Screenwriter Dave Hunsaker talks about the movie business and his life in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dave Hunsaker lives in two worlds: One in Alaska - writing, directing plays, hiking, kayaking and hanging out with friends - and the other in Los Angeles -running around to meetings, sitting in traffic, negotiating deals and hanging out with famous people.

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"Mostly I'm a screenwriter," he said. "I work for the studios or for production companies that are based in L.A."

Hunsaker travels south about every six weeks and says the commute does get tiring, but "its good to look people in the eye, especially down there since they're sort of shifty," he laughed.

He and his wife bought a home in Santa Monica because he spends so much time there that it made his work-life easier.

In Alaska, Hunsaker's home overlooks Lynn Canal. He has a view of an eagle's nest from the window near his computer. He finds inspiration here and says the wilderness and the people feed his creativity.

Sometimes he gets on a ferry for a day trip to Haines to help kick-start his writing.

"There's something about (riding on the ferry) that just concentrates my attention," Hunsaker said. "For some reason, if I get a case of writer's block, or have trouble getting focused, the ferry always does it."

Hunsaker had a long list of credits as a playwright and director before becoming a screenwriter, including work with Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, Naa Kahidi Theatre with the Sealaska Heritage Institute, and the Mettawee River Theater and La Mama Experimental Theatre in New York.

His first screenwriting project was the adaptation of Yup'ik stories about the legendary character Apanuugpak. The screenplay, "Winter Warrior," was one of five invited by the Sundance Institute in Utah to be developed in one of their summer institutes. The experience introduced Hunsaker to producers, directors, actors and executives in the movie business and how hard it is to get a screenplay made into a movie.

"That was a sad and typical Hollywood story," Hunsaker said. "I was naïve. We were all kind of naïve. It looked like it was going to get made ... then it all fell apart. The difficulty of actually getting something made was sort of impressed upon me."

The way it works now is Hunsaker pitches ideas to studios, or they solicit him for ideas they have in mind.

Screenwriters are often asked to turn a book into a screenplay, usually with a lot of specifics and requirements from the executives, directors, actors, and others. Hunsaker said it can be like working on a "really hard crossword puzzle."

"For the most part I'm writing somebody else's vision. We're really mostly hired pens," he said.

Hunsaker has worked on many scripts, some of which have been made into movies, but many have not.

"The fact is they're just really hard to get made," he said. "(The studios) will pay for 30 scripts for every one that they actually make, so even though it seems great - you're working, you're getting paid - it's still far from a sure thing."

Lately, Hunsaker has collaborated with writing partner George DiCaprio, father of the famous actor Leonardo DiCaprio. They are currently working on a script that involves an Alaska theme.

"(It's) an adaptation of Dan O'Neil's book 'The Firecracker Boys,' that's with HBO," he said.

"The Firecracker Boys" is based on a true story about scientist Edward Teller who wanted to use nuclear bombs to do excavation work. One of his experiments brought him to Point Hope in the 1950s, where he wanted to dig out a harbor, but the project was stopped by a band of locals.

"So George and I, with Leonardo, who is an executive producer, got the rights to the book and adapted it," Hunsaker said. They're hoping to shoot it in Alaska, but it hasn't reached that point yet.

Hunsaker's long-time friend and collaborator on plays and productions over the years, Juneau resident Jim Simard, described Hunsaker as generous and collaborative.

"I think that's because he's directed his own writing probably more than a lot of directors," Simard said. "To write a stage play and then have control over it .... I think the stakes are a little different in motion pictures - the production is so expensive, everything about it is so expensive, that the artists end up giving away a lot of control."

Hunsaker said his goal is to keep writing and moving forward toward having his ideas come to full fruition into movies.

"It's a wonderful life," he said. "I'm aware every day of how lucky I am to be able to live where I want to live and do something I want to do. Yeah, I'd rather be writing important plays that are gonna get remembered, or movies that they're lining up to make, but in the meantime I'm still floating."

• Teri Tibbett is a writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at

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