Interviews in Sherwood

Ethan Reiff
Co-writer of the 2010 Robin Hood film
[The original "Nottingham" screenplay]

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Ethan Reiff has been writing partners with Cyrus Voris since 1987. In television, their collaboration created the TV series Brimstone and Sleeper Cell. They also wrote the film Bulletproof Monk and contributed the story to the 2008 animated feature Kung Fu Panda. Their screenplay “Nottingham” was purchased by Universal Pictures. Their original script focused on a heroic Sheriff of Nottingham. Although the original premise was discarded by later writers, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris retain story credit on the 2010 Robin Hood movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe.

This interview was conducted by phone on April 28, 2010.

The big hook

AWW:    How did you guys come up with doing a Robin Hood script?

ER:      Well, I'm something of a history buff, history enthusiast and history maniac. And my partner is not at all. He's much more of a comic book and pop culture kind of guy. We've worked together for many, many, many years. Over the years, sometimes I try to get him into the idea of a particular historical project of one kind or another. Also, within the broad scope of history, I'm a bit of a medievalist. For a while I wanted us to write a medieval screenplay. One day, we were just talking and somehow Robin Hood came up. Because my partner is a pop culture guy, I guess it was the idea that maybe he could bring himself to invest the blood, sweat, tears, time and effort of monumental proportions that would be required to actually write a complete screenplay set in medieval times. Maybe he could bring himself to invest all that in a medieval period piece if it involved someone like Robin Hood. If it involved a big, iconic, pop cultural figure that he could understand or relate to.

         And then for us, the big hook -- the big idea -- was "let's turn it around". Let's tell Robin Hood from the other guy's point of view. Let's make the Sheriff of Nottingham the hero instead of the villain. The title of our original screenplay was Nottingham. And that's basically what the story was. It was the story of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Like the untold story. I think the tagline on the first page of our script was "There are two sides to every legend." We thought it would be interesting and cool and certainly original to tell the story of the sheriff - centered on the sheriff and from the perspective of the sheriff. We had never seen or heard that done before. After we got into doing it, I found out there had been a novel written maybe a decade or two earlier [possibly The Sheriff of Nottingham by Richard Kluger or In a Dark Wood by Michael Cadnum] that took a similar approach. I didn't read it. We steered clear of it, because we didn't want to cross wires with however that author had approached the material. I think it was completely different anyway.

The Sheriff as CSI detective and other characters

AWW:    I gather your sheriff was, in some ways, a bit of medieval detective like Cadfael.

ER:      A bit. Our sheriff was a bit of a war hero, because he was based on a real historical figure -- Robert Tornham [or Robert of Thornham or Robert de Turnham, depending on the historical reference] who was one of the two sheriffs of Cyprus, appointed by Richard after he had conquered the island of Cyprus and then had moved on to the Holy Land during the crusades. And [King Richard] had left two sort of co-rulers on the island of Cyprus. One of them died and the other was Robert of Tornham - sometimes known as the sheriff of Cyprus, sometimes known as the justiciar.

         Our screenplay opened with a medieval siege of Castle Marcappus in Cyprus that was being held by the English army, the English occupiers of Cyprus. Our story opened with this cool medieval siege, using some details of medieval siege warfare that we had never seen in a big Hollywood movie before that we thought were really cool. And we met Robert of Tornham and we found out that he was pretty ingenuous, clever, intelligent kind of a guy. A little bit scientifically minded but also could kick ass in battle when he had to.

         After the siege ended and he succeeded in defending the castle against the local population, he got a message from Richard saying that because Richard needed more money for the ongoing Crusade, he had decided to sell the island to the Knights Templar, the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon for a ton of money. So, there was no need any more for Robert of Tornham to be the sheriff of Cyprus. But because he had done such a good job defending English interests on that island, Richard gave him a choice appointment back in England. And that was the job of Sheriff of Nottingham. Tornham went back to England and went to Nottingham, which at the time was like the second biggest city in England after London, and one of the half dozen biggest cities in all of Europe. [In the script. Historically, Nottingham was not nearly as large.] And he took charge.

         A couple of times we've seen our original screenplay referred to as CSI Sherwood or CSI Nottingham. And it wasn't, but there was definitely an element of that. We did a lot of research and we used legitimate, medieval English forensic investigation details in a couple of cool ways. We didn't make too much up out of the blue.

         He's also a bureaucrat and an administrator. He was in charge of the city and had a very difficult job to do. Sort of caught between a rock and a hard place, because Richard gets kidnapped and held for ransom. The taxes have to go up, but people are already poor from the taxes for the war. And at the same time, Prince John is making his own efforts to make sure his brother never comes back from being held hostage. John builds up more support and political power inside England. And Tornham is Richard's guy but John is trying to get him on his side of this political feud verging on civil war.

         The other thing was Eleanor of Aquitaine having a big part in this story which was something we had never seen in a Robin Hood story before. Eleanor of Aquitaine is a huge figure in medieval European history, certainly in English and French medieval history -- this really powerful medieval woman. And she's the mother of King Richard and Prince John, who goes on to be King John. She had never been featured -- that we knew of -- in any way in a Robin Hood story. It just seemed like a great opportunity to craft a great part for a great actress to play.

         And the one other big element in our story was there were some terrible crimes being committed in Nottingham. I guess you would call it serial murders. There is a bit of a historical record for serial killers in medieval Europe. We took that as our inspiration.

         The crimes are being blamed on Robin Hood who is an outlaw in the woods who claims to be fighting for the people but actually in our script was just more of a self-serving roguish guy who hooked what he was doing onto the people's cause because it happened to be there. He was more of an opportunist. And also came from a noble background and didn't really care too much about the people, just cared about his own mercenary self-interest.

         But because the sheriff is a man of science, he's able to find out that even though Robin Hood isn't such a great guy perhaps in our script, he's not in fact the man responsible for all these murders. Even though he would be a convenient scapegoat and might even help the sheriff's political future if he blamed the murders on Robin Hood, he wasn't going to do that. And the whole thing built to a point where Richard comes back and his army lays siege to Nottingham which is the centre of support for Prince John and his rebellion against his brother, the king. And Robert Tornham, our hero - the sheriff, plays a key role along with Robin Hood in how the siege goes. Richard takes the city. And also the sheriff manages to track down, capture and defeat the serial murderer.

         And there's also a romantic triangle between the sheriff, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. And that's a long, drawn-out and hashed-up version of the movie that we wrote several years ago.

AWW:    I gather that your Marian was a clever, well-read character.

ER:      Yeah, our Marian we thought was a great character. You know I have to say we've seen the finished film and it's very well-made and it's incredibly well-produced. And Cate Blanchett is phenomenal as Maid Marian. And Russell Crowe is great as Robin Hood. I mean, the cast is excellent, really throughout, but Cate Blanchett really is kind of amazing as Maid Marian.

The bidding war and what followed

AWW:    I understand your script sparked off quite the bidding war when it came out.

ER:      It did. At the time, it was the biggest success of our feature screenwriting careers. There were a number of A-list directors who attached themselves to try to get the movie made at different studios. There was Russell Crowe who attached himself to star all over town. And in the end, it was three different studios that were all actively trying to purchase it. So there was a bidding war for the script and Universal won. And Brian Glazer and Imagine Entertainment also attached themselves as producers before Universal bought the script.

         So Russell Crowe and Brian Grazer and Imagine are all attached. Later on, Ridley Scott came on board to direct at Universal. And Ridley Scott, who's obviously one of the most accomplished filmmakers in history, really didn't have much interest in our screenplay or our version of this story. And it took a couple of years of re-developing, you know rewriting and re-rewriting what had been Nottingham before Ridley Scott was satisfied and happy with the screenplay he finally had in his hands. And Universal and he and Russell Crowe went forward and made the movie that's now coming out as Robin Hood.

AWW:    Did you have any involvement in the rewriting?

ER:      We really didn't. In the beginning, again before Ridley Scott came on board, we were set to travel down to Australia and get input from Russell Crowe as for what changes he wanted done to the script. But when Ridley Scott came on board that halted and they went off in whatever direction Ridley Scott wanted to go in. Which is understandable, since he is Ridley Scott.

         We can't complain because we got paid. Because it was an original screenplay and because there are still a couple of elements from our original material involved, our names are still on the movie as co-writing the story along with Brian Helgeland who gets the sole screenplay credit. And we got paid, and hopefully the movie will be a big success.

         There is an element of frustration in the sense that because the screenplay was bought and paid for, Universal owns it outright. So even though it didn't really get made intact, I don't know we can ever do anything else with it so to speak. Which is a little bit frustrating because it would have been nice for us to have seen how our version of the story would have turned out as an actual finished movie.

AWW:    So, Robert Tornham's not going to turn up anywhere else.

ER:      I don't know. Oddly enough, a dopey little detail but at the time, and it took us awhile to finish the screenplay, we wrote it in-between other jobs, mostly this TV show called Sleeper Cell that we created and ran for the Showtime cable network here in the US and sold and played on TV stations around the world. We did two seasons of that show. And we came up with Nottingham and started writing it before we did that show. We had to take a break writing it when we did the first season of Sleeper Cell. In between the first and second seasons, we continued writing Nottingham. And after the second season ended, we finished it. So, there was that entire process of writing the screenplay stretched out over probably three years. Mostly in spurts, you know.

         There was a reason for me going off on that tangent and I've lost it -- Robert Tornham, that's it! A little bit of medieval, modern historiography trivia. When we started writing Nottingham, we scoured the globe for material on Robert Tornham and on the English in Cyprus. And there wasn't much - a little bit and we got our hands on all of it. And oddly enough, when the publicity for the finished Robin Hood film started to get going, just out of sentimental nostalgia, I did a little bit of a search on the web. It turns out that someone took it upon themselves to create a Wikipedia article on Robert Tornham, the lone surviving sheriff / justiciar of Cyprus appointed by King Richard. In the interim, sometime between when we set out to make Robert Tornham a hero played by Russell Crowe and when the movie really came out, and unfortunately for us Robert of Tornham was nowhere to be seen, somebody else out there in the world had taken it upon themselves to immortalize Robert of Tornham on Wikipedia.

AWW:    So, when you were doing the research for Nottingham. How did you balance the historical details with the story? I understand you did a lot of research even on how characters brushed their teeth.

ER:      Yeah, that's funny. I don't know where you heard that but it's true.

         The thing is with Robin Hood, I think -- speaking for myself -- it's impossible to do the real Robin Hood. Whether or not there was a real Robin Hood becomes question number one. And which of the potential real Robin Hoods from which age of English medieval or early Renaissance history you're going to choose as your version of the real Robin Hood becomes question number two. And then which later historical / literary / cinematic / social or cultural vision or interpretation of that historical or quasi-historical figure you're going to use when do your version becomes question number three. You have to pick and choose. You have to take your own approach. I don't think that's a bad thing. I just think that's the reality, you know.

         Probably every generation has its own Robin Hood, so to speak. And I imagine if it's successful, you probably have some element that resonates from the past in real history or in literature and some other element that resonates with the contemporary audience that's watching it or reading it and connects to the world they live in. And for us, we did try to do that to some extent with Robin Hood, but he was, in all honesty, a secondary character compared to our sheriff.

         And we tried to do that with the sheriff. Not to be pretentious or overly involved, but I think we tried to do that with a little bit of inspiration based on the Americans serving in Iraq at the time. The idea that like a colonel in the army or a brigadier general who's responsible for the life and death of his men and responsible to some extent for the well-being for the area of Iraq that he's in command of. He's stuck in a terribly difficult, terribly tough position where every choice, no matter what he chooses is bad. It's just a question of balancing which is not quite as bad -- which is not quite as deadly for not quite as many people. And at heart, he's a very decent guy trying to do the right thing to the best of his ability even though he can see that maybe there are problems with the mission, there are built-in contradictions with the mission, but that's the mission he's been given. And if he doesn't do it, somebody else is going to do it who probably won't be as capable or decent as him. So, he forces himself to stick it out and do the best job possible.

         I don't think I've actually talked with anybody else outside of our office about the fact that was an element of inspiration for our Sheriff of Nottingham at the time we wrote the script, but it was. The idea of a good man in a terrible position. No matter what choice he makes, it's going to be bad but he's going to stick it out because he's a good guy and he knows he's good at his job.

AWW:    But unfortunately for him, no good deed went unpunished?

ER:      Yeah, in fact, that's exactly how our script ended in a way. Our Robert Tornham is personally responsible for allowing Richard to succeed, take the city of Nottingham and defeat his brother Prince John and put down his enemies of the civil war. But for a variety of reasons, our Sheriff of Nottingham doesn't get any of the credit for having done that. He's basically left by the side of the road so to speak by history and the powers-that-be in England at the time.

AWW:    I guess they preferred Robin Hood ...

ER:      Yes, because Robin Hood is the sexier hero. Because Robin Hood is the more romantic, sexier figure, he's the one that Richard decides to embrace in order to help unify the kingdom in the aftermath of the trouble that had been going on.

Casting thoughts

AWW:    When you wrote the script, did you have any actors in mind for the parts even just in your head?

ER:      In all honesty, Russell Crowe ... I can't imagine better casting for our original screenplay than Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe was perfect to play our Sheriff of Nottingham. He's great playing Robin Hood, but he was perfect to play our Sheriff of Nottingham.

AWW:    Did you have anyone in mind for Robin Hood or Maid Marian?

ER:      We had a few people in mind for Robin Hood. I think somebody like Colin Farrell who obviously brings that handsome, charismatic rascal, bad boy type of presence potentially to a role. When the script was bought and actually started to get going, Christian Bale was mentioned. And then I think a little bit later, this British actor Sam Riley was mentioned by Russell Crowe who had been really impressed by him in a movie. Those are a couple of examples.

AWW:    You were balancing real history with the Robin Hood legend. When King Richard comes to Nottingham, they intersect.

ER:      The only thing that we consciously fictionalized, the one spot where we threw history under the bus of drama was that when Nottingham falls to Richard's army, we had John there. Because in reality, John had ran away to France and didn't actually personally confront Richard and throw himself on his knees and beg his forgiveness until months later. We played that scene in the city of Nottingham. It was a great scene though. It's not like history comes before drama. You try to capture what you believe was the essence of the history, I guess.

Other Thoughts

AWW:    What are you working on now?

ER:      When we first came up with the idea, we were working on Kung Fu Panda for Dreamworks. Obviously in the interim, Kung Fu Panda came out and now we're writing another animated feature for Dreamworks called Gil's All Fright Diner. It's based on a novel and it's a horror comedy about a werewolf and vampire Odd Couple who team up to save the world. One thing about my partner and I, we have a wide range of material. Probably the most successful thing we've ever done in television was Sleeper Cell which was a pretty disturbing, very gritty, ripped from the headlines, Islamic extremist, terrorist drama that was on premium cable. The most successful feature film is Kung Fu Panda which is, obviously, a family animated movie. So, we go back and forth. It's good to escape being pigeon-holed in a sense.

AWW:    What do you think the enduring appeal of Robin Hood is, whether in a traditional version or in your screenplay?

ER:      There's something about "steal from the rich and give to the poor" that's timeless. And there's something about a man born to privilege and wealth who chooses, under whatever circumstances, to go to the other side of the tracks, or the other side of the village green, and live like the other half lives. To live poor and off the land because it's the only way to see justice done.

         They are simple elements, but they are pretty strong. And you can see how they can be spun or adjusted or embraced under lots of different circumstances by different parties, in different periods, in different places. Obviously, you can say well, in 1950s Russia, they could make the movie where Robin Hood is the glorious communist hero, but in 1950s America, they could make a Robin Hood movie where Prince John is enforcing some sort of despotic, totalitarian rule on the country while his good brother is away, and Robin Hood is the rugged individualist who is fighting the totalitarian system, you know. That's right off the top of my head. I just gave you two versions. It's endlessly adaptable without having to break the back of what the essence of the figure is.

AWW:    And that plays into your script, where you can do an alternative view of the legend.

ER:      Thinking about it, I guess our script was about spin. About the idea that our hero was pretty much a straight hook, pretty intelligent, knowledgeable, sophisticated guy but he was a straight-forward, straight-shooting, public servant. And what happened all around him, basically, the guy who was ... not a supervillain ... but not a hero in any way, shape or form -- who was the Robin Hood in our story -- because of the powers-that-be got turned into this huge, heroic figure in order to serve the ends of the powerful.

AWW:    Do you have anything you'd like to add?

ER:      The only thing I'd add is the Robin Hood that's coming out is far, far different from the Nottingham script my partner and I wrote and sold three years ago, but it's really good. It's incredibly well-made, the cast is great, and if you're into Robin Hood, medieval history or into just a great old fashioned story, I think you'll enjoy it. Thanks for showing the interest in our original treatment of the material.

AWW:    Thank you very much.

Read Robert of Tornham's Wikipedia entry

Where to go from here:

If you enjoyed this interview, check out the following:
  • INTERVIEWS IN SHERWOOD - Interviews with Robin Hood writers, actors and scholars
  • INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD CARPENTER - Creator of the Robin of Sherwood TV series
  • INTERVIEW WITH TONY ROBINSON - The writer / creator of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, and who played the sheriff in the same show. He's also Baldrick in Blackadder.
  • INTERVIEW WITH ALAN DOYLE - Canadian singer of Great Big Sea and play Allan A'Dayle in the 2010 Robin Hood film
  • INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN DURAND - The actor who played Little John in the 2010 Robin Hood movie starring Russell Crowe

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Photos of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris - © copyright Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris and used with permission
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