Foxcatcher

FOXCATCHERI loved the script for Foxcatcher. I wouldn’t rate it in my top 10, but it is better written than anything else I’ve read this year. If not for The Imitation Game, it would be my pick for best screenplay in either category of the Oscar nominations. I liked it so much, I think it is worth treating to a full Five Question Review.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) The overwhelming reason why I wanted to put Foxcatcher through this [more rigorous] review is because of this question. This script is a clinic when it comes to using subtext to inform exposition. In other words, it is a clinic in Iceberg Exposition.

There is a large amount of information we need to know in order to understand why the Schultz brothers end up under John du Pont’s influence, and this script gives us this information without boring us with multiple pages of dialogue based exposition. In fact, the first ten of Foxcatcher is the best example of how to use subtext and character individuation to set the stage of a story that I can [currently] remember. If you don’t have time to read the whole script, at least read this first ten.

Let’s look at how the authors introduce Mark Schultz to us:

Mark’s on stage. An audience of 4th, 5th and 6th graders.

MARK
Why do I do it? Why do I push
myself to my limits – of pain, of
exhaustion – every day of my life?
Why do I wake up every morning and
make the commitment? Why do I do
it?

The students are open-mouthed – they have no idea what to
make of him. Mark’s not being willfully over-the-top with
these kids. This is just what’s on his mind. All the time.

MARK (CONT’D)
In 13 months – if I train right, if
I push myself – I’ll be going to
Seoul – that’s a city in South
Korea. Does anyone know why?
Because that’s where the Olympic
games are.

Mark reaches into the briefcase at his feet and pulls out a
RIBBON with a MEDAL dangling from it.

MARK (CONT’D)
Does anyone know what this is?

As a couple of kids start to raise their hands —

MARK (CONT’D)
Olympic gold medal. I won it three
years ago at the ‘84 Games in Los
Angeles. My brother, Dave Schultz –
my best friend, my older brother,
my best friend – won one too, just
23 hours and 16 minutes before I
did. That’s unprecedented – two
brothers winning at the same
Olympics.
(then)
Would you like me to win another
one? Would you like me to win
another gold medal – for us, for
America? Would you like to see me
and my big brother – Dave Schultz –
both win gold medals? Who here
wants to see the two brothers win
again?

Silence. A couple of the kids tentatively raise their hands.
The rest are completely frozen.

MARK (CONT’D)
Well we’re going to give it
absolutely everything we’ve got.

And then 1/10th of a page later, this scene is concluded with this:

She tears off the check and hands it to Mark. He takes the
check, holds out to her a SIGNED 8×10 PHOTO of himself with
his arms raised, in a USA WRESTLING SINGLET just after
winning his Olympic gold.

MARK
And this is for the trophy case.

SCHOOL SECRETARY
I’m sorry?… For what?

MARK
For the trophy case.
(beat)
With the trophies.

SCHOOL SECRETARY
It’s an elementary school.

You see how this is an extremely expositional scene, we are learning a lot about THE FACTS of Mark’s life. These are things we need to know in order to get into the context of this story. Yet, IT’S THE WAY this exposition gets framed in the subtext that makes this script a clinic in how to write dialogue.

It’s clear that Mark doesn’t care about anything other than getting another gold medal in Seoul. His presentation is not geared to his audience and he doesn’t know that he is losing their attention. Mark is OBSESSED with his goal AND with getting recognition for achieving that goal. The script cloaks this exposition in the wonderful subtext entwined in his interactions with the elementary school kids and the secretary.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) So, we’ve already talked a good deal about the subtext in the opening scenes and how this sets up the main reason why Mark is susceptible to du Pont’s influence. [He wants someone to take his obsession seriously.]

The other subtext which is first hinted at in these opening scenes is how Mark’s lack of charisma makes him feel inferior to his brother Dave. This is the engine that leads directly to Dave’s murder, and it is a brilliant piece of script design that the authors think to put it in the story from the script’s very first pages. From pages 6-7:

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
I’m arranging a clinic in your area
next weekend, and I wanted to
invite you and some of your
wrestlers to join…

JUMP CUT TO:

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
That’s Dave, my brother. I wrestle
at 180… No, he won’t be there,
just me… Okay – well, good luck
with your season, coach.

JUMP TO:

On the screen is a montage of highlights from Mark’s career:
take downs, pins. He’s an animal – powerful, aggressive.

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
Yes, there’s a small fee.

JUMP TO:

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
S-C-H-U-L-T-Z….

JUMP TO:

On the screen, Mark wrestles Resit Karabajak, a Turkish
wrestler, in his first round match at the ‘84 Olympics.

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
A unique, character-building
opportunity for young wrestlers….
Yes, a small fee…

Mark throws Karabajak to the mat. Pins him. Walks away, arms
raised. Crowd cheers. Karabajak’s on the mat, hurt.

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
Dave’s my brother…

On screen, Mark does a back flip.

JUMP TO:

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
Olympic Champion…

Mark does a back flip.

MARK (ON PHONE) (CONT’D)
Dave’s my brother…

These ideas give the script all of its momentum. The authors never state them directly; they allow them to come up naturally in the context of the story. If you ever want to see how a script uses subtext to deliver its exposition, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than Foxcatcher.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) All the characters are properly individuated. Du Pont is an excellent example of this. I’ll quote my favorite scene as illustration. From pages 31-32:

MARK
Mr. du Pont, I want to thank you
for –

Du Pont holds up a finger. Mark STOPS. Du Pont whispers –

DU PONT
You hear that?

Mark listens, shakes his head. Du Pont holds up his finger
again – and then we HEAR it: a faint HOOTING from the woods.

DU PONT (CONT’D)
Barred owl –

He hands Mark the small box he’s holding. Inside is a very
small set of BINOCULARS.

DU PONT (CONT’D)
When you spot one, you’ll see with
each hoot there’s a white flash in
his collar. His throat swells, and
he reveals to you the lighter
feathers he keeps hidden
underneath.

He hands Mark the BOOK: “South Pacific Birds” by John
Eleuthere du Pont.

DU PONT (CONT’D)
It’s from ten years ago, but I
thought you might find it
interesting.

MARK
You wrote this?

DU PONT
I did.

Mark seems genuinely touched and impressed.

MARK
Thank you. Do you want to come in?

DU PONT
No no –

MARK
– The fridge is full – you probably
know better than me what’s in there-

DU PONT
– No. You need your rest. You need
to get started bright and early.

Du Pont hold up his own set of binoculars.

DU PONT (CONT’D)
– I had a wonderful night a few
years back when I spotted all eight
Northeast species. Right here on
the farm.
(then)
What do we have – two months to the
Worlds?

MARK
Not even. 54 days.

DU PONT
54 days.
(beat)
We’ll get it done.

Du Pont wants to be an important person. He is not. He is an excessively rich person that people treat as though he is important because of his excessive riches. The problem with du Pont is that he can’t accurately rate his worth. His silly book is important to him because he wrote it. It’s the only “medal” the world his given him in over 50 years. The fact that he gives Mark a copy demonstrates that [on a fundamental level] Mark and John have a lot in common. They BOTH want to be taken seriously by a world that would rather do other things.

The individuation in this script is also brilliant:

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

I’ve already spent enough time talking about these first 10 pages in the previous question. It’s quite obvious I thought they are magnificent [and deserving of all the points].

The only thing that I didn’t mention is that these pages also pin Mark in financially. This is also brilliant. There has to be a reason one falls under the spell of du Pont’s mental illness. The fact is, du Pont “catches” Mark in his web because Mark struggles to make ends meet and dedicate himself to training full time. From the beginning to the end of this script, du Pont is able to be The Caligula of Foxcatcher because people take his money and look the other way. This becomes the most important piece in this story puzzle, and once again the authors deserve praise for incorporating it from the very first pages.

20 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) In a script that emphasizes character and dialogue, it isn’t strange that it works harder for reveals than a script that functions by way of its plot. Foxcatcher labors to produce its reveals [and most of them come from the subtext]. In other words, the relationship between the brothers is the only source of reveals we get in this story.

First, we wonder if Mark is going to be able to get Dave to indenture himself to John’s money. Half the script is spent with John adding and subtracting pressure on Mark to convince Dave to come train at Foxcatcher. This eventually happens, and honestly, there is little sense of it being “revealed” when it does.

Second, we wonder how Mark is going to respond to Dave’s supplanting him as “leader” at Foxcatcher. This works much better as a reveal because we have all of that subtext from the first 50 pages backing it up. We already know how much Mark feels like his accomplishments are never enough because he feels that his brother is a better wrestler [and more charismatic leader] than he is. Mark can never get out of Dave’s shadow. He is always second best, no matter how many gold medals he wins. It is proper that he also becomes second best in du Pont’s eyes.

Lastly, I feel this script just ends. The buildup to the murder is supberb. After the murder… the resolution is rushed. I can hold this fact against the script because it takes liberties with the record in order to build a compelling story. I have no problem with taking those liberties but, if you are going to alter history to accommodate your story telling—finish the job.

4 out of 10 points.

Part B) The script has a great engine. We have discussed it in full already. Mark wants to be as great as he thinks his brother is. He has the physical talents, the drive, and the obsessive focus. He only lacks the charisma.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I also think it’s true that a script based on a true story faces hurdles when it comes to its pinch point. Foxcatcher demonstrates this by being unable to adequately solve this piece of story architecture.

This story funnels toward Dave’s decision to join Foxcatcher. As I’ve said, this plot point occurs near the midpoint [too soon]. After that, the script picks a new pinch point, Mark’s performance at the upcoming Olympics. This constitutes pinch point muddling.

I wouldn’t be as hard on the script about this, except there are liberties taken with the historical record. Since the authors shuffle the chronology of their story, I feel they should have been able to design their script with a single pinch point.

2 out of 5 points.

Part D) What is the theme? Arguments could be made for, the personal price of excellence, or leadership as a talent and not a skill, but I think the theme is:

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Ten words or less, and it fits nicely on a bumpersticker.

I described du Pont as a Caligula and, honestly, his action [in the script and historically] really upset me. It frustrates me that our society allows people like him. What a waste.

Economically, I believe capitalism is a zero-sum game. There are people starving in the world because there are people like John du Pont buying armored personnel carriers from the United States government and driving them into lakes on their 2000 acre properties. I believe men like du Pont CAUSE people to die of starvation.

It is the fault of both Mark and Dave Schultz that they allowed this Caligula to buy them. They should have told this crazy, worthless, piece of shit, exactly where he could stuff his money. They fact that they didn’t makes them morally wrong. They didn’t not see the truth of the theme in their story:

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

As two men who worked hard their whole lives to attain results based on merit, they OF ALL PEOPLE, should have seen this. They owed it to the world to walk away from the crazy.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) The story is unique. I like the shuffling of the record to produce coherent thematic results. However, I think the ending is a mild letdown. I prefer that the authors had spent a little more time on the resolution of their story. Had they done that, there is every chance that this could have been in my top ten. As it is:

3 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing, on the other hand, is outstanding. This script, by itself, can teach you how to write a screenplay. Fantastic:

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)

This script served its purpose admirably. I believe the truth stated in its theme—if something looks to good to be true, it probably is. There are no shortcuts to excellence. If you want to be great at something, then you have to dedicate yourself to that proposition. It will take all of your resolve.

I believe the corollary to this theme is also true [even though it isn’t stated in this script].

The only things worth doing are hard to achieve.

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 89

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