E. Max Frye is an Academy Award nominated screenwriter and director known for Something Wild, The Alienist, Where the Money Is, and Foxcatcher. I spoke with E. Max about his views on screenwriting theory, his writing process, Foxcatcher, and his advice for aspiring screenwriters.
Was screenwriting a career you always wanted to pursue?
Not at all. I grew up on the west coast, travelled around and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was always into art and painting and went down the road of becoming a painter, which is why I moved to New York. I moved to the East Village in 1981 and the East Village was insane, with Basquiat and all the graffiti artists. That was a great time. After a year or two, I didn’t know if it was for me or not, so I decided to apply for school. I don’t remember how I got into NYU film school. Somehow, I got in and I discovered screenwriting as I had to take a mandatory writing course. It was just one of those things that clicked. My brain worked that way and I thought I can do this. I pursued it hard and got lucky. Here I am all these years later.
You wrote the Carentan episode of Band of Brothers. Could you tell me more about this?
It originally started off as 13 episodes. They kind of divided it all up. Erik Jendresen wrote a fantastic bible. It was then collapsed to 10 episodes. We choreographed amongst the writers what we were going to do. My episode was episode three, Carentan. There were things that happened in episode seven that were set-up in episode three and all over the series there were payoffs. You have characters coming in, characters getting killed etc… It was a great experience working with other writers.
Did you have a writer’s room?
I was living in Paris at the time and not everybody was in L.A. We came together for maybe three days. It wasn’t a typical writer’s room when you are writing for a TV series and you are there for three to six months. They had done hours of interviews with these guys, so we had a huge archive of interviews and access to everybody. We could call people up and ask if they remembered certain things that happened. That’s how we did it. Everyone went off and did their drafts and then we coordinated it. As writer’s, we would talk to each other and work things out, but we were spared the atrocities of a writer’s room.
The good part of collaborating is not sitting alone in a room trying to figure everything else out yourself. It’s nice when you are with good writers who know story and character. It’s a great thing to have collaborators working with you because it’s so lonely and the road is so hard when you are writing on your own. It can get pretty brutal.
Was that the case with Something Wild?
That was really my first script and I was still in film school when I wrote the early drafts. I had a professor who was mentoring me, so it wasn’t so lonely. You weren’t on such an island in that situation. It happened very quickly after that with an agent and all that. I don’t look back on that and think you are on an island trying to figure it out. That came later on.
Are there any screenwriting theories you religiously follow?
I don’t. I don’t put anybody down that adheres to any of the Syd Field, or Robert McKee stuff. I hadn’t heard of any of those guys when I first started. The biggest lesson I learned was that there has got to be conflict. It sounds simple and stupid, but when you are growing up conflict resolution is what you learn. Don’t hit anybody, play nicely etc. When you are writing dramatic screenplays for the stage, TV and movies you have to have conflict. It is boring if you don’t and it doesn’t work.
What are these characters up against? You have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. Your antagonist can be the weather, it can be a mountain, an animal, a storm etc. It can be all kinds of things. I taught screenwriting for many years. It is hard to understand that you need conflict to push things forward. If people get along in a scene, it is just boring. They need to fight. Whether it’s who gets the last slice of pizza, you have to have conflict.
I’ve seen and listened to Robert McKee. I’m not a big advocate of having to do this and that by page 25 or 30, or the first act has to end here. I think that those rules are confining if all you are focused on is structure. A lot of people can write a structured screenplay, but that doesn’t make it any good. Just because you know how to build the blocks of a screenplay, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have interesting characters or conflict that is worth watching.
Do you think a lot of aspiring screenwriters focus solely on structure, as opposed to substance?
I do, yes. For example, when I taught screenwriting, students would write scenes with a boy and a girl and they are out watching the stars. I’d ask them what happens after that and they would say: ‘Oh they are just friends…’ Nobody wants to see friends like that, they want to see sex, or something to move them. It was really hard sometimes to get people to understand that. It is their screenplay and they can do whatever they want, but it is like I said before, when you are brought up and you are told conflict resolution is the way we live life and then to suddenly say throw all that out. You want to have mean people, bullies, cheaters, criminals as part of your story. They are much more interesting characters than people who follow the rules.
Is conflict what drew you to the story of Foxcatcher?
That story came to me. It was Bennett Miller’s baby and his vision. He very much knew what he wanted, or what he didn’t want, which I think is just as valuable. What really drew me to the story, I’d been a jock at high school and most sports stories end with victory and catching the winning pass. This started with two gold medallists. You start at the top of the mountain and then you go down, as opposed to climbing the mountain. I found that very interesting. In a way it’s a sports story, but in a way, it’s very much not. You had DuPont and what money does to sports and how it can corrupt it. There are lots of elements to that.
I had been a basketball player in high school, but I had a good friend who was a wrestler. I’d go there and hang out and they kept their wrestling room at like 105 degrees. My friend was never eating and always starving himself. I was very familiar with a lot of the wrestling stuff. Working with Bennett was great and methodical. Which pieces of the story do we want to use and incorporate because there was just so much stuff to go pick through! I give Bennett a lot of credit for his big vision of what he wanted and what he didn’t want.
And you are also writing about a true story…
I don’t want to call it a fabrication, but to make the story work we really collapsed the time. It really took place over about six, or eight years and we collapsed it. There was really a big jump from when the Foxcatcher facility got set up to DuPont shooting Dave. If you don’t know the real story you would think it took place in a more confined time period, but it really dragged out quite a way.
You have to take a few liberties when turning a life story into a film...
Absolutely. It doesn’t work otherwise. Writing about a historical figure, what piece of the person’s life are you going to use? You just have to take one piece of that story you want to tell about that character and then make that the story that represents that person.
Was there a particular point in the story you wanted to start with?
The way the movie started with Mark living basically hand to mouth was all true. He’d already won a gold medal, so you are catching him in this place that’s about as low as he’d been as an adult. There was no money in US wrestling at the time. Bennett wanted to start there. Mark’s brother Dave was much more charismatic and easier to deal with. I think that’s portrayed in the movie pretty well.
Do you find adapting stories more challenging than creating original scripts?
That’s a two-way street. When you are adapting a script, you already have material. It’s almost like having a collaborator. You have someone to talk to, a book, a true story, or a character based on a real person. In that way it is a little easier, unless you want to go off in a completely different direction. If you want to remain somewhat true to the story, then you are kind of tied to that. So, you have to make it work within the parameters of a screenplay in the story and not betray the story, or novel or whatever you are doing. That’s why everybody hates movies made from books. You always have to go off and do something to make the book work and sometimes that is detrimental to people that love books and authors who hate what happened to their book.
Has your writing process changed since you first started out?
It has gone through transformations. I used to write at night and late afternoon. Then I found I couldn’t do that because I had kids. Once I started doing errands, I never got the writing done. At one point I had to just write before doing everything else, so I started writing in the mornings, which was great. Sometimes I’ve had an office, sometimes I’ve worked from home, sometimes libraries or coffee shops. I mix it up. That’s been my biggest change, is how and where I write. The routine.
What’s your process when it comes to structuring a script? Do you outline?
No, I know some people are religious about outlines and treatments. I do not do that. I get a character and a situation, an inciting incident if you will and I just see where the characters lead. For me the best writing is when the characters are telling me what’s going on. It sounds a little bit hokey I guess, but it’s true if I’m really into it and the characters are working then they will tell me what they say or where it is going next. I don’t need to have to think about it too much.
Do the characters naturally evolve as you write? They aren’t planned out beforehand?
I don’t write out the background. I’m always thinking about that. It’s an amalgam of my imagination, myself and people I’ve known or met, stories I’ve heard, or other characters in other movies sometimes. I’ll mimic a scene, or steal if you will from a scene from another movie. Mostly old classics. It’s kind of a composite of all these different things. Then it becomes a real movie character, which isn’t a real human, but pretty close.
Are there any screenwriters who have particularly influenced you?
I’m a big Billy Wilder fan. I’m old enough to have had the good fortune of having lunch with Billy Wilder several times, through people I met. This was back in the late 80s and 90s. I once had lunch with Stanley Donen and Billy Wilder. Billy Wilder was just this non-stop storyteller. He always had a writing partner, but some of the stuff he wrote and directed I still think is fantastic. My kids have seen all his movies. I have a portrait of him hanging in my kitchen that Volker Schlöndorff gave me because I did a movie with him and he was friends with Billy Wilder.
When I first started screenwriting they had lots of scripts at the film school, so I’d go and pick a script. I always wanted to read what I considered the best stories. I remember reading Patton, Apocalypse Now, Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown and all those great classics from the 60s and 70s. I guess those guys were my mentors at the time and I was lucky enough to meet a few of them.
Do you think having a mentor is very important?
I think it can help, sure. Anybody that takes an interest in you and believes in your talent is a boost, especially if you are a writer because it is a pretty lonely endeavour. It is nice to have somebody who is older and wiser than you believe in what you are doing. You can trust them to tell you the truth and what works. I think if any young screenwriter can find a mentor, or somebody to mentor them then that is a big help. That’s true of most things. Imagine George Harrison mentoring you guitar lessons.
What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?
Reading books about screenwriting are valuable to a degree, but what are your favourite movies? Get the screenplay and read it. I think Fargo is a fantastic screenplay. It is the sparest screenwriting you can imagine. Of course, the Coen brothers were going to direct and produce it themselves, so they could afford to do that. I don’t know when you are starting out if you can get away with that. I think good screenwriting is like haiku, the bare elements. If I were starting out, I would say take what you can from those books, but don’t make that your bible. Don’t be afraid to break rules because there is only one rule in screenwriting and that’s that it has to work. If you look at a movie like Memento that’s basically a story told backwards, or Pulp Fiction and the way it is all chopped up.
I would say that goes for character also. I really liked Red Rocket. I really hated that character. I almost turned the movie off, but I watched it and thought it was amazing. I watched it again the next night. Having an ex-pornstar as a protagonist. He’s going to seduce a young girl and take her to Hollywood so she can become a pornstar. That’s not something Robert McKee is going to use as a character. Look at all the conflict that was in that movie. He’s fighting against everything and that makes for a great character. Not a great human being, but a great character. You don’t want to know that guy in real life.
There just comes a point when you have to go out and just write it. You can’t be too precious about it. You just have to get through it. Screenplays are not meant to sit on a shelf. They are meant to get movies made. That’s your goal.