Story co-written with Todd Hickey
What: When Nick’s much loved wife is assaulted, Nick is offered an opportunity for revenge; one that changes his life forever.
Who: Nick, a dedicated teacher of disadvantaged youth in the inner city, and Laura, a violinist in the city orchestra, are still very much in love after many years. The one night that Nick declines an invitation to join Laura and their friends Trudy, Max and Jimmy for a celebratory drink after the opening night concert, Laura is attacked in a parking garage and left for dead. Arriving at the hospital, Nick is stricken with guilt – if he had gone for the drink, Laura wouldn’t have left the restaurant alone and she wouldn’t have been brutally attacked. Shaken by the seeming disinterest of the police, Nick retreats to a waiting room where he encounters another man, Simon.
Simon takes a seat two rows behind Nick, looks up to the television.
Simon: (re: infomercial) Where is this?
Nick: Don’t know.
Nick nods. The men watch.
Simon: I went to Iceland a few months back. Stunning. It’s always good to get out of your space, get out of your head. Don’t you think?
Nick nods, still silent.
Simon: Who do you have in here?
Nick: My wife. You?
Simon: A friend. His wife was raped.
Nick eyes Simon.
Simon: What happened tonight, to Laura, it shouldn’t have happened.
Nick takes a hard look at Simon. Simon has the calm, slightly unsettling, demeanor of a funeral home director.
Nick: You’re a detective?
Simon: No. How are you doing?
Simon doesn’t wait for an answer.
Simon: That was a stupid question, wasn’t it?
Simon moves to a seat closer to Nick, lowers his voice.
Simon: The man who did this to your wife was paroled three weeks ago. He’s done it before, he’ll do it again.
Simon glances out the small window in the door. He’s making sure nobody is there, nobody listening.
Simon: I know what you’re feeling. I’ve been there.
Simon studies Nick, sizing him up.
Simon: We can take care of the man who raped your wife. It would need to happen tonight.
Nick: What are you talking about?
Simon: You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?
The two men lock eyes.
Simon: If you want this to happen, you need to understand one thing about the way we work: we might ask something in return. (pause) We might ask you to watch somebody for a few hours, or break a security camera, little things like this. Or maybe something greater. (pause) But most likely, Mr. Gerard, you’ll never hear anything from us for the rest of your life.
A skeptical, but very emotionally damaged Nick takes that leap. Later that night, the man responsible for Laura’s rape is found dead, presumably a suicide, having “jumped” from the roof of his building. But although this dish of revenge was served cold, Nick finds little solace as he encloses himself in a cocoon of self-loathing for his lapse in protecting Laura on the night of her attack. Laura, who harbors no such feelings toward Nick, insists that they undergo couples’ counseling for Nick’s withdrawal in the relationship. Very slowly, the marriage begins to heal.
Once again, it’s opening night at the symphony and Nick has joined Laura and their friends at the post-performance party.
Nick: Who’s still thirsty?
At the Bar Nick orders from the bartender.
Nick: …a Kir Royale, and a Jack neat.
The bartender moves off to make the drinks. Nick glances about the crowded room: the people, the music, the buzz of conversation and laughter. It’s all so civilized and wonderful.
Nick’s cell buzzes. ID shows, “Restricted.”
Simon: Bring them the drinks, excuse yourself to go to the restroom, then head outside.
Nick: Who is this?
Simon: It’s Simon
Simon hangs up. Nick’s shaken. It’s the moment he’s been dreading for a year and a half.
Nick’s marriage has gone off track not just because of his guilt about Laura’s attack, but also because of his realization that his desire for revenge not only killed the perpetrator but also obligated him to a shadowy network of possible murderers. With Simon’s call and eventual “request,” Nick can no longer deny the bargain he has made with the devil.
No Meaner Place: “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” on the 2009 “Black List,” is presently in post production. It has its roots in too many different literary and film sources to mention, not the least of which is Goethe’s Faust.
Even when Nick’s position becomes increasingly more untenable and he transforms into surly and unpleasant, we are with him because who wouldn’t have struck the same bargain and been faced with the same consequences; consequences that will mortally endanger his wife and his best friend. It doesn’t hurt that the pacing and tension are relentless until the end.
Life Lessons for Writers: “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.” (lyrics: Ned Washington). The meaning is applicable to both Robert Tannen and his character Nick Gerard, just in vastly different ways.
Robert: First off, I love your site. I think it’s an honest examination and it’s a resource I wish had been there when I had started… just having other people and their stories, realizing what you have to go through.
Neely: I love writers and writing. It’s a tough profession. It’s one fueled by passion, but anything fueled by passion has enormous highs and a lot of lows. It’s not easy. What I love is that writers have a lot to share and they are rarely asked. Everybody asks the actors; everybody asks the directors. But nobody asks the writers and it all starts and ends with the writer. Well maybe not ends but it definitely starts with the writer.
Robert: It usually ends with…
Neely: (laughing) … the director taking all of the credit.
Robert: …if it’s good. If it’s not, they go after the writer which is quite common…
Neely: Everybody goes after the writer. (laughing)
Well, first off the bat, congratulations on making The Black List, but mostly, congratulations in getting this produced.
This is something of a departure for me in that this is a script that has actually been produced and is presently in post-production. In features, a script can lie fallow for years at a time (which clearly this one didn’t because it was on The Black List of 2009) and still eventually find its way to the big screen. There is a recognition in features that a great script is a great script – there is no expiration date, just timing. And as frustrating as this situation may appear to be, as far as the writer is concerned, it keeps the embers of hope burning, unlike in television, where the window of opportunity is limited and finite, regardless of the universality of the theme or the reasons for its “failure.”
Where did the idea come from?
Robert: It came from several sources. One was the birth of my daughter. It started me thinking. What would I be capable of doing as a human being if somebody did something bad to her? It gestated for a few years but all I had was a basic revenge movie. One day I was sitting down with a friend, Todd Hickey, who’s a filmmaker in his own right. He had another revenge idea with one key plot point that I loved. I immediately said right there, “I want to write this movie.” And that’s where it came from.
I’ll tell you a funny story, though. After it was shot, I was talking to an LA cop that I’d met. He knew nothing about this project whatsoever. And of course being a cop in LA, or any profession in LA, he had dreams of writing a screenplay.
Neely: (laughing) Of course.
Robert: Yes. And unprompted, he told me his idea. It was about a group of cops in LA who don’t feel justice is being served and forms a small vigilante organization. And I said, “They just shot that. That’s my movie.” It was bizarre, and a little unsettling too because he’s a police officer here, so you wonder where is this idea really coming from. (Neely laughing)
Neely: You do realize, don’t you, that’s the whole Ramparts scandal. And, of course, it’s also “Magnum Force,” the second “Dirty Harry” film.
Robert: Well he was telling me stories; great stories that could be other movies – some, of course, have already been made. I think everyone has stories.
I was in New Orleans with the director, Roger Donaldson when we were in preproduction. We were walking back from lunch. I love New Orleans by the way; I think it’s a great city and I love the people. But we saw a guy and it was quite clear to us that he was a plain clothes police officer. He was unloading stuff from his car – it wasn’t a police car, just a regular car – into kind of a sketchy looking building. He had a gun you could see quite clearly tucked into the back of his pants. We kind of looked at him for a second and he caught our eye and basically in his eyes he said “keep moving.” It was scary and bizarre.
Then during shooting there was an incident where a van full of either special effects or sound equipment was stolen one night by a criminal on the run. In LA, the cops usually follow the crooks until they run out of gas or crash; but these cops just started shooting and shot it out. I don’t know if the guy lived or not; he ended up in the hospital. But we needed that van to shoot the next day and it was impounded as evidence. A call was made from “people to people” and we had the van back the next day. It had 18 bullet holes in it.
Originally the story was set in Philadelphia, now it takes place in New Orleans. That’s a long rambling answer to where did this come from.
Neely: I would love to hear about the process. Was this a script written on spec or was it pitched around town?
Robert: Spec. It took me about a year and a half to get it into shape to take it out.
Neely: Who got it and what was the reaction?
Robert: I’m not sure you can do it right now, by my representatives had this idea, which I thought was really neat at the time. We went to 5 movie stars on a Friday, big movie stars who have production companies. And we said, “You have til Tuesday at noon to see if you want it; then we’re going wide.”
Now odds are, on any project, I don’t care how good it is or who’s attached, you’re not going to get any of these guys to bite. But we had some interesting conversations on Monday. By Tuesday at 10:00 there was big star who was interested, but he was only half way through the script. By Tuesday at 1:00, we had that star attached with his company and we went wide. Within an hour we started getting calls.
It was one of those rare, rare, rare weeks when the script is on fire and everybody wants it, partly, of course, because other people want it. I think it hit a certain genre that is viable commercially, but we also had a star attached. We had a lot of action and by the end of the week we had sold it to Endgame Entertainment.
Neely: Do you want to talk about the star now or later?
Robert: We had one star and then at some point his scheduling didn’t work out once we got the director, so we ended up with a different star. So that’s what happened. The first star was Toby McGuire, and we filmed it with Nic Cage.
Neely: I saw that Toby McGuire gets production credit.
Robert: Yes. He stayed involved.
Neely: At what point in the process did the script make The Black List?
Robert: I was sitting with the director in preproduction, about 2 weeks out from shooting, and his assistant came in and told me.
Neely: But at this point the script was already bought and about to be made…
Robert: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Neely: …which I think is pretty normal now with The Black List.
It’s very impressive that this script came out of a small management company, The Shuman Company. It was your manager, A.B. Fischer, who got it to me.
Robert: I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how The Black List works. This being Hollywood and “no meaner place,” the director’s assistant came in and told me “Congratulations you made The Black List.” And I said, “Wow. That was out of nowhere. I had no idea.”
And then later that day one of the producers came in and said, “You know what they say about The Black List? When you get on The Black List, that’s a movie that will never get made.” At least that’s what he said. And I said, “But we’re making it right now.” And he’s like, “We haven’t started shooting yet. We’re two weeks out.”
As everybody knows, things can fall apart at any point until the bitter end of shooting. It’s a nice little feather in your hat but.
Neely: A what point did a producer attach and what was his role in trying to push this forward?
Robert: Endgame bought it and they’re the ones who developed it. I did a few drafts for them before…
Neely: Who is Endgame?
Robert: Endgame is run by Jim Stern who’s a…
Neely: …very famous theatrical producer.
Robert: Exactly. Out of Chicago. Chicago family, part owner of the Chicago Bulls. He had some producers there and some consultants and it was all those folks. We made some changes during the course of the development.
Neely: How did they find you?
Robert: I think it’s rare these days because you pretty much need a package… we did sort of have a package because we had one star. As I said, we went wide - we went to 30 or 40 places. We thought this was right up their alley. My agent, Brian Dreyfuss, had a client, Rian Johnson, who had made his second movie (or was in the process) with Endgame – “The Brothers Bloom.” So he had a good relationship with Endgame. They seemed interested. We had other interest but it seemed to us, and I think it’s still the case, that certain companies, when they buy a movie, they tend to make it; and with certain other companies, it’s a shot in the dark. We had some interest from studios, but with a studio, you’re talking a whole other ballgame especially with the odds of its ever being made.
Neely: Well they’re not indie friendly.
Robert: Exactly. They have a different business model. I don’t know if this is true or not, but studios seem a little less writer friendly sometimes. That is, they have their own people that they want to put on the script to punch it up and so on.
So anyway, we took a look at everything and thought Endgame was most likely to make it.
Neely: Most features have several producers, as I’ve noticed you have. Tell me a bit about each one and his or her role in pushing this forward.
Robert: I think the roles get muddled. I think there are your development executives who work with you on the idea and the script and finding new ideas. And then there are the finance folks who get the money. There are, of course, discussions with everyone. For instance, “can we make this character a 30 year old man instead of a 50 year old man so we can get this particular star because this 50 year old star doesn’t have the same value overseas.”
That’s the reality of it. Those producer roles are all muddled. You get a lot of hands working with you creatively. That said, then there’s the line producer on the movie and that’s a whole other thing I don’t know much about; but essentially that producer is the nuts and bolts of the making of the movie.
Neely: When somebody says to you, “Can we have this 30 year old because he has more value than the 50 year old?” How do you as the writer of the film, manage that? Many creative folks just get their backs up immediately on a matter of principle. But you can’t do that anymore.
Robert: No you can’t. And I think you have to pick your battles as the creator of the project. Like, does it matter if it’s a 50 year old or a 30 year old? In “Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” not really, it doesn’t. Not that the original character was 50, we didn’t have that issue. It was just an example.
That said, I’ve got a new project I’m writing and almost done with in which the leads are two middle aged women. It’s not a thriller; it’s a totally different genre. At some point someone said to me, “Can we make these two middle aged men?” And I said “Absolutely not! It makes no sense; it’s not the same issues. It would be a totally different movie.”
I think when you get these notes or concerns… Look everybody’s trying to make the movie, theoretically; nobody’s not trying to make the movie. So obviously, a sales exec knows what can sell in Europe and what can sell in Asia. At some point you have to take a step back and say, “Do you want your movie made, or are the changes they’re proposing too great and it won’t be your movie. In which case it’s just not worth it.” And the reality, let’s face facts, as a writer you make most of your money if the movie is made. You don’t make a lot, or at least I don’t yet, make a lot of money from the get go.
Neely: Who was the most responsible in finding the funding and where was it found?
Robert: As far as I understand it, Endgame took it to AFM (American Film Market) in Santa Monica (it’s held every year) where there are a lot of projects in all genres or price ranges, and they presold the foreign rights. We had the script, we had the star and we had the director. They presold almost the entire world and they raised a lot of money. I believe that’s where most of the money came from.
Neely: Who is your director and at what point did he come on board?
Robert: The director was Roger Donaldson, an Australian with a long career including one of my favorite movies of all time from the standpoint as a thriller writer – “No Way Out.” Twenty-five, thirty years later people are still referencing that film in meetings.
Neely: You mean the Kevin Costner – Gene Hackman…
Robert: (simultaneously)…the Kevin Costner…
Neely: …which is based on a 1948 Ray Milland - Charles Laughton film called “The Big Clock.”
Robert: I didn’t know about a lot of the history until I talked to Roger. I bet you didn’t know that the final ending of the film wasn’t the initial ending. It’s one of the greatest endings ever. I’m not going to give anything away but it’s a great ending.
Roger got on board in the summer of 2009. He had almost done a movie with Nic Cage and they had wanted to work together for a long time, so Roger called Nic. Nic read the script and we had Nic.
Neely: Tell me a bit about the casting process and your involvement, if any. How were you able to get such an incredible cast to attach to the film? Guy Pearce is one of my absolute favorite actors.
Robert: Me too.
I was involved in the discussions, but to be perfectly frank, I don’t think that what I said had a lot of weight.
Neely: They were polite and they asked you?
Robert: Usually, yes. Particularly with the bad guy, Simon, who ended up being Guy Pearce. I’ve seen what I think is a final cut of the movie and Guy Pearce is phenomenal. I love him as an actor. So my involvement was “involved” but not a lot of weight, let’s put it that way. Occasionally they would say “How about this person?” And I would say, “That’s a terrible idea.” Not that they would really listen to me.
Neely: But did they?
Robert: Umm. That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I would give my opinion and I don’t know how much weight… look, the reality is, they might offer the role to somebody, that person said yes and then they’re talking money and the money’s not right, so that person goes away. There are so many factors beyond “who’s right for the part.” Again, there are factors like the actor’s value overseas, who’s going to play well opposite each other, their ages. Everybody knows this stuff.
Neely: No! I don’t think everybody does know that stuff. That’s why this is extremely valuable.
Robert: The fact is, I really like Nic Cage as an actor and he’s got huge value overseas and that’s why he’s a valuable actor to have in your movie. He gets your movie made.
Neely: At what point in these various processes did you know that you would be able to go forward? Did you know almost immediately since you had Endgame involved?
Robert: You never know, I don’t think. I’ve only had two movies made, but they both sort of came together in the same way… very quickly with great casts. But there are always issues up to the bitter end. There are always issues til you start shooting.
Neely: So you never know.
Robert: You never know. And you have to be really careful not to get too excited because, you know, (laughing) there’s no meaner place. It could fall apart at the last second.
Neely: So now you’re in Post Production. Actually you’re beyond that; you may have a final cut at this point. What exactly are you doing in terms of the movie at this point?
Robert: I’m just waiting for them to distribute it.
Neely: Do you have a domestic distributor?
Robert: I think we do but I’m not 100% sure. We had one and I think it’s still happening, but I’m a little bit out of the loop at the moment.
Neely: Are you going to hit the festival circuit?
Neely: What else is necessary in order to get a release?
Robert: I think that’s a great question. It seems like the battle these days, and maybe it’s always been this way, is how to get your movie seen. We’re fortunate in that we have one of the biggest movie stars on the planet in it. So you need that.
The tricky thing these days is the amount of marketing, the P&A (prints and advertising), you need to have to get it seen is massive. This is not a super-hero movie. In many ways it’s a dark independent movie, so you’re talking about a P&A that rivals the budget of the movie. That’s a lot of money for somebody to take a chance on. Is this genre going to work? Is this movie going to work? Even with all the testing, you just don’t know. Did I answer your question?
Neely: Sort of. I’m the last person to discuss this because I don’t even do Twitter yet and I’ve wanted to have the blog site go viral only I have no clue as to how to do that. But it would seem that with social networking, the internet and alternative sites, there should be a way to mitigate some of those P&A costs.
Robert: I agree.
Neely: I don’t know what they are, but there must be…
Robert: I don’t either but I think it’s smart marketing. I think this movie could lend itself to a great, smart, not very expensive viral campaign just because the nature of it is game-like – very mysterious…
Neely: …thriller, mystery…
Robert: Exactly. It lends itself to that kind of marketing. But, to be perfectly frank, it’s completely out of my hands. I don’t have anything to do with that aspect. I suppose I could self-promote it a little, but I’m not sure the company encourages you to do that because they have a whole team of people working on it. But I think you hit upon something really interesting. If the social media can take down a regime, it should be able to market a movie. Now at the end of the day, though, you do have to have a decent movie, right?
Robert: Unless you’re a giant Hollywood production that spends $500 million on marketing and they don’t even need the movie to be good. This is a big issue for a lot of writers. It doesn’t seem to really matter as long as it’s just a big, huge spectacle. I suppose there’s a place for that (obviously), but most writers don’t write those things.
Neely: I’m thinking right now of a movie approaching the billion dollar mark internationally (and that particular movie is not Harry Potter). The movie seems to be a lot of explosions and nifty special effects but the marketing was extraordinary on that film and it hit just at the right time, I suppose.
Robert: A couple of years ago there was a big exec at a studio, and I asked, “What do you want?” And he said, “What we want is $150 million movies. And until that model is broken, that’s all we’re going to want.” I don’t think it’s 100% true; studios still do make a few other movies. But on the whole, that’s what’s generating their business. That’s the reality of it now.
Neely: Andy Hendrickson of Disney said that tentpoles were the only kind of film where you could justify spending $100 million in marketing. As far as he was concerned, visual spectacle is what drives attendance. Story is insignificant.
Robert: Well that’s depressing.
Still, I’m really interested in other forms of distribution, such as directly through Netflix, directly through Apple TV. The problem is that movies are still pretty pricey to make.
Neely: The VOD market is still pretty much the trash heap. Studios and networks haven’t quite figured out how to make it duplicate the necessary revenue model.
Robert: I have several neighbors who have Canon 5D and 7D Cameras. They look great, you can shoot a movie on the cheap. But at the end of the day, it’s still about the substance. I’m old school in believing that if a movie is good, it will be seen and it will work out. So despite over 10 years in the business, I still cling to some optimism.
Neely: Well, I still believe that if it’s good, they will find it.
Robert: I do too. I do too.
Neely: Let’s continue this next week because I’d like to find out more about how you started as a writer.