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This Screenwriter Trained the 'Navy SEALS' Way : Movies: For Chuck Pfarrer, the same rule applies in the military and Hollywood. 'You learn to adapt and survive. Or else.'

August 06, 1990|DAVID SCHEIDERER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just what was it about being a Navy SEAL that prepares one for the life of a screenwriter?

Chuck Pfarrer, 33, who co-wrote the screenplay for Orion's "Navy SEALS," doesn't ponder the question long.

"I think they both require discipline. They are both very humbling. And you're fighting an implacable foe. In the case of a writer, the blank sheet of paper.

"There are no rules (in Hollywood). So you bring your own with you. The discipline and work ethic that I have lived by have been good for me here.

"And you learn to adapt and survive. Or else. Just like in the (SEAL) teams."

Although he served six years with the SEALS, the Navy's elite anti-terrorist, clandestine operation teams, Pfarrer's screenwriting career is hardly a one-note thing. He has another film coming out this summer, "Dark Man," a science-fiction adventure from Universal that he also co-wrote with "Dark Man" director Sam Raimi. Another of his screenplays, "Medal of Valor," is in pre-production at Warner Bros. And he still has hopes for the first screenplay he wrote on his own, a conceit on a true incident in Ernest Hemingway's life.

Clearly, this is an idea man.

"One of the things I enjoy most about writing," Pfarrer says, "is when the ideas are really coming to you. Sometimes your brain is like an FM receiver; the ideas come thick and fast and all you can do is type as quickly as you can."

The son of a naval officer, Pfarrer attended 12 grade schools and four high schools as his father's assignments kept the family on the move. After studying clinical psychology at Britain's University of Bath, Pfarrer graduated from Cal State Northridge with honors.

"I had already begun my graduate studies when I realized that I didn't want to spend my 20s in graduate school and as an intern. So I quit. And went looking for the biggest challenge I could find," Pfarrer said.

He enrolled at the Officer Candidate School at Newport, R.I., in 1980 after the Navy agreed to his request for SEAL training.

"I knew, through being around my father, that the SEALS were the Navy's elite fighting unit. I knew they were a special group of people. And they are made up of all kinds. There's a United States senator (Bob Kerrey of Nebraska) who is a former SEAL, and a professional wrestler (Jesse Ventura). In my group, there was a decathlete and a Rhodes scholar.

"And I knew the training would be difficult. I steeled myself for that. But nothing, nothing can prepare you for what they put you through. The dropout rate for SEAL training is about 80%. And sometimes an entire class will drop out."

The first six months of SEAL training is known as BUDS--basic underwater demolition-SEALS. It is especially grueling and includes a "hell week" period in which the candidates are denied sleep for six days.

"They wanted to see what we could do when we were wet, cold, hungry, tired and lost, and receiving contradictory orders.

"What they were seeking is something I didn't know I had. None of us did. They were looking for a level of resourcefulness, a can-do attitude, that would get you through any situation, no matter how dangerous. It's results they're interested in.

"And they were looking to bring out leadership in us. They were not trying to create robots."

For those who survived, it was on to three weeks of airborne school. ( SEALS comes from Sea , Air , Land and they have to learn to fight, survive and escape in all environments.) And then the successful candidate is assigned to a 12-man SEAL team--for six months of probation.

Having survived all that, Pfarrer got to see a lot of the world--"everywhere they eat rice." He served four years and was in Beirut at the time of the barracks bombing. It was during this time that he got a phone call that eventually changed the course of his life.

"As sort of a lark, I had written a screenplay with a friend of mine while we were in graduate school. It wasn't very good, and I never gave it another thought. Then, maybe three years later, he calls and tells me he reworked the screenplay, had sold it, and now we both had agents at William Morris."

Pfarrer was about to leap back into civilian life when the Navy made him an offer he could not refuse. "I re-upped for two years when they gave me a special assignment. But, I can't talk about it."

The William Morris agent, Brenda Feigen, encouraged Pfarrer to write a screenplay about the SEALS. Now an independent producer, Feigen is the producer of "Navy SEALS."

"I felt a special responsibility, being the first SEAL to a make a SEAL film. I wanted to get it right, and I think we did. We had a screening for 300 SEALS in Coronado the other night, and I was scared to death. But they all liked it."

If the SEALS enjoyed it, the critics were much less kind. Pfarrer can deal with that too. "This isn't 'Othello.' It's an action picture. As Popeye would say, it is what it is."

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