A young college freshman sat in a University of Michigan English class taught by a premier Shakespearean scholar.
It was more than 40 years ago and as professor Russell Fraser taught the class, the student, who wrote essays about nine of the Bard’s plays that semester, says he did not understand a word.
But, Jim Burnstein remembers a “throwaway line” that changed his life: “If Shakespeare was alive today, he’d be a screenwriter.”
Burnstein, now a lecturer at the University of Michigan, remembers the day vividly.
“My head started to spin like The Exorcist because I had never thought about screenwriting,” Burnstein says. “But wait, somebody writes that? Like, really? Wow. That’s so cool.”
It was not until a few years later — after he graduated with a degree, dropped out of law school, and received a master’s degree in English — that Burnstein began to teach soldiers at an air service training camp about Shakespeare and tried his hand at writing screenplays.
Now after about 30 years in the movie industry, the 62-year-old has completed more than 20 scripts, sold many of them, and had five made into films. Burnstein says he is always writing and rewriting, but the Michigan-based Hollywood screenwriter has a second full-time job at his alma mater.
Since returning in 1995, he has coordinated the screenwriting sub-concentration of the Screen Arts and Culture major at UM. On Thursday, Burnstein will watch his students take the first steps in launching their careers with the premiere of their short films, Fender Bender and Open House, during Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival.
Fender Bender, a coming of age tale about a self-absorbed, college-bound student who learns that broken relationships are hard to fix, and Open House, a murder mystery set in a high school party, will premiere back-to-back at noon on the third day of the festival at the City Opera House.
A. Brad Schwartz, the writer of Open House, says he has been working on his mystery-comedy for about eight months and is grateful for the experience. Through Burnstein’s guidance, he says the “polished” short has turned out better than his “wildest expectations.”
Burnstein says each year his merit-based advanced screenwriting class of six cuts two of its students’ full-length features into short films. Since 2010, the two short films written by his students, also known as Shorts by U of M students, are the only films guaranteed a place at the five-day festival.
“[On the first day of class] we say, ‘Every class has done well, do you really want to be the first class to fail?’ So they really get it, they work like crazy, and they’re always good. They get better and better.”
The films are born when the course, which is run like a television writer’s workshop in which Mr. Burnstein is the producer, brings students from many facets of the university together. They include actors from the theater and musical theater schools, production students, set designers and sound specialists from the art and design school, producers from the business school, and public relations students. It was designed to teach students that filmmaking is a collaborative effort.
“You’re helping everybody in your group write the best script possible. And what you learn as a writer is that you need help from other people and other writers to tell you what your script is missing. It’s a brutally competitive business that you can only succeed in with a little help from your friends,” he says.
Schwartz, who delayed his graduation to participate in the class, says he is grateful to Burnstein for helping him become a professional writer and Writer’s Guild of America member. He says he will move to Los Angeles in mid-October.
Burnstein recalls when he thought he hit his first big break in 1981. He he had been writing just over a year and had already learned an important lesson he says all writers should live by: never show anyone your first draft because it won’t be ready. Screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint.
He had a handful of contacts in Hollywood, but no agent. When he showed his contacts his finished television movie script, he suddenly had three agents competing to sign him and CBS purchased the script.
And just as suddenly as the film came together, it fell apart.
“You’re in Variety, you’re in the Hollywood Reporter, they paid you the option money – and you think you’re set. You’re young and dumb and then you see this is how it works and it’s really hard. You just go down.”
Shortly after, Burnstein made a friend, an Academy-Award winning screenwriter based in Michigan named Kurt Ludecke, who taught him how to write and rewrite a feature film. Once he understood the process better, the fourth draft of his next script, Renaissance Man, was sold.
Burnstein spoke about his experiences with that film, and his second, D3: The Mighty Ducks, at the second annual Cinetopia International Film Festival in Ann Arbor in June.
Burnstein says he has been working steadily from Michigan with his Los Angeles-based writing partner, Garret K. Schiff. Schiff says their partnership is like a marriage and they frequently butt heads about revisions.
“Without [Schiff], I could not possibly do both jobs. I would have had to give up teaching at Michigan.”
This year, their independent film, Love and Honor, starring Liam Hemsworth, was available on video on demand and online before it was shown in theaters.
Although the film received mix reviews, Mr. Burnstein says it was true to 1960s idealism and portrayed Ann Arbor and people as they were at the time. But he says movies will find their audience so once you complete one you move on.
Like Naked Shakespeare. Burnstein and Schiff were hired to write the screenplay about an up-and-coming theater director assigned to direct a Shakespearean play in the nude in 1999. Years later, it is finally in pre-production and will return the screenwriter to his Shakespearean roots.
Burnstein, who has never lived in Los Angeles, says as film opportunities have decreased in Michigan, more of his students have moved to the West Coast. He reminds them that contacts will do them no good without a script worth showing.
Always conscious of the “one dumb thing” he is going to say that “is going to change somebody’s life,” his biggest advice is to write and rewrite.
“There’s no one right way to succeed, but, I can tell you the best way to fail: show people your first draft. ...You’re treating your work like it’s a lottery ticket and that’s the biggest mistake young writers make. Because somebody will read it and then will never read anything from you again.”
With distinguished alumni that include Craig Silverstein, the executive producer of the CW television show Nikita, and Dan Shere, a writer on the animated film Epic, Burnstein has initially helped guide many who have since found their own success. He also recruited Shere to teach at UM.
Shere, who was in Burnstein’s first rewrite class, says he sold his full-length screenplay 10 months after he graduated. He credits Burnstein with helping him get his career started and says Burnstein sets a high bar for students that inspires them “to kill” themselves to make their scripts as good as possible.
“I’ve used what Jim taught me and included what I’ve learned myself [to teach students],” Shere says. “We obviously hope we’re building the next generation of Michigan-area screenwriters.”
Kyle Vinuya and Schwartz, the screenwriters of the University of Michigan short films premiering at this week’s Traverse City Film Festival, could be the next.
Contact Danielle Trubow at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6050, or on Twitter @danielletrubow.