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John Bunzel

I spoke by phone to writer-producer John Bunzel February 26, 2002.

John: "I was an actor from a young age. I was born in New York, and grew up in Seattle and Los Angeles. I went to [an elite private school] the all-boys Harvard School. It is now Harvard-Westlake. I was a year behind the so-called Billionaire Boys Club [led by Joe Hunt]. They were the geeks and losers of their class. They were members of their debate team. Then they ended up this band of killers. At one time I was approached to write a TV movie about them.

"I had a drama teacher at Harvard named Susan Dietz, now a well-known theatrical producer, former theatrical director of the Pasadena Playhouse, who runs the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills. She was my mentor. I was accepted into the Juilliard School where I began to write. It was a great training ground because there was such an emphasis there on language and the spoken word and the value of sounds.

"After four years of the best acting training in the world at Julliard, I couldn't act. Juilliard has a way of doing that with certain actors. They teach you at that school how to walk and talk and breath and sit. I became self conscious, which is the death of an actor. Many of the better known actors left after their third year. They felt stifled. There's a saying that when you see actors who are not trained, you can't understand what they're saying, but you want to. But Juilliard actors, you can understand every word but you don't give a shit."

Luke: "Is the Juilliard method inside out (working from your inner feelings to expression) or outside in (the British method of controlling your expression to shape your feelings)?"

John: "It's both, but when I was there, there was more emphasis on the outside in. There was great emphasis on voice and speech.

"I started at 18 years of age, after being an actor working on instinct and talent and an organic approach to things. Then when you get thrown this rigid outside-in training, it's hard to assimilate that.

"By the time I graduated, I was more interested in writing than acting. A year after I graduated, I had a play done in New York called Delirious. Then there was a production done out here in 1985, which got a lot of press and ran for nine months at the Matrix Theater in Hollywood.

"I got an agent from that and a movie deal, and that got me into the writing business.

"Producer Danny Arnold [1925-1995] read a dark-comedy script of mine called Death of a Buick. He wanted to make this TV series Stat as a TV version of the movie Hospital, written by Paddy Chayefsky. A sitcom with a feature feel. My agent of the time, Frank Wuliger, who now run the Literary Department at the Gersh Agency, talked Danny into letting me write a pilot script of Stat. Danny had a couple of writers attempt it and he wasn't happy with what they'd done.

"Danny loved my script and asked me to help produce the show along with Chris Hayward, one of the producers of Get Smart. So I was 30 years old, and working with these two guys in their 60s. Danny lost sight of what he wanted to do and the show became too much of a sitcom. Danny wanted the show to be done without a laugh track and allowed himself to be talked into one by ABC and Disney. Danny was a megalomaniac. He was generous but then he wanted to control everything. He laid in the laugh track and Danny was hard of hearing. And he would never wear a hearing aid.

"He came in the next day after it aired on television all pissed off. 'Who the fuck did the laugh track?' We all looked at him and said, you did. It ended up hurting the show. When you look at the success of a show like Scrubs, Stat was there first and could've had that kind of success. An emergency room in a hospital is a great setting for a comedy. ABC wanted to do another season of Stat but Danny wouldn't budge on the licensing fee and so ABC said, 'It's too much of a pain in the ass dealing with this guy. We just won't renew the show.'

"I worked on two other shows with Danny but neither of them made it to air.

"My script Death of a Buick got developed at the Sundance Institute, which was the best experience I've ever had as a writer. You go to the resort at Sundance for five days and they have a creative board of advisers who are the best in the business, like Walter Bernstein, Larry Brezner... There's no emphasis on the commercial aspects like, who's the star? Are there any pre-sales? It was really about the art and the writer.

"Often in Hollywood the writer gets treated as a replaceable entity. The writer does his work and then people take over. It's different at the Institute where it's all about the writer and the writer's vision with people know how to talk to writers. When I ran the Los Angeles Playwrights group for eight years, we developed about 200 plays. That ability to talk to writers and develop material was crucial for my transition to producing.

"I wrote Born to be Wild for Warner Brothers. It's not a terrific movie. My kids enjoy it, but then they're six and eight [years of age]. As a writer or an actor, after a period of time, you have to be involved in something successful if you're going to be able to have a successful career, get access to the good projects, and make a significant amount of money. There are a couple of years where you can fail, but after a while, if you haven't been involved in something that has broken out, it becomes harder and harder to get work.

"I moved into production because that's where the opportunities were for me. I had fewer and fewer opportunities as a writer.

"I left Alpine Entertainment January 1 to build a $150 million company. I've moved from the guy asking for a yes to the guy who says yes. That's why so many writers and directors become producers and start their own companies. That gives them more control."