In 1999, journalist Peter Collins wrote a series of articles for the Miami New Times about a group of bodybuilders-turned-criminals who had their hands in everything from kidnapping to extortion to murder. Known as the “Sun Gym Gang,” the trio’s criminal capers eventually found them sitting on Florida’s death row. It all seemed too insane to be true – but it was true. The articles soon attracted the attention of a pair of screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger, The Chronicles of Narnia), who saw the larger than life tale’s on-screen potential. Twelve long years later, their passion project finally hits cineplexes across the nation in the form of the Michael Bay-helmed Pain & Gain, starring Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the bodybuilders gone bad. Darkly comedic, morally ambiguous and completely over the top, the film is one of the best Michael Bay has done in years, but to get to the bottom of this tale, I sat down with Markus and McFeely to talk about adapting real life events for the screen, what to do when your good guys are really bad guys and, of course, their much-anticipated Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Note: This is the red band trailer and, hence, probably NSFW
Nerdist: When it comes to writing a Captain America film, you’re obviously working from existing source material, but for Pain & Gain you’re doing something similar except it’s a true story. Does that provide any unique challenges to the writing process?
Christopher Markus: Well, you know, we’re never at any risk of offending Captain America. There are real living people involved in this one, but it comes down to treating the real people and the cartoon characters as humans and not making anybody a caricature, and hoping you have sufficient respect for everyone involved. I mean, I don’t need to respect Daniel Lugo and his friends but I need to respect their existence as humans so they don’t become caricatures.
Stephen McFeely: Also, it immediately provides structure, which is helpful in the development process. So everybody’s on the same page. We’re all trying to tell the best version of a story we agree about.
N: The premise of this film just seems so absurd, especially when you realize it actually happened. It’s almost like the meathead version of Fargo. It’s just so dark on its face; you’re not sure who you should be rooting for. How do you approach it when your heroes are actually pretty reprehensible guys?
SM: It’s complicated.
CM: You take the word “hero” out of the equation, obviously.
SM: We encourage people to read the New Times article that they’re based on, because Pete Collins did all the homework and he interviewed everybody and he’s certainly a good journalist. We took our cue from his articles in that they walked the line between dark comedy and tragedy really well. There’s just a perverse – there’s a humor to it, no doubt because there’s an incredulity to it, and with every paragraph, Chris and I were amazed that no one stopped them and they continued to push when any reasonable person would’ve had some humanity. [laughs]
CM: Yeah, I think we set out to understand them, and then give them enough rope to hang themselves, which they did, you know, repeatedly. And a couple other people too.
N: In terms of prep work, obviously you mentioned the New Times articles, but did you actually get to talk to any of the people involved with the actual events?
SM: No, we really relied on the New Times articles. We started this thing almost a dozen years ago and it’s just been this long, percolating thing. So, yeah, the articles came out in late ’99, early 2000 and we took them to Wendy Japhet, who was the producer working with Donald De Line, and we took them around town and everyone was like, “Wow, this is fascinating; no way are we doing this.” And then Michael Bay, who lives here in Miami part-time, I think had heard of the stories and heard we were taking it around and attached himself, and then suddenly Paramount was like, “Sure! We’d love to give this a try, or at least pay for a script.” Then it took a dozen years, because, obviously, Michael had other commitments come up. And more power to him for finally making a small one.
CM: We did, as far as research goes, buy a couple of weightlifting magazines. And now I know all about blasting my glutes and such. And other people’s glutes.
N: Yeah, Twitter’s been blowing up; they’ve been saying you have really nice glutes all over the junket.
CM: Well, I mean, quality stands out.
SM: …when you don’t wear pants.
N: I didn’t realize this was a passion project for a dozen years for you; that’s crazy. How much did it change from the original concept to what we see now?
CM: You know, remarkably little. Structurally, we all pretty well knew at the beginning that we wanted voiceover for multiple characters; we wanted to get inside their heads, and we knew we wanted it to be, not hyper, in a way, but… amped in a certain way.
SM: When Michael Bay’s your director, you sort of—
CM: Yeah, you know that—
SM: You know that style will come with it and, in this case, you’re trying to find a way for the style not to overwhelm it or to match its content. I will say, of all his movies, the style matched the content very well.
N: Absolutely, absolutely. They both seemed to serve each other very well. So, prior to this, you’ve been spending a little time over at Marvel; are you trying to diversify your portfolio with things like [Pain & Gain] or are you perfectly happy to keep plumbing the depths of the superhero genre?
CM: [chuckle] Just looking to combine them so that superheroes do more kidnapping and murder. We’ve always tried to keep our feet in both worlds so that, you know, in the downtime between getting these behemoths up and walking, we can explore smaller, human things. Fewer people notice. [chuckle]
SM: It’s technically on the resume but not necessarily, you know, widely understood.
N: So, shifting gears slightly, you guys probably knew this was coming: the inevitable Captain America: The Winter Soldier question.
SM: Yes, yes. The veil’s coming down.
N: The Iron Curtain, very appropriate for The Winter Soldier. With something like this, how closely do you have to work with Kevin Feige and Joss Whedon to make sure you’re appropriately setting up stuff for Avengers 2?
CM: Umm, we talk to Kevin a lot; we don’t see Joss that much, because, obviously, he’s got a movie and a TV show that he’s trying to roll out, so he can’t be popping into our room as often.
SM: Kevin’s the guiding force, at least the one we deal with. He doesn’t usually say, you know, “Don’t do this or this because we’re going to do this over here,” but he’s certainly, I’ve said it before, he’s the dungeon master. He’s the last word. One of the reasons Marvel is so good at what they’re doing is Kevin. Kevin is a film guy and kind of a geek guy—
CM: In the best possible way.
SM: In the best possible way. Yeah, so, he really knows his stuff.
CM: And in terms of guidelines to getting to Avengers 2, it’s only a very broad, sort of, tonal understanding. It’s not, you know, “We need Cap to have a broken arm and Iron Man to be dented,” you know. It’s just, you know, “this is the weather we’d like to have when it opens. If you can contribute to that, great.”
N: So it’s less of a strict editorial edict?
SM: So far, yeah.
N: Cool. Were there any villains from Cap’s rogues gallery that you wanted to include early on but just couldn’t fit them in?
SM: That is a secret, backdoor question to who’s in it!!!!
N: No, no! [laughs] there’s so many!
CM: No, there are the favorites I’m always trying to wedge in, but the problem is you can’t wedge in a giant, flying head. It’s not like MODOK can pop up in one scene. But, I think you’ve seen in the casting announcements that a couple a snuck in.
N: There’s definitely been a couple. Personally, I’m hoping Peter Dinklage is going to be MODOK in Days of Future Past but that’s just me.
CM: There’s a rights issue there, somehow.
N: So, you mentioned the casting, we’re all very excited for the revelation that Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is going to play a prominent role, but I’m curious – how prominently can we expect Emily Van Camp’s Sharon Carter to factor into things?
CM: No comment.
SM: Probably no comment.
N: All right. I also understand that you guys were brought in to work on Thor: The Dark World; what can you tell me about that? I can imagine it’s a wholly different experience from writing Cap.
SM: Yeah, but, you know, it’s the same sandbox and we knew Craig Kyle, the co-producer. You get the call from Kevin and he says, “Hey, do you have some downtime in between Cap drafts? Could you lend a hand over here?” to something that was doing fine. To be blunt, we’re just one of several people on that so we don’t even know if we would be the credited writers on that so it’s a little weird for us to own it or anything in any way.
CM: And Cap is much more about a man out of time, trying to come to grips with his – our – modern world where, in a way, Thor is sort of the reverse. It is more about Jane wrapping her head around the fact that Asgard exists. So it an amicus reversal.
N: Nice. In terms of Easter eggs, I’m not going to ask for any revelations, but I’m curious at what point do you write those into the script? Do you do it as you go along? I like to imagine you have a special phase where you go and pick select scenes and hide something awesome in it.
SM: I’ll tell ya, it’s not… Because we’ve been living with Cap for so long… Put it this way: I grew up in San Francisco; if I wrote a movie about San Francisco, I wouldn’t have to work hard to put in details or shout-outs about San Francisco, and because we’ve been with Cap so long, when you need an object or a person or a throwaway line, we already know kinda what it could be because we’ve been living with it for so long. We don’t really usually have to go to the internet and find something obscure, we kind of already know it.
CM: As far as when these things happen, they happen all along. I was reading the script the other day for a scene they were going to shoot and there’s line in there that I would have thought would have been cut long ago that was one of those situations where I needed a proper noun basically, and put in one from the Marvel Universe. It’s still there, which would seem to have ramifications, but no one’s objected yet. Other times we’ve had characters like, you know, “Call in S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Z” or whoever and the Marvel people we say, like, “He might as well be this guy from the comics. If he’s gonna come in and talk, let’s give him a name.” So some things end up being reverse-engineered into a reference which is fun.
N: That’s awesome. I have to ask one more – well, two more questions. Are you guys big comic book readers yourselves?
CM: Increasingly as it becomes justifiable for my job. And people will be like, “What the hell are you doing lying on the couch?” And it’s like, “I’m working.”
N: What are some titles that you’re reading and enjoying right now?
CM: You know, I’m a thousand years behind on anything, so I don’t think I’ve read anything that’s come out in the last ten years. I just bought the second volume of that giant Walking Dead anthology. So, that’s where I am.
N: This one’s a bit of a hardball, so bear with me: Please describe what would be inside your ideal burrito.
CM: Oooh, my ideal burrito. Well, pain, gain, and probably some grilled chicken.
SM: Same here.