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“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

In other posts we’ve looked at screenwriters from Iowa and some of the surrounding states—Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota—but today let’s head to the west and take a look at Nebraska.

Before we get to the screenwriting part of that state let me say that Nebraska has produced four giants of cinema on the performing end of feature films; Henry Ford, Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

Toss in producer Darryle F. Zanuck, TV personalities Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett as well as other actors James Coburn, Nick Nolte, Janine Turner and most recently Hilary Swank and you have a nice roster of entertainment talent from this Midwest state.

But no list of creatives from Nebraska is complete without mentioning Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather whose novels O Pioneers! & My Antonia have had lasting success.

As we look at screenwriting from Nebraska there is one name that stands out in bold, Alexander Payne. The Academy-Award winning writer of Sideways grew up just over the Iowa border in Omaha, reportedly on the same street as Warren Buffett. His films Election, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth were all shot in Nebraska.

Payne earned his master’s degree at the UCLA where one of his teachers was Lew Hunter. Lew’s also from Nebraska and his resume is more of a creative journey. He earned two master’s degrees, worked as a radio DJ, an NBC page, story executive and wrote the Emmy-nominated script Fallen Angel, before going on to be the co-founder of the M.F.A. screenwriting program at UCLA. His book Screenwriting 434 flowed out of that class.

A couple years ago I was reading a screenwriting book by Skip Press and saw that Lew Hunter now lived part of the year in Superior, Nebraska. Since I was heading from Cedar Falls, Iowa in a few days for a shoot in Colorado Springs, I found Superior on a map and decided I could make a slight detour and pass through there. (Superior, by the way,  is called the “Victorian Capital of the Midwest.”)

I tracked down Lew’s email and sent him a note. He was in town and welcomed me to not only stop by but to stay the night in his writer’s house that he uses for workshops. So I was able to not only spend some time talking with him about his various experiences in the industry but stayed up at night watching old videotapes from his UCLA days with  various people like Billy Wilder talking to his classes.

I later interviewed him for this article that appeared in Create Magazine.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm outside the small, 392-person village of Guide Rock, Nebraska.

How did growing up on a farm prepare you for a career in Hollywood?
I was given a sense of a work ethic when I was five years old. I did all the things kids do on a farm.

Was there any expression of the arts or creativity in your home?
My mother was quite a different farmwomen. She was a graduate of the University of Nebraska, in music generally and violin specifically.And she went to the New England Conservatory of Music. My mother had me doing piano lessons when I was 3 years old. And she read Shakespere, “Beowulf” and Greek legends with me on her knee. My father was sort of a Will Rogers character in terms of humor and style.

What lead to your Hollywood writing career?
I went over to the story department at Disney Studios. After two years of reading scripts and books trying to get the material into the studio, I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury about doing the “Martin Chronicles,” and we were talking and I said, Ray I’m really thinking about being a writer, and I’ve read about 2,000 scripts and about 90 % are feces. And I think I can be in that top 10 percent of feces. And he gave me two books to read, One was “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts and the other was Dorothea Brande, “Becoming a Writer.”

So how did you actually make that transition to becoming a writer?
I had saved up enough money to focus on writing for a year and wrote six feature-length scripts. The more ponies you pick in the race, the greater your chances of winning. After the year was up my money had run out and I needed a job. My agent called and said that ABC and Aaron Spelling wanted my script, “If Tomorrow Comes” (about Japanese/Americans held captive in California during WWll) and that started my writing career.

The American Screenwriters Association awarded you with a Lifetime Achievment Award a few years ago. But you paid your dues. That’s a valuable lesson for young writers.
Everyone pays their dues to become successful. I’ll give you a perfect example. Screenwriter Brian Price is sitting in my UCLA graduate 434 class and I hold up a Variety (magazine). And on the front page it says first-time writer sells script to Universal. And I said to Brian, “How many scripts did you write before you became a first-time screenwriter?” and he says, “Ten.” I joined WGA (Writers Guild of America) in 1969 and came to Hollywood in 1956.

It seems like more people than ever are writing screenplays. What is your advice anyone wanting to be a screenwriter?
The most important thing I would tell anyone in terms of writing of any kind is when I was at Northwestern, John Steinbeck came and gave a talk and afterwards I went up to him and asked, “What must I do to become a wonderful writer?” Mr. Steinbeck twitched his beard a little with his thumb and forefinger and he said, “Write.” And turned and walked away.

Graduates in the UCLA M.F.A. program are required to write between six and eight screenplays before they graduate. That’s a lot of writing.
It astonishes me when someone telling me they’re a writer and I ask how many screenplays they’ve written and they say, “One.” You’ve got to do the process. Somewhere between four and six scripts is the equivalent of getting up on water skies.

Is it simply talent that separates UCLA Alumni writers David Ward, Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Roth, Alan Ball, David Capthem and former student of yours Alexander Payne from other writers?
It’s three things. Tenacity, focus, and there is an element of luck involved. Of course, there is the street phrase, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” I don’t think they’re smarter than anyone reading this transcript. I believe everyone has the opportunity to be a wonderful screenwriter.

Do you think with the digital technology there is going to be a new style of writing emerging or a revolution in storytelling outside of New York and LA?
I don’t think there will be a new style of writing, but I think it will be easier opportunities for people to knock people off their socks if they have a good story. It will always come doen to story and character and character and story. With a computer editing bay, a DV camera, very little money, and some talented friends and a good script, you’re going to be able to come up with something that’s going to knock people’s socks off. It’s very exciting to think of some boy or girl in some ghetto around the world will get ahold of a computer and tell a story like “Salaam Bombay.” 

Twice a year (June & September) Lew hosts 14-day workshops patterned after the UCLA M.F.A. screenwriting program.  Learn more about Lew and his workshop at lewhunter.com. Lew and his wife Pamela are gracious hosts and I think any screenwriter would benefit from spending a couple weeks in Nebraska learning from Lew.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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