Today, we talk with Robert Rue (DETROIT) about how the past, present, and future have shaped his journey as a writer.
What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?
Late at night when I was a kid, I would often smuggle the family’s portable black and white TV into my bedroom and revel in the opportunity to explore the secret world of late-night network television. Whatever ABC, NBC or CBS wanted to put on after the 11 o’clock news — that was my real introduction to movies. I was thrilled by the original PLANET OF THE APES and never missed a re-broadcast of that movie. My father was a World War II vet, so I watched THE LONGEST DAY and PATTON, and all of those war films because I thought they might be a window into my dad’s past. Later, in the theaters, I fell in love with movies like KRAMER VS. KRAMER and BREAKING AWAY and ROCKY, which then seemed filled — and still do — with so much truth and just the right amount of charm.
Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?
Probably nothing influenced me more than reruns of ALL IN THE FAMILY and M*A*S*H. By then, I was old enough to notice the brilliance of the writing, the ability of these shows to both critique and validate humanity. And as I memorized — without trying to — and imitated scenes from those scripts, I started to think that nothing could be more exciting than the ability to make other people laugh and cry with stories.
I should also mention that I attempted to write a couple of movies when I was a kid. One of them was dreamed up by an adult family friend, but I loved the concept, and so, by mutual agreement, I was the one who pounded out the first twenty-or-so pages of the script before, sadly — despite Syd Field! — I got lost in the process. The script was about two submarine commanders — a Soviet and an American. And, I swear, we did this before before Clancy! Clearly, I couldn’t execute the idea at the Clancy level, or at the Larry Ferguson-Donald Stewart level, but I give huge credit to our family friend, who I still think had a better idea than Clancy.
Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?
I’ve been a teacher and a basketball coach for most of my life, which might look pretty normal from the outside, but in my fifteen years working at a boarding school — taking care of other people’s children for nine months a year — I must admit, I did have some pretty funny experiences. One of my favorites was when, as a 23 year-old dorm parent, I found myself driving two kids to the emergency room at 3:00 AM. One of them had a black eye, and the other one had a broken hand. Yep. You guessed it. It was an interesting thing to try to explain upon check-in at the hospital, especially because one of the brawlers had the same name as a legendary boxer. Let’s just say that this irony did not escape that night’s triage nurse and that the kid with the famous name wasn’t really in a laughing mood.
How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?
I find ideas in emotions. When something in the world is worth a strong feeling — and I’m mostly talking about the cry-emotions because they’re the most powerful and most diverse — that feeling is made from a complex web of the personal and the social. There are stories in those webs. I often feel in the final stages of revising a script that I can finally see the whole thing as a mechanism — clinical-sounding, I know — for creating one powerful feeling that comes somewhere near the end of the story. That allows me to really construct the thing and eventually to know that I’m finished.
Okay, “finished.” You know what I mean.
Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?
If I’m having a perfect writing day, I wake up very early and eat breakfast in the dark before my wife and kids are awake. I read the Detroit papers online (deep family roots in Motown) and The New York Times (NYC is home), plus any interesting articles curated by my smart friends on Twitter and Facebook. I then help with all the morning family routines, and I’m off to a café by 8:30 or so to write for 2–4 hours. After that, I play pick-up basketball and then wind down for a little bit before the family routines start again.
But because I’m a teacher and a coach, my writing process during the school year is usually less, uh…tidy than that. My stories are rising and falling in my conscious brain all day as I figure out how to teach a passage from The Things They Carried or how to beat the 1–2–2 press. Though I definitely have days that feel frustrating because I produced no pages, I know I’m lucky to have interesting work and lucky to have so little B.S. in my life. My wife and kids are more important to me than any muse. It’s a bonus that they inspire me.
Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?
When I’m not focusing on family and work, I’m mostly writing. This means that I’m nowhere near up-to-date on current movies. Still, I’ve been inspired in the last couple years by movies I’ve returned to for the sake of my writerly education. Those include SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, WITNESS and THE FUGITIVE. Just watched ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN for the 6th or 7th time. Never gets old. Oh, and my wife, who is an Argentine by birth, sat me down recently and told me I had to watch EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS. Fantastic.
If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?
My dad, who died in 2010, left behind a series of letters he’d carried with him from place to place his whole life. They’re long, hand-written and typed notes to my dad’s mother during World War II from a young German woman and her family. These letters detail the way my father helped this family during a short time that his unit was hunkered down nearby. The letters hint at a romance, at the heartbreaking details of war and at some essential goodness in my father that I’ve always wanted to capture in a story and never been able to. I think this will be a beautiful movie, but I must admit, I don’t know how to write it yet.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
It’s possible that I’d be a college basketball coach. I had the privilege of coaching some teams at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware that I am really proud of. One of those teams had a player named Eric Boateng, a phenomenal person and player, who rose out of nowhere — the cornfields of Delaware! — to become a McDonald’s All-American. He deserved all of the credit, but I got some attention in the process, and after Eric went off to college, I had a pretty amazing opportunity to be an assistant coach at a major Division I program — not, by the way, at the school he decided to attend, no shady deals! I accepted and then backed out. I chose to go to NYC instead and really began to get serious about my writing career.
Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?
First of all, I’m making it a Monday-Friday hiatus at some place like Bread Loaf in Vermont. I’m inviting five guests, and each one gets an evening to make dinner for the group and to screen a movie or read a short story that he/she wants us to talk about. There’s plenty of whatever we want to drink, and we sit around all night and talk. We appreciate great storytelling, and we try to fix the world too. Yep, we talk politics, families, race, history, aesthetics. Either I win every argument, or I’m so happy to see something in a new way that I don’t even mind getting my intellectual butt kicked. So who’s getting an invitation? Jane Austen because she’ll see right to all of our cores before the first night is over and because I want to be the one to show her the internet. James Baldwin — who did write at least one screenplay — because he is the most penetrating social critic and analyzer of movies — please read The Devil Finds Work! — I’ve ever encountered. And William Goldman. If you wrote THE PRINCESS BRIDE and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, you get an invitation.
The Black List:
How did you first hear about The Black List?
Will McCormack mentioned it to me several years ago.
Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?
I was fortunate enough to get good scores on a couple of scripts on the site. This led to signing an option deal (recently expired) for a script called KNOWING JACK — about an aging high school basketball coach’s relationship with his daughter. Then, I got a big break when Franklin and the Black List team decided to feature DETROIT, which is about a 14–year-old boy searching for his missing father, and to nominate me for some fantastic opportunities like The Sundance Screenwriters Lab and The Disney Feature Writers Program. I was a finalist at Disney and got to meet some interesting people in the process who have become allies of mine. DETROIT is currently in active development with a great producing team.
Any tips for writers interested in the site?
Write a great script. Nothing matters more than that. If you get a strong score, that doesn’t mean you’ve reached the pinnacle. If you get a less-than-stellar score, it doesn’t mean you’re done for. In fact, do the same things either way:
Write better. Appreciate other people’s work and learn from it. Develop your internal compass. This doesn’t mean you foolishly reject all criticism, but it means you don’t trust all of it either.
And by the way, if you have a question about the site, ask Terry Huang or someone else on The Black List team. They are amazingly reasonable and responsive.
Thanks to Robert! We’ll be back in two weeks with another Black List interview!