Hey, Watch It! Tim Hunter returns to the 'River's Edge' at Union South
by Rob Thomas
It's almost too much of a gimme to say so, but writer-director Tim Hunter brought a lot of "Edge" to the traditionally safe genre of teen drama in the 1980s.
Hunter co-wrote the 1979 film "Over the Edge," a harrowing drama about disaffected teens rebelling inside an antiseptic planned suburban community. In 1986, he directed "River's Edge," a gritty and downbeat film about a group of friends (including Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover) conflicted when one of their members kills his girlfriend.
Hunter is in Madison this weekend. A longtime cinephile, he presented one of his favorite films, Tsui Hark's "Shanghai Blues" at the UW-Cinematheque on Friday night. At 7 p.m. Monday (tonight), he'll be at the Marquee Theatre at Union South to present "River's Edge" and take part in a post-show Q&A.
"I'm happy that 'River's Edge' is there for me," Hunter said over coffee at Michelangelo's on Friday morning. "It's my claim to fame, and I never found another script that I liked as much as that. I've gone into television after that more than film. I'm glad that it's out there."
Hunter recalls that, when the screenplay by Neal Jiminez for "River's Edge" came his way, he wasn't particularly looking for another teen movie, having co-written "Over the Edge" and directed an adaptation of S.E. Hinton's "Tex." But Jiminez's script, written for a UCLA screenwriting class (he got a C-minus) just blew him away, and Hunter thought it could really make an impact in the play-it-safe world of '80s cinema.
"I just remember feeling that it was a very bland period," Hunter said. "I did feel that this script had the potential to be anarchic and shake things up a little bit."
One thing that Hunter responded to in the script was its timeless quality. He played off that by filming "River's Edge" not in the usual suburban bedroom community, but in an area outside Los Angeles called Tujunga.
"It was full of river rock houses that were built in the '20s back when Tujunga was the place where people would go to take a cure for tuberculosis," Hunter said. "What it wasn't was a tract-house suburbia in the vein of 'Over the Edge' or a myriad of Steven Spielberg films, and that maybe would have dated it more."
Despite the sharp edges, Hunter said that "River's Edge" flew so far under the radar that he was able to make the film without much interference. That wasn't the case with his 1993 film "Saint of Fort Washington," a film about homeless people starring Danny Glover and Matt Dillon.
"Warner Bros definitely overtrimmed that and muscled me on that one," Hunter said. "They brought in Dede Allen, the well-known editor ("Dog Day Afternoon," "Bonnie and Clyde") who at that point in the twilight of her career was working as a Warner Bros. hatchet person, to go in on Warner Bros.' behalf and force filmmakers to cut their pictures in ways that they didn't want.
"I wasn't appreciative at the time, and I'm still not, as illustrious as her career had been. She was insisting on some trim that we thought was bad and would make a bad transition, and she said 'A bad cut only lasts a second.' Howard Smith the editor and I have never forgotten that, we were so shocked."
Hunter continue to make feature films, but in the last decade has diversified into television directing as well, and he's directed dozens of episodes of well-regarded TV shows, including "Deadwood," "Breaking Bad," "Dexter" and several episodes of the first season of "Mad Men."
"I think it is a golden age for television," he said. " There's no question when you walk into a 'Mad Men' and they give you those scripts, especially in that first season that I worked on, you know you're going to be part of something really special, because the writings so damn good."
Hunter said that, ultimately, he likes to direct, and he would rather keep busy directing television than spend years in dormant frustration trying to get a film made.
"So many people hwo have only done features can wait years and years between films. I'd rather write scripts and keep pursuing film projects, and still work at the same time."