“Follow Your Inner Compass” Richard Tanne on ‘Chemical Hearts’ & ‘Southside With You’
“I’m one of those lifelong film geeks,” joked writer/director Richard Tanne. “I was one of those kids with a lot of creative energy, but didn’t know it at the time, so I channeled it through misbehaving.” Tanne’s parents worked out a system with his kindergarten teacher so if he behaved (and earned stickers), his dad would take him to a movie that weekend.
“Movies quickly became a reward system for me. From that point forward, I always associated them that way and that’s how I fell in love with movies. Then, I became aware of filmmaking, not just this mystical vision of alchemy in a dark room.”
This realization came in the form of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. “My dad had taken me to see Tim Burton’s Batman and then I looked at Edward Scissorhands, and I asked why does this look like that movie?” His dad replied, “Same director.” Tanne concluded, “From that point forward, I wanted to make movies.”
Creating Original Works
Inspired by Tim Burton, and the feeling he got simply by going to the movies with his dad, the screenwriter started putting pen to paper at a very early age. “There were comic strips, little books I was writing, the adventures of Ricky and Superman. Ricky was a character my mom invented, that was basically me, where she changed Richie from Ricky.”
As a teenager, he would shoot scenes with friends and then eventually started to write lines. “I was twelve or thirteen when I started reading short stories by Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. I had come across those from The Twilight Zone.”
Inspired by science fiction think pieces, he started writing short stories and even competed with a friend to see who could submit the most short stories to different publications. “None of them were ever published, but it was thrilling just to finish a short story and mail to a publication and have an editor give you a typed out response – or even a handwritten response.”
Around that time, the school actually created a playwriting competition. “That snowballed into playwriting very seriously. I always wanted to make movies, but it felt real when I was entered some playwriting competitions as a kid.”
“One of them, I actually won a [cash prize]. Feeling that check and cashing it was so incredulous. I was doing it because I loved it, so the check was an added benefit realizing you can actually make money doing this.”
Getting Paid to Create
Tanne’s early obsessions were mainly science-fiction based, but as he got into writing plays, his work shifted to some degree. “I’ve always loved fantasy, but not in any limiting kind of way.”
“I love all genres of movies. I read in all genres. So, I’m open to anything, but I think Southside with You and Chemical Hearts are sort of pre-figured by the playwriting I was doing. These one-act plays were mostly characters standing and talking to each other. That’s more or less what a dramatic play is.”
“Both of these movies are very dialogue-driven. The plays I was writing were much more in line with these movies and focused on the human dynamic, human interaction, but the best science fiction and fantasy are also human-related.”
The screenwriter is currently rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation while in quarantine. “The episodes I love most have very little to do with pyrotechnics or gadgets or villain plots. It’s the human element I respond to,” he said.
For plays as well as contained thrillers, the goal is to write compelling work on a limited budget and within limitations on the page. “I have found success in creating limitations for myself.”
“I have bigger projects with a whole other set of challenges, but I find that creating limitations – physical like Southside With You is mostly tracking two characters over the course of one day – it allowed me to hone in the voices of the characters and really develop their personalities and nuances through dialogue.”
Tanne prescribed the following thought experiment:
“Focus on… who are these two people sitting in this room, what makes them different, what is the conflict, what is this all about? And limit yourself to having one way to express that on the page. The director and actors can enhance the dialogue, but [thinking beyond the page] can take away some of the variables of screenwriting, which can haunt you when you’re writing.”
In one example, he mentioned the ticking clock, such as when writing a thriller. “What’s the ticking clock and how often do I cut back to the ticking clock? What’s my B story? How do I navigate B while struggling with A? But, if you’ve got a low budget two-hander, you don’t have to think about a lot of that stuff.”
“Whatever can get you finishing the script, even if that means reducing the variables, I say go for it. On the other hand, I’m not saying don’t challenge yourself or be expansive, but if you want to make the writing process easier on yourself, I think that’s a good route.”
Southside With You
If you haven’t seen Southside With You, the film is about the day Barack Obama met Michelle Robinson in Chicago. Tanne saw Obama in 2008 and was taken by their public relationship.
“It felt authentic to me, even in the moments we were able to glimpse, which is very rare in political figures. I read his books, read about them, and I was at a point in life when I was falling in love for the first time and I liked their love story.”
At the time, Obama wasn’t President Obama, so when the screenwriter jotted down the idea, he really didn’t know that he would be telling a story that many, many people might want to see.
“The idea sat there with other ideas that collect dust, but I would look at it and go back to it. I wasn’t sure that I was the right person to tell this story or how you make a movie about real people who are still alive.”
A friend actually gave his outline to Tika Sumpter, who loved the idea and agreed to play Michelle Obama. “That was enough of a motivator for me to sit down, get my ass into gear, and start writing.”
Since the couple is a public figure, Tanne also didn’t need to attain any book rights. “You have to be careful about how you’re telling the story because you’re always liable or have the potential of being sued of slander for misrepresentation, so I was careful to base my fictionalized version of their date off the established biographical facts.”
He never spoke with the Obamas, but he did interview people who knew them along the way and back when they first met in the summer of 1989.
It might seem like a natural transition to write one love story, then another, but Tanne writes more based on emotional factors as opposed to any planned future or forecast.
“Everything that I’m doing or working on or gets made is instinctive. I don’t want to misrepresent it. There’s no strategy to how I choose something or what I try to make or if I feel ready.”
For Chemical Hearts, actress Lili Reinhart read the book Our Chemical Hearts and wanted to play Grace Town. She also saw Southside With You, enjoyed it, and reached out to see if Tanne was interested in collaborating on the project.
“Lili sent me to the book because she thought I might respond to the material and I did, in a big, bad way. I met with her to talk about what kind of movie I wanted to make. She was on board, but we didn’t even have the rights.”
He added, “I did the one thing you’re never supposed to do as a screenwriter. I went home that night and started adapting the book that I didn’t have the rights to.”
“I was so drawn to the fundamentals of the story of Grace and Henry (Austin Abrams), how they cross that threshold of adolescence to adulthood, but through pain and tragedy, and grappling with mortality. I was so drawn to that, as a way to tell a story about high school.”
Relating the story to his own experience, he said, “This might be my personality, but I remember the negatives far more than I remember the positives of being young. I always wanted to tell a story about high school and that was the lens through which I wanted to do it.”
Luckily, the gamble paid off, so when they sent the script to author Krystal Sutherland, she gave them the rights to make the movie. “From that point forward, the thing had momentum.” Tanne was working on other projects at the time, but he said the emotional stir of that book “hit him like a bullet,” so he chased after it and put everything else to the side.
In both Southside With You and Chemical Hearts, Tanne was in the unique position of having an actress on board when he went to sell the film since the whole industry is built on leverage. But his core focus is still built on emotional stakes.
“You have to look at the circumstances and the time cost analysis,” he said about writing an adaptation without the rights, “That’s all very practical and in the weeds, but I will also say I have had to develop an approach to screenwriting where the writing process itself is all-encompassing and all-satisfying because a lot of what you write doesn’t get made.”
The screenwriter has a drawer full of dozens of screenplays that will likely never get made, but “the writing experience itself is what I do it for,” he said. “Making the movie is the cherry on top.”
“As long as I finish something and I feel like I went through a fulfilling, meaningful experience then I’m okay with whatever fate lies ahead for that script.”
And, at the end of the day, for Tanne, it’s all about emotion. “I wrote a couple of specs during quarantine. One is a complete 180 degrees from anything you’ve seen from me. It’s science fiction. It’s got horror. It’s a big movie.”
“I’ve made two indie films basically, so strategically, it’s not wise to assume someone is going to hand me the reigns to direct something like that. But I believe in the concept and I want to make a big piece of popcorn entertainment like I used to watch as a kid, and I went for it. I hope it comes together. It’s looking good. It’s looking positive, but you never know what people are going to respond to. It does have to be more emotional, for me.”
He concluded, “It’s sort of just following the inner compass. There’s a lot of stuff that comes at you, but you’re not going to say yes at everything that comes your way. Everybody has got this inner compass, mine just leans a little more towards instinct.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.
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