th, 2014 by Peter Sciretta
While visiting the set of Captain America: The Winter Soldier in July 2013, we got a chance to sit down and chat with Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus, screenwriters of Captain America: The First Avenger and the upcoming sequel. After the jump you will find our roundtable interview with the producer which was conducted right outside the Manhattan Beach sound-stages during the tail end of principal photography.
Stephen McFeely: I just want to say, whenever I Google myself I go to all of your sites, so I’m very excited to talk to you all.
Christopher Markus: Hello. Good morning. Hello, internet.
Question: After The Avengers and the first Captain America, where did you guys… what was the nut that you first started creating the story from?
McFeely: That’s a good question. There has been iterations of it. We started in the middle of 2011, so right around the time the first Cap was coming out we started noodling on in hopes that there would be a second one and we did a lot of just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck and eventually landed towards the end of that year on a conspiracy genre. And that’s not random, it’s sort of… Because the first movie was a war movie first and foremost as that made the most sense in terms of the origin story for Steve, but given what he needs to deal with as a man out of time, dealing with different values from his own and everyone he knows is dead and “who can he trust?” and all that, the conspiracy genre seemed a really good one for him and excited the heck out of us and so that’s the direction we went. So to answer the question, that was the nut, “what kind of story was it going to be?” and because of the character what we were going to have to do, that’s the kind of story it became.
Markus: We also knew what we didn’t want to do, which was the grandpa story of “Oh my god, I’m in the future! What are these buttons? What do they do?” It’s very tempting to go “Oh, this rock and roll…” But he’s the most adaptive man on the planet. His brain’s been juiced, so he’s not going to be baffled for very long by your iPhone, so you have all those ideas first and then you’re like “Those are stupid.”
McFeely: “We can do better than those ideas.”
So with Iron Man 3 we saw how Tony Stark was affected by the events in The Avengers. How did the events of The Avengers affect Steve Rogers personally?
Markus: It’s more the team, I think, affects him more than the aliens. He’s dealt with some very strange things in his past, you know like a man with a red skull and some sort of magic box. I don’t know that he ever asked “Where the hell did the magic box come from” in the first movie, it’s just “stuff like that exists.” But I think the idea that he’s not alone in being a hero anymore. He thought he was getting into this gig seventy years ago to be part of an army and he almost is now, whereas he was all alone in nineteen forty-five, there’s an assortment of people who have his back now. So I think that probably makes him feel the most secure of anything that’s going on in the twenty-first century.
McFeely: If Stark has PTSD because of that event, Steve doesn’t have that kind of PTSD. He’s got “I’m a man out of time” issues.
Markus: But he’s comfortable with the chaos.
This is going back to what you guys talked about before, how much work is done in terms of acclimating him to our time period with the Avengers in that he can sort of hit the ground running in this movie and you never feel like you are doing the “What is this crazy invention?”
Markus: You know, we sort of went from jump street with him acclimated. There’s touches here and there, because there’s familiarity and there’s opinion. He can know what the kids are wearing these days whether or not he has opinions on them. So you can touch on these things.
McFeely: And he’s got personal stuff to deal with. So in acclimating himself to this century it’s not just learning the bus routes, it’s checking in on people who may or may not be dead and that kind of stuff.
Markus: But we very much wanted him to be further down the road of trying to fit in. He’s been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. for however long when you analyze it took between Avengers and this movie and he’s been on a lot of missions. He’s in the midst of a daily life now.
Can you talk about the influence of different comic books? Obviously the Winter Soldier is something you drew some inspiration from. Are there other little touchstones that you relied on?
Markus: I can’t remember what… There’s all sorts… I can’t remember what they have been packaged as the heading now, but it seems like in the seventies and eighties, every five seconds he’s throwing down his outfit and going “I have to go search America and find out who I am.” Then the government goes like “We own you, Steve Rogers!” So I don’t know specific factually, but tonally that kind of “Okay, the man who once represented America has become by dinted passage of time, alien to America and alien to the values and the thought systems, so how is this guy going to…” In order to represent America, he has to get a better understanding of America, that kind of thing. And there’s great conspiracy stuff. Our bad guy is not Richard Nixon, but that is a great conspiracy.
Who is the bad guy?
McFeely: That’s the question…. You’ll go to Kevin first and if he won’t answer it, then neither will we.
Markus: It wouldn’t be a conspiracy if you knew who the bad guy was, it would just be a war.
Can you talk about the inclusion of Natasha and what it’s like having her and Steve bounce off each other without all the other Avengers there?
McFeely: That’s the reason to bring her in, because they rub against each other really well in terms of how they adapt to their surroundings, shifting value systems, like we’ve always said, “He’s our Gary Cooper” and the world shifts to him and it’s his job to tell everybody “Here’s how we ought to be doing this” and she’s a lot more flexible in terms of loyalties and how we’re going to get these jobs done. So that’s why… We didn’t pick her out of thin air, she best represented the century and that grey morality.
Markus: She’s also just a great person to poke at his weak spots in a way, because even know he hasn’t had that much romantic experience. He’s never gotten to dance. We don’t know exactly what he’s up to on his nights off from The Avengers, but probably not that much. So you have this very beautiful, very forward almost deliberately provocative woman who is sort of poking at him to see what his reaction is and it’s just fun to get at his soft underbelly that way. He’s also not the most talkative guy in the world, because he’s a man from nineteen forty and men of that time keep things to themselves, so you want someone who is going to draw out his story, because he’s never going to offer it up, he’s just not that guy.
What films did you draw from, just in terms of inspiration and tone. You mentioned the conspiracy genre.
McFeely: Three Days of the Condor. That was one that we went “oh wow.” So there’s a lot of seepage from that movie.
Markus: “This movie is covered in seepage.”
McFeely: You know, then we watched other ones from that period, like The Parallax View and things like that.
Markus: Marathon Man.
McFeely: Marathon Man is great, and it’s not like we stole particular things from them, but there’s that sense of an onion getting pealed away.
Markus: And the great thing about conspiracies is it’s usually not like sixteen people versus a conspiracy, it’s one guy who becomes increasingly isolated and all of those movies do a great job of taking away the safety net until you’ve got one man who then has to decide whether he’s going to run in the opposite direction or will take them down.
McFeely: Structurally with good conspiracy movies everything is fine and then you’re on defense for half the movie, like “Oh my god,” then once you figure it out, you go “All right, now I go on offense” and that lent itself really well to our purposes.
What about Nick Fury and what he’s dealing with now after The Avengers? And what internally might be happening within S.H.I.E.L.D.?
McFeely: We’ll probably have to be cagey about that, but Fury represents an obstacle for Steve in some ways. I think we can say that. They don’t always agree on how S.H.I.E.L.D. ought to be used.
Markus: I think he’s almost in a transitional state, because in The Avengers you have the world security counsel shadowy heads who launch the missile and at the other end of the spectrum you have Steve and Nick Fury likes to pretend he’s as cynical as those guys, but clearly as we saw in Avengers he wouldn’t blow up New York. He’s not that cynical. So I think he’s got choices to make in terms of “What do I learn from this red, white, and blue guy who showed up here?” or “Is he just a clown to me?” He’s much too effective to be a clown.
McFeely: That’s the thing, Steve hopefully makes people look at things they’ve taken for granted differently. When we say “Gary Cooper,” that’s what we mean. Natasha learns from him. Fury learns from him. That’s always the goal.
Can you talk a bit about Robert Redford’s character?
McFeely: You’ve scared him.
Markus: The handsome man.
McFeely: It was an honor to write for Mr. Redford and whatever he says, I agree with.
How much of this movie takes place in the now and how much is flashbacks?
Markus: I would say ninety eight percent now.
McFeely: We had experimented early on, before we really settled on a genre, this is sort of mid 2011, with a heavy flashback structure and it became unwieldy.
Markus: You do that when you don’t have enough interesting stuff in the present and when you have this much, Winter Soldier, Fury, and Black Widow, it’s not “What are we cutting away to… as much as we love him, Dum Dum Dugan for when you’ve got everybody here?”
Can you give us a percentage on how much of this movie will be a set up for The Avengers 2?
McFeely: Yeah, that’s not how it works. I mean there are certain radical things we can’t do, but I don’t know what Avengers is. It’s not like Joss is sitting down and telling us “Here’s what’s going on.” It’s not like they are saying “Don’t do this very important thing, because we are going to do it later or it will screw something up.” I mean that’s always been the rack, right? I don’t agree with this at all, but the criticism is that they are setting up something and not their own thing and that’s BS. This is… We are really excited about this, because it really is its own thing and we leave the world in a certain place, so that Avengers 2 has to acknowledge that and move on, but it’s not like any arrows are being taken out of our quiver.
Markus: It’s not a cliff-hanger.
Speaking of that though, at the end of Iron Man 3 the vice president has been arrested, so is that acknowledged in your movie?
Markus: No. Well we don’t get that high in the level of government. Conspiracies are always best carried out in the grey midsection of… Middle management.
Markus: When your president is bad, it’s evil, but he’s not a conspirator.
What kind of lessons did you take from Iron Man 3? It was a movie where there were certain questions that audiences had, like “Why aren’t the other Avengers not helping him in this situation?” Were there things in terms of watching that movie as its own standalone post Avengers movie that you guys took lessons from to apply to this to make sure this one stood alone?
Markus: We were shooting by the time it came out and before… I mean that was when we got the fullest sense of what it was. You know your stories end up in the editing room and you move things around and it’s like there’s no way to base anything off of it, but if anything I would say similarly to Tony in that movie, there just isn’t time. that’s a tight schedule with that movie and this one does not take place over a very long period of time and the pace is such that Captain America doesn’t have a chance to go “You know, let’s try to call Thor. Then he could just electrocute everybody.” So there isn’t the big opening where people are like “I know what this is leading to.”
McFeely: It doesn’t bug us in the comics and it’s never been an issue for me as a reader and so I’m not sure why it would be an issue for people as viewers and given the success of Iron Man, I think… Would there have been more money if Thor was in it? I don’t think so.
Have Chris Evans performance in the two movies inspired things for you as writers? Did you see things in his performance once you saw the finished films that you said “We can do this with Chris Evans.”
McFeely: We like him a lot and we spent all that time… We were in London for the whole shoot on the first one and so it’s not like it’s only when it came out we went “Oh my god, it turns out he was doing this.” We saw what he was doing the whole time. He’s doing really well in this one too. You can put stuff on his shoulders. I think it’s fair to say he’s got a much more complicated emotional arc in this movie tonally.
Markus: The thing that’s great about him, among the many things that are great about him, he can pull off the “movie we didn’t write,” but the “Son, please” when he’s getting on the jet in Avengers. He can bring the gravity so it doesn’t feel like he’s a hollowed suit like “That guy who everybody pretends to respect.” I don’t know exactly how he pulls it off, but it’s like “He doesn’t have to do anything, because he has won your respect already.” People have to dance around him, but he’s still centered and that’s very much him. He knows what he wants this character to be and if something sets off his alarm, he’s like “That’s not what we’ve built toward.”
McFeely: As you have seen in his career prior to Captain America, he’s a very funny guy and he can flip really easy, but he’s been very dedicated to finding a center for Cap that is not this gloss and I think because he’s so likable he pulls that off. We worry about, on a script level, the grumpy grandpa stuff, but I don’t worry about it from Chris.
Have you guys been on set for this one and tweaked things as it went along?
McFeely: The script has been in, if I may say, really great shape for a long time, so yes we’ve been on set the whole time. There’s not been a ton to do.
Markus: Frequent snacking, because it’s rolling along pretty well. You know, every now and then people will be like “What if we say this instead of this?” or Robert Redford in particular… this is a man who’s been acting for quite a while and he’s like “I don’t need to say that, you’ll know.” And you know, “Okay prove it.” Well you don’t say to Robert Redford, “Okay prove it,” but that’s the idea and then he’ll do it and it’s like “Holy shit. He didn’t need half those lines. It was all on his face.” So there’s great moments like there where you’re like “Yes, please just cut half the scene.”
You’ve talked about the relationship with Cap and Natasha, but what about the Falcon? Obviously it’s a new character, but what’s that relationship like? What’s he like as an individual character?
McFeely: He brings a more obvious fun in the same way that we’re talking about Cap is not glib or outwardly hilarious, Falcon is a little funnier. He has a great deal of respect obviously for Steve, but he’s not afraid to be a real 2013 person.
Markus: He’s definitely not in aw of Captain America, which is exactly what Steve wants in a friend and in a fellow soldier, to not have to be Captain America.
McFeely: And that’s a question we, early on, struggled with and we talked to Chris about actually, because he and by extension a super hero would live in a celebrity bubble, so that every person who comes up to them is going to have one of two questions or have one of “You saved my grandfather” or “I have your action figure” and that doesn’t allow for any actual communication. How do you actually become a friend with someone who is a fan? I don’t think you can do that, so if you can make that first meeting break that bubble, then I think there’s an attraction there, like “That’s a guy maybe I could talk to more about something more serious or more personal.” That was our goal there, to try to make them have a connection.
Markus: A sidebar.
Markus: There are other things that bring them together in a very human way that we don’t know whether you know yet, so why leak it?
There’s a certain origin in the comic books that’s tied to the Red Skull, who is not in this movie.
Markus: Yes, we went with that whole hog.
Presuming he was… It’s safe to say he has a different set up to what makes him The Falcon?
McFeely: Yeah, it’s more organic.
Markus: And it also… He’s not a guy who built some wings in his backyard. It’s organic and it justifies his abilities and it justifies his friendship with Captain America.
Can you talk about Cross Bones? In the comics we know he’s this badass dude and he pushed the boundaries of R rated sometime in the comic books, so how is he utilized here based on what I saw with the leaked photos and other stuff?
Markus: I would say he’s learning to be Cross Bones in a way. With Frank Grillo, he’s a great actor. When he wants to, he can turn on this light that makes you think “He’s out of his mind” and I think somewhere down the line he will push past the R rating. He doesn’t in this movie, mainly because it’s PG 13, what are we going to do past an R? We can’t go past the PG 13. Taste of things to come? I don’t know if I’m leaking…
While we are running down the characters, how about Agent 13? Can you tell us about her inclusion in the story?
McFeely: She’s in the story.
Markus: Just another… You know, option for Captain America and for Steve Rogers to think about moving forward in his life.
McFeely: Sometimes when you see the casting announcement or how you guys try to out leak each other, there’s this building of information where everyone says” It’s over stuffed with people! It’s this Spider-Man 3 things you guys are going to do and nobody will be well serviced.” You’re trying to create a universe for Cap in the same way that… Avengers was not over-stuffed, right? You had a lot of people and they were all well served and some of them have different roles… they plug in differently. It’s safe to say they plug in differently, so it’s you’re not servicing them all the same way.
Markus: It’s not everybody all riding around in the Mystery Machine…
With S.H.I.E.L.D.’s presence, is it as much a S.H.I.E.L.D. film as it is a Captain America film in a way?
Markus: I think S.H.I.E.L.D. is the water he’s swimming in. It’s definitely a Captain America movie. You know, if the first movie was a movie about the US Army, then this is a movie about SHIELD, but it’s not about… You will learn about S.H.I.E.L.D. You will learn about where it came from and where it’s going and some of the cool things they have.
What did you respond to in the character and backstory of The Winter Soldier that got you excited?
McFeely: Yeah, well The Winter Soldier allows you to talk about trust, the things he thought he knew that he doesn’t know, “What do I know about this century versus the past?” He’s sort of a microcosm for the problem.
Markus: There’s a great negative image of Steve there. He was frozen for seventy years, he was alive for seventy years. I love the idea that he missed history and like killed half the people from history. It’s such a betrayal of everything Steve holds dear. It’s just… Can I swear on the internet?
Markus: You’re just pissing on his memories. It’s like, “You know those few sacred things you have? They are ruined.” Plus Winter Solider is just so cool.
McFeely: You weren’t supposed to do that, right? You weren’t supposed to bring Bucky back. He made him so… By virtue of doing what we just said, by taking his pure memories and warping them, we turned him into a really interesting Shakespearian character, not to put too fine a point on it, but we always wanted to use Winter Soldier in the second one and it just took us six months to all agree that maybe it was okay to do that. I don’t know how we are going to sell this. Will everyone know by the time the marketing comes out who the Winter Soldier is or will it be a surprise to have the audience…
Markus: It will be a surprise to three people in Kansas.
McFeely: Not everyone reads comics. So unless Sebastian Stan does all the morning shows, then that will be something. I had a barbecue this weekend and one of the fathers brought his son over and he’s in my office and there’s a Winter Soldier doll statue next to a Cap statue and he’s like “Who is that?” I thought… And I told him the whole story and I kind of went “Maybe I just ruined that for that kid,” because he’s not reading Brubaker. He doesn’t know.
Markus: Kids don’t care about spoilers. They watch things over and over.
McFeely: I think that would have blown his mind though in April had he known a little less.
Markus: Believe me, it’s a tiny mind, it will forget…
Do you have his number?
The comics obviously have this history between Winter Soldier and Black Widow, although Black Widow, as far as we know, was not born in WW2. Was there a different way you could approach that dynamic between them?
Markus: They have crossed paths.
McFeely: Yeah, we will leave it at that. But yeah, we acknowledge all of that stuff. We get it, but it’s….
Markus: Then you wind up in Infinity Formula territory where everyone is a hundred years old. That’s a strange world.
The politics in the nineteen forties is pretty clear cut. How do you deal with that in a new Cap story set in contemporary times?
Markus: That’s essentially what the whole movie is about.
McFeely: And certainly we always like to gloss over that it was very clear in the nineteen forties, but remember Captain America started as a comic because those guys wanted us… We weren’t in the war yet. Like Captain America predates our involvement in WW2, so there were plenty of people in forty or forty one going “Maybe we should stay out of this one.” It’s not always so black and white, but we acknowledge that in the movie. Cap comes from a slightly clearer time and Nick Fury is very much of this time and everything that that means.
Markus: When you have a monolithic evil like Nazis, your choices are clear. It’s not like you’re going to go “Well maybe I will appease the Nazis for a little while.” Once you really get going, you have to stamp out the evil and now there’s a few examples of evil, but you can almost always find a counter argument in “everybody’s human” and it’s all mushy and dirty and much less easy to get a read on who is evil and who is righteous. You open the newspaper, so “Is it okay to spy on everybody? Are drones okay?” You can’t get away from it now and that’s the world he’s in. He would love there to be black and white, but there isn’t anymore.
Well Captain America is basically the only superhero in the last probably decade or more who is singularly heroic. He doesn’t have this big existential quandary like these other reinventions. I guess how much of that is tested by plugging that resolute goodness into a morally complex story?
Markus: I think he’s got to question whether there’s a place for his… I don’t think he questions what he believes, but I think he questions whether anybody else does anymore. It’s not like he goes, “Well maybe I should just murder people. Maybe that would work better for me.” He will always behave the way he behaves. He doesn’t have a different setting, but you know when you’re working for people who work in a grey area and they are asking you to do grey things, then it’s suddenly like, “Maybe I am in the wrong business, because my skill set is more than killing and yet you really need some killing done and here I am with my flag outfit on.”
McFeely: “Saving” really.
Markus: Saving, killing… I mean often one involves the other.
McFeely: It’s not a straight killing movie…
Markus: No, it’s not a killing movie.
Given that everything in this modern world is so much more grey, how do you find an anchor point for Steve, since he is so singularly heroic? How do you keep him from being bitter and keep the audience on his side?
Markus: I think the conspiracy structure helps in that he is not up on a pedestal being self righteous, he’s in a corner and that makes you want to root for that guy. When you are on the run in an alleyway, you don’t seem like the prick who’s going to spoil the party, you seem like a guy who really believes in what he is doing. So put him on his back foot and his heroicness will seem justified as opposed to… If you had Tony Stark in a room with cocktails and Steve came in, he might seem like, “This guy… We can never relax around this guy,” but put him in the right situation and he’s absolutely the guy you want to be watching.
McFeely: And remember, Marvel movies in general are okay about establishing character early. We start pretty fast and the first act is great, but it’s got a lot of character in it, you know? So we are going to take our time showing you the issues and so hopefully if we’ve done our job right, you will be with him really early and we’re not too worried about him being a stick in the mud or being a goody two shoes or something like that, you’re on his side pretty fast.
From the outside looking in, the Russo’s were a bit of an unexpected choice. From the inside looking out, tell us why they were a good choice.
Markus: You know, you wouldn’t look at their resume and go “Eh,” but man they are making the right movie. They came in knowing exactly what they wanted to do and knowing the same touchstones that we had when we were writing the script and they…
McFeely: They know film. I mean that’s the thing. It’s not like they were born on MTV or something. They came from film, went to TV, and are coming back. We talked the exact same language, so it’s not like they came in and said “We want to make The Odd Couple” and we were saying “We want to make Three Days of the Condor.” It’s not like that. They are going “All right, let’s look at Marathon Man. Here’s how this….”
Markus: And absolutely no compulsion to “sitcom it up” or anything like that. It’s funny, but it’s naturally funny where it needs to be.
McFeely: They are good at ensembles. It is a big cast even though it’s not eight people all on the same day necessarily and they are really good at handling the big picture of all of those people.
Markus: And shockingly, they are really good at action. “This movie is going to punch you in the face.”
We keep hearing that this is going to be the grittiest Marvel movie yet. Can you expand upon that a little bit?
McFeely: Let’s let him do that, because you will talk to him… I think part of it is tone. Part of it is the conspiracy stuff we are dealing with. The Action… We are super broad of the first movie. The action is going to take a leap by twenty fold about how he operates in the world and kicks ass, it’s pretty impressive. And let Joe tell you about camera and all that stuff, because they are doing interesting stuff that way too. They walked in and said, “Here’s how it should look,” and Kevin went, “Yep.”
Markus: Not to just keep saying the word “conspiracy,” but in those movies that’s a man on the street, that’s not a guy operating a giant robot somewhere. Things get gritty when you’re all alone.
Was that a dig at Pacific Rim?
McFeely: That’s what it sounded like. That’s what I thought and I thought, “Why would you say that?”
Markus: I actually was not dissing Pacific Rim. I like giant robots. Every movie I lobby for sleepers and people are like… “It’s been waiting the whole time under New York city! This hundred foot robot…” Yeah…
Can you guys talk about, continuing with conspiracies, Star Trek Into Darkness was a sort of conspiracy that people thought was overly complicated any maybe not fully executed as well as it could be. This obviously was written prior to that, but can you guys take… Do you guys look at your film in the context of the way that Man of Steel and movies like that were conceived?
Markus: To be honest, I had a baby like a month and a half ago. I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen posters.
McFeely: I saw it, as I did not have a baby. I watched all of them and I, certainly like everybody else, will pick it apart, but I also pick it apart or acknowledge… Given that that’s the story I wanted to tell, I see those three problems, like I know that’s going to be a problem, so you solve it with Tribbles or whatever, but I get what the issues are in both of those movies really. They are pretty good. I’m certainly not going to bag on them at all, but I see decisions now in a way that maybe ten years ago I wasn’t able to see. I can imagine eighteen months ago that when you moved those cards around like where they went.
Markus: I do think that our… It’s probably a by product of having Cap as your lead, our murky conspiracy clears up and there’s a very… You know what’s up. It’s not Chinatown, which there is no better movie… I’m not saying it’s not as good as Chinatown, but…
McFeely: He thinks it’s better than Chinatown.
Markus: It’s better than some restaurants in China Town. But you know that’s a movie that gets more convoluted and just leaves your guide wasted at the end, which suits Jakes’ character. You know, Captain America is a guy who… you want his light to clear up the darkness at a certain point and I think it does, in a spectacularly violent manner.
So it’s going to end with Scarlet slumped over the wheel with the horn blaring?
Markus: Yeah, then you meet her father who is also her mother… Thank you!
McFeely: And no Thor questions, very good. Nice job! Excellent work.
Markus: He’s got a hammer.