Interview with screenwriter Robert Tannen

by Matt Shields

May 5th, 2007



Screenwriter Robert Tannen attracted some respectable talent with the script for his first film Even Money. Directed by Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond) and opening in theaters this month, the film stars recent Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Ray Liotta, and Tim Roth. A solid outing for a first time writer, but success for him didn’t come overnight.

Los Angeles based Tannen comes from a family of entertainers. His grandfather was the magician Lou Tannen, his father writes a weekly column for several newspapers, and both brothers are musicians. I recently spoke with Robert about his own journey from organic farmhand to Hollywood scribe.

Matt Shields: How did Even Money come to be?

Robert Tannen: I was working the summer of 2002 on an organic farm in Massachusetts. A friend of mine, Geoff Alexander (who I’m now producing a movie with), called from LA and asked if he could pass Jump Shot [the original title] along to a producer he had just met. I said, “Sure, why not?”
Four days later I got a call from producer David Greathouse. The first thing he said was, “I want to make your movie.” I had hand-weeded carrots all day and was feeling exhausted yet very happy. I leaned back, looked out over the farm, and said, “Suuuure, you do.”
Well, I met Dave back in LA, we agreed to work together, and he went off to get the movie made.

MS: Had you come close on selling other scripts before Even Money?

Tannen: The first script I ever wrote was a feature spec for the Muppets when I lived in North Carolina. Somehow I got it to the head writer of the Muppets and he liked it enough that he encouraged me to keep writing.
My next script was a thriller about scientifically tapping into a dead person’s memory. As I was finishing it my brothers called me with the news they had just seen a preview for a movie with the identical premise called Unforgettable. My project was dead.
The third script I wrote was Waiters, a story in the vein of Diner. This received some positive attention and based on that I first moved to LA. It took me another five years before I sold Even Money.

MS: What inspired you to write this particular story?

Tannen: The failure of my previous “commercial” script, my love of basketball, and my interest in gambling. And, of course, the characters.

MS: Have any of the actors ever mentioned what attracted them to your characters?

Tannen: I think many of the actors were interested in delving into the darker side of human nature.

MS: I understand that comparisons have been made between Even Money and the 2006 Oscar winner Crash, written by Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco. Did the story-telling style of Crash influence you in any way?

Tannen: None. I wrote this script before Crash was filmed. I first heard about Crash when we were shooting Even Money.

MS: Not every writer gets the chance to be (or wants to be) on the set of a film they’ve written. Any memorable experiences?

Tannen: Watching the intensity of Forest Whitaker on and off camera was amazing. I wrote the role of “Clyde” with him in mind. Watching take after take in a steakhouse as Tim Roth seemingly devoured half a cow…surreal. It felt as if we were in a Japanese commercial for beef.
I felt privileged to be on the set. It was a great learning experience and I thank the director and producers for this.

MS: When aspiring screenwriters ask what it takes to sell a script in Hollywood they are often told, “Good stories, told well.” Would you agree?

Tannen: Maybe. I defer to screenwriter William Goldman [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride] who said that in Hollywood “Nobody knows anything.” There are obviously many factors involved. Luck is a major one. As is persistence and honesty with oneself. It also helps to be delusional.

MS: Another common phrase heard among writers is, “Chasing Hollywood.” Can you describe this?

Tannen: It’s writing what everyone tells you will sell. I’ve done it, and in both cases it didn’t work out. The scripts didn’t sell and neither was particularly satisfying creatively. Another writer friend and I joke about how hard it is to sell out.

MS: Any writers you particularly admire? Favorite films?

Tannen: One of the inspirations for Even Money was an Australian film, Lantana, by Ray Lawrence. A beautiful film that I don’t think many people in the states have seen. Also Hoop Dreams, Being There, Do The Right Thing, Caddyshack, The Deer Hunter, Rivers and Tides, Fitzcarraldo…I could go on and on.

MS: Are you working on anything currently?

Tannen: I’m finishing up a very dark David Fincherian thriller. I’m also trying my hand at producing…It’s a gangster, buddy pic that takes place in the Negro Leagues.

MS: You once mentioned to me that when you were inducted into the WGA [Writer’s Guild of America] they told you something along the lines of “find something else to keep yourself busy…” Why?

Tannen: The idea is to keep your sanity, to live a fulfilling life. Writing for this business is tough. You need other things in your life that bring you happiness.

 


Even Money, which also stars Nick Cannon, Carla Gugino, Jay Mohr and Kelsey Grammer, opens May 18th in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York

Matt Shields wrote and directed the independent feature Misty Isle Out. He is a writer who currently splits time between Alaska and Los Angeles.