Industry Pro: Writer Stephen McFeely
You hear a lot of people say “Oh I could do better than that” when watching TV or a movie. In the case of Stephen and his writing partner, an episode of “Baywatch” inspired them to try their luck at screenwriting. That inspiration was followed by writing some bad scripts and then some not-so-bad scripts, moving to Los Angeles, writing more scripts while working day jobs, and then finally making some progress. Throughout it all and to this day, even as an award-winning team of sought-after screenwriters who work on big budget movies, as you’ll read below, this is a career which demands hard work, patience, perseverence, and, if you’re lucky, a few ingenious ideas in order to land the really plum writing assignments.
Current position and/or project: Screenwriter, working on CAPTAIN AMERICA 2.
Hometown: Oakland and San Francisco.
College and degree: I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and government from University of Notre Dame and a Masters in Creative Writing from University of California at Davis.
Did you have an internship while you were in school? No.
What was it that made you want to be a writer? I taught English when I first got out of college, at my old high school. It was clear I didn’t want to be there forever. Particularly as it was my old high school, it felt like I hadn’t moved on with my life. But every time I introduced a new author, Robert Frost or whoever it was, their bio always said that they taught high school English. I thought, “Oh, well, maybe this is almost a good thing. This is proving ground and I should try to be a writer.” So I took out loans and got into one grad school and gave myself a couple of years just to write. That’s where I met Chris. (Editor’s Note: Chris Markus, his writing partner, profiled here in 2009.)
How did you and Chris start writing together? We were like-minded and had similar senses of humor. One night we were sitting around watching “Baywatch” (because we had no friends other than each other) and it occurred to us that someone got paid to write this particular episode of this program. We sort of went, “Wow, we could do that.” As a lark we sketched out a couple of episodes. We never wrote those, but the process was fun enough that we then wrote a couple of bad sitcom episodes and then we eventually wrote a bad thriller. Our prospects outside of this were nil, so we decided to move to L.A. and give ourselves four years. If we were still way on the outside of the business at that point, then we’d stop and go on with our separate lives.
And the rest is history? The rest is history. I do believe that commitment was helpful. You can’t just go and pretend. You have to say, “This is what I will do. It’s the most important thing to me.” But you also don’t want to wake up at age 50 and realize that you never had a wife, kids, family or a mortgage because we’re always going to auditions or something.
Right. So what was your first job in the entertainment industry? When we first moved here, I knew somebody at the Remedy Temp Agency, which is not a traditional Hollywood temp agency. My first real job was temping at Nickelodeon. There were a couple of silly ones before that, but those didn’t last for more than a day. Nickelodeon would call me on and off for a year and I would lick the holiday card envelopes and answer the phone sometimes and do data entry and things like that. But it absolutely led to our whole career. Everything started at Nickelodeon.
How did that happen? I was working for a woman named Robbie Row whose husband, Mike Tollin, had a production company that was just starting to get big. They had a couple of shows on the air, and were easing their way into features. He needed a script reader/development person and his wife said, “Steve is way overqualified to do what he’s doing for me.” So I met with him and he hired me.
He knew I was a struggling writer so, soon after I started, he said, “When you finish your spec script, let me know and I’ll take a look at it.” We took another nine months to make it a shiny polished diamond. When it was as done as it was going to get, I gave it to Mike. He read it and passed it along to two agents. One of them called us and we were sort of hip-pocketed by him. (Editor’s Note: Hip pocketing is when an agent agrees to represent a new writer or actor informally without his/her agency officially signing them as a client unless they get work from the relationship.) That was a little less than two years after we got here. It didn’t immediately lead to riches or fame, but it meant that we were at least in the game.
What do you consider your big break? Would that be it? That’s one of them. The career is a little ladder and you get stuck on rungs all the time and you can go down. But a big one was Mike being cool enough to give it to people and then one person calling me back and then, you know, we got the first little jobs. The big break after that was getting “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.”
What happened after you finally got repped? Our first paid writing job was a project called SCREENLAND, which was a true story about the murder that took place at the silent movie theater over on Fairfax (in L.A.) It’s twisted and fascinating, and we loved that script. It absolutely did not allow us to quit our day jobs, so we wrote it on the side while I was still reading scripts for Mike Tollin and Chris was still working for New Regency.
After that, it took a long time to get another job. That was TACO DOG. We sold a company our take on their project about a talking Chihuahua and then it was like somebody there came back from vacation and said, “Did you talk to Taco Bell? We can’t make this.” So that project was shelved and they had us work on this HMO comedy project. That was just like dying a long death.
We went a long time again without working. In the winter of 2000, we decided we had to leave our agency. It was a very difficult decision and we lost a lot of sleep over it, but within a month, we were in the room on the Peter Sellers job. So we never regretted it. And, you know, it all went from there.
Where did the Peter Sellers project come from and how did you get the job? HBO had optioned a pretty exhaustive biography called “The Life & Death of Peter Sellers” by Roger Lewis. And they were having a fairly standard “beauty contest” where writers would come in and pitch how they would adapt the book, how they would turn it into a movie.
Our pitch required the actor to play a lot of different versions of Sellers. We thought that it would be in keeping with what we learned about him, that he was really never the same person. He wasn’t the same person with family that he was with friends or with acquaintances or with other celebrities. He always took on the persona of somebody else, and he was a hard guy to know and a hard guy to love. He played a lot of different parts in his own movies, too. He used disguises and things like that. So we thought that would be sort of a smart way to do it.
I don’t know what other people pitched. It almost seemed obvious to us, but HBO was amazed. We got that job. The movie didn’t turn out exactly like the pitch because there were right’s issues a little bit. But we absolutely kept that idea throughout the whole process; the whole project.
And then you got an Emmy for “The Life & Death of Peter Sellers”? Yes. That was a few years after that initial pitch meeting. We got an Emmy in the fall of 2005.
At what point did you quit your day jobs? Chris quit six months before I did. But I think right around then. I think in getting the HBO job we realized we couldn’t have other jobs.
Did you have another job lined up by the time you finished this one? We chased a bunch of different things for the year of summer 2002 to summer 2003 with not much success. If someone asked, “Are you interested in this?” we’d say, “Yes, we are interested.” But then, as now, production companies tend to sort of dance with a number of girls at the dance and then pick one to go home with. You give your ideas and you go in for meetings and they do that with a number of different writers. Then I don’t know what their internal clock is that says now we must hire somebody. But eventually they do and, you know, invariably it wasn’t us for a lot of these things.
And then we got three jobs all in the same week and we could only take two of them. One of them was THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. They had not green lit “Sellers” yet, but we got hired because the director had read that script. The other was a thing with Cameron Crowe that didn’t really pan out very much.
So you got THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE in the summer of 2003? Yeah, and we stayed on it pretty much until the movie came out, which was Christmas 2005. By that time, they had hired us to write the sequel.
Were you working on other things in between that series? That’s a good question. With that first one, we had to juggle the two projects that we got. So we were doing a remake of TROUBLE IN PARADISE, the Ernst Lubitsch classic, for the late Laura Ziskin, with Cameron Crowe attached loosely (to direct) and Hugh Grant attached loosely (to star). We wrote a couple of drafts and it sort of ‑‑ they may have kept it alive with other writers. I don’t know. But they did allow us to take a 48‑hour trip to London to meet Hugh Grant. That was kind of cool. “You want to go meet Hugh Grant this weekend?” “Oh, okay.”
But THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE was clearly a go movie. We would go in and there was a staff of people doing animatics and pre‑viz and production design and all this stuff. So it was going. So as soon as TROUBLE IN PARADISE went away, we lived in “Narnia” for a while. We probably did something while they were shooting since we didn’t have to be there. I just don’t quite remember what it was, and it clearly did not turn into a movie.
Were you working on the sequel before the first one came out? They will commission a script sometimes before the movie comes out. But that doesn’t mean that they are going into production. They’ll wait to see how well that movie does. So while we got hired to write PRINCE CASPIAN before the movie came out, they certainly waited to figure out how serious they were about it. And then to make Andrew Adamson’s deal to come back and direct it. That took awhile.
Right. And then did you go directly into the third one or were there other projects in between? There were other projects in between. Nothing produced. Wait, that’s not true. In 2007, YOU KILL ME came out.
YOU KILL ME was the original spec script you and Chris wrote that got you your original agency representation. Somebody wanted to make it. A producer named Mike Marcus just kept pushing it up a hill. He eventually came back to us and said, “Hey, this thing has been pushed up the hill. I now have John Dahl and Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni. What do you think?” We did a quick pass, since we had written it so long ago. Airplane regulations and cell phone use were different. We had to update it a little bit. It ended up this charming little movie.
So you worked on the third CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movie at that time, too. And then did you transition directly into CAPTAIN AMERICA? No. We had another long period of nothing. We got let go from “Narnia, the Third” while we were on strike.That may be my second worst day in Hollywood. I was probably going to be okay, but I’d never really been unceremoniously dumped and certainly not while I was striking. They said, “When we come back you are not going to come back.” The strike ended in February of 2008. We didn’t work that whole year.
We got the call from our agent in May of 2008 that Marvel was going to make a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and that they were going to set it in the 1940s. So we chased that project for the rest of 2008 and finally got that job after, you know, going to comic book stores and going in and out of Marvel convincing them that we were the right guys, like around the holidays. We were on CAPTAIN AMERICA pretty much the rest of the way.
What’s the best career advice you ever got? We had a mentor figure at Davis who said, “Listen, there’s no shame in writing for movies and television.” There was a stigma to it at Davis, since we were there to be novelists and short story writers. But Jack Hicks allowed Chris and I to go do it with a clear conscious. That was helpful.
I’m looking for a eureka moment when you realized that you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently. I certainly had those kinds of moments when I was teaching high school. I decided I couldn’t continue teaching; I had to go try writing.
Describe a typical workday in your current position. I get to work around 9:30 or 10:00. Either Chris comes here or more often I go to his house and we work in his back office there, until about 4:30 or 5. We usually don’t go anywhere for lunch. We eat whatever is in his kitchen. That is pretty much it. That’s is five days a week usually.
So you’ve already mentioned what your worst day in the entertainment industry was, when you let your agent go. Can you tell us more about it? UTA had read our script for “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” and they were sniffing around us and saying, “We think you could be the guys that write these things over and over again.” We were at a smaller agency that was very good for some things, but maybe not great for us. They were encouraging us to be broad comedy guys and that didn’t come very naturally to us. We tried to write a broad comedy spec script and it kind of sucked. And they would put us out on jobs, you know, that were for talking dogs and things. We just started hating ourselves. And we hadn’t booked anything in a year. But we had to make that phone call to tell them. It was one of the most adult decisions that I ever made, and I lost a lot of sleep over it.
Best job or best day? Well, we walked the carpet at Cannes for “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” and that was pretty amazing. My girlfriend, Jen, was by my side and was very adamant about me paying attention and trying to take it all in. It will always stay with me.
That’s awesome. What the best thing about being a working writer? I like being part of a team. Particularly working for Marvel, the room is very small and I really like that. So it’s me and Chris. In the last case, it was the director, maybe one or two guys from Marvel, and that’s it. We shepherd this thing basically all the way through the process. I played sports growing up and I always liked being the third best member of the basketball team. It’s where I excel. I like feeding the ball to other people. I like occasionally winning a game. It appeals to that part of me. Now, eventually, other parts cry out to be fed. Chris and I would like to write and direct our own movie. But the current job really appeals to that part of me.
Worst thing about your current job? You are definitely not in charge. You are important, but you are not the final say. That would be the only negative. I think there are other ways to go feed that. You know, if we can get into series television. If that ever happens and took off, we would very much be the creative voice and be able to call a few more shots. But I really like my job. I feel very lucky that I figured this part of my life out.
Brush with greatness. It can be celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do. That happens a lot. I mean, I watch people on set just be good. Eighteen months ago, I was sitting with Stanley Tucci watching him work. In just a small scene in CAPTAIN AMERICA, I just thought, “This guy is so winning and charming and can turn it on and off. He’s one thing, you know, ten feet away over there and over here he’s just shooting the breeze.” We’ve had a lot of celebrity moments and stuff like that. But I do like watching smart people work, you know?
What’s the one thing you wish you would have known when you started? I guess it would have been easier if I knew the lay of the land more. Like if I lived in LA before or had come from a family that knew something about it or had gone to UCLA. I wouldn’t have had to go to the Remedy Temp Agency and answer the phones for the condominium complex where Boyz II Men lived.
What is the secret of your success and/or what advice would you give to someone just starting out? I think you have to move here and make a commitment. I think you have to go all in and say, “This is going to be my life and I’m going to give it the best chance I can.” It’s hard to do that from Minneapolis. The second big piece of advice is that you can’t pick your first job. I mean, you move here. You be a smart person. You keep putting yourself out there, try to work in the industry, even answering phones or reading scripts or something like that. But when that first (writing) job comes along, when someone says, “Hey, I know you are answering phones but I know you want to be a writer. Let’s talk about this possible writing thing,” you really can’t say, “No, I am waiting for Spielberg.” You can pick your career based on the decisions that come from that first one, but that first decision,
you just have to take it.
Okay. Next move or next five moves… There are two moves. We would like to direct. That’s certainly slowly percolating. We would also like to work in TV. We’re working on a pilot deal. I would be very excited if that kept moving down the line and became a series. It would be a lot of work, but would be a lot of our work.
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