Take Down

A Eugene native and graduate of South Eugene High School, screenwriter E. Max Frye is nominated (along with co-writer Dan Futterman) for an Academy Award for his work on the Foxcatcher screenplay. Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), Foxcatcher is based on the true story of John du Pont, an heir to the Du Pont family fortune who, in the 1980s, established Foxcatcher Farm, a wrestling facility on his estate where he worked with sibling gold-medalists Mark and Dave Shultz.

But Foxcatcher isn’t your typical rah-rah sports bio. The film — which stars Steve Carell (nominated for an Oscar) as du Pont and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo (also nominated) as the brother wrestlers — is a stark, haunting depiction of hubris, alienation and ambition that moves with the relentless rhythms of Greek tragedy. That it was not included among this year’s Best Picture nominees is baffling.

Frye, who now lives in New York but has spent the past month partaking in Hollywood’s pre-Oscar festivities, took a few moments from the fun last week to talk with EW by phone.

What drew you to the story of Foxcatcher?

It was a pretty dark sports story, and one that began at the top, with a gold medal and the National Anthem, and then you kind of deconstruct the typical sports story and that’s where you end it.

How do you view John du Pont?

As a character? Or the real John du Pont, as a human being? Because those are two different things.

Let’s start with the real John du Pont. Was he a sociopath?

No, I believe — and there’s no irrefutable evidence of this — but I believe that he suffered from some sort of psychosis. That, coupled with his name and his money, allowed him to do things that you and I couldn’t do, and allowed him free reign of his various paranoid fantasies and his ego. I don’t know that he was more of a sociopath than anybody else with that kind of money. But that’s him in real life. 

As far as the movie character goes, Bennett and I, when we were first talking about this, we said, “Well, we don’t want to make him crazy.” The audience is too easily able to distance themselves from a person that they perceive as a psychopath or a sociopath. So we tried to have the character walk the line and keep him accessible and empathetic in a certain way. And yes, he does horrible things and he’s bad and creepy and weird, but we wanted to keep him just inside the line of, “Oh, he’s a psychopath or he’s a sociopath and that’s why he’s doing all these things.”

Is there something inherent to wealth that creates that kind of behavior? He seems to treat the people in his life like playthings.

Well, listen, that can be applied to not only people with wealth but people with immense power, whether that be an athlete, which usually has an accompanying wealth these days, or you can look at actors, also, and their often bad behavior. It’s because nobody ever says “no” to them. If you never say “no” to a child, he just keeps pushing it and pretty soon you’ve got a tyrant on your hands. Yeah, I don’t think that this behavior is inherent in the wealthy, although it certainly helps to have that kind of money.

And what was your approach to portraying the relationship between John du Pont and his mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave?

Well, it wasn’t easy. Listen, it’s not Mommie Dearest, where she’s beating him with a coat hanger and it’s clear that she’s terrible. What I found fascinating — and there wasn’t that much detail recorded, historically; it was more anecdotal about the mom that we got from people who worked on the [Foxcatcher] farm and some of the wrestlers. A little went a long way. 

For me, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when they wheel her in the wheelchair into the wrestling room, and she doesn’t say a word. She just looks at him as he’s trying desperately to glean some kind of respect and admiration out of her by portraying himself as a coach and a mentor to these world-class wrestlers, which he wasn’t. And it became very obvious, I thought, in that scene, just by the expression on her face, and no dialogue between them. Just the visuals were fantastic, and made him sympathetic and empathetic and accessible to the audience. That’s one of the things, no matter if you have money or not, you want to please your parents; you want to have them say, “Good job, you’re doing something valuable and I respect what you’re doing.” He never got that from her.

E. Max Frye

Do you view Foxcatcher as a kind of cautionary tale?

I absolutely do not view it as a cautionary tale about sports or wealth. I mean, this is a complete outlier, bizarre, weird tragedy that happened, and that’s why it got made into a movie. It just was so strange and compelling, and these characters were strange and compelling in the way they interacted with one another. So, no, I don’t look at it like that. I don’t look at it as any kind of comment on America. 

I’ve seen some people have said it’s liberal Hollywood commenting on capitalism and everything. Listen, everybody sees in art what they want to see or can see, and so I’ve seen a few things like that and I can definitely say Bennett and I never talked about any of that. What was true was that he [du Pont] was an absolute patriot, or considered himself to be a patriot and an American and a flag-waver and wanted to be called “Eagle,” and sent telegrams called “Eagle-grams” to his wrestlers.

What was your experience growing up in Eugene?

Do you know South Eugene High School? Well, it’s very long — it’s blocks long. When I was there, on the west end was all the sports stuff — the gym and the wrestling room and the weight room and all that. And on the east end was all the arts — the theater and the art classes. And all the stoners were out in the east parking lot, and the jocks were in the west parking lot. I was one of the few people that went from one end of the building to the other.

My senior year, there was a drama teacher named David Nail, and he approached me and said, “Hey, how would you like to do a play?” I had another friend who was a football player, and he and I ended up being in the spring production. Also, I took an acting class for children’s theater. I discovered the notion of being able to tell a story dramatically. That was my first exposure, was my senior year at South. And I kinda kept that in the back of my head as I struggled and flailed around to find what I was good at and what I could do, because I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

I ended up being a painter for a couple of years and moved to New York to pursue that. I had a girlfriend and we broke up, and I was distraught and didn’t know what to do. I decided I was going to go back to school and I ended up at NYU film school, and I don’t even remember how I applied to the film school, but I did and I got in. And then I had to take a mandatory intro to dramatic writing, and it was just this instantaneous, “Oh! I can do this.” Wow, I didn’t know I had that ability. My brain works that way.

And that was it. I was focused on screenwriting from that moment. I got lucky, and here I am. I say that because there are other kids growing up in places like Eugene that might have talent that they don’t know about. So it’s just a question of exposing yourself to a lot of things and seeing where you’re good and what your motivation is. And hey, you too could graduate from South Eugene High School and end up at the Academy Awards.

Foxcatcher is playing at Bijou Metro.