8 Pro Tips for Writing a Comic Book Movie From Captain America's Screenwriters
Screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely began their partnership in college, moved to Los Angeles together ("We watched Baywatch and thought, 'Somebody wrote Baywatch -- we could do that!'" quips McFeely), wrote a film for Bill Pullman, scripted The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and caught the eye of Andrew Adamson, who then hired them to write all three Chronicles of Narnia films. Now they've penned Captain America: The First Avenger, the latest in Marvel Studios' multi-film Avengers franchise and a rollicking WWII-set adventure that they hope to follow up with a sequel. It's safe to say Markus and McFeely might have some wise words to share on the subject of their craft.
At the moment, the pair is waiting for the go ahead on a Captain America sequel ("We're conceiving Cap 2, should we be so lucky," Markus said last weekend. "It's not so much pitch as sit down with Kevin [Feige] and various other powers that be and figure out what the best movie is") and have completed a spec pilot script for a television adaptation of You Kill Me, their 2007 black comedy starring Ben Kingsley ("We figure in a world where Dexter and Breaking Bad exist, the alcoholic hit man who goes back to AA so he can go back to killing people maybe has a life," said McFeely). The television format in particular excites them in a way that didn't seem possible until recently.
"People will tell you, 'It's not really fucked up enough!'" explains Markus. "You're like, that's the greatest note I've ever gotten in my life. This needs more incest!"
Writing Captain America was obviously a thrill in itself for Markus and McFeely, who both cite Raiders of the Lost Ark as inspiration, not only personally speaking -- they both watched it as kids, and it stuck -- but as a specific influence on their period-set Marvel adventure. But when it comes to studying past works, the duo remain clear-eyed about balancing the line between fan worship and storytelling needs. (Sorry, Batroc fans.) In a summer packed with superheroes -- some great, some not so -- it takes a special alchemy to get the formula right, so Movieline asked the busy writers to share a few of their pro screenwriting tips.
1. Be a fan of your source material -- but don't be too beholden to it, because you have to adapt for a new audience.
Stephen McFeely: You can get stuck in the weeds pretty fast, because you're looking at 70 or 80 years of stuff. You've got to find the line.
Christopher Markus: I think you've got to start with respect rather than slavishness. You have to go in knowing you're translating this thing into a different medium and if it doesn't work as a movie, you can't include it because it's just going to clog and your machine is going to break down.
McFeely: I think it's important to be a fan of the material, because you're going to live with this for two or three years. And if it's a chore, if you don't like getting up in the morning and talking about Steve Rogers, it's going to be reflected in the work. But at the same token, if you can't see the forest for the trees because you have to get Batroc the Leaper in there, you're going to bog down for a general audience. And it's not even that you're doing it for a general audience, but you have to keep an audience in mind.
Markus: Sometimes the audience is us, sometimes it's me as a 12-year-old. Not that I've become cynical but that is when movies hit me the hardest and I came away goggle-eyed. Especially with this kind of movie, I would like that to happen to one kid.
2. In order to write a superhero movie, don't write a superhero movie.
Markus: We had the advantage of doing an origin story, so we knew we were doing World War II, we weren't telling this time when he was hanging out with the Avengers, we weren't telling when he hung out with Falcon in the '70s. It's a tight window.
McFeely: We knew Act 1 was going from scrawny Steve to Captain America Steve, and we know the third act is, how do we get him into the Arctic? And even in a vacuum, if I told you to go write a Captain America movie, you'd go, 'All right, who's the villain?' You go down the list and you know, well, it's got to be this guy. Some of that gets slotted in. So how do you tell the second act-story, the bulk of the movie, that is going to reflect the character the best? It's not just going through action sequence after action sequence, but show him grow as a person.
Markus: In a way, that's the advice of how to write a superhero movie: Don't. Write a movie, and in a movie you are beholden to that guy in the first scene and you have to take him through it, and he can't just turn super and then just lose his personality traits and be awesome for the rest of the movie. It's got to be, to use the dreaded word, an arc.
3. Treat the fantastic realistically.
McFeely: Those obstacles -- going from 98 lbs. to 200 -- treat those incidents as if they actually have an effect on his head. 'What would it be like for me to go from 98 lbs. to 200 lbs.? What would it be like to go from no woman in the world looking at me to many women looking at me?' What does that do? We don't take the audience for granted. We don't think because it's a superhero movie we can give characters short shrift at all.
Markus: In a lot of ways it's about reaction to what's going on. In a lot of movies people just don't seem to react enough to something phenomenal happening, and it disconnects you from the character. You're going, 'You're on Mars now!' and the character's going, 'Awesome, I'm on Mars!' and then they just go on with the plot. Their reaction has to in some way mirror your reaction to these amazing things.
McFeely: It doesn't have to be what you would think or feel, but you have to understand why they would think or feel it. Like in Narnia, we wanted to make sure that when particular kids walked through a wardrobe and it was snowing on the other side, somebody goes, 'What the --?' You can't just go, 'Oh, great!'
4. Be smart about the references you slip in for the super fans.
Markus: It's being as realistic as possible without taking the fun out of it. With the suit, we really wanted there to be a reason he's wearing that outfit, because in the original comics he's shot full of super soldier serum and in the next panel he's got the outfit -- because obviously that's what you would wear to go fight crime.
McFeely: [Laughs] As one does.
Markus: We wanted the costume but we knew we had to get there, we couldn't just put him in it. And then that actually led to a lot of stuff that works well in the movie for his character, because Cap's always being misused or misinterpreted in some way by the government or someone else, and to put him in the USO in that outfit was the perfect next step for his character -- and it gave us the chance to put him in the silliest possible version of that outfit.
McFeely: We figured he was Uncle Sam for the Marvel Universe.
5. Treat the love interest (and other supporting characters) as their own fully formed character, with decisions to make and stakes of their own. Ed. Note: Some spoilers ahead.
McFeely: In a way, we worked backwards -- because we know the end, and you know the end, and what does that tell you? That they're [Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell] not really going to be together because he's not going to be around. We knew it's kind of going to be a melancholy ending, however we decided to do that.
Markus: In some ways the unrequitedness of it is more romantic than if they had gotten together.
McFeely: If they're knocking boots in the middle, I think this doesn't work as well.
Markus: It says a lot about her character that she meets and begins to like him before the transformation, so that she sees what Erskine sees in him and that he's a good man, and it's not just his giant chest. We always wanted her to be a sort of bad-ass, functioning part of the organization and not just a secretary.
McFeely: We wanted her to get in trouble, we wanted her to make choices -- you want characters to make choices, and, say, with the female lead, if she's not making choices, if she's not putting her ass on the line for whatever's important to her, then she's less of a character. The same way that the hero would be. So why not treat everyone as if they have these hard calls to make?
6. Don't be afraid to ditch supporting characters if they don't serve the story -- or, find alternate ways to make them essential. Example: Taking the character of Bucky Barnes from Ed Brubaker's retconned Winter Soldier storyline instead of the classic teen sidekick.
Markus: In one way, Ed Brubaker had already worked around it by bringing in the Winter Soldier, so that it put new life into Bucky.
McFeely: Had Brubaker not done Winter Soldier, I'm not positive Bucky gets in this movie. Because the Bucky that everyone knew before that was a teenager with a domino mask; I'm not positive, we would certainly have had to translate that in the same way we translated Steve and his outfit. And he's a bit of a boy wonder, particularly in the early comics. We were much more interested in Brubaker's version.
Markus: We were also interested in someone knowing Steve on both sides, where Bucky was the protector for 20 years and now it's flipped, and what does that do to Bucky? I find Sebastian [Stan]'s performance really interesting, because he's troubled, you can tell the war is not sitting well with him, he's been tortured, things have been done to him... in a way, he is that voice, that person going in there saying, 'What the hell, we just went through a war.' 'They shot you full of serum, what the hell is going on?'
(So what about those Winter Soldier hints? How will Bucky's story play out in future films?)
Markus: That is the coolest storyline that's happened in a long time. It's just awesome. There is a critical mass of how many people you can bring back from the past. If in every Cap movie he turns around and goes, 'You're not dead, too?!' -- it's like, villains come back, friends come back... we're so early, it's basically like we could have anything we want at the moment.
McFeely: We don't even know if there's going to be a sequel. We're hopeful, but we're not taking anything for granted.
7. When laying groundwork within a greater franchise such as the Avengers films, for which Captain America must help establish certain building blocks, it helps to work well with others (though not necessarily in the same room as others).
McFeely: It's about to get harder. If Captain America 2 happens, it's going to get harder. But we were chronologically first; I know other movies have come out, but we get to unravel some threads that other movies to come later have to pick up, and it wasn't that hard. We knew that we needed a MacGuffin -- we knew that Red Skull wanted to get a thing so he could go do a thing, and if that thing happens to be the Cosmic Cube, it's only a positive.
Markus: That's part of the fun of it, and it's part of the fun of the comics. When a villain shows up and you go, 'That's the guy who fought Daredevil two years ago!' It all works to the greater good.
McFeely: We were reading Thor and Iron Man 2 as we were writing, we read Avengers in preparation of a possible sequel, so we had a sense of what's going to happen. Mostly for us it's how do you deal with Cap out of time? How much is Joss [Whedon] doing with this world around him that he hasn't seen before, and how much do we get to do?
Markus: Also there's a divvying up of villains and plotlines, especially if you have a villain who's traveled across the books. Who gets that guy?
McFeely: Is he more of an Iron Man guy, is he more of a Cap guy...
Markus: It all filters up through Kevin and Stephen [Broussard] and everyone else, and back down through everyone for the next movie. Everybody reads each others' scripts so they don't make some huge continuity error.
McFeely: It would be impossible to have all six, seven writers together.
Markus: [Smiling] We're very competitive.
8. Don't be afraid to work for next to nothing in the beginning, as Markus and McFeely did with their still-unproduced first script, Screenland. It might all work out in the end.
Markus: Screenland was the first thing we got because we weren't guild and they could pay us next to nothing, so they could afford us.
McFeely: Your first job, maybe your first couple jobs, you're not going to make anything.
Markus: Screenland got us Peter Sellers [which in turn led to The Chronicles of Narnia and Captain America], so everything pays off.
Captain America: The First Avenger hits theaters this Friday.