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Blood, Guts and a Typewriter

MOVIES

UCLA screenwriting teacher Lew Hunter still relishes a good, personal story, even though he's retiring.

May 30, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Beginning next month, you can add this to the list of why Hollywood scripts are so bad these days: Lew Hunter is retiring.

As an instructor and co-chairman of UCLA's distinguished screenwriting program for 20 years, Hunter has shaped the careers of literally hundreds of writers, many of whom have gone on to success in Hollywood. And his book "Screenwriting 434," culled from his famous course at the university, is considered essential reading for anybody remotely interested in the craft of writing movies.

"He's almost like a cult leader--like Jim Jones, but with a [typewriter] instead of the Kool-Aid," says Mike Werb, who took Hunter's class in 1984. Werb went on to write the scripts for such blockbusters as "The Mask" and "Face/Off."

"Lew always makes great points because he is a working writer. He gave us invaluable insight about the insanity of Hollywood, which was really useful because we had no contact with any of that."

Werb is not the only Hunter alum who graduated to Hollywood fame. Other illustrious students include David Koepp ("Jurassic Park"), Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), Scott Rosenberg ("Con Air") and director Joel Schumacher ("St. Elmo's Fire," "The Client," "Batman & Robin").

Werb recalls that Hunter encouraged his students to write about what they knew. "The first time I took his class, I started writing a rock musical western set in the 1850s and entitled 'Straight From the Hip.'

"Lew wasn't very happy about this, until I made it clear to him that my musical background as a former member of a punk band gave me the inside knowledge I needed to write it. At the end of the semester, he gave me an A."

Exposing the darkest, most vulnerable corners of yourself and others are what Hunter always advises. "Be extreme," he says in his book. "There will always be somebody to help dull your screenplay."

Or these vivid words of wisdom: "I want you to spread your story and your characters before you as if you were to lift your intestines from your stomach and arrange them on the table."

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The teacher has never been reluctant to put his words into practice. One of "Screenwriting 434's" most memorable moments is the description of a rainy night many years ago when Hunter ran naked in the streets in a complete state of despair and inebriation.

When he returned home, he did what he does best: sit at the typewriter and write. The results sounded more like the ramblings of a lunatic than anything else but eventually found their way into a screenplay.

"This comes to show you that you should never throw away anything you write," he said on a recent afternoon, sitting at the cozy cubicle outside his house that he calls "the writing shack."

The tightly enclosed room is covered in leaves on the outside, giving its only window the look of an old Impressionist painting. Inside, there's only space for a desk, a chair and a couch. A few homemade shelves are crowded with hundreds of books, photographs and little statues of storytellers that Hunter has gathered on his many trips around the world.

"I think people are amazed that somebody would be so self-revelatory to include that passage in a book, considering it doesn't portray me in a particularly positive way," he admits, commenting on the "Nude in the Rain" chapter of "Screenwriting 434." "I don't know if there are any particular secrets to being a halfway decent instructor, but I think exposing yourself as a human being to your students is a good beginning." On his desk, there's an old typewriter that Hunter still uses whenever he's writing a script (his involvement with computers is limited to the one at his office in UCLA.) While working for ABC in the early '60s, he noticed a Remington from the '20s being used by a secretary, and was told that it used to be legendary TV writer-comedian Ernie Kovacs' own typewriter.

"One night, I walked by the office where it was kept," he recalls. "Not since I was 7 years old did I ever steal anything more than Baby Ruth candy bars and Captain Marvel comic books, but I stole this typewriter and put it in the trunk of my 1956 Packard. I drove by the ABC gate expecting the guard to shriek at any minute: 'Come back, Hunter, you are stealing Ernie Kovacs' typewriter.' "

Those were the days when Hunter worked as a producer and executive for several major networks. Later, he switched to writing, from episodes for the series "Batman," "Combat" and "Bewitched" to TV movies such as 1981's Emmy-nominated "Fallen Angel" and 1995's "My Antonia." In 1979, while still an active screenwriter, he started teaching at UCLA; his writing class was entitled "Advanced Motion Picture/TV Writing," and Hunter taught both its undergraduate and graduate versions. Now, at 63, Hunter has sold the Burbank home where he held the famous film department meetings known as "The Writer's Block" for 19 years. He's moving back to his native Nebraska. He has purchased a second house there and plans to use it for writers' retreat programs.

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