Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Screenwriter Dave Hunsaker (Q&A)

I'm very excited to bring you this interview with working Alaskan screenwriter and playwright, Dave Hunsaker.

Hunsaker found his beginnings with his own play, "Yup'ik Antigone," based on Sophocles' "Antigone." The play was developed one winter in Toksook Bay on Nelson Island, and toured Alaska before being invited to the Theatre des Nations Festival in Nancy, France. It then found further success with a sold-out run at New York City's famous La MaMa ETC, as well as performances on ancient Greek stages in Athens and Delphi.

The play's success opened doors for Hunsaker as both a playwright and screenwriter. He was asked to help develop the Juneau-based Naa Kahidi Theater, an international touring company based primarily in Tlingit culture, and became their Artistic Director. This relationship eventually led to his being adopted by the Luxaax.ádi Clan of the Tlingit Nation.

Hunsaker was also accepted into the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, which helped begin a career writing for such directors as Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, Carroll Ballard, Roger Donaldson, Mel Gibson, Arthur Hiller, and Guillermo del Toro.

Hunsaker resides in Juneau, Alaska, with regular trips to his home in Santa Monica, California, to touch base with producers and colleagues - as well as soak up the sun and get in some warm-water kayaking. He is about to begin work on his third script for Leonardo DiCaprio.


Matt Shields: My original intent was to focus on screenwriting; yet, as I've learned, theater runs deeply in your history. Are you a playwright first and foremost? Is that where your heart lies?

Dave Hunsaker: I love the theater, and still try to write at least one play a year. I prefer small productions that I can direct myself, because then I can indulge in all sorts of things that I don’t get to when I’m writing a screenplay. [Screenplay] writing is almost always at the behest of someone else, where I am more or less under the thumb of those who are paying me to write a script for them...

I like theater because what I write will probably get produced somewhere in one form or another, and the vast majority of movie scripts I am hired to write do not. Still, screenwriting is my bread and butter, and I have worked hard to make it my craft for the past twenty-plus years, so I’d have to say my heart lies there mostly.

MS: How did "Yup'ik Antigone" come to be?

Hunsaker: "Yup’ik Antigone" came about because of some striking similarities I noticed between ancient Greek theater and traditional Yup’ik ceremonial performance styles. Storytelling combined with dancers in masks, mostly. I also found a few cultural values that were similar, such as respect for the dead and abhorrence of tyranny, which suggested to me Sophocles’ Antigone'. I approached Molly Smith, artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, and she went for the idea. Nikki Barthen, Perseverance’s producer at the time, went after grants, and ended up getting a very generous one from the Atlantic Richfield Foundation. I then had the wonderful opportunity of traveling all over Western Alaska to find a suitable village with whom to work to make the play happen. We finally hit on the village of Toksook Bay, a quite magical place on Nelson Island. I wrote my own version of the play, substituting Yup’ik or Inuit mythological references for the Greek ones, and Yup’ik story dances for the choral odes, but otherwise stayed pretty faithful to Sophocles. Designer and Art Director Jim Simard and I took up residence in Toksook for the better part of a winter, 1983-84 I think it was, and created the play there with all the cast members from the village. We ended up doing it in the Yup’ik language, which was hard for me as a writer, letting go of all that prose I’d labored over, but obvious and necessary to me as a director, since the actors all spoke Yup’ik as their first language and were simply much more believable and moving in their roles in that language.

MS: With the Naa Kahidi Theater, did you write for them as well as being Artistic Director?

Hunsaker: I wrote most of the material, adapting it pretty straight from original oral sources, working with Elders and tradition bearers. Nora Marks Dauenhauer also did some writing for us, and created some wonderful material... I was very proud of a lot of our work. Some really important artists came out of Naa Kahidi, people who have gone on to be great performers or leaders, like Gene Tagaban, Bob Sam, Diane Benson, Valerie Davidson. These experiences with Naa Kahidi Theatre and the contacts within the Native community I made led to my being adopted by the Luxaax.ádi Clan, which remains a very big and important part of my personal life.

MS: What do you find to be a fundamental difference between playwriting and screenwriting?

Hunsaker: To me, playwriting is usually more of an aural experience for audiences, unless it’s some zillion dollar Broadway extravaganza, whereas film is much more visual. Playwrights are accorded a kind of respect that screenwriters usually are not, and have, generally speaking, a lot more freedom of invention. Of course they are usually a whole lot more impoverished, too...

Writing movies, at least for the mainstream Hollywood market, which is what I do, is highly restrictive and much, much more technical than writing for the stage. Not that it has to be formulaic, but the executives who read your script have typically taken Robert McKee’s course, and they tend to look at material with that in mind. [Robert McKee teaches the popular "Story seminar," a four-day course on screenwriting]

MS: How did you first get noticed by Hollywood?

Hunsaker: It was an indirect result of "Yup’ik Antigone". While I was living in Toksook Bay a lot of the people told me wonderful stories about a mythical ancient warrior called Apanuugpak, suggesting that we could make him the subject of the next play. They were such incredibly visual, action-oriented stories I thought they would make a better film than stage play. I’d never studied film - still haven’t - or attempted to write a screenplay, but Jim Simard, who had worked as an Art Director in film, gave me a book that showed things like formatting, and I boldly set off in my ignorance and wrote a script based on the stories I’d been told. Jim helped me get it to the Sundance screenwriting lab, which was just a few years old at that point, and by odds too long for me to calculate it was one of five projects that got accepted for development that year. Jim, who was going to produce, my friend Joel Bennett - a renowned wildlife filmmaker from Juneau - who was going to shoot it, and I went to Utah and spent a month at the Sundance ski resort working on the project with some of the best writers, directors, and actors in the business, who were there as technical advisors. The idea was I was going to direct the script, too.

MS: What happened with that project?

Hunsaker: We actually were given a crew and experienced actors and got to shoot some scenes from the script, trying to make the mountains of Utah in June look like the YK Delta [Yukon Kuskokwim] in the winter. That was pretty funny, but also very valuable. In the end it was kind of a doomed project. My original idea had been to get a small, tough crew and shoot it all in 16mm up in Toksook, all in Yup’ik with subtitles and unknown actors - it would have very much resembled the Canadian Inuit film "Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner," which was made many years later. Columbia Pictures, which still existed then, optioned the script, but they wanted it to become a more 'accessible' mainstream story and they wanted me to cast actors like Lou Diamond Phillips and Toshiro Mifune because they vaguely resembled Eskimos. I couldn’t imagine doing that and going back to face the elders of Toksook Bay. At the same time, ironically, I was catching hell from Alaskan ‘experts’ on Yup’ik culture because I wasn’t true enough to it from an anthropological standpoint. One of them even managed to sabotage some support we’d been promised from the NEA [National Endowment for Arts]... So in the end it would have been a compromise either way, and probably both ways. I was sad it didn’t happen, but I learned to swim by getting thrown into the deep end for sure. With sharks.

MS: What was the experience like at Sundance?

Hunsaker: It was incredible to hang out with legendary writers like Frank Pierson - who actually came to visit us in Juneau - Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner, Jr., and directors like the late Sydney Pollack and George Roy Hill and Redford himself. I got a lot of invaluable advice on that script and a crash course in screenwriting in general...

It really is kind of like a wonderful family, and I’ve stayed in touch all these years. As a matter of fact, I was asked to be a resource person last year and mentor five young Native American screenwriters. I got a call from my friend Bird Runningwater, who runs the Native Voices program of the Sundance Institute, asking if I could come to New Mexico the following week. It’s the kind of thing you can’t say no to, and I was very glad to have the opportunity to give something back. I can’t imagine that I would have been launched on this career as a screenwriter if it hadn’t been for Sundance in general and Robert Redford personally, who gave me a small job on his film "The Milagro Beanfield War" right after I’d gone through the summer Lab.

MS: I've come across a growing number of Alaskan screenwriter hopefuls recently, and with our wired world they seem savvier than writers of yesteryear. They know the language, the blogs to visit, the books to read, the screenwriting software to own, the competitions to enter... Still, with all this at their fingertips, what would you tell a new writer in Alaska if he/she asked you how to proceed?

Hunsaker: If the writer wants to be a director too, I’d say make a really good short film that is festival worthy. Of course the competition is fierce, since anyone can get a relatively good camera and editing system now, but that still seems like the best way to get noticed. As far as being strictly a writer goes, the thing to do is just keep writing scripts in as many genres as you possibly can. That will become the key to getting a writing assignment. Romantic comedy? Sure, I’ve got one right here. Horror? Check this one out, etcetera. The worst thing you can do is write just one script and try to launch yourself based on that one alone and keep flogging it and keep reworking it and never letting go of it. A screenplay is a relatively short document, compared to, say, a novel or a non-fiction book of any sort. Crank ‘em out! Easy come, easy go!

You have to be prepared not to make much, or any money at first, probably. Once you get something on screen or sell it to a signatory company you can get into the Writers Guild, and then you’ll get paid good money, but until you do... the competition, as I say, is ferocious, but then it always has been almost from the beginning of the industry. That aspect of this business is definitely not for the faint of heart or the non-competitive.

MS: I imagine most writers' goals are to sell their own screenplays and see them produced. What other avenues of income exist for a screenwriter? Can an unsold/unknown writer be considered for "open writing assignments?"

Hunsaker: The only way to get an assignment is to have an agent, the only way to get an agent, that is, one of the 100 or so legitimate agents who represent working writers and not one of the shyster types who sometimes show up, is to write a stand-out script of some sort. Either one that’s just an incredibly good read or has gotten made. But as I said earlier, it’s demonstrating a wide range and command of genres that gets you assignment work.

Like most WGA [Writers Guild of America] screenwriters in the business, I’ve written waaaay more scripts than have gotten produced. I’ve either sold, optioned, or been hired to write somewhere around forty scripts by now, and only a handful have ended up on the screen. That’s beyond common, I’m afraid, it’s universal... but what it means is, you sell yourself based on what you’ve written, not necessarily on what has appeared on screen. And even if something has been on screen, people in the business will still accord you the respect to read a sample of your work, perhaps even that very film, but the way you wrote it, to use in consideration of hiring you...

If you have the fire in the belly and want to do it, I think you just have to write and write and write, and at the same time keep a sharp eye out for any opportunity that may present itself.

Playing cittern in Dau Strom's band

MS: How do you view the writing community in Alaska? Is there a support system in place here for screenwriting in particular?

Hunsaker: I honor and admire the way groups of writers and filmmakers get together and support each other, but to be honest I have mostly been something of a lone wolf here. I’ve had a great theater community with Perseverance and with my colleagues from Naa Kahidi Theatre, but I have not been much involved with other Alaskan screenwriters...

Pat Race and the guys at Lucid Reverie [Juneau, Alaska. Q&A with them upcoming] have a great salon of filmmakers around them here in Juneau, and I know there are dynamic groups in Anchorage and Fairbanks, too. There seems to be an amazing and exciting film movement coming out of Barrow, so all that is fantastic. I know the 49 Writers group in Anchorage a little bit, and they seem to offer wonderful solidarity and support, so, yes, I think the systems are in place here, I’m just not up on the specifics.

MS: You keep residences in Juneau and Santa Monica. Have you faced difficulties getting film work by not living in Hollywood 24/7? Isn't the movie business still a "meet and greet" game?

Hunsaker: A lot of the work I’ve had over the years has been for people I’ve met in Hollywood one way or another, written for them, and then worked for again. I’ve done a couple films for Fox Searchlight. I’ve done three films with ShadowCatcher [production company], I’m just getting ready to start my third script for Leonardo DiCaprio. I’ve done numerous scripts and some script doctoring for Ed Pressman. I’ve also become pretty good friends with some of the directors I’ve worked with, like Carroll Ballard and Roger Donaldson. So all these connections and friendships are an important means of getting and doing the work.

I don’t think it’s necessary to live in L.A. to be a screenwriter, but I think it’s very, very important to understand something of that world and be conversant with the way things work. I can tell you I get a lot more writing accomplished in Alaska than L.A., just because I have everything the way I want it at my home in Juneau and I have far fewer distractions. After living in Alaska my whole adult life, I’ve gotten kind of hardwired to wanting to be outdoors doing things if the weather is good... And it’s almost always good in L.A., so it’s hard to keep my butt in the chair. And my agent tends to book a lot of meetings while I’m there. I simply get more words on the page when I’m in Alaska working.

But I really don’t like the Hollywood scene very much, and don’t spend much time schmoozing. One time my wife Annie and I were having such a rotten time at a movie star’s celebrity studded party in her home that we sneaked out and had to climb over her high gate in Beverly Hills to get away.

MS: Being from Alaska used to create all sorts of interest and was a great conversation starter whenever my family traveled south. Has that worked for you with Hollywood?

Hunsaker: I used to have a certain mystique being a writer from Alaska, I think, and I used to play that card pretty hard - the shaggy hair, the whiskers, the jeans. Now they’re more used to me and I don’t think Alaska has quite the allure it once did down there. I now have to endure a conversation about Sarah Palin before any meeting can get underway, it seems like.

MS: When I first started writing I often heard the saying "writing is a lonely job," but never understood it until I began to seriously write and re-write. Would you characterize writing as "lonely?"

Hunsaker: Writing is a lonely job, but screenwriting - or playwriting, for that matter - is less lonely than other forms. Every five years or so I get bummed out by some insult or lousy business deal in the screen trade, so in a fit of pique I set off to write a novel. The first few weeks I love it - just freedom, no worry about page counts or action beats, nobody looking over my shoulder, a work that will be mine, all mine. But then, after awhile, I start to feel lonely and miss “taking meetings”, miss having the feedback, albeit at times unwelcome, from producers, directors, and executives. Not to mention, I miss the paycheck. Other than musician gigs, working as a longshoreman and a janitor, and working three years for the Aleutian Region School District back in the 70s-80s, I’ve only ever been a writer, so I’m quite positive that I’m not suited for anything else now, and probably never was anyway.

MS: Of your own written work, stage or screen, do you have a favorite?

Hunsaker: I tend to like the recent things I’ve written, and cringe at the older ones. The last play I did for Perseverance was one I’m quite proud of, called “Battles of Fire and Water”. It was about the Sitka Russian-Tlingit wars told in a "Rashomon" like way from the point of views of the divergent cultures involved.

And "Yup'ik Antigone" will always hold a special place in my heart because I think it's what launched this whole thing.


Rhonda B. said...

Enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting it.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

This was a great interview and a service to those of us in AK trying to learn about the screenwriters' life. The anecdote about Dave and his wife climbing over the gate of a Beverly Hills home to get out-- not in -- will stay with me. Dave's authenticity really shines in this post. Looking forward to reading more!

Matt Shields said...

Thanks Rhonda & Andromeda!