If it’s true that people are born to do certain things, then Hank Nelken was born to be a moviemaker. Because whether he was filming Bar Mitzvahs as a kid to fund his own short films or editing wedding videos right out of USC Film School to buy bread, Nelken has always known what he wants to do with his life: Make movies.
Perhaps best known for penning the cult classic Saving Silverman, starring Jack Black, Steve Zahn and Jason Biggs, Nelken’s latest film, Tim Hamilton’s Mama’s Boy, starring Jon Heder and Diane Keaton, is in theaters now. Nelken is also currently making his directorial debut with the romantic comedy Something Borrowed, due out in 2008. Though he’s not a household name yet, neither was Kleenex in the beginning. But one thing is for sure: The future is awfully bright for this ambitious writer-director.
James Menzies (MM): In the early days of your writing, when you were trying to make ends meet, how did you stay motivated? Does it take brass balls or something else entirely?
Hank Nelken (HN): It wasn’t so much brass balls as it was the fear of having to move back home and face all the people I “promised to remember” when I made it big. I find fear in general is a big motivator. Fear and the desire to drive a nice car. Also, I’ve wanted to make movies since I saw E.T. at the age of nine and as challenging as it has been to break into the business, the truth is I couldn’t imagine giving up because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Mainly because I’m not good at anything else. Also, I have an incredibly supportive family, especially my parents, who have always encouraged and believed in me. And my wife, whose strength, love and support makes anything seem possible.
MM: Do you think one can make it on raw talent alone, or does luck always play a factor in the success of a screenwriter?
HN: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I think a Roman philosopher said that. Or maybe it was Oprah Winfrey. Either way, I think you create luck by working hard and perfecting your craft—especially with writing. Because in my opinion, while it doesn’t hurt to have an innate story sense or a good ear for dialogue, I think discipline and determination are far more important qualities. Discipline gets you in the chair and determination gets you to “Fade Out.” It’s like Oliver Stone said: “Ass plus seat equals writing.” And if preparation plus opportunity equals luck, then luck plus writing equals… something good probably. What do you want from me? I’m a writer, not a math teacher.
MM: You had a writing partner for several years, but decided to part ways a couple of years ago. In what ways does collaborating with another writer make the material better? It what ways does it impede one’s individual creativity?
HN: Having a writing partner was great for comedy. If I threw out a joke and Greg didn’t laugh, it didn’t go in the script. No matter how much I explained why it was funny. It’s like telling a joke at a party and no one laughs, but instead of walking away with dignity, you start trying to explain why it’s so hilarious. Like if you could just give them a few more facts and maybe some background they would suddenly crap themselves with laughter. You can’t intellectualize humor. It’s either funny or it’s not. And I think sticking to that simple rule made our material better.
Another reason working with a partner made the material better is simply that two heads are better than one. You get twice as many ideas. Also, a partner helps with discipline because you are accountable to another person. Not to say that two people can’t procrastinate. During breaks, Greg and I used to play NBA Live on the PlayStation, and let’s just say we got good. Very good.
When I started writing solo, one of the biggest challenges I faced was learning to rely on my instinct because suddenly I was writing jokes and there was no one around to laugh at them. Over time, however, the process gave me more faith in my own ability, which in turn gave me the self-confidence it takes to be able to walk into a room alone and sell yourself. Also, it gave me the ability to write in my underwear, which is quite nice.
MM: I always find it interesting to hear a screenwriter’s opinion of a film he or she wrote. On Saving Silverman, for instance: Is it hard to relinquish control of something so personal to the creative stylings of another? Are all screenwriters really directors at heart, or can there be peaceful collaboration between the two?
HN: I do find it difficult to relinquish control of my material. The writing process is so personal: You create these characters, live with them and hopefully get to a place where they become real people who start telling you what they will and will not do. Then one day, you e-mail this document off and suddenly you’re staring at another blank page, trying to come up with a name for some new guy.
That being said, directing requires a completely different skill set than writing. And I’m very grateful to Dennis Dugan, who directed Saving Silverman. He was a veteran filmmaker and I was a neophyte screenwriter, so I had the privilege of watching him work. One of things that impressed me the most was his dedication to the script and his respect for the writing process. In fact, he spent many days with me and Greg before principal photography, pushing us to make the script stronger and every joke funnier. And because he had total confidence in his ability and was not at all threatened by having writers around, he was able to bring us to the set and utilize us as a resource to rewrite and punch up jokes on the spot. So yes, if there’s respect and confidence, there can definitely be a peaceful collaboration between writer and director. I’ve been lucky enough to experience it not only with Dugan on Silverman but with Steve Carr on Are We Done Yet? as well as Tim Hamilton on Mama’s Boy.
MM: Speaking of Mama’s Boy, which is in theaters now, it seems to fall in line with a theme you have going with movies like Saving Silverman: The comfortable slacker who suddenly—by some other force (usually love)—is forced to grow up. Anything autobiographical here?
HN: If you’re implying that I’m stuck in a state of arrested development, you’re probably right. But I think it’s important to stay in touch with your inner child, especially when you’re writing comedy. Although I do consider Mama’s Boy a step forward in terms of a more sophisticated, character-driven style. Also, I was very inspired by Wes Anderson, who tends to deal with immature characters as well. So at least I’m in good company.
MM: Something Borrowed will mark your directorial debut. After so many successful years as a screenwriter, why did you make the decision to direct? How do you think your ability to write will help you behind the camera?
HN: When I started making movies as a kid I was just imitating shots I liked from films and putting music over them. Then I realized that shooting my cousin driving a riding lawn mower around the yard to the James Bond theme just wasn’t that compelling. I needed a story to tell. So I started writing. And while the process was challenging, I found that by the time I went to shoot my movie, I had a deep, internalized understanding of the material which informed every decision I made on set, from camera placement to set design to actors’ motivations. So for me, writing has always been intimately linked to directing.
I think the story and characters are the foundation from which all decisions about the film should organically grow. But directing requires you to be able to articulate your ideas to your actors and crew, and I am confident that my writing background combined with the filmmaking craft I learned at USC Film School and the experience I’ve had as an actor and improviser myself will allow me to successfully translate my vision from the page to the screen. Plus, I look great in chaps.
MM: Are We Done Yet?, the sequel to the hit Ice Cube vehicle, Are We There Yet?, was released earlier this year. How is it that a script that started out as a remake of the Cary Grant classic, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, became, well, something slightly different?
HN: Steve Carr was passionate about remaking Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and he and his producing partner, Heidi Santelli, asked me to come up with a take and then pitch it to studios. I came up with an updated version, which I thought stayed true to the heart of the original, and we set it up at Revolution. After securing the rights to the 1948 film from RKO, Revolution pitched it to Ice Cube who loved the idea and signed on. So from the very beginning, I was writing the movie for Cube. In fact, the studio gave me an office down the hall from his office and I got to work intimately with his producing partner, Matt Alvarez, who was an invaluable resource.
As we developed the screenplay, we thought it would be fun to give the kids more of a storyline than they had in the original film, so we gave Cube’s character a teenage daughter and a younger son who had an intense sibling rivalry. By the time the script was completed and Revolution was ready to begin production, they realized they had a funny family movie with a heart starring Ice Cube in which he had a family that was identical to the family he had in Are We There Yet? All it took after that was a little home makeover and Are We Done Yet? was born.