Story by Todd Hickey & Robert Tannen
Ext. Philadelphia skyline – Day.
Summer heat and haze give the city a dream-like feel.
Ext. Brownstone Duplex – Backyard – Day
A Labor Day barbecue in a middle class neighborhood.
Manning the grill is Nick Gerard, solid physique, sharp mind, a high school chemistry teacher. He wears a chef’s apron, works the grill. Smoke billows over him, rivers of sweat course down his face.
Laura Gerard approaches her husband with a cold beer. She’s an attractive woman with a playful, intelligent twinkle in her eyes. She holds the beer to Nick’s cheek. They look out over the party, some of their closes friends in the world.
Laura: I’m glad we did this.
Nick: Me, too. Sara’s kids soaked the Franklins’ cat so expect a call.
Laura: Maybe the monster will stop leaving us dead birds now.
Laura kisses Nick’s neck, tastes his sweat.
Laura: Yum. I’m going to do my duty and mingle.
Laura moves off, turns and winks at her husband. This is a couple in love.
Nick watches Laura join her best friend Trudy (20’s, white), Trudy’s husband, Max (30’s, white), Annabel (40’s, black) and Annabel’s husband (40’s, black).
Nick turns his attention back to the grill. He prods a burger. Blood oozes.
Nick: Jimmy, rare, blue cheese, with your name on it!
Jimmy (40’s, white), an ex-Philly cop, approaches.
Nick: Is that too bloody?
Jimmy: I call it flavorful, Nicky. That’s perfect.
Nick plops the burger on Jimmy’s plate/bun.
Jimmy: Thank you, brother. So how are you feeling about tomorrow?
Nick: I’m in denial. I’ve got a few more hours of summer left.
Jimmy: I don’t know how you do it year after year. It’s people like you, Nick, who give us all hope.
Nick: You did your part, too, officer.
Jimmy: And what am I now? Chopped liver? I secure a very important cultural institution. “High profile target” is the operative word.
Nick: Here’s to you.
Jimmy: Here’s to both of us.
The men toast with their beers, drink.
A spray of water hits Nick and Jimmy. The older boy has taken the hose off the sprinkler and holds it with a sly grin.
Jimmy: On three, Nick. You take the left flank, I got the right. Three.
Neely: I opened with what was the first scene in “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps.” I felt it was a masterful illustration of character development establishing the marital relationship, the easy-going friendships and our sympathy for Nick’s “everyman.” We are on board with this character from page one and will follow him wherever he is forced to go. It’s very reminiscent of the way one of my favorite recent French films established character. It was…
Robert: … “Tell No One.” That’s one of my favorites too. That’s a great compliment. Thanks.
Neely: You’re very welcome. Those two lead characters have a lot in common.
So how long have you been making your living as a writer?
Robert: 7 years.
Neely: Were you writing before that?
Neely: So you weren’t then making a living.
Robert: Not as a writer.
Neely: What were you doing?
Robert: I had a few years where my wife was supporting me, god bless her. And before that I had a few minor careers. I did not come to Hollywood until my late 20s. I had no aspirations to be a screenwriter until my late 20s. I was a writer, but of other things.
Neely: Like what?
Robert: Short stories, articles, poetry… stuff I could never make a living doing but…
Neely: Were you published?
Robert: I was published. And actually, to me, the poetry helps me in my writing as a screenwriter big time, because you want the script to be a great read. There are great movies that aren’t great reads. But Boy! I think, particularly in the early stages of your career that read had better be easy for an executive. With a poem you’re talking about rhythm and you’re talking about cadence. Those things should, in my opinion, be in a screenplay too.
Neely: I’ve never heard anyone describe it that way.
Did you always know that you wanted to do this?
Neely: What did you want to do?
Robert: What did I want to do? I think my earliest, like a lot of kids, my earliest aspiration was to be an astronaut. At some point I explored being a test pilot and going to the Air Force Academy.
Neely: You went to the Air Force Academy?
Robert: No. No. I explored the option but it was 100% not for me and not… Ironically, years later, I got an intense fear of flying, which I’ve overcome. I probably would have made a bad pilot (laughing). I also… one of my passions growing up was soccer and I wanted to be a professional soccer player. There were other things along the way. I wanted to be a speech writer for the President. I actually started out in politics.
I’ll tell you what happened. I was always writing. I was always creating. I come from a family of writers. My dad’s a writer and my mom does copywriting for a school system. My brother Greg Tannen is a screenwriter as well as a musician. My older brother, Steve, and my sister-in-law Deb Talan have a band called The Weepies.
Neely: I looked them up and saw that they’re on tour right now and that they performed to a sold out crowd at the Troubadour last week. And on top of that, the next night in San Francisco they shared the bill with your brother Greg. Pretty heady stuff!
What kind of writer is your father?
Robert: He was a creative ad exec and now he has a weekly humor column published online and in a few papers in Florida. He had always wanted to be a jazz musician but he had 3 boys, so had to take a real job as an ad exec. This was in between “Mad Men” times and our times. That could be a whole other TV series. Oh, and my grandfather was a magician. So we come from a creative family.
But I never thought I’d make my living as writer. Then one of my brothers got a job after college working for Norman Jewison, the great director. My brother was his story editor and sent me a 3 page treatment by Joe Eszterhas that had been sold for $2.5 million. I was living in North Carolina at the time while my wife was going to law school there, and I said, “I can do this! Maybe there is a way to make a living as a writer.”
And of course, who doesn’t like movies? I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like movies. So that sort of sparked me. I wrote three scripts while I was in North Carolina. One got optioned. Another one, believe it or not, was a script about The Muppets that got to the head writer at “The Muppets.” He encouraged me to keep writing. And the other one, as I was finishing it, I found out that there was a film coming out with the exact same concept and story as the one I was finishing. So that one was dead. But anyway, based on those three things I moved out here.
Neely: Did your wife finish law school?
Robert: She finished law school. She was a lawyer for about a year, year and a half. She hated it and now she’s a teacher.
Neely: How long did she support you? And was it as a lawyer or as a teacher?
Robert: Both. I would say it was 5 years. I would get little gigs – some copywriting here, write a little marketing project there. I made some money, but without her supporting me I just don’t know if I’d still be doing it. I’d probably still be writing, but whether I’d still be in Hollywood, I don’t know. It’s a really really hard business and it was hard for me ultimately to “break in,” even though I had some initial success. Like so many people out here, I had many close calls where something almost sells or almost gets made. You have a big name looking at it, really excited, and that person goes and does the other project and nothing ever happens to yours. So look, it’s a heartbreaking business.
You better have some other things you can do – a trade or something - and you better have some other things that make you happy.
Neely: Where did you go to school? Did you major in anything that helped propel your career?
Robert: Unfortunately no. I was recruited to Duke University to play soccer. I dropped out after a year and went to Europe. Eventually I got my degree, but really, I would say that the only thing that helped me was taking classes and learning things that weren’t specifically film-related or writing-related. I actually took a lot of religion classes. I’m of the old school kind of opinion that you need to live a lot of lives and draw upon that for your writing. There’s the other side of the coin which I see too, but for me, living life is just as important as sitting down in that seat for 8 hours a day, particularly when you’re in your 20s.
Neely: What was your degree in?
Robert: Political Science. My first career was very brief, in politics, which I think is just as mean a place as Hollywood.
Neely: It might be meaner. It certainly is today.
Robert: Yeah. It was a very disheartening experience. Even though you could get a lot … well, put simply, it’s one of the few arenas where you can have a lot of power in your 20s as a writer or working on a campaign.
Neely: What about mentors? Have you had any mentors along the way?
Robert: I wish I had, but not really. I’ve had people give me a lot of advice, but not someone I felt I could call and say “I’m in this situation.” I would encourage any young writer to try and find a mentor, because we’re out there and we’re willing to help. I heard Billy Ray, the writer/director, talking the other day and he was saying, “If you’re ever going to direct your first movie, call me. Take me to lunch and I will tell you all I know.” And I wish there was more of that in the writer community because unfortunately a lot of times we get divided. It’s a tough tough place. I know there is that support out there, it’s just finding those people. It’s hard.
Neely: How about detractors? Anyone whose negative influence pushed you forward in spite of their reaction?
Robert: I like to joke that my mom, when I said I was going to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, said, “Well, miracles do happen.” (Neely laughs) Not to name specific names, but I get a lot of creative energy from anger. Anger at the world, anger at people who don’t think my writing’s great, anger that they don’t think my project’s great, anger that my project didn’t sell. It’s one of my motivations for writing. Anytime you have heartbreak or rejection, you take a day or two, or at least I do. I hate the person who rejected it. I scream and yell. I cry, whatever. Then I get over it and I say to myself that I’m a good writer and I’m going to write something else or I’m going to rewrite. I’m really stubborn. That’s perhaps an old cliché and I think it’s true. It really takes a long time and it’s sometimes just the last man or last woman standing. It takes a long time to understand and get a foothold in the business. When I first came here I met a big writer who wrote on “Star Trek,” the TV show. And he said, “It takes 5 to 8 years to even understand what’s going on.” And I said, “No it doesn’t.” But he’s right. He’s absolutely right.
Neely: Do you have any literary or film influences – books and/or films that had an impact on your life or career?
Robert: That’s a huge question. I have a million. I don’t know how to…
Neely: Give me some. Let’s start with books.
Robert: Oh boy. Well I could put a book and film in the same category as one of my favorites; I hope I someday either write a book or film like it, and that’s Being There. Some of my favorite movies are from the 70s, so you’re talking Scorsese, actors like DeNiro, you’re talking Hal Ashby. But also… I write dark thrillers usually, but movies like “Airplane” or “Caddy Shack” are two of my favorite films.
Neely: My husband will love you for that.
Robert: I don’t have to always be serious and dark and dour. My wife jokes that I had Faulkner’s Light in August next to my bed for 8 years and I could never finish it (which is true). I have a personality where if I don’t understand a word I need to look it up in the dictionary and understand it and understand it in the context. With Faulkner, I’m just not a smart enough guy to get through The Light in August.
Hemingway, to be cheesy, was a huge influence growing up. When I first started writing short stories, I tried to write like him, which I think was a mistake made by a lot of us. Raymond Carver, the short story writer, blew me away. Not only influences like that, but talk about Gary Trudeau and Doonesbury; and music, jazz music was a huge influence. And visual art. Sometimes when I’m stuck writing, I’ll go to an art museum and just walk around. I’d say half the time I figure it out somehow by getting out of my head and seeing great art or not so great art; it just helps.
My father’s an inspiration; my parents are inspirations. They encouraged me to do this and they gave me the type of upbringing that allows me to try. But sometimes inspiration, like I said earlier, is just anger and trying to make sense of the world.
But how about sitting in the theater the first time you see “Star Wars” and it stays with you and it blows your mind and it changes you forever. Or how about the first time you see Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” I love Woody Allen. That kind of thing inspires you to say I’d love to leave something like that behind after I die. The fact that we’re going to be dead and leave something behind for the world. I suppose it’s a form of battling the inevitable.
I would like to leave some kind of legacy. I have a daughter now, and it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. And you could say that’s a legacy. You’re leaving another person who you hope turns out to be a very good person on the planet. You have to recognize of course what type of personality you have, what you can do. I could never be a politician.
Neely: But what that really comes down to is that legacy isn’t necessarily what people look up to when you’re gone. A legacy could just be a life worth living.
Robert: Absolutely. And I think… I can’t remember who it was. I think it was William Wordsworth who said “That best portion of a good man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” I try to live like that.
But the other side of the coin for me is that I’m really inspired a lot by the dark side of life, at least creatively. David Lynch talks about when he first lived in Philly. It was so dark and they’d wake up and there’d be a chalk outline where a person had been killed the night before; and that chalk outline would just be there for months. There were just junkies everywhere and it was industrial. And for whatever reason, this kind of thing often motivates me in a story idea. I don’t know what it is. Who knows? It’s mysterious.
Neely: What are you reading now?
Robert: Right now I’m reading two books. I’m reading The Terror by Dan Simmons, which is a great, very long, historical fiction novel based on the mid-nineteenth century Franklin expedition which tried to find the Northwest Passage. They got stuck. Two wooden schooners got stuck and there’s so much detail as well as the POV of every man – they’re all British or Irish. Just what they had to go through! But he ramps it up another level, because there’s some mysterious monster hunting them on the ice. I’m about 800 pages in and I’m still waiting to find out exactly what that monster is. The detail is just unbelievable. He’s a great writer.
And I just finished a non-fiction book by Wade Davis called Light at the Edge of the World. It’s a series of essays on vanishing cultures in the world and the knowledge that is vanishing with them. I highly recommend it. Absolutely fascinating. The knowledge that people have had and lost. It’s depressing how quickly these cultures and their languages and their knowledge are being lost - whether it’s the Polynesians and their ability to go across the Pacific in a canoe and know where they’re going without any sort of modern technology, or someone up in the Arctic being able to hunt and survive. All this knowledge will soon be gone. At some point we’ll be pressing a touch screen and hoping it doesn’t malfunction. You know what I mean? A great book! That’s what I’m reading right now.
Neely: And what are you watching? Big screen and small screen.
Robert: “Breaking Bad.” “The Wire.” I think today is the greatest TV I’ve ever seen and it humbles me with the writing. I turn off an episode and I think, “Why do I bother?”
Neely: Did you take your daughter to “Harry Potter.”
Robert: No. She’s a little too young for “Harry Potter.” She doesn’t like movies, she only likes books. It’s very strange.
I’m drawing a blank on recently seen movies. I rented the video… it was the Argentinean film that won the Oscar a few years back – “The Secret in their Eyes.” Stunning movie, stunning movie. Just saw it; loved it.
Neely: If you had any advice for a young writer just starting out, what would it be?
Robert: One side of me wants to say, it would be great to have another way to make a living. It’s all clichés. It’s “put your ass in the seat,” “you only get better by writing more,” “have patience, keep working hard.” It would be great if you had some mentors. One of the hardest things I’ve found is to get a group of readers around you who you trust and are honest and can give good notes. That’s a very hard person to find, cause it’s easy for someone to say, “The third act doesn’t work for me.” It’s very hard to say, “What if you did this or this or this.”
First and foremost, trust the writing process. It’s never easy, except maybe the first day or several days when you have your new idea. Be fearless and bold with your writing, especially after you’ve learned the trade. Forget perfection, just keep creating; just keep writing.
Pick up a camera; anybody can do it now. Shoot some stuff, see how it is to be a director. I did that. It’s great. Take an acting class. Get out of your comfort zone and see if it helps your writing. I think that’s really important. Because there’s the script you’re writing and there’s the script that gets made and a director has to look at it in a totally different way. And that’s a very good skill to have, particularly if, when you have success, you’re going to be sitting down with that director and that person is going to say, “Why is that scene in here? And I can’t do it because of A, B, C.” If you already have knowledge of that process, it’s very useful. And if you were a writer/director and directed anything decent, you are so much more viable in Hollywood. Very very useful skill.
But oh boy! It’s a tough time in Hollywood. It’s just a tough time for writers. There’s less work. I know people who have left the business, but I don’t want to end on a dour note.
If I had to do it over again, I would push a little harder to try to get into TV, to get more of a community, to write with deadlines, to write fast. You can go away as a screenwriter and be lost for a long time and try to find your way.
Neely: “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps” is such a great calling card. Does it continue to open doors?
Robert: It does. I have to take advantage of the opportunities. You have to work just as hard, but at least you’re in the right room.
Neely: So what’s next? Any new potential projects?
Robert: Another thriller that we’re kind of packaging at the moment. And then, as I mentioned earlier, I just needed a jolt of energy and I wrote this kind of James Brooks/ Alexander Payne middle age dramedy starring two middle aged women. And I have no idea; I’m really excited about it and it excites me to write something outside of my genre.
Neely: Thanks for taking the time out of your Post Production duties and spending some time discussing the project. There may be no meaner place than Hollywood, but it’s the hope that someone will notice or something will eventually get done that keeps us all coming back for more. I can’t wait to see the film.
Robert: I had a great time.