Posts Tagged ‘Superior Screenwriting Colony’

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

February 25, 2016 5 comments

Of all the Hollywood greats Nebraska has produced, and there are far more than you think, Lew Hunter may boast the most impressive career behind the camera outside of Darryl Zanuck from Tinsletown’s Golden Age.  Hunter’s career stacks up well, too, among more more recent Hollywood players from here, such as  Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne.  While it’s true Hunter never ran a major studio the way Zanuck did and has never directed a film the way Silver and Payne have, he did hold high executive level positions at each of the three major broadcast televison networks and at various studios.  And like Zanuck, Silver and Payne, he’s written and produced movies.  But he’s also done some singular things that stand him alone from his predecessor and peers.  For example, he’s taught a well-regarded screenwriting class at UCLA since 1979,  “Screenwriting 434,” that became the title and basis for his best-selling book about how to write screenplays.  He’s also conducted many screenwriting workshops or seminars.  He annually hosts the Superior Screenwriting Colon at his home in Superior, Neb., near his childhood home of Guide Rock.  Unlike the vast majority of Nebraskans who’ve made a name for themselves in film and television, Hunter never lost touch with his Midwest origins and some 15 years ago or so he and his wife Pamela departed the Left Coast to move back to his roots.

He’s now the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon, showing at the Omaha Film Festival.

On this blog you can find an earlier profile I wrote about Lew that drew on my being embedded in his screenwriting colony for several days.

NOTE: Thanks to Lonnie Senstock and Bill Blauvelt for providing some of the photos here.


Lew Hunter teaching

Hunter (COVER)

Lew Hunter


Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the March 2016 issue of the New Horizons


Nestled at the bottom of Eastern Nebraska, about a three-hour drive from Omaha, the sleepy hamlet of Superior is home to one-time Hollywood Player Lew Hunter. Pushing 81 and retirement now, he still exerts enough influence to bring Tinseltown types to this isolated  spot. Growing up a Neb. farm boy not far from there, Hunter dreamed of doing something in show business and he did as a television network and Hollywood studio executive. producer, screenwriter.

He’s on the short list of Nebraskans with major Hollywood credits. He isn’t as well known as some as his success came behind the camera, not in front of it. Not since Darryl Zanuck’s mogul days did a native reside so far within Hollywood’s inside circle as Hunter. Of past screen legends from Neb., he says, “These people were role models for me.”

Hunter’s a role model himself for having programmed popular network shows in the 1960s and 1970s that still draw viewers on Nick at Nite. Some mini-series and TV movies he shepherded for the networks were sensations in their time. Three movies he wrote, two of which he produced himself, earned huge shares and generated much discussion for their sensitive treatment of hard issues.



Site of the Superior Screenwriting Colony




A full life and an amazing career

Hunter’s the first to tell you he’s led one helluva life.– one as big as his oversized personality. Given where he came from, his career seems unlikely, but a desire to prove himself drove him to succeed.

Throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, he was enamored by the movies and radio. Then, during the Cold War and Baby Boom, he fell under TV’s spell.

Weaned on MGM, RKO and Paramount musicals – the only motion pictures his mother allowed him to see – he projected himself into the fantasies he saw in the lone theater in his hometown of Guide Rock. He imagined himself up there on the silver screen.

“I wanted to be Fred Astaire so bad. I danced with a pitchfork, and the pitchfork was Ginger Rogers.”

The barnyard filled in for a ballroom or nightclub.

The fact that Hunter went on to enjoy a storybook career rubbing shoulders with the likes of Astaire and other stars does not escape him. He knows how fortunate he was to create top-rated movies of the week. He’s grateful to be emeritus chairman and screenwriting professor at UCLA and to have written a book based on his class, Screenwriting 434, that’s the bible for cracking the scriptwriting code.

Some of his students have enjoyed major film-TV careers, including Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, one of dozens of great screenwriters and directors Hunter’s had as guests for his class. Those sessions have featured everyone from the late Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman to William Goldman and Oliver Stone.

Hunter’s the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon. It portrays his love of the writing craft and writers and the reciprocal love writers feel for him. The feature-length film by fellow Neb. native Lonnie Senstock premiered at UCLA, where Hunter’s retiring after this quarter. The doc screens at the Omaha Film Festival on March 12.

This once big wheel and still beloved figure in Hollywood gave up that lifestyle years ago when he and his wife Pamela settled near his boyhood origins to make their home in Superior. Twice a year there he convenes the Superior Screenwriting Colony, an immersive two-week workshop for aspiring and emerging film-TV writers. He leads it in an inimitable style that is equal parts Billy Graham, Big Lebowski and Aristotle on the Great Plains.

This prodigiously educated and well-read man once considered entering the ministry. He long served as the lay leader of a Methodist congregation. He does treat screenplays with a reverence usually reserved for the scriptures. When he gets rolling about scene structure and character development, he might as well be a preacher. Far from being a choir boy though, this let-your-hair-down free spirit uses coarse language the way some people use punctuation. There was a time when he drank to excess. A naturally verbose man and born raconteur, his preferred way of teaching is telling stories. Asides and anecdotes beget full-blown stories. He has a vast store of them.

The site of the Colony is a restored Victorian mansion across from another period house he and Pamela occupy. He’s prone to lecture in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with 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!” Hunter’s appropriated a variation as his sign-off in letters and emails: “Write on!”

Colony sessions are largely unscripted improvisations. Hunter doesn’t need notes, he says, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitutes Lew’s Rules.

“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 rapid-fire yet relaxed, let-it-all-hang-out approach is fun. But his sunny, cruise-ship-recreation-director manner is leavened by a semi-scholarly seriousness that makes clear this is no joke. There’s work to be done and no time to waste, well, maybe a little. Students pay thousands of dollars to attend, many traveling long distances to participate. Perks include drop-in visits by Hollywood friends like Kearney native Jon Bokenkamp, creator of The Blacklist.

Colonists aim to please their guru, whose laid-back Socratic Method has its charms. It suits this one-time King of Pitchers who bent the ear of producers and executives when trying to sell a story idea or script. Hunter knew how to play the game because he was on the other side as a producer-executive, listening to writers-directors pitch him.

How it all happened for Hunter is, well, a story. One he’s only too glad to share. It aptly falls into three-acts. But leave it to Hunter to digress.


15 Lew Hunter 2

Lew back in his salad days at the networks


Midwest roots

Raised in an “extraordinarily conservative” environment full of narrow-minded views – “I felt like I had a pretty sheltered life” – Hunter had a lot of growing up to do post-Guide Rock.

His classically trained mother exposed him to cultural things to round out the corn pone experience. For example she had him take dance and music lessons. His father was “known as the most loved and strongest man in Webster County” before a massive stroke left him paralyzed and unable to speak. “The first 12 years of my life I had him and then I lost him to a stroke and aphasia,” Hunter recalls.

As his father slipped further away, Hunter’s overbearing “hell on wheels” mother became the dominant presence in his life.

“She was the head of the Nebraska Republican Party, the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) in her lifetime. Someone asked me once, did you love your mother?” and I said, ‘Well, I think I loved her, but I didn’t much like her. I respected her. And my father, I adored.”

A bright boy who felt betrayed by life for taking away his father and bored with his surroundings, Hunter rebelled. He got caught doing petty vandalism. With his mother unable to handle him, a judge offered a choice – reform school or military school. Hunter chose the latter. A valuable takeaway from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington Mo. came playing football. Back home he had no experience with African-Americans. He only heard disparaging, scornful things. Then one game while playing guard he went up against a black tackle whose extreme effort and high ability made a lie of what he was told.

“I got the shit beat out of me. That was a very good learning lesson. I deserved it.”

Hunter’s racial education continued at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, where his roommate was a black student-athlete.

“Meeting him was clearly one of the best things. We palled around together. He took me down to the jazz cellars in Lincoln.”

Hunter became enough of a jazz devotee that at 17 he hitchhiked to Chicago to see Art Tatum at the Blue Note.

He studied theater at Wesleyan and he made his first foray into show biz working at Lincoln radio and TV stations.

“I became so caught up in the idea of being a professional that it spurred me to go to Chicago.”


Hunter, Coppola B & W

Lew with Francis Ford Coppola



Rebel with a cause

Intent on studying broadcasting at Northwestern, he applied but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Neb. dignitaries and struck a bargain with school 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 and excelled, earning a master’s in 1956.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me.”

He worked in Chicago radio as a disc jockey and producer. But he wanted out of the Midwest in order to try his hand in Hollywood. Everyone he consulted told him to quit what they considered a cockeyed dream and stay put. Instead, he followed his heart and went.

“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 did not head out alone. Though barely 20, he was already married. He and his young bride packed their Packard and hoped for the best.

He laid the groundwork for his eventual break into the big time by getting a second master’s at UCLA, this time studying film.

“I went to UCLA on a David Sarnoff Fellowship. I took a lot of pleasure and pride in that.”

He used that opportunity to get his foot in the door.

Future cinema legend Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate. Years after their graduate student days, Hunter had Coppola appear at the UCLA class he teaches to talk screenwriting with students.

At the Westwood campus Hunter indulged in some serious hero worship of his favorite instructor, Arthur Ripley.

“I had very specific mentoring with Arthur Ripley. I just adored him. He was the most charismatic, interesting man.”

Hunter says Ripley’s sarcastic humor was reflected in a famous one-liner attributed to him. When stoic former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge died Ripley was said to have cracked, “How could they tell?”

A veteran from Hollywood’s early sound era, Ripley helped create the miserly, misanthropic W.C. Fields character the comedian parlayed to great success. Ripley worked for cinema giants Mack Sennett, Frank Capra and Irving Thalberg.

“I admired Arthur Ripley and all these wonderful stories he told when he worked at MGM for Irving Thalberg. He told stories about running around with Thomas Wolfe. I was like a sponge soaking up all that stuff. I have more show business stories because I loved the business and the people and the craziness of it all.”


Lew and Pam B & W

Lew and Pamela



The start of it all

Hunter got on as a page at NBC and then worked in the mailroom, where he rose up the ranks to music licensing and promotion.

“I could see there was a ladder I could climb at NBC.”

He later worked in promotion at ABC and served stints at CBS and Disney, among other entertainment conglomerates, before eventually transforming himself into a producer-writer. He later rejoined NBC.

Then-NBC and MTM president Grant Tinker gave Hunter some sage advice about the vagaries of Hollywood when Hunter was torn between staying at NBC or taking an offer at ABC.

“He said, “For your benefit you need to know that in this business you’re not rewarded for loyalty. Quite to the contrary, we’ll probably be more interested in you if you go over to ABC, and so I did.”

And just as Tinker predicted, after making the move Hunter found himself more in demand than ever.

“In this business, if they want you, over hot coals and razor blades they will come get you. But if they don’t want you, nothing. I mean you’re either eating high on the hog or on the hoof of the hog.

“For one brief shining moment,” as the song goes, Hunter officed at four different studios, including Paramount.

He got schooled by (Aaron Spelling) and had run-ins with (Irwin Allen) some big-name producers.

Seeing so many different sides of the business, he learned the ins and ours of how shows and movies get developed, packaged, marketed.

“I was in promotions doing trailers for BonanzaDick Powell TheatreDinah Shore Chevy Show and so forth. I was around it all the time. A sound engineer and I went around to stars’ homes with a reel to reel tape machine to record them reading copy promoting their shows. Once, we went to the home of my idol, Fred Astaire. As he was reading into a microphone the copy I’d written for him I glanced through another room’s open doorway and I saw a pool table inside. When he was done I said, ‘Do you play pool, Fred?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, do you play pool?’ I said, Well, a little, and he said, ‘Oh-oh, I’m toast, c’mon, let’s go.’ I played a game of pool with Fred Astaire and he won and I let him win. I could not dream of beating my idol.

“I have lots of stories about John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant. It just goes on and on.”

Perhaps the star he got closest to was Judy Garland.

“She and I were very close on an emotional level. We had such a wonderful relationship. We never went to bed with each other but we sure flirted with each other a lot. I’m still in sorrow over what happened to her over the last few years of her life and how she died.”

He enjoyed getting to know the real personalities behind the personas.



The writer’s way

Doing promos was fine but he felt pulled to go where the action is – programming. He took endless meetings with writers, producers, agents. He gleaned what he could from those around him.

“I had doors open for me all the time I think because of my Neb. decency. I was just eager to absorb everything I could and I learned so much in those story conferences, going to dailies, watching rough cuts and observing artists working on the backlot.”

He was at ABC and then Disney (as a story executive) when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer got the better of 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 Chayefsky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon. I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury at the Disney commissary and I said, ‘I’ve read 2.000 scripts in the last two years and 90 percent of them are shit. I think I can be in the top 10 percent. He encouraged me to read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Dorthea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

“I came home and told my then-wife I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try to be a writer myself. And she said fine.”

It was a leap of faith as the couple had young kids and a mortgage.

Hunter left his job to scratch this itch. He made a pact that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the 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 for what became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

If Tomorrow Comes is the story of an ill-fated romance between a Caucasian girl and Japanese-American boy in the days before and after Pearl Harbor. The couple get separated when he and his family are ostracized after Japan’s attack on the U.S. and eventually imprisoned in an internment camp.

Even though Hunter grew up during the period when Japanese-Americans were interned he was, like the general public, oblivious to what happened. He only thought about the internment as the premise for a script when a relative recalled this infamy in less than sympathetic terms. That propelled Hunter to research the subject. He was appalled to discover that innocent Japanese-Americans were summarily stripped of property, businesses, livelihoods. Their kids taken out of schools, their lives disrupted. They were treated as criminals and traitors. All without due process. He was dismayed to find they were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

“I was shocked we incarcerated more than 120,000 citizens.”

He was shocked this injustice was not mentioned in textbooks. He was offended that many folks dimssed the incident as just part of the price of war. That it was merely a regrettable inconvenience when in fact it was a traumatic severing and breach of trust and civil rights.

In writing his script he found an emotional hook everyone could relate to by imagining a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance torn asunder by those harsh, unforgiving events. Patty Duke and Frank Michael Liu starred as the lovers whose lives are interrupted by history.

Anne Baxter, James Whitmore, Pat Hingle and Mako co-starred.

He considers the resulting 1971 movie made from his script among “the stuff that I’ve done that I’m most pleased with,” adding, “That was the thing that got me going. We got a 39 share. My phone was ringing off the hook. Then came another project and another one.”

Hunter resumed working for NBC and various studios in the 1970s and 1980s. As a general program executive at NBC he helped bring to the small screen two movies touching on social=political-moral issues in The Execution of Private Slovak and The Red Badge of Courage (both 1974). Later, as director of program development, he oversaw some major mini-series, including Centennial.

His next venture as a writer confronting social issues was Fallen Angel (1981), in which he tackled pedophilia long before the Catholic Church scandal broke. The idea for taking on the sensitive topic seemingly popped in his head during a meeting.

“I was pitching to Columbia executive Christine Foster when the phone rang. We heard, ‘This is Peter Frankovich here.’ He was an executive at CBS. Christine said, ‘I’ve got Lew Hunter.’ We all knew each other. I said, ‘Can I show you something, Peter?’ He asked, ‘You got anything hot?’ And I found myself saying, ‘Child pornography.’ It just came to me. And then, boom, he said, ‘You’ve got a deal.'”

Only Hunter didn’t have a story, much less a script. He was due to meet Frankovich the next week.

“I said to m self, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta get a story together.” I went down to what was called the Abused Children’s Unit at LAPD. They told me everything they could tell me. I was in constant horror. They had me go down to the hall of records and look at the pedophile records.”

He learned how perpetrators groom their victims. In his script the perp is a photographer (Richard Masur) who befriends a fatherless girl (Dana Hill) and convinces her to pose nude. It bothered Hunter that kids could be manipulated or coerced to appear nude and perform sexual acts and that L.A. was the porn capital of the world.

It was only after Fallen Angel aired he remembered he had a childhood encounter with a pedophile.

“My mother thought she’d make a little bit of money by renting out a room to a Superior Knights semi-pro baseball player. He was a large man and he roomed right next to my room. One day he suggested we go out to the cornfield for a beer. We drove out there and parked. He said, ‘You’ve been really naughty to your mother.’ Of course, I had. I was a little ass-wise, That’s how I ended up at military academy. And then he put his hand on my thigh and said, ‘You know, you deserve to be spanked.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on but I knew it was bad, so I disengaged myself, leaped out of the car and ran through the cornfield back home. I didn’t say anything to my mother. That man was back in his room that night and I spent  every night for the next month with a .22 rifle next to me when I went to bed. I was going to shoot him if he came in and tried something.”

Hunter says the man attempted to molest some of his buddies, too. While Hunter was away at military school he heard the authorities finally caught the predator. Several boys filed complaints against him.

Fallen Angel scored a record 43 share.



Fallen Angel Poster


Too close for comfort

A personal tragedy informed Hunter’s next controversial and much viewed project, Desperate Lives (1982).

“My best friend at the time said we should so a story together about our boys. Our sons were both deep into drugs. One of the people I talked to in researching this was my son, who said, ‘I can get drugs at my high school quicker than I can get lunch at the cafeteria.'”

Hunter made a decision to give the protagonist played by Doug McKeon the same name as his son, Scott, who didn’t appreciate it.

“it was a stupid thing because it really estranged us, I’m sure for the rest of our lives. He basically doesn’t talk to me, just superficially. That was a very negative thing in my life and something I deeply regret.”

About doing projects that meant something, even at a cost, he says, “I just started poking round through life and coming up with things that really energized me. That was the key for me.”

Fast forward a couple decades, to soon after Lew and Pamela moved to Superior, when the scourge of methamphetamine hit hard.

Concerned by its devastating effects on residents’ lives, he and Pamela formed a nonprofit to raise awareness of the dangers and of helping resources available.

“This bloody meth problem is a terrible problem,” he says. “It’s a rural holocaust.”

He got retired Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and other public figures, along with law enforcement officials, to appear at a town hall meeting. The Hunters mentored in Osborne’s Teammates program.


Lew with Tom Osborne

Lew and Tom Osborne, ©The Digg Site Productions, photographer Christine Young


Lew says. “Boy, we really had a roll going. We certainly woke the town up to the fact we have a very serious problem and the reality is the problem still exists. I don’t think it’s going to subside.”

The nonprofit he launched has since been absorbed into a state Health and Human Services program.

Superior Express publisher Bill Blauvelt says the Hunters are a presence in that tiny community.

“Lew and Pam have been active on many fronts. When they take on a project it is a joint effort. You don’t get one with out the other. They have financially supported many community activities and encouraged programs.  Last summer they brought in a painter to work on their homes and then kept finding work so that he and his crew stayed the entire summer. They provided a house for the men to stay in.

“Their homes are always open. If we have important people coming to town and they need a place to stay, you can count on the Hunters to provide lodging. The colony program has brought lots of visitors to town, many of whom spend freely while here. And the colony has brought me friends.  Often I have been invited to attend their get acquainted picnics and late night parties.”



Desperate Lives Poster


Finding his niche as teacher and author

After If Tomorrow Comes and before Fallen Angel. Hunter began teaching at UCLA in 1979. From the start, he’s taught grad students.

“I love that. Undergraduates, they know too much – they haven’t been knocked around as the graduate students.”

He says teaching screenwriting while penning scripts himself proved fruitful.

“It was great. I’d be working on a script and I’d realize. ‘I can’t do this,” because I just told students they’re not supposed to have two people in a room agree with each other – one of my dictums.”

His classes became popular, especially 434. Each student starts with a synopsis and they’re guided step by step to create an outline, story points, and by the end of the class they have a first draft screenplay.

“Then somebody said, Why don’t you put your class on paper?’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”

He says. “Other screenwriting books are ABOUT screenwriting but they don’t tell you HOW TO write a screenplay, they don’t give you the caveats you get on a professional level. Not only do I tell you how to write a screenplay I tell you how 80 to 90 percent of professionals write a screenplay.”

As more than one person in Once in a Lew Moon states, Hunter demystified the screenwriting process and made it accessible to everyone. Like the evangelist he is for screenwriting, he even spread the gospel doing workshops around the world in his aw-shucks style.

“From me, you don’t get this academic bullshit you get from other people who have only learned from a book or they’re failed screenwriters. They give misinformation. I would not have gone into professing had I not been successful. If you go to IMDB you’ll see it’s a pretty long list of stuff I’ve done – probably over a hundred hours of actually writing stuff and producing it. I’m really quite proud of that.”

Front Cover


He’s also proud he and his colleagues helped “professionalize” the screenwriting program at UCLA.

“We have more professionals professing.”

Since the program produces many grads who work in the industry, there’s a deep talent pool of writers who come back to teach. Their experience gives students is a taste for how things really work.

“We try to recreate what they’re going to face when they go out into the professional world with the meetings and note sessions before they actually write the screenplay and polish the screenplay.”

Soon into his teaching career he and a group of his students formed the Writers Block, a monthly social for writers. Newly divorced at the time, he offered to host it at his three-bedroom Burbank home.

This open house started small but grew like wildfire.

“The first one had about 20-25 people, then we got 40 and then 40 became 70 and 70 became…until eventually we got hundreds. People would come in and out over the evening. Professional writers dropped by because they liked the atmosphere. We socialized and bull-shitted.

I’ve always felt we writers socialize but we don’t party – it’s too frivolous. It was a wonderful thing.”

In the documentary, former students express gratitude for Hunter creating “a community” of writers. When Pamela entered Lew’s life she became part of the scene. Once Lew and Pamela adopt you, you not only have the keys to their heart but to their house, too.

The last Writers Block in ’99 was held off-site to accommodate the 1,000-plus attendees.

“We closed it down when we moved back to Nebraska,” he says. “Going back to the roots,” he calls that full circle relocation.

He and Pamela will be buried in the Guide Rock cemetery.

“We’ll be stacked,” he says. “The one that goes first will be on the bottom and the one after that will be on top. That’ll raise some gossip.”


Hunter, Senstock B & W

Lew and Lonnie Senstock



Once in a Lew Moon

The documentary about Lew is a passion project for director Lonnie Senstock, who regards the Hunters as surrogate parents.

“Well, he wanted to do something about me,” Lew recalls. “He came to the colony and shot a lot of footage. That was a decade ago. He’s been working on this sucker for 10 years. Very shortly on into the relationship he said, ‘I’d like you and Pamela to be my parents.’ His parents died within a ear of each other. We said sure and so he calls us papa and mama and we’re cool with that. He’s a really nice man.”

Senstock says the film could have gone a different direction when he and Lew experienced some difficulties in their lives. But, he adds, “I found myself celebrating something beautiful instead of something dark. I didn’t realize it was going to be that way until Lew and I talked about the celebration of writing. We realized it was bigger than him. We really wanted it to celebrate that life that so seldom is given kudos.”

Hunter appreciates that focus, “Everybody in it is talking about  screenwriting. I like that.” He likes, too, how it overturns the idea that    somehow actors and directors just make up movies as they go along.

“There are men and women who write these things.”

Meanwhile, this old lion of cinema, now battling illness, is readying his next book, Lew Hunter’s Naked Screewriting: 25 Academy Award-winning Screenwriters Bare their Art, Craft, Soul and Secrets.

Whatever’s happening with him, he still makes time for past-present students. He’s frequently sought out to consult on scripts and projects. He makes himself available 24-7.

“I’ve always thought being accessible was the right thing to do.”

Besides, he says, “I identify so much with people who are dreamers.”

Once in a Lew Moon screens Sunday, March 12 at 3:45 p.m. at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha.

Follow Lew’s adventures at




Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

May 9, 2010 1 comment

A page of a screenplay I wrote in Latin based ...

Image via Wikipedia

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 (


Dream catcher Lew Hunter

Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a 2008 edition of The Reader (


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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