creative:impact - Graphically speaking, Jim Burnstein’s characters hit the page
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT JIM BURNSTEIN:
Jim Burnstein, Professor and Director of the University of Michigan’s nationally acclaimed Screenwriting Program since 1995, managed to beat the odds and make it as a successful Hollywood screenwriter without moving from his home in Plymouth, Michigan. Burnstein’s screen credits include Renaissance Man, the 1994 comedy directed by Penny Marshall and starring Danny DeVito; D3: The Mighty Ducks; and Love and Honor, starring Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer, co-written with Garrett K. Schiff of Los Angeles. Other Burnstein and Schiff credits include Ruffian starring Sam Shepard (ABC/ESPN) and Naughty or Nice starring George Lopez (ABC). Currently in the works is The School of Jeff, a television series with Big Bang Theory exclusive director Mark Cendrowski attached to direct and produce. Burnstein and Schiff are delighted to see their first middle grade graphic book, Ham-let: A Shakespearean Mash-Up written for Dark Horse and published by Penguin now available to students and educators everywhere! It is the first of what they hope will be many such comedic Shakespearean mash-ups!
Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays and meeting creative guests with roots in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. And we then explore their creative businesses, products, and programs and see how they impact our quality of life and place. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Let's meet our guest. Jim Burnstein is a successful Hollywood screenwriter and a professor of screenwriting at the University of Michigan. Jim, welcome to creative:impact.
Jim Burnstein: Thanks for having me, Deb.
Deb Polich: Yeah, I'm looking forward to our conversation. So, your screenwriting credits include popular films of some of Hollywood's best speaking your words, "Renaissance Man" starring Danny DeVito, "D3: The Mighty Ducks," and "Love and Honor" with Liam Hemsworth and "Ruffian" with the late, great Sam Shepard. Were you one of those kids who just loved movies and spent their Saturdays in a darkened theater?
Jim Burnstein: Absolutely. You've identified me properly.
Deb Polich: And, you know, most kids who do that, they don't necessarily think about screenwriting as what they might want to do. They think about acting and being on the screen. What pointed you toward screenwriting?
Jim Burnstein: I didn't know there was such a thing. I was watching those movies. One day, my Shakespeare class--year-long class with all of Shakespeare's works--my professor, the late, great Russell Frasier, said, as a throwaway line, "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be a screenwriter." My head started to spin like The Exorcist. I'd been doing playwriting at Michigan. I had no idea what that meant, but I had to find out. And, from that moment on, I was like, "I got to figure out what it means to be a screenwriter."
Deb Polich: So, where does somebody go from zero to, you know, to 100 miles an hour in screenwriting? How did you figure that out?
Jim Burnstein: Well, I figured it out by going about 70 miles an hour to University of Wisconsin Law School, driving from Michigan. And on the way there, I just thought about what--I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer. So what did I want to do? And I figured I was like, "OK, I really do want to be a screenwriter." And I would like to teach Shakespeare to people who wouldn't have it except for me. And those two goals came together surprisingly years later when I taught Shakespeare to soldiers at Selfridge Air National Guard base. And I realized, after a time, there was a movie there and that was Renaissance Man.
Deb Polich: Right, which was really well-liked and really well-received. I'm going back for just a second. You were on your way to law school, and then you decided to be a screenwriter. I can only imagine the conversations around your family table.
Jim Burnstein: Well, I had just gotten married at 21, and my wife was with me. I didn't bother to have that conversation with her that day. This is what I was going through in my mind. And, as soon as I got to law school, after the week orientation, I told the dean "I, you know, made a bad mistake." He asked me to stay a semester, and then I could have five years to finish. And so I did, and then I left. You know, it was a tough, tough letter to write to my dad, who grew up in the Depression and wanted to be a lawyer. But that was his dream, you know, not mine. He was the guy who got me interested in movies. So, at my first movie premiere, he was like--it was all over his face. This turned out so much better than he imagined.
Deb Polich: That's great. So, Renaissance Man is rather biographical. You mentioned--autobiographical--you mentioned that you did, in fact, teach Shakespeare to soldiers at Selfridge. And then, you also started teaching filmmaking pretty much right after Renaissance Man was in the film theaters, and you started teaching at the University of Michigan.
Jim Burnstein: Right.
Deb Polich: What inspires you about young filmmakers?
Jim Burnstein: Well, you know, it was because of Professor Frasier and Robert Hayden, the late, great poet, who suggested in a creative writing class that I should think about being a writer, and I didn't because I didn't think that was a real job that anybody would ever pay me for my words. So, when U of M asked me after Renaissance Man had come out and Ducks was already finished filming if I would come back and teach. I literally would have said no to any other place, but because I wouldn't be where I was without Michigan. And I said, "I'll come back to teach one class." And I was so stunned by the talent I saw. If you were teaching people how to do it right, that the thing just sort of grew from there. And I knew that in order to teach them right, I needed to have what nobody else was offering, which was a rewrite course, another term, in it. And so, things just grew from there.
Deb Polich: And now you've been there how many years?
Jim Burnstein: Oh my God. From '95 till today. So, is that 27 years?
Deb Polich: That's great. So, let's get back to Shakespeare, which I think you've mentioned Shakespeare five or six times already in this conversation.
Jim Burnstein: Yeah.
Deb Polich: You know, a common influence and a real thread in your writing. Your most recent project, "Ham-let: A Shakespearean Mash-Up," is an example of that, but it's not a screenplay. Tell us about "Ham-Let."
Jim Burnstein: Well, "Ham-Let" is a graphic novel for kids, where my writing partner and I—Garrett Schiff, he's from L.A.—we get to introduce kids to Shakespeare via the Shakespearean mash-up where we're telling the Hamlet story, but, you know, in a way that is kind of different if Hamlet were a comedy rather than a tragedy. And his team of, shall we say, heroes on his side to win the kingdom back from his evil Uncle Claude is made up of all the great Shakespearean tragic figures. What we're doing is we're, you know, so if you're doing Romeo and Juliet and King Lear and Othello and Macbeth, you're showing the fine line between tragedy and comedy, which we learned from Shakespeare. You know, Romeo and Juliet, by any other name, is A Midsummer Night's Dream. So, we have a lot of fun with it. Kids get introduced to these characters. Adults, I think, we'll enjoy it. It's got that sort of story thing where the jokes are on multiple levels. There are a lot of Shakespeare references in this book for kids, and we're hoping that their teachers like it as a way of introducing them.
Deb Polich: So, yeah, what did they say? That Shakespeare's written all the scripts, and we just keep repeating them?
Jim Burnstein: Absolutely.
Deb Polich: You're listening to creative:impact on 891 WEMU. I'm your host, Deb Polich, and I'm talking with Jim Burnstein, Hollywood screenwriter, professor of screenwriting at the University of Michigan, and now a graphic novelist. So, how far afield is a graphic novel compared to writing a screenplay?
Jim Burnstein: Oh, Deb. It is, I mean, when Dark Horse asked us to do this--Dark Horse Comics asked us to write this book--I said, "You know, I'm not sure we're going to be able to do that." And they said, "We'll get you and editor and teach you." And they did. And it was a really tough learning curve. Not in that it's strange because it's very much like writing a screenplay, except it's like directing it at the same time. And every frame is a shot, and the characters can't move. They're not really moving in the shot. And so, you're driving yourself crazy trying to figure out how to do it, you know? But over a period of time, you know, we figured it out, and it was really gratifying, once you see the illustrator come in and, you know, go through all those steps. It was a lot of fun.
Deb Polich: Does the illustrator come in early in the process, or do you write everything and then bring the illustrator in?
Jim Burnstein: Exactly. You write everything and then bring the illustrator in. And then you choose the illustrator, and then they give you samples of drawings, and then you weigh in. And so, that's where the directing part is. You're weighing in at every stage on every drawing, every coloration of the drawings, and on the lettering. And so, it's an endless process, which I had no idea. But once you get through it, it's great.
Deb Polich: Yeah, the illustrations are great. I saw the cover, and I look forward to seeing the whole thing. Is there any chance Hamlet's going to be made into a film, maybe an animated film?
Jim Burnstein: Yeah, that was, you know, the plan all along where we with Dark Horse. Garrett and I figured that, you know, we'll introduce it to them via this book and show them how we see it as a, you know, a franchise, if you will, because all the characters are great in the book. You know, clearly, you see it points towards the sequel. And, you know, we're already starting to pitch it as an animated film.
Deb Polich: Well, I know I'm not your real target market, but I can't wait to get my hands on the book, and I want to say thanks for joining us today. Looking forward to all of this.
Jim Burnstein: Well, Deb, thank you so much, and I hope people have fun with it. And if you love Shakespeare, I think you'll get a big kick out of it.
Deb Polich: I'm sure. That's Jim Burnstein, Hollywood screenwriter and professor of screenwriting at the University of Michigan and coauthor of the recently released graphic novel "Ham-Let: A Shakespearean Mash-Up." Find out more about Jim and where to get "Ham-Let" at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, President CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host for creative:impact. Please join me next week to meet another creative Washtenaw guest on this, your community NPR radio station, 89 one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.
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