IF YOU HAVE ever wondered what it takes to become a movie director, consider the case of Tim Hunter, whose first feature film, "Tex," opened here Friday. It has already been called "an expert entertainment" by Time magazine, "an entirely convincing movie" that "will forever alter the way moviegoers think about Walt Disney pictures" by The New York Times, and a "filmmaking accomplishment of a very high order" by the Christian Science Monitor.
I have been following the Tim Hunter story for years--since infancy, in fact, his and mine. Tim and I inherited the mantle of best friends from our fathers, who were young newshounds at The New York Mirror in 1935, fellow Hollywood scribes through the late 1930s and '40s, and, exiled to New York by the blacklist in the '50s, collaborators on a series of British-made TV shows, including "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Tim and I can still do a chorus of "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen" on demand.
Not long after infancy, it became an indisputable fact that Tim would grow up to be a movie director. That's how I remember it, anyway. Tim insists he was 12 or so before the decision was reached. Whichever, as soon as Tim was tall enough to reach a box-office window, he went to the movies all the time, and sometimes I tagged along, walking down Broadway to Loews 83rd or the Beacon, or riding the bus across Central Park to the Grand 86th Street, where, if need be, Tim would find an adult to sponsor our way in.
We did not always agree about the movies we saw. Tim had no success, for example, in persuading me that John Wayne was a major American actor and "Rio Bravo" a major motion picture; I needed the wisdom of adulthood to see these truths. But Tim knew so much more about movies than I did -- more, in fact, than anyone, child or adult, of my acquaintance -- that our arguments were hopelessly unequal. At 13, he was reading Film Culture and the New York Film Bulletin, talking about Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang, building a library of soundtracks and posters and movie-related books, and able to recall every movie with amazing clarity -- not only the plot and the dialogue, but the camerawork, the editing and the score.
"My father tried to steer me away from it," says Tim. "He said it was a dog's life, especially writing. But I got the bug.
"I was a fairly early auteurist. When I was a really little kid, Fred Zinnemann was my favorite director. I loved 'High Noon.' And then Stanley Kramer. And then, happily, I was born again when 'Rio Bravo' and 'North by Northwest' came out. I decided I didn't like Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann quite so much.
"I was a nut on Hitchcock. I dragged my parents to see 'Vertigo' when I was 11, and I dragged them to see 'North by Northwest' when I was 12 . . . I suppose my interest in old movies largely coincided with the opening of the New Yorker Theater. It was the old Yorktown, and Dan Talbot took it over and it became the first auteur-oriented revival house in the city up to that point. The New Yorker opened with 'Henry V,' and very soon after that they were running Hitchcock revivals. I think their second program involved a double bill including 'Sunset Boulevard,' which I wanted to see. But I couldn't get in because you had to be 17 to get into the New Yorker, and I was 13. So I introduced myself to Talbot and told him that I was a movie nut and that I really didn't want to spend the next four years not being able to get into his pictures, and he wrote me out a lifetime press pass."
Not that Tim had a one-track mind. He also knew about rock 'n' roll and painting and the theater, read mystery novels and P.G. Wodehouse, co-wrote the varsity show his senior year at the High School of Music and Art, could whistle much of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony from memory, followed "Dick Tracy" and Mad magazine reverently, and drew his own comic strips starring Eric Action, David Danger and the omnipresent Sam Squirrel.
In the mid-'60s, I followed Tim to Harvard, where he took over both college film societies in his freshman year and began exposing raw undergraduate minds to such unheard-of fare as Douglas Sirk's "Tarnished Angels," Edgar Ulmer's "The Black Cat" and Sam Fuller's "I Shot Jesse James." He wrote about movies for The Crimson too, often explaining the deeper meanings of works that, until then, had not been known to possess deeper meanings. Explaining why he had listed Otto Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" among the 10 best films of 1967, Tim wrote that "though Preminger tends to ignore the dramatic world of his films, his camera defines the personality and function of a character by the amount of space placed around him and by the way he is moved with relation to the frame." More than one critic has described Tim's direction of text as "unpretentious." His friends can testify that the road to unpretentiousness was not always a smooth one.
A Crimson interview with Alfred Hitchcock produced one of the rare occasions when an esthetic pronouncement of Tim's was shot down. The issue was a rather cardboard-like ship bringing up the rear of a Baltimore street scene in "Marnie." Several of Tim's friends, myself included, had cited this shabby effect as evidence that the master was no longer at the top of his game. But Tim insisted that Hitchcock had not meant the ship to be convincing in the traditional sense -- that he was making a profound comment on the interplay of illusion and reality. When the matter was put to Hitchcock himself, however, he bashfully explained that he had been deluded by a studio technician's reassurances, and disliked the result as much as anybody.
A certain amount of anti-auteurist gloating followed this episode, but Tim seemed untroubled, and the gloating later gave way to awe when it was revealed that Hitchcock had made him a spectacular present: several 35-millimeter color prints of rarely seen Hitchcock films.
In his sophomore year, drawing on profits from campus film showings, Tim began making his own 16-millimeter epics with vast armies of student actors and helpers. He began with a moody and bloody -- and heavily symbolic -- piece called "Sinister Madonna," which made a considerable splash within the university community, mainly because of the scene in which the lovesick hero wrote the word "Fool" into his wrist with a razor blade. Stylistically, the film was notable for its many long trucking shots, which could be attributed to Tim's discovery of a borrowable wheelchair at Stillman Infirmary, where key scenes transpired.
"Sinister Madonna" and the series of student films noirs that followed were advertised and reviewed in The Crimson just like the real movies that played at the Brattle and the Harvard Square. So Tim was already a famous movie director, albeit on a limited scale, and it was widely assumed that the only thing standing between him and success in the larger world was the breadth of continent between Cambridge and Hollywood.
He closed that gap soon after graduation, becoming a fellow at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Studies in the imperial surroundings of the Doheny Mansion in Beverly Hills, amid a great profusion of cinematic gear and snug up against the industry itself. For Terence Malick, who would later direct "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," and Paul Shrader, who would write "Taxi Driver" and direct "American Gigolo," and Jeremy Paul Kagan, who would direct "Heroes" and "The Chosen," the AFI was a bridge to commercial success. But Tim's AFI experience was a sour one. After one year of a two-year program, he left, full of recriminations against the management, which had refused to approve his feature-film project. And then he left Los Angeles as well, to take a teaching job at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
"I COULD have stayed in L.A. and tried to sell stuff commercially," says Tim, "but I didn't feel I was up to it. Terry Malick was already making a reputation as a rewrite man and Shrader was beginning to sell his first stuff, and Jeremy Kagan was obviously going to ease right into the industry, but I didn't feel it was going to happen for me. I really felt I needed to work on my writing and there's nothing better than a teaching position to stay at home and write.
"I did a lot of writing in Santa Cruz and toward the end of that period Charlie Haas Tim's most frequent collaborator, then a student at Santa Cruz and I started writing together, which was really important to me . . . Finally I got a job with Jeff Freilich, a high school friend who was dropping out of USC Medical School, writing an exploitation script called 'Patrolwomen.' It was three women cops and lot of nudity and a lurking psychopath and all kinds of police action and nasty prison matrons and that kind of stuff. 'Patrolwomen' didn't get made, but it was kind of a breezy script, and the producers sold it to AIP American International Pictures , so it was actually a sale for them.
"Then American International Pictures hired Jeff and me to do a rewrite, and I felt it was time for me to come back to L.A. and see if I could become a professional. It was a rewrite of a vampire picture that Charlton Heston was supposed to star in . . . Our assignment was to write the vampire out of the vampire picture, and let me tell you that if you've ever tried to do a vampire picture without a vampire, it's tough.
"We started out in a wonderful penthouse office with lots of secretaries and support and everything, and by the time we were through, six weeks later, we had been demoted from office to office, kicked around, become progressively more vilified by the executives as this thing failed to work out until finally we found ourselves doing the last of many drafts in a kind of accounting closet, sharing a desk with a roomful of AIP ledgers -- essentially the drive-in receipts of every AIP picture that had ever been released."
THE vampireless vampire movie was never made, and Tim soon went to work doing PR for the local public TV station. He continued to toil away at various story proposals and scripts in his free time, but one project after another seemed to fade out before it faded in. Tim was barely 30. Nevertheless, in the era of the young phenom -- Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Shrader -- he no longer seemed quite so young or quite so phenomenal.
We saw each other at irregular intervals during this period and without ever taking conscious note of the fact, I sensed a change. Hollywood, or perhaps life, had taken the edge off Tim's sophistication and made him a more life-sized person, with a surprising absence of bitterness about all the hassles and near-misses. He was driving an old Mustang, with no suspension and a lot of bare, rusted metal inside as well as out. He had become domesticated, and his domicile was a small rented house in a decidedly unswank neighborhood of West Hollywood.
Finally, two of Tim's projects got somewhere. Harper & Row took "Death Makes the Charts," a stylishly written mystery novel by Tim and Charlie Haas, and published it as "The Soul Hit." Producer George Litto bought the same duo's "Mousepacks," a harsh screenplay about affluent juvenile delinquents in a fancy new suburban community outside San Francisco, and produced it as "Over the Edge." But the marketplace does not often erupt into convulsions over a first novel, and it stayed true to form for "The Soul Hit." Meanwhile, "Over the Edge" died about as quick a death as a movie can die, coming as it did close on the spiked heels of "The Warriors," the teen-age-gang movie to end all teen-age-gang movies.
On my last visit to Los Angeles early in 1981, I found Tim and Charlie busy adapting a book by S.E. Hinton, about two teen-age brothers in Tulsa, Okla. The movie would star Matt Dillon, a teen star who had appeared in "Over the Edge." It would be produced by, of all studios, Walt Disney. And it would be directed by Tim himself.
"I SPENT over a year trying to get 'Tex' set up," says Tim. "Warner's TV actually optioned it for six months and I took it to Fox and a couple of places. Then my friend David Ehrman, who was a reader at Fox, went to Disney as a story editor, and I asked him to read 'Tex' and he loved it. So we brought the book to Disney immediately, and Tom Wilhite, the vice president in charge of things over there, felt that this was a story that Disney could make that would still be aimed at a family audience and a young audience, but which would be more realistic than anything they'd done before.
"I took a fairly strong stand that I wanted to direct it . . . It was obviously a film that could be made on a low budget, so I felt that it might take years before I found a piece of material for me to direct that would represent less of a risk to a studio. And Tom respected that."
HUNTER AND Disney: The mind boggled. Tim's first commercial feature would be one of the first movies in the "New Disney" mold, family-rated but un-lobotomized. Tim's friends naturally wondered if the new mold could be all that new--if we were going to see a bona-fide Tim Hunter film or "Herbie Eats Flubber." But our skepticism eased off when, incredibly, "Tex" gained entry into the New York Film Festival, no home of homogeny to say the least.
And last week, several of the old gang trooped up to Lincoln Center to see the moment firsthand. We found Tim nervous but deliberately low-key. He was back in the neigborhood of his youth among the friends of his youth, for an occasion that had been in the air as long as anyone could remember. But to judge by outward behavior, Tim made less of the event than we did. He turned down a studio limousine so we could hop in a cab after a relaxed Chinese meal, and he played hooky from a champagne reception in order to hang around outside the theater, delaying as long as possible his ascent to the ceremonial box from which he would watch the movie.
When the showing ended, the applause was long and furious, and a great white spotlight skimmed across the crowd and came to rest on Tim's box. He stood and smiled broadly. The applause continued.
In the lobby, there were questions. Would Tim put his autograph on a program? Did he remember someone he had gone to elementary school with? Could he look at a young actress' re'sume'? Yes to all comers. It was a scene out of a B-picture, destined to go with the headline "Local Boy Makes Good" spread across the front page of the hometown newspaper. But it was a well-made B-picture, it seemed to me, with a good beginning, a solid middle, and plenty of promise.