Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434
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Superior, Nebraska

Dream Catcher

Lew Hunter teaching

Originally released through TheReader.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: Leo Adam Biga spent four days and three nights covering Lew Hunter's Superior Screenwriting Colony, which wrapped June 27, 2008.

Twice a year a fractured fairy tale unfolds in Nebraska's Republican River Valley. Superior, a prosaic Nuckolls County border town of 2,055 in the state's most southern reaches, draws dreamers from near and far. They come, some halfway across America, some across the globe, to learn from a professor whose laidback Socratic method is Aristotle meets Jimmy Buffett.

The wise man is screenwriting guru Lew Hunter, a favorite son of Superior, born and raised in nearby Guide Rock. He moved to Superior as a boy.

His warm, folksy manner belies his incisive mind and cosmo experience. In a Will Rogersesque way he's an innocent and a sophisticate, his humor part homespun and part sly wink. He's a product of these agricultural backroads, but has operated in the garish fast lane of L.A. as a network television executive, producer and screenwriter.

Gregarious and without self-consciousness, Hunter bares all in front of guests — his surgically repaired knees, bulging midriff, failed first marriage, foibles, successes, philosophies, his name-dropping anecdotes and fondness for quoting famous writers. He lavishes affection on his two dogs. He casually tells total strangers he and wife Pamela both suffer from ADHD.

“Oh, by the way, we're first cousins,” he adds.

Too much information perhaps, but the revelation and the relationship make sense upon meeting his earthy, instinctual, effusive wife. They're soulmates.

“It's wonderful because we know each other's shit,”he said. “We figure out ways in which to handle it.”

Since 2001 they've hosted a pair of two-week screenwriting colonies — one in June, another in September — in Superior. Some local Victorian residences are in the National Register of Historic Places. The Hunters, whose roots run deep there, own two turreted 19th century showplaces. They live in a two-story mansion, the former Beale House, which they open to visitors.

Hunter HouseNearby is the former Day House, a three-story, 5,500 square-foot grand dame. Two eccentric old maid sisters occupied it for decades.

Known today as The Colony House, it is home base for the workshop and main quarters for registrants, who pay upwards of $2,500 to glean script basics from Hunter. His book, Screenwriting 434, now in its 12th printing, is a staple for aspiring scenarists. The title comes from the UCLA class he's taught 29 years. The book's a condensed version of the class, just as the colony's a power form of it.

UCLA, where he's been voted most popular teacher multiple times, has played a huge role in his life. He earned a second master's degree there in 1959. His classmates included future cinema god Francis Ford Coppola. His appreciation of film was enhanced watching the latest “creative expressions” by Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray at the famed Laemmle theater chain's Los Feliz art cinema.

While professing, he keeps near him a file folder bulging with years of lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing great like Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend's response: “Write!”

In some sessions Lew talks off the top of his head. At table readings he reads, aloud, students' ideas or two-page outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitute “Lew's Rules”— nearly always delivered with a smile.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What's your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don't even think about writing down to the audience.”

Colleagues from UCLA, Ohio University and other colleges help instruct. Pamela does the rest. She's den mother, housekeeper, cook, confessor, referee, cheerleader and friend. Like a sweet-sassy diner waitress she calls everyone “Hon”or “Sweetie.” The couple's granddaughters and friends pitch in.

The we're-just-plain-folks couple set the tone for the kick-your-feet-back and have-a-few-brews colony.

First-time colonist Bill Schreiber from Florida won the CineQuest (San Jose, Calif.) screenwriting competition. The award generated enough buzz that his high concept thriller, Switchback, is being read by major studios. That may not have happened had Hunter not been at the fest and hooked him up with his ex-agent. Contacts. Networking. It's how Hollywood works. How a screenwriter from nowhere-ville gets read.

“It's a matter of getting read. But you've got to learn the craft before the art can come through,” Schreiber said, “because there is a structure to it and there is a pacing to it. It's all about reaching people's emotions. You handle them like a yo-yo, and that all has to do with structure.”

Schreiber broke through the system, with his first screenplay. Produced as Captiva Island, it starred Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine. The film found international TV distribution. But success soon gave way to the industry's vagaries, however.

Subsequent scripts didn't sell, and he ran his own small media company for several years. Winning a contest and getting a script into the right hands has him focused on his dream again.

Hunter encourages students to enter contests.

“Screenwriting competitions are very fair game and one of the best ways to get paid attention to. Bill (Schreiber) will probably tell you the best part of it is he got an agent,”said Hunter. Agents allow screenwriters to hurdle “the wall” between them and getting their work read.

Jim Christensen's story is similar to Schreiber's — his This Old Porch won an Omaha Film Festival screenwriting award. His My Triple X Wife caught the eye of North Sea Films, the Omaha company whose president, Dana Altman, co-produced Nik Fackler's Lovely, Still starring Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. North Sea's optioned Christensen's script. Christensen is screenwriting fulltime.

Alan Chang traveled in from Taiwan. A business leadership consultant, he wants to return to his creative roots as an author/editor.

“I know I'm an artist so it's time to be an artist before my dream dies,” he said. “My dream is I will be a J.K. Rowlings-plus-Ang Lee.”

Dr. Judy Butler, a family physician in Superior, has stories she's dying to tell. New college grads Sam McCoy, Elayna Rice and Heather Williams are 20-somethings on the cusp of separate moves to L.A.

Hunter knows their hunger.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn't think I had the cachet. I mean, it's very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chafesky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon.”

Ray Bradbury, whom he was working with on a project, told Hunter he should try it. Hunter left ABC, making a pact with his first wife that if he didn't make it in a year he'd find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of six screenplays had sold.

Tapped out and with a family to support, he was about to go to work at Forest Lawn cemetery. He was to monitor corpses, laying them down if they rose during rigor mortis. He'd done it at an uncle's funeral home in Guide Rock, and again to pay for college. The day before he was to start, Aaron Spelling called to say he would buy Hunter's script, The Glass Hammer, which became If Tomorrow Comes.

As far back as he can recall, Hunter said, he was different. An only child who was bright beyond his years, his backstory reads like a script.

His classically trained musician stage mother forced him into singing-dancing-music lessons. He could only watch MGM and Paramount musicals. He resisted. Lew felt he had no one to turn to, especially after his farmer father suffered a debilitating stroke. A self-described “miscreant child,” Hunter acted out enough to land in a military academy, which he'd often slip away from to gamble with “the girls” in nearby brothels. More brothels figured in his life at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

He ached to be under the lights in New York or L.A. He studied drama as an undergrad, also immersing himself in radio-television work in Lincoln. He was a DJ, a floor manager, et cetera. He wanted to study broadcasting at Northwestern but was rejected, but struck a bargain with the university to gain admission. If he got all As, he stayed; with even one B, he'd leave. He stayed.

After working as a television director in Chicago, he packed his Packard and headed west. He worked his way up the ranks at NBC, from the mailroom to music licensing to promotion. He broke into programming at ABC. Producing-writing followed. Hunter lived the dream. He uses what he's learned to make others feel they can realize their dream.

“You're all storytellers,” he says to students. “Stories, they're all around you, and as writers it's up to you to see them.”

He doesn't believe writing should be torture.

“I'm not a big fan at all of sitting in front of the keyboard until beads of blood pop out on your forehead. Most writers will tell you how hard it is ... For me, hard is being on the end of a shovel helping build an irrigation canal. That's hard. I mean, how much better does it get? — you get paid to dream. I think that joy of the whole thing really comes across. I want people to accept that and have that for themselves because what a wonderfully fulfilling life it can be. And you're never out of a job, you may not be getting paid, but you always have stuff to do.”

Hunter never intended to teach, but got an offer from UCLA in 1979. He took as his inspiration not the good teachers he had, but “the professors I hated.” The lazy, indifferent, remote ones. Whatever they had done, he did the opposite.

“I'm available 7-and-24. Just give me a call. If we can't deal with it in a phone call then I'll be happy to meet with you. Somebody that needs assurance, guidance, to bounce something off of ... is really what it is.”

He follows the same pattern at his colony.

Hunter said he's unusual, too, for being “one of the very few screenwriting professors that has made a living doing it,” making him an exception to Shaw's dictum that “those who can, do, and those who can't, teach.”

What else makes his approach different?

“It tells you how to write a screenplay,” he said. “You can talk about it, you can talk around it, but I remain the only writer who tells you how to. I think that's the most distinguishing factor.”

That Hunter is a member of the Writers Guild of America whose scripts have made money is reason enough for wannabes to flock to him. And as a veteran instructor at UCLA, a top feeder-school for Hollywood, his ex-students include many successful writers-directors, Nebraska's Oscar-winning Alexander Payne among them.

“Isn't Lew Hunter a trip?” Payne said about his old prof.

Hunter travels the world giving workshops. He answers faxes, emails, letters and phone calls each day from writers looking for answers. He advises, he cajoles, he steers, often ending his responses with his trademark tag line — “Write on!”

Hunter's leaving Hollywood for Superior eight years ago invariably meant bringing Hollywood with him. It also marked his life coming full circle. It was Pamela's idea. Lew had other plans, namely Laguna Beach.

But … “I knew I was going to wind up here anyway, beside my folks in the Guide Rock cemetery. I really like that. It really feels good. It feels right.”

Besides, he said from his writer's shack out back of the Hunter house, “Thanks to this (computer) keyboard and fax here I'm in touch with the world. I can continue on. You can do anything you want to do in terms of writing being about anywhere. All we need is a space and paper and pencil.”

Pamela pressed him to replicate his workshops in the middle of nowhere, though Superior's Chamber of Commerce prefers “the middle of everywhere.”

“The colony was my wife's fault or my wife's inspiration. Synonymous in this case,” he said.

An amateur psychologist might say the colonies are an antidote for the insecurity that Hunter, forever an only child, still feels. It's his world, done his way. He rarely if ever has to hear ‘no.'

There's not much to hold people there. Like many rural towns, Superior struggles. When the cement plant and the creamery closed, jobs vanished. Social ills plague the area.

Lew and Pamela are active in the community and in their extended family. They've worked on a coalition to combat the meth scourge. They've helped raise grandchildren. They served as parade Grand Marshall during Superior's annual Victorian Festival last May.

Dr. Judy Butler said Hunter is “infamous or famous depending on what side his politics are on at town meetings.”

Crop Field in Superior, NebraskaLew proudly gives his guests tours of the town. During this colony he didn't get around to it until 10 p.m. one night. He cruised through the couple square-blocks downtown district, pointed out the few eateries, slowed in front of the auditorium whose stage he acted upon, and stopped in Evergreen Cemetery, divided by Highway 14. Glowing crosses illuminated one side.

He indicated two graves, one with a ceramic pig and another with a cow. The animal figures are desecrations to some, and delights to others. You can guess which camp Hunter belongs to. They're talismans, much like the storyteller totems he collects on his travels and displays at the Colony House.

We're all storytellers, but how many can weave tales that grip an audience? Yet everyone thinks they can write movies. The joke used to be everyone in L.A. — from valets to doctors — wrote scripts on the side. Now, everyone everywhere is in on the joke and the dream. Film schools, festivals and how-to books/workshops and the indie scene all give the rising creative class the notion they can do it, too.

Hunter's an enabler.

“There's no mystery to screenwriting,”he says.

Suggest writing can't be taught and he'll tell you, “Bullshit!,” before adding, “What I can't teach you is talent ... perseverance ... the burn — the way to get it done.” But he can stroke your ego and stoke your fires.

“We're all here to support each other,” he tells dreamers. “You have to get your chops ... your legs ... your foundation, and these two weeks are very much a big part of your foundation if you're going to believe. I want to encourage you all to reach for the stars.”

The afflicted get their fix from Lew Hunter, the dream catcher.
07 Aug 2008