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Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains


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For years I was aware of Lew Hunter but it was only a couple years ago I first met him, and he turned out to be every bit as interesting as I had heard and read about. Lew is the kind of personality who overturns some common misperceptions about Nebraskans.  Similarly, his long career in network television, his standing as a How-to script guru professor and author, and his pricey screenwriting colony in remote Superior, Neb. that draws aspirants from near and far all defy certain expectations about the people who populate this state and what they do.

Regarding that colony, I spent some time there one summer and the following story is the result. The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Dream catcher Lew Hunter

Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a 2008 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Writer Leo Adam Biga spent four days and three nights covering Lew Hunter’s most recent Superior Screenwriting Colony, which wrapped June 27.

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 far southern reaches, draws dreamers from near and far. They come, some half way across America, some across the globe, to learn at the feet of a professor whose laidback Socratic method is Aristotle meets Jimmy Buffett.

The wise man these acolytes seek out in this Margaritaville-on-the-Great Plains 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 both an innocent and a sophisticate, his humor part homespun cornpone and part sly wink. Yes, he’s a product of these agricultural backroads but he’s operated in the garish fast lane of L.A. as a network television executive and producer and as a screenwriter.

Gregarious and without an ounce of self-consciousness, Hunter bares all in front of guests — his surgically repaired knees, bulging midriff, failed first marriage, his foibles, successes, philosophies, his name-dropping anecdotes and fondness for quoting famous writers. He openly 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 the couple’s hosted a pair of two-week screenwriting colonies — one in June, another in September — in Superior, some of whose Victorian residences bear National Register of Historic Places merit. The Hunters, whose roots run deep there, own two turreted 19th century showplaces. They live in a two-story mansion, the former Beale House, they generously open to visitors.

Nearby is the former Day House, a three-story, 5,500 square foot grand dame. Two eccentric old maid sisters occupied it for decades. Their spirits may imbue it today. Pamela assures guests an Australian psychic’s reading, via phone, found a stream of energy flowing underneath. Pamela ascribes it to the Ogalalla Aquifer. Whatever the source, she calls it “a happy house” conducive to “creative people.”

The Colony House, as it’s referred to today, serves as home base for the workshop and as 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.

“That was a wonderful experience,” he said.

Lew holds court in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet, a Diet Dr. Pepper at the ready, a sharpened pencil behind one ear. He either motors between the two houses balanced on a scooter, resembling a circus bear atop a unicycle, or behind the wheel of his pea soup green Galaxy 500.

 

 

 

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 Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, 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!”

Some sessions are just Lew talking off the top of his head. Unscripted. He doesn’t need a cheat sheet, he said, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” 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.”

His racing thoughts get ahead of his spoken words. An aside leads to a digression, then to a full-fledged anecdote. If Pamela interjects, he’s gone. Just as his original train of thought threatens to derail, he gets back on track, prompting one of his favorite Lewisms, “I interrupted myself.”

Colleagues from UCLA, Ohio University and other colleges help instruct. Pamela does the rest. She’s den mother, house keeper, 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. But Pamela holds it all together on the homefront so Lew can do his thing. She makes a killer stew. There are pizza nights, picnics, to-die-for cinnamon rolls and libations aplenty.

The we’re-just-plain-folks couple set the tone for the kick-your-feet-back and have-a-few-brews colony. It’s as far removed from a stuffy academic setting as you can get. Lew tells his guests, almost as a mantra, “Great to have you here” or “So glad you’re here.” You get the feeling he means it, too. The first night he has all assembled introduce themselves. He welcomes each again, bragging about their work, which they’ve sent him, or about awards they’ve won.

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’s-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.”

He came to Lew and Superior he said, “to learn from him and to just elevate what I do. This is all about helping people like me who aren’t in that mainstream. It’s a way in for a lot of us who may be very talented but just can’t get over the hump or can’t make that relationship. There’s a million ways in and it all starts with a great script. Everybody’s looking for that next great script.”

Unlike most attending the colony Schreiber once broke through the system, with his very first screenplay no less, produced as Captiva Island, starring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine. The film found international TV distribution. That instant success soon gave way to the industry’s vagaries, however.

“It was kind of a blessing and a curse because you don’t think you’re going to have to recreate the wheel each time,” he said. “I got my first one produced and I was like, OK, here I go. But it didn’t happen that way.”

His subsequent scripts didn’t sell and he spent the next several years running his own small media company. The itch to write movies burned. Winning a contest and getting his script into the right hands has him focused on his dream again.

“That gave me the confidence I needed to say, Hey, I can write something that’s going to get noticed. I have a window of opportunity here. I better jump through it and jump as hard as I can. So here I am still plugging away at it with Lew, eager to learn from one of the masters.”

Hunter advocates students submit to 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. “The validation of an agent means something.”

Jim Christensen has a similar story as 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. He’s worked many jobs but now that one of his pieces has earned money he’s pursuing screenwriting full-time.

“I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m confident I’ve got a little game but I really just want to take it to the next level because I want a career. I’m not looking for a big score, although that’d be nice.”

Alan Chang came all the way 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. to follow their screenwriting dreams.

Hunter well knows that hunger. “I identify so much with people who are dreamers,” he said. He was a well-heeled ABC executive when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer overtook him.

“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.”

It was Ray Bradbury, whom he was working with on a project, who 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 the six screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script, The Glass Hammer, which became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

Giving up the dream is never really an option for someone bitten by the bug. “I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it,” he said.

Growing up an only child, hearing ‘no’ was akin to issuing him “a challenge.” As far back as he can recall he was different. Bright beyond his years. His back story reads like something from a movie.

His classically-trained musician stage mother forced him into singing-dancing-music lessons. He could only watch MGM and Paramount musicals. He resisted. A domineering woman, 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 wished to study broadcasting at Northwestern but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Nebraska dignitaries and struck a bargain with officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed, if he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me,” he said.

After learning his chops as a television director in Chicago, he packed up his Packard and headed west. He worked his way up the ranks at NBC, from the mail room to music licensing to promotion, then at ABC, where he broke into programming. Producing-writing followed. Hunter’s lived the dream and now he uses what he’s learned to make others feel they can realize theirs too.

“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.”

The June colony was Jim Christensen’s first but he attended two OFF workshops Hunter gave. Count Christensen a disciple.

“His mind is so sharp,” he said of Hunter, “When he reads an idea…he’s like a butcher cutting away the fat. I think the advice is always right on.”

Before the colony he steeped himself in Hunter’s book. Required reading.

“His book lays out a process that I think is just perfect. I mean, I’ve read a lot of screenwriting books…I tried to do it everybody else’s way but Lew’s way is the way that worked best. It’s structured but there’s room to breathe. It’s not like that something has to happen on page 20. He has the benchmarks but otherwise it’s a more liberating way to go. It’s structured but loose, you know what I mean?”

Yes. It’s a lot like Lew — relaxed, intimate, positive. Like his UCLA class or colony.

“My own personality comes through in the book and I think that really connects with people,” Hunter said. “Everybody that reads it who knows me says, ‘God, it’s like being in your class, it is so informal.’”

He simply “put his class on paper.”

He believes it communicates his “love of the professing…love of writers. I love the writing fraternity and I’m very proud to be a writer. Writing for me is the most useful thing in the world on a spiritual and professional level. I really get so much out of it. I look at some of the writing I’ve done and I think, Well, that wasn’t me.”

Hunter likes to think of writers in terms of “divine inspiration” who act as “conduits for God. I really think that’s true. It’s a very spiritual thing.”

 

 

 

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t believe the writing process 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.”

His enthusiasm and encouragement are contagious.

“One thing I have a lot of is energy,” he said. “In pitch meetings I show my energy an awful lot and I think people pick up on the energy. As I say in my book, ‘I’ll do anything to help you to be better writers.’ That’s all I’m after.”

When Hunter, who never intended to teach, was first asked by UCLA to instruct in 1979, he said he took as his role models not the good teachers he had but “the professors I hated.” The lazy, indifferent, remote ones.

“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, holding one-on-ones with students as requested. After a group session they rush to schedule appointments with him. Hunter knows its “unusual” how far he puts himself out there.

“If you e-mail him or call him he’ll get right back to you,” Christensen said.

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 from fellow gurus out there?

“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.”

Ah, Hollywood screenwriter.

The fact that Hunter is a genuine card-carrying Writers Guild of America member who’s made real money from his own scripts is reason enough for wannabes to flock to him like lemmings. This despite the fact you’ve likely never heard of a single picture he’s written. More to the point, though, 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.

Anytime anyone like Hunter — who’s done it and who remains well-connected to the industry — makes himself available to the great unwashed he/she is in high demand. He’s got what they want. And Hunter is nothing if not accessible. He travels the world giving workshops. He answers faxes, e-mails, 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. Back to where his own dreams of movie-movie magic were first fired. But “retiring” to Superior took some convincing. It was Pamela’s idea. Lew had other plans, namely Laguna Beach. Finally, the desire to “go back from where I came” won out.

“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.

The more she prodded, the more Lew resisted. Workshops didn’t fit his envisioned idyll. He finally gave in. “Well, there’s a Talmudic saying, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’ Pamela got together with Linda Voorhees, a professor at UCLA and one of my ex-students, and they ganged up on me. That was really an insurmountable force. We started it and we’re still doing it seven years later. We have really wound up enjoying the colonies. The people are all dreamers who’ve wanted it for a long time. The camaraderie is so wonderful.”

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

Thus, this Hollywood expatriate and prodigal son has come home to roost. He’s the cock-of-the-walk who got up and out.

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. But it stubbornly carries on.

Far from dilettantes, Lew and Pamela are actively engaged 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 Lew’s “infamous or famous depending on what side his politics are on at town meetings.”

Lew proudly gives guests tours of the town. This last colony he didn’t get around to it until 10 one night. Hard as it was to see it was easy to sense the affection he feels for this place. He cruised through the couple square-blocks downtown district, pointed out the few eateries, slowed in front of the auditorium whose stage he acted on, 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 Lew belongs to. They’re talismans, much like the storyteller totems he collects on his travels and displays at the Colony House. He ritualistically described some the first night. Naturally, there’s a story behind each one.

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.

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