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Q&A with Stephen McFeely, “Captain America” and “Thor: The Dark World” screenwriter

Kevin Noonan | Thursday, November 7, 2013

This week The Observer had the chance to talk with Stephen McFeely, Notre Dame grad and part of the screenwriting team behind the first “Captain America,” this spring’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and who even worked on “Thor: The Dark World,” coming out Friday.
He and his screenwriting partner, Christopher Markus, previously wrote the films in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise and won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for their HBO film, “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” Scene Editor Kevin Noonan talked to him about “Captain America,” Marvel, screenwriting and even the 1988 Notre Dame football season.

KN: With “Thor: The Dark World” coming out Friday, it looks like you and your partner (Christopher Markus) were more brought in to work on it, instead of being the original writers? What was that like?

SF: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We’ve kind of become a part of the Marvel family, and it’s very nice and flattering, and so we were working on Cap 2 [Captain America: The Winter Soldier], and it was going pretty well, and during that process there’s always a moment when you turn in a draft and you have a few weeks off while they read it and get their act together to tell you what the next round of notes is and things like that.

Because we were way ahead of schedule and in good shape they said, ‘Hey, can you slide over to Thor and help us out over here.'” So we did that a couple of times, during the pre-production for Thor. We’re proud of the work we did, and I’ve seen the movie, I went to the premiere [Monday night] and it’s a fun, fairly kick-ass movie. But there were a lot of cooks on that, so we’re certainly not the only writers on that.

KN: And then with Captain America, you were the writers on the original movie, and you wrote the sequel.With the first one being such a big hit and then all the other Marvel movies like “The Avengers” coming out, how is it different working on the sequel, now that you have to incorporate a lot of details into the world?

SF: Well, Captain is a particular challenge, because if you’ve seen the movies you know that first of all it was period, and then by the end of it he shows up in 2011 in Times Square, and then goes and fights in “The Avengers.” I don’t know if a lot of sequels have the same problem, but you just can’t make the same genre of movie.

The first one was a sort of rollicking war movie, kind of an Indiana Jones thing we were trying to do. Now it’s 2014 when it comes out, that’s not the same era, it’s not what he needs anymore. So we always knew it would be dangerous but necessary to find a new genre for the movie, and we settled on a kind of a political thriller, conspiracy stuff, things like that. Because that’s the challenge he has being a 40s guy in a modern world.

KN: When you’re coming up with a process of deciding what the movie is going to be about, is that mostly you and your partner, or is Marvel kind of over your shoulder when you’re doing that kind of stuff?

SF: It’s an absolutely collaborative thing. Part of the reason Marvel’s had such a really nice run since the first “Iron Man” is because it’s a small group and they are absolutely involved. We work well with them, so starting the process to do Cap 2 was Chris and I, my partner, we sort of kicked around a lot of ideas and we’d throw them at them and they’d bat some away and they’d take some in, and they’d give us stuff. The table around which we are talking is very small, like five people.

So that’s another reason why they’re so good at it is it’s not a huge committee like a lot of studios, it’s pretty small. The buck stops with Kevin Feige, who’s the president of production.

KN: How did you guys get involved with Marvel in the first place? You said now you’re kind of a part of the Marvel family, what was the first step in that process?

SF: It was chasing down “Captain America,” actually. In 2008, “Iron Man” had come out in May of 2008, and it was a big risk for them because they’re doing their own movie and if it succeeds then they can keep going and if it doesn’t then it wouldn’t work. And before that they had licensed their characters to other studios, and watched other studios make gajillions of dollars with them.

So when they figured out they still had the rights to some characters, they invested their money or whatever else, that part I’m not really clear on, and they made their own movie and it was a big hit with “Iron Man.” And once they did that they said, ‘All right now we’re going to start this weird slow road to “The Avengers,” and we’re going to do “Thor” and we’re going to do “Captain America” and it’s going to be period.’ And Chris and I heard that and went, ‘Oh man, that sounds awesome.’

We sort of always thought you could do a period superhero movie. We thought it would be interesting because it would take care of your villain, you know just give me a nice good Nazi and call it a day. That was one of the things we were interested in so we had to chase down pretty much all summer of 2008 through the holidays to convince them we were the guys to do it. We were coming off the Narnia franchise and I think we had a reputation as being squeaky clean, nothing really cool. So we had to sort of prove we we’re comic book nerds.

KN: You mentioned Narnia, it seems like a lot of the stuff you guys have done so far, Narnia and “Pain and Gain” and the Peter Sellers film, is a lot of adaptation work. Does that come from your taste in movies, or are you looking to get into more original stuff and right now you’re just known as the adaptation guys?

SF: That’s a good question. We always kick ourselves that we don’t have more original movies under our belt, or that we don’t have a script finished that’s ours, that’s our original idea, so that hangs over us. But to be honest, we’re fascinated by true stories, so that’s one thing, that’s how “Pain and Gain” came to us and Peter Sellers was a fascinating guy. We don’t love everything, and so when we do feel drawn to something, we know ourselves enough to know we shouldn’t just dismiss this out of hand, even if it’s in a weird genre. That’s one of the things I do like about my career, it’s weird, but there are a lot of different types of movies, you know? We’ve always tried not to get pigeonholed, which means sometimes we don’t work for a while. We’ve had a good run lately, but we went years without really getting a gig, because we didn’t want to do another biopic. Or we didn’t really want to do another movie starring a 12 year old, you know? So when we find something we like, whether it’s an original idea of our own or something that’s come to us, we hold onto it because we know you have to really love it for a year and half to two years. If you only like something for two months then you’re going to get burned out.

KN: How did you get into screenwriting in the first place? And to tie in the Notre Dame angle, did you have any experiences as a student here that kind of influenced you toward that career?

SF: Yeah, I certainly didn’t know anything about screenwriting at Notre Dame. I was an English major and Government, because I thought I would be a lawyer. I took a class my sophomore year with an author who just there for the semester, a guy named Barry Lopez, he’d won the [National] Book Award and he was also a Notre Dame grad, just really cool. He came into class with cowboy boots and blue jeans, and I said, “Oh that’s a real life author. You don’t have to be a lawyer, maybe you could do something else with your life.” And so I took writing classes, and our senior year I was writing not very good short stories. And then I taught English when I got out, and then I went to grad school in Creative Writing, because I really wanted to figure out whether I was good enough for the process and the lifestyle, where the most important thing you have to do all day is write. So that did for a couple years and then I moved to L.A. when I met Chris, my writing partner, in grad school. It was absolutely sparked at Notre Dame, and I sort of just kept writing badly until … you know that thing where it’s 10 years and 10,000 hours before you can be good at anything? I wouldn’t have believed that 20 years ago, but I believe it now. You just have to plug away and not beat yourself up over the awful things you’re writing. Everyone starts writing awful things.

KN: Now that you’ve kind of gotten a hang of it, what’s the process like when you and your partner sit down and you have an idea or you get an assignment and then start to write the whole thing out?

SF: Oh sure, we’ve sort of come up with this three part process that works for us. It’s outlining the heck out of it, and that’s everything gets a 3×5 card, whether that’s an idea, a line or a character or a situation or whatever. And if you’re adapting a book that’s kind of easy, you just take anything interesting in the book and don’t judge it and just put it out there. And then we figure out what story you’re trying to tell, what story is naturally sort of coming to you from this material. Once we outline it, we split it up, and I’ll take one through six and he’ll take seven through 12, and we will go away and write separately and then we’ll come back together at the end of the week and put it back together. And we’ll do that for six or seven weeks, until we have a big ugly draft, and then we’ll attack that. So the first part is outlining, the second part is writing the first draft sort of separately and then the third part is rewriting that ugly draft together, and that’s getting in and out of a chair and passing things back and forth, and that’s where it becomes hopefully a good draft as opposed to just a draft of stuff.

KN: Do you have any horror stories of jobs you had to work before you made it as a screenwriter?

SF: Oh you want to know about my day jobs? We got to town and got jobs as assistant, so it was weird that I was 26 and had a graduate degree, you know, licking stamps and answering phones and stuff, but at least in Hollywood, it sort of doesn’t really matter where you’re from or what your background is or how good your GPA was or anything like that. It’s sort of just can you act, direct, contribute, or if you’re a producer, it’s just sort of if you can talk your way into things. I’ve never shown a résumé. So my jobs were just pretty average and dull, they were assistant type things, at least when I got here. Before that, I was a park ranger for three or four months, I just sort of did a little bunting around before I got to grad school, but I don’t have any real horror stories like waiting on James Caan or something.

KN: I was reading a book by the screenwriter William Goldman and one of the things that he says is that as a screenwriter, you can’t keep your sanity if all you do is write screenplays your whole life, so along those lines do you guys have plans in the future to direct films or do showrunner stuff in television or something like that?

SF: Yeah, first of all William Goldman is exactly the guy to be reading, I love him. And yes, we certainly want to direct and we’re working on a TV show now, which I can’t say too much about, but the idea is that we would be very involved with that. So we absolutely want to branch out and make more decisions, because as great as everything has been so far, I’m usually not the final decider of anything. I’m just one hopefully important voice, but certainly not the most important voice. I’d love to have incrementally more control as we move on, so Goldman’s right, you will go slightly insane. So yeah I should say, these are all really good problems to have. I feel very lucky to be working semi-consistently, it’s nice.

KN: Do you have a favorite Hollywood moment from your career so far?

SF: Our first movie went to Cannes, which is ridiculous. So, you know, I walked the red carpet at Cannes, it was surreal. People took pictures of me and they had no idea who I was, and it was pretty intense. That’s the top. But at the same time, you know, I’ve been fired, it’s like any other job, you just have to do hard work and get along with others, that’s the key to moving on.

KN: Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Notre Dame?

SF: Sure yeah, I’m a big fan of Notre Dame, I go back to South Bend as often as I can. It would be, Pat Terrell knocked down a pass against Miami in the endzone in 1988, 31-30 sealing the win and went on to win the national championship, but I should probably say something friends and classrooms and stuff.

KN: That’s a solid one right there. Last thing before I let you go, is there one thing you would tell to students who want to be screenwriters or want to work in Hollywood, is there just one thing that they should know?

SF: For writers I can say, write. It’s tougher for actors and directors, who are sort of required to meet other people, but writers, you can always be writing. So that’s one thing, just get your ass in the chair. The other thing, sadly, I kind of think you need to move to L.A. if you’re serious, because it’s really easy to reject you from afar. It’s easy to reject you up close, but it’s really easy to reject you from afar. So it tends to be, “Can I do it from Minneapolis,” and I say, “God, it would be really hard.”

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu