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Interview: 'Pain & Gain' screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

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"Pain & Gain," for the lack of better words, has been quite a workout for heralded screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. But more than 13 years after the scribes started to assemble the bizarre true crime story based on articles by Miami New Times journalist Pete Collins, their vision has finally been set free.

"We loved Pete's articles, but we couldn't get anybody in town to back us on the story because it was so demented -- that is, until somebody with an efficiently demented nature came along, and his name was Michael Bay," Markus told me, laughing, in an interview Wednesday.

"I think Michael may have known about the story living part-time in Miami, so he attached himself to the project," McFeely added. "Then Paramount said, 'Oh, well, if he's interested, we'll pay to let you guys write that.'"

Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, "Pain & Gain" is based on the incredibly odd but true story from 1995 about Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), an enterprising bodybuilder who is willing to do anything to get a big piece of the American Dream. Hard work factors into his slow rise, until he meets a successful Miami businessman named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).

Planning an elaborate scheme to kidnap Kershaw and get him to sign over all his assets, Lugo enlists the help of fellow bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and musclebound ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to execute the plan. But as the crime unfolds, the plan begins to spiral out of control, leading to bizarre sessions of torture. Worse yet, as their addiction to living large grows, it leads to something far more deadly -- and there is no turning back.

See the trailer for "Pain & Gain" below.

Without question, "Pain & Gain" is a huge departure for Bay, who in the past several years has primarily been associated as the director of the "Transformers" movie series. But unlike his blockbuster 'bot adventures, Bay is letting his own voice do the talking this time around, McFeely said, adding that "it's his most self-aware movie."

"He's seeing similar ground through a different lens," Markus added. "It's like he is looking, ironically at things he normally looks at un-ironically."

Bay isn't the only person who appears transformed by Markus' and McFeely's script. People like Johnson -- who already brings built in charm and charisma to his roles -- appears elevated in perhaps his best acting work to date.

"He weirdly is the soul of the movie," Markus said. "For a movie so filled with sociopaths, there's a lot riding on his performance and he pulls it off completely."

If they have to pare it down to percentages, Markus and McFeely said about 75 percent of what you see in "Pain & Gain" -- including some of the most bizarre things, including how they get rid of fingerprints from two sets of severed hands -- is true. The names of the victims were changed, plus, considering the events that shaped the story took place over a six-month periods, certain elements had to be compressed for the sake of the film.

"Dwayne's part is based on three guys who did smaller things, so we just added them up to be done by one guy," McFeely said.

"Most of the things we made up were only made up to fit a really sprawling story into a two-hour movie," Markus added. "There were some situational shortcuts that were invented just to get people together. It was so bizarre in real life, that you'd follow it that way as a movie."

While at its heart "Pain & Gain" was about two very violent crimes, Markus and McFeely somehow managed to bring a lot of dark humor to the surface in the film. Bringing comedy to a film is never an easy task, even for people who regularly write for the genre, so you can about imagine how difficult it was for Markus and McFeely to strike a perfect balance of finding laughs amidst the mayhem.

"We had two challenges: One was to make the bad guys watchable without forgiving them because they do horrible things and I think the movie fully recognizes that they're pretty horrible people," Markus explained.

The second was the fact that characters like Kershaw don't come off as entirely likeable. In fact, he appears so untrustworthy that even the police don't believe that he was kidnapped, beaten up and robbed.

"Tony Shalhoub's character is annoying, but everything he says is completely accurate," Markus said. "He comes off as annoying because part of you wants to root for the dreamers, but the dreamers in this case are reprehensible. I don't find Kershaw particularly annoying, he's just calling people out on their BS."

"Pain & Gain" came under fire after the first trailer for the film was released, mainly from the families of the victims, who assert in their claims that it makes light of a deadly situation and the perpetrators of the crimes -- who were known as the Sun Gym Gang -- come off as affable goons.

"A lot of it seems to be in reaction to the trailer," Markus observed. "But they're trailers. They're ads, so they're going to make the movie look appealing and the people in it look appealing. I think they're afraid that we're making the criminals look like good guys, but when you watch the movie, that's not what you come away with."

But, Markus added, he completely understands the sensitivity the victims' families have over the subject matter.

"This is a completely horrible thing that happened to them, and having a bunch of hotshot Hollywood people make a movie about it probably not that appealing," Markus said.

Marvelous future

"Pain & Gain" has no doubt given even more weight to Markus' and McFeely's already impressive resume. In addition to winning an Emmy for writing the HBO drama "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," together they've written all three "Chronicles of Narnia" movies and "Captain America."

They also had a hand in the script in the upcoming "Thor: The Dark World," although final credits are still pending, and are currently working on the set of "Captain America: Winter Soldier," where Wednesday's interview call originated.

The biggest development for the film recently was the addition of Robert Redford to the cast. Markus and McFeely said they didn't necessarily write the character's part with Redford in mind -- nor for a "Redford-type" -- but they're comfortable the role will fit the screen legend just fine.

"Once you get him, you go, 'Let's see what we can do to make this role fit him even better. This is a good part for him. Let's go on and tailor that suit,'" McFeely said.

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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